On Wednesday morning, Pope Benedict XVI continued his weekly teachings on St. Paul while speaking to the thousands of pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square. The Pontiff further explained the apostle's teaching that believers are justified by faith in Christ and by the acts that flow out of love for him.
When Paul met the Risen One on the road to Damascus, the Pope began, "he was a successful man: blameless as to righteousness under the Law." Yet "the conversion of Damascus radically changed his life, and he began to consider all the gains of his honest religious career as 'rubbish' in the face of the sublimity of his knowledge of Jesus Christ."
Turning to St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, Pope Benedict found that "Paul understood that until then, what seemed to him a gain, in reality, in front of God was a loss. He decided, therefore, to bet all his being on Jesus Christ." In other words, "The Risen Lord became the beginning and end of Paul's existence," the Pope taught.
With this understanding of Christ’s resurrection in mind, Pope Benedict turned to the two possible ways of being made new in Christ.
"The Letter to the Philippians," the Pope said, "provides moving testimony of Paul's shift from a justice founded on the Law and achieved by observing certain prescribed actions, to a justice based upon faith in Jesus Christ. ... It is because of this personal experience of the relationship with Jesus Christ that Paul focuses his Gospel on a steadfast contrast between two alternative paths to justice: one based on the works of the Law, the other founded on the grace of faith in Christ."
In his Letter to the Galatians, Paul further explains that even Jews who have believed in Christ Jesus have done so because it is through faith in Christ and not by works of the law that they can be justified. As St. Paul states, “by works of the law no one will be justified."
Pope Benedict then addressed the interpretation of this passage by Martin Luther, who translated it as “justified by faith alone.”
“Before returning to this point it is necessary to clarify which is the 'Law' from which we have been freed and what are the works that do not justify us,” Benedict XVI said.
“In the community of Corinth,” the Holy Father explained, “there already existed an opinion, that crops up again throughout history, to the effect that it is the moral law, and that hence Christian freedom means freedom from ethics. ... Obviously this is an incorrect interpretation. Christian freedom is not debauchery, ... it is not freedom from doing good."
"For St. Paul, as for his contemporaries, the word Law meant the Torah in its entirety, ... which imposed ... a series of actions ranging from an ethical core to ritual observances ... and substantially defined the identity of the just man, ... such as circumcision, dietary laws, etc. ... All these precepts - expressive of a social, cultural and religious identity - were very important" in the Hellenistic age when polytheism was rife and Israel felt threatened in its identity and feared "the loss of faith in the One God and in His promises."
At the moment of his encounter with the Risen Lord, Paul understood that "with Christ, the God of Israel, the one true God, became the God of all nations. The wall -so he says in the Letter to the Ephesians- between Israel and the pagans was no longer necessary: it is Christ who protects us against polytheism and all its deviations; it is Christ who unites us with and in the one God; it is Christ who guarantees our true identity in the diversity of cultures. The wall is no longer necessary, our common identity in the diversity of cultures is Christ, and it is he who makes us just,” the Pope said.
Pope Benedict then offered the interesting insight that “Being just simply means being with Christ, being in Christ, that is all. The other precepts are no longer necessary. Luther's expression 'sola fide' is true, if faith is not against charity, against love. To believe is to see Christ, to trust in Christ, to become attached to Christ, to conform to Christ, to his life."
"Paul knows that in the twofold love of God and neighbor the Law is present and fulfilled. So in communion with Christ, in faith, which creates charity, the Law is realized. We become just by entering into communion with Christ, who is love. We will see the same thing in the Gospel of next Sunday, the Solemnity of Christ the King. Love is the only criteria of the Gospel of the judge," the Pope explained.
In closing, the Pope invited the faithful to "ask the Lord to help us believe, to truly believe, so belief becomes life, unity with Christ, a transformation of our lives. And so, transformed by his love, by love of God and neighbor, we can be truly just in the eyes of God."