The Righteousness That Comes From Faith in Christ

Author: Father Raniero Cantalamessa


Father Cantalamessa's 3rd Advent Sermon

Part 1

The Righteousness That Comes From Faith in Christ


Here is a translation of the Advent sermon delivered today by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, Pontifical Household preacher, in the presence of Benedict XVI and members of the Roman Curia.

The sermon was the third in a series. Father Cantalamessa is offering a series of reflections on the theme "'For What We Preach Is Not Ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord' (2 Corinthians 4:5): Faith in Christ Today."

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St. Paul's Faith in Christ

1. Justified by Faith in Christ

Last time we sought to make our faith in Christ more ardent through contact with the faith of John the Evangelist; this time we will try to do the same, but this time through making contact with the faith of the Apostle Paul.

When St. Paul, from Corinth, in the years 57-58, wrote the Letter to the Romans, he would have still been active and ardent in the memory of the rejection he encountered some years before in Athens in his discourse at the Areopagus. Nonetheless, at the beginning of the letter he speaks confidently of having received the grace of apostleship "to bring about the obedience of faith, for the sake of his name, among all the Gentiles" (Romans 1:5).

Obedience, and in addition to that, among all the gentiles! His failure hadn't scratched in the least his certainty that the Gospel "is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes" (Romans 1:16). In that moment, the vast work of taking the Gospel to the ends of the world was yet to be done. Shouldn't it have seemed to be an impossible and absurd task? But Paul says: "for I know him in whom I have believed" (2 Timothy 1:12), and 2,000 years has justified his audacious faith.

I reflected over these things the first time that I visited Athens and Corinth and I told myself: "If today we had just a small grain of Paul's faith, we wouldn't let ourselves be intimidated by the fact that the world has yet to be evangelized, and even more, that it rejects, at times contemptuously, like the Areopagites, being evangelized."

Faith in Christ, for Paul, is everything. "Insofar as I now live in the flesh," he writes as a testament in the Letter to the Galatians, "I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me" (Galatians 2:20).[1]

When one speaks of faith in St. Paul one thinks spontaneously of the great theme of justification by faith in Christ. And on this we wish to concentrate our attention, not to outline the umpteenth discussion on the topic, but to receive his consoling message. I was saying in the first meditation that there currently exists a need for kerygmatic preaching, suitable to incite faith where it has never existed, or where it has died. Gratuitous justification by faith in Christ is the heart of this type of preaching, and it is a shame that this is, in turn, practically absent from ordinary preaching in the Church.

In this respect something strange has occurred. To the objections raised by the reformers, the Council of Trent had given a Catholic response, that there is a place for faith and for good works, each one, it was understood, in its place. One is not saved by good works, but one cannot be saved without good works. Nevertheless, from this moment in which the Protestants insisted unilaterally on faith, Catholic preaching and spirituality ended up accepting the nearly exclusive and thankless work of calling to mind the need for good works and of one's personal contribution to salvation. The result is that the great majority of Catholics have lived entire lives without having ever heard a direct announcement of gratuitous justification by faith, without too many "buts."

After the agreement on this topic in 1999, between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation, the situation changed in terms of principle, but it's still difficult to put it into practice. The desire is expressed in the text of that agreement that the common doctrine on justification be put into practice, making it part of the lived experience of the faithful, and not simply the subject of learned discussions among theologians. This is what we propose to achieve, at least in small part, in the present meditation. Before anything else, let us read the text:

"All have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God. They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as an expiation, through faith, by his blood, to prove his righteousness because of the forgiveness of sins previously committed, through the forbearance of God — to prove his righteousness in the present time, that he might be righteous and justify the one who has faith in Jesus" (Romans 3:23-26).

Nothing of this text can be understood, even to the point that it could inspire fear more than consolation (as occurred for centuries), if the term "righteousness of God" is interpreted incorrectly. It was Luther who rediscovered that "righteousness of God" does not indicate here chastisement, or worse, his revenge, toward man, but rather it indicates, on the contrary, the act through which God "makes" man "just." (He really said "declares," not "makes," just, because he was thinking of an extrinsic or legal justification, in an imputation of justice, more than a real being made just.)

I said "rediscovered," because much earlier than him St. Augustine had written: "The 'righteousness of God' is used in the sense of our being made righteous by his gift ('iustitia Dei, qua iusti eius munere efficimur'), and 'the salvation of the Lord' (Psalm 3:9), in that we are saved by him."[2]

The concept of "righteousness of God" was explained in the Letter to Titus: "But when the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared, not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy" (Titus 3:4-5). Saying "The righteousness of God appeared," is the same as saying: The goodness of God, his love and his mercy appeared. It was not man who, all of a sudden, changed life and tradition and put himself to the task of doing good; the novelty is that God acted, he was the first to extend his hand out to sinful man, and his action fulfilled time.

