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what-is-justification-by-faith-part-5-21502697In a recent Bible study group we were discussing the topic of ‘justification’. Some thoughts from that might be of interest to readers here. The texts are mostly from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.

We are told (Rom. 2:1-16) that God will judge the world: some will be found guilty, some upheld; the ‘doers of the law’ will be ‘justified’. There are in this not simply echoes of the law court, but its very language. If we look at Romans 4 and Galatians 3 we see that when God finds in our favour we become part of His family.

Jesus is, Paul realised through revelation, the Messiah in whom Israel’s destiny was fulfilled (Rom. 1:3 and following). The Resurrection was the evidence that God had dealt once and for all with sin on the cross (1 Cor. 15:12-19). Christ’s death accomplished ‘what the law could not do’ (Rom 8:3); for those who belong to Christ there will be ‘no condemnation’ ((Rom 8:1, 31-9).

It follows that justification in the present can be based on one thing only – God’s action in the past through Christ, which anticipates future judgement.  Justification is not the same as the ‘call’ through which the Holy Spirit changes our hardened hearts and opens our clouded eyes

In Romans 1:16 and the following passages, as in 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Paul tells us that that call, that ‘faith’ in Christ, comes through the hearing of God’s word which works on our hearts to call us to obey the Gospel message. Thus, for Paul, the badges of observance of the Jews, the ‘works of the law’ are not decisive (Phil. 3:2-11). If we believe in Christ and confess Him Lord then we are justified in the present by that faith. That is not the same as believing that we are justified by believing in justification by faith – we are justified by God’s action in Christ’s sacrifice once and for all in expiation of our sins.

To be quite clear. Justification is an act of God, not an act of man. God, and He alone can declare that our sins are forgiven and that we belong to His Family. It is not our faith which justifies us – it is God and God’ actions. The Gospel is the proclamation that Christ is the Messiah who in dying for our sins and rising again has redeemed us all; as John was to put it, He is the ‘propitiation’ for our sins. It is the work done on our hearts by this message, through the Spirit, which calls us out. But our faith in Christ is not justification; justification is God’s declaration that we belong to His Family and that our sins are forgiven. the ‘call’ and justification are not the same thing.

Too easily do we say we are ‘justified’ by our faith. No, God, and God alone makes that legal decision


john-wesley-preaching2.jpgThere’s an inevitable tension in Christianity between the personal and the public. It takes many forms. I cannot be converted except in my own person. I have to come to Christ as He allows; I cannot storm the Kingdom by force. Once I have found Christ though, I am still within whatever society I was when I found him. However new I am, the world is old.

The world I am in might be one where it is actually dangerous to be an avowed Christian, and like the early Christians, my community will be small, close-knit and low profile. That wasn’t where Christ found me. I was in a country where there were lots of professed Christians. There was even a whole State Church whose leaders were in a branch of the legislature. I wasn’t part of that. My ancestors had had the most antagonistic of relationships with that. Indeed, my distant ones had been Catholics who had initially resisted Henry VIII’s commissioners, but given in. Being a cussed lot, they’d managed to be more Protestant than most Protestants within a couple of generations, and by the 1680s weren’t conforming with what the State wanted.

I want to stay away from State churches. Indeed I am not overfond of large institutional churches. I see why they came into existence, but I distrust them. They cannot keep my conscience; they cannot govern my relationship with God; and whilst I can recognise the advantages of a good liturgy, I’m happy without.

But the State will see me through the prism of the big churches, as will the atheists who hate Christianity. Indeed, and it was a wonderfully funny moment, atheists trolls on blogs like that in the Telegraph have real problems with the concept of independence.  There was even one idiot who tried to tell me there were only 13 Independent Baptist chapels in the UK; bless him, what a fool. Independency is bred in the bone for Baptists.

I know some see this as a terrible thing. We’ve all these denominations. Well we do, and for some of us, it seems no different from the reality under the cover of the ‘Catholic’ or the ‘Anglican’ churches. There are Catholics who believe in abortion, contraception and think Christ a good man; other Catholics say they are bad Catholics (I’d agree) but they say the world has moved on (aka ‘the world has gone barmy’). It is so within Anglicanism.  So, is it better to have this diversity covered by a label, or to have the diversity written plain? What you’ll not get in the modern world is uniformity.

I love the language of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and I intend (children obliging with my wishes, permitting) to be buried to its funeral service, and I think that if I’d been born twenty years before I was, I might even have become an Anglican – but then I’d have become one of those who dislike all those changes in the 1970s. So I’m happier being what I am – a Christian who respects others and hates none.

