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Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly general audience.
BY The Editors
Weekly General Audience November 19, 2008
Benedict XVI continued his catechesis on St. Paul at his general audience on
Nov. 19. He spoke about St. Paul’s teaching on justification. St. Paul realized
that we are made righteous before God only by faith in Christ and not by any
merit of our own. Our justification is God’s gift to us, revealed in the
mystery of the cross. Wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption are
God’s gifts to us through Christ. Paul rejected a righteousness based on the
Law and its works, yet he recognized that the Law finds its end in Christ and
its fulfillment in the new commandment of love.
Dear brothers and sisters,
On the journey we have undertaken
under the direction of St. Paul, let us now reflect on a topic that was the
center of controversy during the Reformation: the question of justification.
How does a man become righteous in
the eyes of God? When Paul encountered the risen Christ on the road to
Damascus, he was a very successful man. He was beyond reproach as regards
everything related to justice based on the Law (see Philippians 3:6).
He surpassed many of his peers in
observing the precepts of Moses. And he was zealous in upholding the traditions
of his ancestors (see Galatians 1:14).
The blinding light on the road to
Damascus radically changed his life. He began to see all his merits and
achievements in his unfailing pursuit of religion as “loss” in light of the
sublime happiness of knowing Jesus Christ (see Philippians 3:8).
The Letter to the Philippians is a
moving testimony to Paul’s journey from justice based on the Law and achieved
by observing a set of prescribed works to a justice based on faith in Christ.
He realized that everything that had seemed to him as gain up until that point
was, in reality, a loss before God.
Because of this, he decided to
devote his whole life to Jesus Christ (see Philippians 3:7). The treasure
hidden in the field and the pearl of great price were not the works of the Law,
but Jesus Christ, his savior.
The relationship between Paul and
the risen Christ took on such a depth that he felt impelled to make it known
that Christ was not only his life but his reason for living, to the point that
even death would be a gain for him in his efforts to be united with him (see
He did not despise life, but he
understood that — for him — living had no other purpose. As if he were in a
race, his only desire was to be united with Christ and to remain with him
The risen Christ became the
beginning and end of his existence, the reason and goal of the race. It was
only his concern for the growth in faith of those he had evangelized as well as
his concern for all the churches he had founded (see 2 Corinthians 11:28) that
led him to slow down his pace in the race toward his one true Lord in order to
care for his disciples, so that together they would be able to run to the
If in his previous observance of the
Law he had no grounds for reproach from the point of view of moral integrity,
once Christ took over his life, he preferred not to judge himself (see 1
Corinthians 4:3-4) but limited himself to speaking about his race to conquer
the one who had conquered him (see Philippians 3:12).
Faith and Works
It is precisely because of this
personal experience of a relationship with Jesus that Paul places at the center
of his message an irreducible contrast between two alternative paths to
justice: one based on the works of the Law and the other founded on the grace
of faith in Christ.
Therefore, this juxtaposition of
justice through the works of the Law and justice through faith in Christ
becomes a dominant theme throughout his letters: “We, who are Jews by nature
and not sinners from among the Gentiles, yet who know that a person is not
justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have
believed in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not
by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified”
He goes on to tell the Christians of
Rome that “all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God. They are
justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus” (Romans
Furthermore, he adds, “For we
consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works of law” (Romans
3:28). Martin Luther translated this point as “justified by faith alone.” I
will return to this at the end of my catechesis.
Freedom from the Law
First of all, we must clarify what
is the “Law,” from which we have been freed, and what are those “works of the
Law” that do not justify.
Within the community of Corinth, the
opinion already existed — a question that would return systematically
throughout history — that maintained it was a question of moral law and that
Christian freedom consisted, therefore, in being free from ethics.
So, the catchphrase “everything is
licit for me” was circulating in Corinth. It is obvious that this
interpretation is erroneous: Christian liberty is not libertinism; the freedom
of which St. Paul speaks is not freedom from doing good.
Therefore, what is the meaning of
the Law from which we have been freed and that does not save?
For St. Paul, as well as for all his
contemporaries, the word “Law” meant the entire Torah, that is, the five books
According to the interpretation of
the Pharisees, the Torah involved — and this is what Paul studied and made his
own — a collection of attitudes and actions that ranged from a core of ethics
to ritual and cultural observances that determined, in essence, the identity of
a righteous man, particularly circumcision, precepts regarding clean food and
ritual cleanliness in general, rules regarding the observance of the Sabbath,
These attitudes often came up during
Jesus’ debates with his contemporaries.
All these observances, which
expressed a certain social, cultural and religious identity, had achieved
singular importance during the era of Hellenistic culture beginning in the
third century before Christ.
This culture, which had become the
universal culture of the time, was a seemingly rational culture, and, from all
appearances, a tolerant polytheist culture. However, it constituted a strong
force for cultural uniformity and it was, therefore, a threat to Israel’s
For political reasons, Israel was
forced to enter into the common identity of this Hellenistic culture, resulting
in the loss of its own identity and the subsequent loss of the precious
heritage of the faith of its fathers, of faith in the one God and in God’s
In order to counter this cultural
pressure, which not only threatened Jewish identity but also its faith in the
one God and his promises, a wall of distinction and a shield of defense was
needed in order to protect the precious heritage of faith. This wall consisted
of observing all the Jewish precepts.
A People Set Apart
Paul, who had learned these
observances precisely in their function as a defense of God’s gifts and of the
heritage of faith in one true God, saw the freedom of the Christians as a
threat to this identity: That is why he persecuted them.
During his encounter with the risen
Christ, he realized, however, that the situation has changed radically with
Christ’s resurrection. With Christ, the God of Israel — the one true God —
became the God of all peoples.
The wall, he says in the Letter to
the Ephesians, between Israel and the pagans was no longer necessary. Christ
protects us against polytheism and all its deviations.
Christ unites us with and in the one
true God. Christ guarantees our true identity within the diversity of cultures.
The wall is no longer necessary. Our common identity within the diversity of
cultures is Christ, and it is he who makes us just.
Being just simply means being with
Christ and in Christ. That is all. The other precepts were no longer necessary.
For this reason, Luther’s use of the
expression sola fide (faith alone) is true if faith
is not placed in opposition to charity, to love.
Faith is looking at Christ, trusting
in Christ, adhering to Christ, and being conformed to Christ and to his life.
The form of Christ and of Christ’s life is love. Therefore, believing is being
conformed to Christ and entering into his love.
That is why St. Paul, in his Letter
to the Galatians, where he developed to a large extent his doctrine on
justification, speaks about faith that works through charity (see Galatians
Love of God and Neighbor
Paul knows that the Law is present
and fulfilled in a two-fold way — love of God and love of neighbor. Thus, the
entire Law is fulfilled through communion with Christ and through faith that
We become just by entering into
communion with Christ who is love. We will see this in next Sunday’s Gospel for
the Solemnity of Christ the King. It is the Gospel about the judge whose only
criterion is love. All he asks is this: Did you visit me when I was sick or in
prison? Did you give me food when I was hungry? Did you clothe me when I was
Thus, justice is decided through
charity. At the end of this Gospel, we can almost say: only love, only charity.
However, there is no contradiction
between this Gospel and St. Paul. It is the same vision — a vision according to
which communion with Christ, faith in Christ, creates charity.
Charity is the realization of
communion with Christ. Thus, united with him, we are just — and in no other
In the end, we can only ask the Lord
to help us to believe — to truly believe. Thus, belief becomes life, union with
Christ and a transformation of our life.
Transformed by his love, by love for
God and for our neighbor, we can truly be just in God’s eyes.