Here is the novelty that distinguishes the Christian religion from any other. Any other religion draws out for man a path to salvation by means of practical observations and intellectual speculations, promising him, as a final prize, salvation and illumination, but leaving him substantially alone in achieving the task. Christianity does not begin with what man must do to save himself, but rather with what God has done to save him. The order is reversed.

It is true that to love God with all your heart is "the first and greatest of the commandments," but the commandments are not primary, they are secondary. Before the order of commandments comes the order of gift and of grace. Christianity is the religion of grace! If this is not taken into consideration in interreligious dialogue, the dialogue would be able to do no more than generate confusion and doubts in the hearts of many Christians.

2. Justification and conversion

I would like now to show how the doctrine of gratuitous justification by faith is not an invention of Paul, but rather the pure teaching of Jesus. At the start of his ministry, Jesus proclaimed: "This is the time of fulfillment. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Convert, and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15). What Christ includes in the expression "Kingdom of God," that is, the salvific initiative of God, his offering of salvation to humanity, St. Paul calls "righteousness of God," but it deals with the same fundamental reality: "Kingdom of God" and "righteousness of God" are brought together when Jesus says: "Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness" (Matthew 6:33). "Jesus," wrote St. Cyril of Alexandria, "calls the 'kingdom of God' justification through faith, baptismal purification and communion of the Spirit."[3]

When Jesus said: "Convert, and believe in the Gospel," he was already teaching justification by faith. Before him, conversion always meant "to go back" (in Hebrew the same word is used for both "convert" and "to go back": the word "shub"); it meant to go back to the broken alliance by way of a renewed observance of the law.

Consequently, conversion has a principally ascetic, moral and penitential meaning, and is achieved by changing how one lives. Conversion is seen as a condition for salvation; the sense is: Convert and be saved; convert and salvation will come to you. In the mouth of Jesus this moral meaning passes to a second plane (at least at the start of his preaching), with respect to a new significance, until now unknown.

Conversion no longer means to go back, to the old alliance and to the observance of the law; it means rather to take a step forward, to enter into a new alliance, to hold onto this Kingdom that has appeared, and to enter into it. And entering it by faith: "Convert and believe" does not mean two different and successive things, but rather the same action: convert, so as to believe; convert believing! "Prima conversio ad Deum fit per fidem," writes St. Thomas Aquinas: "The first conversion to God consists in believing."[4]

"Convert and believe" means therefore: Pass from the old alliance, based on the law, to the new alliance, based on faith. The Apostle says the same with the doctrine of justification by faith. The only difference is owed to what had happened, meanwhile, between the preaching of Jesus and Paul: Christ had been rejected and led to death for the sins of man. The faith "in the Gospel" ("believe in the Gospel") now takes shape as faith "in Jesus Christ," "in his blood" (Romans 3:25).

3. Faith-appropriation

Everything, then, depends on faith. But we know that there are different types of faith: There is the faith-acquiescence of the intellect, the faith-confidence, the faith-stability, as Isaiah calls it (7:9). What type of faith is addressed when talking about justification "by faith?" It addresses a special type of faith: the faith-appropriation. It does not tire me to cite in this respect a text of St. Bernard:

"But as for me, whatever is lacking in my own resources I appropriate for myself from the heart of the Lord, which overflows with mercy. My merit therefore is the mercy of the Lord. Surely I am not devoid of merit so long as he is not of mercy. And if the Lord abounds in mercy, I too must abound in merits (Psalm 119:156). But would this be my own righteousness? Lord, I will be mindful of your righteousness only. For that is also mine, since God has made you my righteousness."[5]

It is written in fact: "Jesus Christ became for us wisdom from God, as well as righteousness, sanctification and redemption" (1 Corinthians 1:30). "For us," not for himself! We pertain more to Christ than to ourselves, as he has bought us at a great price (1 Corinthians 6:20), and inversely what is Christ's pertains more to us than if it were ours. I call this the blow of audacity, or the flutter, in Christian life.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem expressed it like this, it is the same conviction in other words: "Oh the extraordinary goodness of God toward man? The just of the Old Testament thank God in the weariness of long years; but that which they obtained, by means of a long and heroic service pleasing to God, Jesus gives to you in the brief time span of an hour. Indeed, if you believe that Jesus Christ is the lord, and that God had raised him from the dead, you will be saved and you will be introduced into heaven by the same one who introduced the good thief."[6]