The Word

not-every-saint-is-a-preacherThere’s been an interesting discussion here between Jock and David about the Eucharist.  Jock understands, as I do, what the Catholic Church means by the Mass. I also understand what the Orthodox mean by the Liturgy. One of the, to my mind, unfortunate facts of life in the West is that we have all lost sight of the Orthodox Church. Like the Catholic Church it traces its lineage to the beginning; unlike the Catholic Church it has never had a Council of Trent, or a Vatican II.  The Eucharistic feast is at the centre of its Liturgy, but the latter is not just about the Eucharist; indeed it is not just about the Orthodox – there is the antidoran – the bread of welcome, distributed to non-Orthodox at the end. The Liturgy is recreation of that of Heaven itself.

I’be enough aesthetic sense to be taken away myself on the occasions I’ve been to an Orthodox Liturgy – well, when my legs and back have been able to take the strain of standing for that long; I understood the urge to prostration quite differently after I attended an Orthodox service; the relief! That’s wonderful. But once I’ve left it, it is like leaving a theatre; I enjoyed it but it is gone.  It would be like living on a diet of pate de fois gras listening to chanting.

Those services, like the Tridentine Catholic ones, are a marvellous and uplifting experience; more so than any Protestant service I’ve ever been too. But they are the product of pre-literate society. They present in active form essential elements of our Faith. That this was deliberate we can see in the earliest catechesis which survives, the lectures attributed to St. Cyril of Jerusalem. But we do not live in a pre-literate society (although we may be moving to a post-literate one, I sometimes feel), and when we can all read the Bible and come to our own views, I can’t help but feel it is a good idea to have some good guidance.

Our pastor is one of seven ‘elders’ who take care of the affairs of our church. It’s not a light undertaking to be an elder. Tithing is required, so is time and effort. We, and the congregation, pay for our pastor. He spent two years in theological college (after doing a science degree at University) and several years as assistant pastor in places before we called him here. His sermons last for at least 45 minutes, and they are made available to us all on CDs or via the internet. They are based firmly on the scriptural text of the day, and we study it at the Thursday evening Bible classes; the children get it on Tuesday at their night club.

It is a guide to all of us. He claims no infallibility, we give him none. But he is called out to spent his life doing something the rest of us cannot spend that amount of time doing – that is studying the Bible in depth.

So, the sermon certainly lacks the theatrical grandeur of an Orthodox Liturgy (but as our pastor is an accomplished preacher, it does not lack in aesthetic quality), but it stay with us after we go. It prompts me, and others, to go back to our Bible and to our commentaries, it prepares us to discuss the word of God at our weekly meetings.

I sometimes think that the perfect service would be to mix the Orthodox and the Protestant – but a five hour service is perhaps more than any of us are able to offer to the Lord.

Magdalene Laundries







It was years since I had heard the words Magdalene Laundry,  but the report published yesterday brought them back to mind.  They’d a bad name in Belfast, not because there were any there, but because they were used as an example of the reasons why Ulster would always say ‘no’. Many of my relatives had relatives and friends south of the border, and we had one cousin who was married to a women who had spent time in one of those benighted places in the 1940s. She’d fallen pregnant at the age of fifteen and he family had packed her off to be ‘cared for’ by the nuns.  The stories she told made your blood boil – and to judge by the report, and the newspaper accounts now, she was telling the unvarnished truth.

I thought then, and still do, that it is some kind of sick joke to call the nuns who supervised such places ‘Sisters of Mercy’ or ‘Sisters of Charity’ – mind, the saying ‘cold as charity’ might be appropriate to such cases.

Aye, it was a different time and a different place, and folk back then were not afraid to take a strap to naughty children, and as a child I put up with, as many did, a style of what we then didn’t call ‘parenting’ that would have had Social Services coming in now. Not sure I’d have been any better off for that, given what we know about conditions in some of those homes, but I still think we’ve a right to expect better standards from Christians.

‘The Maggies’, as the girls were called, were quoted by Ulster Protestants as an example of what happened when the State and the Church were hand in hand – ‘Home Rule means Rome Rule’ was still remembered by my grandfather’s generation.

It is, to be sure, a puzzle that a faith whose founder said so much about love and care, should have spawned folk in whom the milk of human kindness curdled so swiftly. But to somehow say that the connection between the Irish State and the Magdalene laundries should stand as an indictment of Catholicism is to go further than the evidence warrants.  Was the British State any better in the way it dealt with such adolescents? No.  It was a harsh society in harsh times.

There are legitimate questions though to be asked about any form of Christianity (and they are by no means exclusively Catholic) which manages to subject the most vulnerable to treatment such as that catalogued in the Irish report. There are legitimate questions to be asked about abuse of power and position, questions which apply in other areas.

