Second Sunday of Advent, Year A, RCL
“There was a story in my Sunday School lesson text,” Jimmy Carter says in his book Living Faith,” about a group of Christian laymen involved in missionary work who descended on a small village near an Amish settlement. As is often the habit of eager amateurs seeking a possible convert, they confronted an Amish farmer and asked him, ‘Brother, are you a Christian?’ The farmer thought for a moment and then said, ‘Wait a few minutes.’ He wrote down a list of names on a tablet and handed it to the lay evangelists. ‘Here is a list of people who know me best. Please ask them if I am a Christian’”(1) This story illustrates that being a Christian is not something that we can always identify within ourselves. It may take validation from others.
We have all heard the terms sola fide, faith alone, or justification by faith alone. At its most rudimentary level, the term faith alone states that our faith in Christ is sufficient for salvation, and I would fully agree with this. If I put my faith in Christ, by the grace of God, I will receive redemption. This fundamental statement of faith seems rather simple as do so many other concepts, but when we delve into it we discover that it is not as simple as we might think.
When sola fide is taken to the extreme we have people who believe that they are not bound to follow moral laws, even those contained in the Ten Commandments.(2) They believe that through their faith in Christ they are free to live life any way they please no matter how immoral. This view of justification by faith alone is known as antinomianism, a term coined by Martin Luther. Because of Luther’s writings on faith alone, a group of antinomianists used his writings to support their idea of faith with disregard to moral religious teachings; an idea that Luther completely rejected. To paraphrase Luther, in one of his letters he says, I have expounded daily on the Ten Commandment let alone what is in the Confession and Apology, and other books. How could anyone think I would condone such a heretical idea.(3)
When we have faith, true faith, we are changed. The way we view others, the way we live life, is no longer the way we used to live. Our faith in Christ makes us a new creation. This doesn’t mean we are perfect, without sin for we all sin. We all fall short of living our lives in the light of the new creation. Having this new life we see life as it is supposed to be but we can’t quite obtain it. We strive to move toward it, but it just doesn’t seem to get much closer. And this is OK. It is OK because we are human and as Saint Paul says, we are unable to reach the “goal” until we die. This constant striving can be frustrating especially if you are goal oriented.
Striving for this goal can also lead us to another issue, works righteousness, legalism, or in Latin nomism. This is the opposite of antinomianism in nomism we strive to do good works, believing that these works will make us righteous. For Luther, nomism was one of the problems he saw with the Roman Church. At the time, indulgences were common practice; in which one would do pious acts or offer money to the Church and receiving a piece of paper in return stating that your burden of sin was reduced.
At this extreme we might wonder why we even need faith. If I can perform certain acts or give the right gifts to remediate my sins, then my faith in Christ really doesn’t matter. The end result of nomism is almost identical to antinomianism; in either of these we are free to do as we like and the moral teachings of the Bible become insignificant. This is where we get into our gospel reading with John the Baptist.
John the Baptist appears in the wilderness proclaiming “repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near” and the people are confessing their sins. We have two keywords repent and confessing. Then some religious leaders arrive and John goes off on them, calling them a brood of vipers. And he tells them to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
We find that these leaders are checking out what all the hubbub is about for they are curious as to what is going on. It is also likely that these leaders believe that they were already righteous and had no need of repentance, at least not in this way. This is valid, for God offers the Jewish people forgiveness of their sins based on atonement and reconciliation. But John seems to know that these leaders are not following the Law as intended.
Leaders such as these are often portrayed as being hypocritical, performing the rites of atonement without the act of repentance. You cannot come to John’s baptism without a change of heart, without both confession of sin and repentance, a change of life. So John tells them to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Don’t rely on your heritage alone.
This fruit, the fruit we bear, are those good things that come out of our faith. We bear fruit of prayer; we bear fruit of generosity and kindness; we bear fruit of good deeds and works. These fruits come in many forms and they all come from our faith; a faith of living our life in Christ. The fruit is something we both receive and offer to others as an offering for the grace we have received from God. The fruit does not make us righteous in and of itself but we do need them. Even Martin Luther said, “Works are necessary for salvation but they do not cause salvation; for faith alone gives life.”(4)
Like all good things, there is a balance. Faith is all that is needed for salvation but a faith that does not demonstrate fruit, in the form of good works, probably needs to be examined. For if we have been changed by our faith and are living the life that Christ calls us to, then there should be some visible sign of this change. Likewise, if all we do are good works there is no doubt that we are a good person but our salvation hangs on much more than just being a good person.
As we prepare for the coming of the Lord, in this time of Advent, John the Baptist cries out in the wilderness for all people to hear. He cries for us to examine our lives, to look within ourselves and see for what we need to repent. To examine our lives and look at the fruit we bear. This evaluation is not for the purpose of beating ourselves up, to make us feel small. Nor is it a time to give ourselves a big pat on the back for all the good we have done.
This examination is to free us from our sin through confession and repentance so that we can make lasting changes in our lives; so that we can live life more fully in Christ. Christ will forgive all your sins. All you have to do is ask.
Living Faith, by Jimmy Carter.
A Treatise against Antinomians, written in an Epistolary way, by Martin Luther
Ewald M. Plass, “What Luther says,” page 1509