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[1] Today there are those who want to see the expression "faith in the Son of God," or "faith in Christ," frequently used in the writings of Paul (Romans 3:22,26; Galatians 2:16; 2:20; 3:22; Philippians 3:9), as a genitive subject, as if they were addressing the faith of Christ, or the fidelity which he proved by sacrificing himself for us. I prefer to keep with the traditional interpretation, followed as well by authorized contemporary exegetes (cf. Dunn, op. cit., pp. 380-386), that see in Christ the object, not the subject of faith; not so much the faith of Christ (supposing that we could speak of Christ having faith), but rather faith in Christ. On this the Apostle based his own life, and in this he invites us to base our own.

[2] St. Augustine, "The Spirit and the Letter," 32, 56 (PL 44, 237).

[3] St. Cyril of Alexandria, "Commentary on the Gospel of Luke," 22, 26 (PG 72905).

[4] St. Thomas Aquinas, "Summa Theologiae," I-IIae, q.113, a. 4.

[5] St. Bernard of Clairvaux, "Sermons on the Song of Songs," 61, 4-5 (PL 183, 1072).

[6] Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesis V, 10 (PG 33, 517). ZE05121621

Part 2

Righteousness That Comes From Faith in Christ


Here is the second part of a translation of the Advent sermon delivered Friday by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, Pontifical Household preacher, in the presence of Benedict XVI and members of the Roman Curia.

The sermon was the third in a series. Father Cantalamessa is offering a series of reflections on the theme "'For What We Preach Is Not Ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord' (2 Corinthians 4:5): Faith in Christ Today." Part 1 appeared Friday.

* * *

4. Justification and Confession

I said at the beginning that gratuitous justification by faith should transform itself into lived experience for the believer. We Catholics have an enormous advantage in this: the sacraments, and in particular, the sacrament of reconciliation. This offers us an excellent and infallible means to experience anew each time justification by faith. In it is renewed what happened once in baptism, in which, says Paul, the Christian has been "washed, sanctified and justified" (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:11).

The "admirable exchange" ("admirabile commercium") takes place in each confession. Christ takes on my sins and I take on his righteousness! Unfortunately in Rome, as in any great city, there are many homeless person, poor brothers dressed in dirty rags who sleep on the street, and who drag with them everywhere they go their few belongings. We could imagine what would happen if one day the word spread that in the Via Condotti there was a luxurious boutique where each one of them could go, leave their rags, take a good shower, pick out whatever they want, and take it, just like that, free, "without expense, without money," because for some unknown reason the owner had given to them all this out of generosity.

This is what happens in each well-made confession. Jesus inculcated this with the parable of the prodigal son: "Quickly bring the finest robe" (Luke 15:22). Rising up anew after each confession we can exclaim in the words of Isaiah: "For he has clothed me with a robe of salvation, and wrapped me in a mantle of justice" (Isaiah 61:10). The story of the publican is also repeated: "O God, be merciful to me a sinner." "I tell you, this one went home justified" (Luke 18:13f).

5. "So that I can know him"

Where did St. Paul get the marvelous message of gratuitous justification by faith, in harmony, as we have seen, with that of Jesus? He did not get it from the Gospels, for they had not yet been written, but rather from the oral tradition regarding the preaching of Jesus, and above all from his own personal experience, that is, from how God had acted in his life. He himself affirms this by saying that the Gospel that he preaches (this Gospel of justification by faith!) he did not learn from men, but rather from what Jesus Christ revealed, and he relates that revelation with the story of his own conversion (cf. Galatians 1:11ff).

Upon reading the description that St. Paul makes of his conversion, in Philippians 3, the image that comes to my mind is that of a man who moves forward in the night, through a forest, with the help of the weak flame of a candle. He makes sure that the candle does not go out, for it is all he has to help him on his way. But after a while, continuing on his way, the dawn arrives; in the horizon the sun rises, and his little light fades quickly until soon it's not even noticeable, and he throws it to one side.

The little light was for Paul his righteousness, a poor smoky wick, though based in high sounding titles: circumcised on the eighth day, of the line of Israel, Hebrew, Pharisee, impeccable in observing the law ... (cf. Philippians 3:5-6). One good day, in the horizon of his life the sun appeared: the "sun of righteousness" that he calls, in this text, with infinite devotion, "Jesus Christ, my Lord," and thus his righteousness appeared to him "loss," "rubbish," and he did not want to be found with his own righteousness, but rather with that which comes from faith. God allowed him to experience beforehand, dramatically, what he was called to reveal to the Church.