If there is an institution in our society which deals with children and young people which has not attracted sadists and sexual deviants, I can’t bring it to mind. My own profession, teaching, has had many, but so too have children’s homes, hospitals, social services and various voluntary organisations. We’re a fallen people, and without Christ we’d be worse. Why God loves us is a great, to me the greatest, mystery.


_pq0200700105000arc_pht-resize-700xThere was no great epiphany which pulled me from the narrow views of my youth.  I recall going to my first Catholic service with Johndc, and I have to say I hated the whole thing.  It must have been in the early 1970s, and it was one of the new vernacular services. There was kind of rugby scrum for communion, some hymns best passed over in silence (and best sung in it too) and a sermon which in my place would have been clearing your throat.  But there was certainly nothing there to cause even the most rabid of my fellow Baptists to protest about.  What jarred most for me was the Bible used.  The King James has prose of such sonorous beauty that even then it was build into my consciousness.  Whatever version that church used, it sounded like addressing the milkman.

So much for my first encounter with the great beast of Babylon.  As I began to meet other Catholics I discovered, surprise, that they were just like many Anglicans I knew. Compared with my fellow Baptists, none of them seemed to know their way around the Bible, and the Old Testament was foreign territory to them. I gained myself an entirely undeserved reputation as a Bible scholar by being able to recite large sections of St. Paul’s epistles by heart. Any Baptist would have done the same.

That was the real difference back then.  Thanks to my friend dc I met some Catholic clergymen, and they struck me as much like other clergy I had met – a mixed bunch. Good men as they were, they, too, generally lacked the easy familiarity with the Bible I knew from home.

It was only then that it hit me that this was a general difference between the folk I’d grown up with, and the more established churches. We focussed on that Book because our eternal salvation depended on it. But try to get most of us to engage in any conversation about church history before the Reformation, and most of my lot knew nothing.

As an historian of sorts, I’d overcome that defect, but it was a serious one, I came to see.  So much of what we argued about had been argued about by men long before us – and our ignorance of that seemed shaming. If the Catholics seemed untutored in the words of Scripture, they seemed better informed about Tradition and its importance.

It seemed to me then, as it has since, that in a way marvellous to behold, Providence had supplied in each what the other wanted. It was back then that I though that far from being the work of Belial as I had been taught, there was something to be said for ecumenism.

I detested, and still do, the idea that we pretend there are no differences; you get nowhere worth going like that. But the idea we have nothing to learn from each other is equally nonsensical. Yes, I know, and I have heard Orthodox and Catholics tell me they have the fullness of the Faith. Aye, well, perhaps so – but not one of the people I ever spoke, or speak to, actually has it in himself, and it seems to me we’ve learned from each other – partly by osmosis.

Learning from Vatican II


VaticanIIIt was an odd thing in a way, the effect of that Newman book. It wasn’t as though I was convinced, and there was no Damascus road moment. Indeed, I regarded Newman, as to some extent I still do, as a man whose talents were wasted by two churches who had no idea what to do with a genuine saint who had, as all genuine saints do, an annoying habit of saying what those in authority didn’t want anyone to say. I thought the Anglican bishops who persecuted him the worst of fellows – until I read about the Catholic ones. I’d not give a ripe fig for the lot of them. Newman was a saint, and really holy men should have some notion of how to treat such a man.

No, what got to me were two things. The first was Newman’s grounding of Marian veneration in the Old Testament, and in the Jewish traditions, as well as his showing how that developed in the early Church.  None of that was my experience, and it still seemed strange to me, but it lanced the boil – it wasn’t idolatry. I wasn’t convinced that some Catholics didn’t come close to treating her as a goddess, but that should not be taken as meaning that the Church did. The second, oddly enough, was what my new friend said about Vatican II.

I lost touch with my friend and colleague in the early 1980s, and found him again entirely by accident on the Telegraph where he posted under the name JohnDC. Hamish and Bosco have already paid tribute to him, and I would join them.

He had been brought up in the pre-Vatican II Church, and the loss of the Latin Mass caused him almost physical pain. But where some of his friends would rail against what was happening and condemn the Pope and their Bishops. JohDC would counsel patience and caution.  I remember his saying many times that if the Church really was led by the Holy Ghost, all would be well, and if it wasn’t, well they were all wasting their time and they should go down the pub; being a bunch of Irishmen, they did just that.

One of the things dc did after I returned the Newman collection to him, as was to ask if I’d kept up with Lumen Gentium and what it said about the Virgin Mary. Oddly enough I hadn’t; my nightly reading consisted of the Scriptures and a good commentary. But he has such a good natured way with him, did dc, that I read up on it, and as we discussed it, I saw that whatever else was going on, this was no idol worshipping. Indeed it seemed, even to my sectarian mind, a genuine attempt to clear away accretions and tell us something my own tradition seemed to have forgotten – that Mary was the pattern of obedience for us all.