In this autobiographical text it is clear that the central focus for Paul is not a doctrine, even if it were that of justification by faith, but rather a person, Christ. What he desires more than anything else is to "be in him," "know him," where that simple personal pronoun says an infinite number of things. It shows that, for the Apostle, Christ was a real, living person, not an abstraction or an ensemble of titles and doctrines.

The mystical union with Christ, through participation in his Spirit (the living "in Christ," or "in the Spirit"), is for him the final goal of Christian life; justification by faith is only the beginning and a means to achieve it.[7] This invites us to overcome the contingent polemical interpretations of the Pauline message, centered on the theme of faith-works, so as to find again, underneath them, the genuine thought of the Apostle. What is important for him to affirm before everything else is not that we be justified by faith, but rather that we be justified by faith in Christ; it is not so much that we be justified by grace, as much as that we be justified by the grace of Christ.

Christ is the heart of the message, even before grace and faith. After having presented, in the preceding two and a half chapters of the Letter to the Romans, all of humanity in its universal state of sin and perdition ("all sinned and are deprived of the glory of God"), the Apostle has the incredible courage to proclaim that this situation has changed radically for all, Jews and Greeks, "in virtue of the redemption in Christ Jesus," "through the obedience of one man" ([cf.] Romans 3:24; 5:19).

The affirmation that this salvation is received by faith, and not for works, is present in the text and it was perhaps the most urgent to clarify in the time of Luther. But that takes second place, not first place, especially in the Letter to the Romans, where the polemic with the Judaizers is much less present than in the Letter to the Galatians. It was erroneous to reduce to a problem of schools, within Christianity, what was, for the Apostle, an affirmation of much greater and universal reach.

In the description of the medieval battles there is always a moment in which, the archers, the cavalry and all the rest overcome, the fray centers around the king. The final battle is decided here. Also for us the battle is fought around the king. As in the time of Paul, the person of Jesus Christ is at stake, not this or that doctrine regarding him, no matter how important that doctrine might be. Christianity "remains or falls" with Jesus, and with nothing else.

6. Forgetting the past

Continuing with the autobiographical text of Philippians 3, Paul suggests to us the practical idea with which we will conclude our reflection:

"Brothers, I for my part do not consider myself to have taken possession [of perfect maturity]. Just one thing: forgetting the past but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God's upward calling, in Christ Jesus" ([cf.] Philippians 3:13-14).

"Forgetting the past." What "past"? That of the Pharisee, of what he had said before? No, the past of the apostle, in the Church! Now the "gain" to consider a "loss" is something else: It is precisely having already considered once everything lost to the cause of Christ. It was natural to think: "What courage, this Paul: to abandon such a good career as a rabbi for an obscure sect of Galileans! And what letters he has written! How many trips he undertook! How many churches he founded!"

The Apostle warned confusedly of the mortal danger of putting between himself and Christ "his own righteousness" derived from works — this time the works done by Christ — and he reacted vigorously. "I do not believe," he said, "that I have reached perfection." St. Francis of Assisi, in a similar situation, cut short any temptation of self-complacency, saying: "We begin, brothers, to serve the Lord, because until now we have done little or nothing."[8]

This is the most necessary conversion for those that have followed Christ and have lived serving him in the Church. A conversion altogether special, which does not consist in abandoning evil, but rather, in a certain sense, in abandoning the good! That is, by detaching oneself from all that you have done, repeating to yourself, according to the suggestion of Christ: "We are useless servants; we have done only our duty" (Luke 17:10). And not even, perhaps, the good we should do!

A beautiful Christmas story makes us want to arrive to the Nativity, with a heart that is poor and empty of everything. Among the shepherds who presented themselves on Christmas night to adore the Child, there was one so poor that he didn't have anything to offer and he was very much ashamed. Upon arriving to the cave, the shepherds fought among themselves to offer their gifts. Mary didn't know how to receive all of them, for she had the Child in her arms. So, seeing the poor shepherd with his hands free, she gave him Jesus to hold. Having empty hands was his fortune, and on another level, it will also be our fortune.

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[7] Cf. J.D.G. Dunn, "La teologia dell'apostolo Paolo," Brescia, Paideia, 1999, p. 421.

[8] Celano, "Vita prima," 103 ("Fonti Francescane," No. 500).

[Translation by ZENIT]

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