That set its own pattern for our discussions. DC was the most patient fellow I ever met. If even now I can irritate the heck out of a bunch of atheists, back then I could have provoked a saint; but dc wouldn’t be provoked.

Thus began the process of my learning about what Catholics actually held – even when some of them seemed not to know it either.

A rose by any other name?


mystical-roseI had not thought that this little place would see much in the way of comment – so I’d like to thank those of you who have proved me wrong.

One commentator asked me how I passed beyond the narrowness of the ways of my youth. The honest answer would be that I haven’t. I have probably just exchanged one form of narrowness for another, the last more acceptable to our society. That does not make my last situation necessarily better than my first – however much I would like to assert the opposite.

I somehow managed to get through University without my thoughts on these matters changing. It was a time when Northern Ireland was much in the news. My fellows at University took, as most folk seemed to, a low view of the Protestants, and tended to back the IRA; that would not have helped open me to their views on other matters. The Baptists there were far from such views, and it was then that the mild Methodism of my mother gave way to more rigorous ways; we’d not have anything to do with the Christian Union – crowd of ecumenical traitors to Christ, was, I think, the prevailing view.

Quite how any of that coexisted with research on the early Church I don’t know – it just did.  The rather dry theological debates of the fifth century appealed. I recognised in them an urgency which matched what I knew from home, but not from University. For the men of the early Church the exact nature of what to believe was a matter of life and death, as it was for my family and friends; for the Dons these things were ideas to to be pushed around, examined and fitted into their narratives of doubt. There was real life and there was the University; the two things existed like two hypostases; I was the place they met, but with no intermingling.

It was only when I went into teaching that I got to talking to a young man (slightly older than me) who started at my first school on the day I did, that things began to change.  We were thrown together, as castaways on the same island tend to be. I needed to find lodgings swiftly, he had found rooms and there were spare ones in the same house, so we shared.

It only struck me when we were having tea one afternoon that this man was a Catholic. I noticed on his bookshelves works by Ronald Knox, as well as what seemed to be a bookcase of things by Chesterton. He also had a collection of the Latin Fathers, and an edition of Newman’s works.  Knowing of my interest in the Latin Fathers, he offered me the use of his shelves – an offer I took up.

Inevitably, given our interests, we struck up conversations about our faith, and the radio news of an evening often sparked a discussion, full, as it usually was, of news from Ulster. But my new friend was no zealot, neither was there a trace of bigotry in him. He listened to my rantings, and one evening, after I had said something particularly offensive about idolatry, he asked if I’d read ‘this’ – and handed me a collection of Newman’s writings on the Virgin Mary. I hadn’t, but then I’d never spoken to a Catholic about what they actually held – after all I knew that.

I read the book in an evening. It was not at all what I had imagined. I realised that my new friend had never once challenged my righteous assertions about idols and the like – but he had put me in the way of doing something I had not done – examining my own presuppositions – and prejudices.

The Sash my (grand)father wore


images (2)My father’s father came from Londonderry, and to the end of his long life he was a member of the Orange Lodge. On King Billy’s day he would proudly wear the sash that his father had worn. If you’d asked him to distinguish between his religion and his nationalism he’d have thought you a ‘daft loon’. There was a photograph of the King (and later of the Queen) in the sitting room, and if you went to the cinema, you’d stand for the National Anthem at the end – by George you would.

My own father, from his point of exile in Yorkshire, decided that the whole thing was mad, and as soon as he could, he renounced religion in favour of another creed – in his case Marxism. He was a firm believer that the advent of the workers’ State would solve the problems left by superstition, and on the rare occasions he went home, he’d come back frustrated by the obscurantism of his father.  When he da’ died, he moved his ma to Liverpool, and they never spoke of religion without the pair of them arguing. We youngsters learned to avoid it as a topic.

My grandma, in old age, would talk about her girlhood, which had been spent between Liverpool and Belfast, and for her, as for my granddad, Protestantism was integral to their identity. In accent, and in many habits, they were identical to their Catholic neighbours, but because they were British and Protestant, they were better than them. They scorned the ‘idol worship’ of the Catholics, and they had the most blood-curdling views of what the ‘Paddies’ got up to.

My granddad, who was of a puritanical frame of mind, shocked me one day by saying that the confessional was a ‘priest’s brothel’.  I must have been about 10 at the time, and as a well-read 10 year old might well do, I asked what a ‘brothel’ was. Grandma told him to ‘hold his whisht’, but he said ‘the boy has to to know that those old men are not safe with any lass’. The casual passing on of his prejudices was certainly not subtle.

These views were widespread, and even in West Yorkshire, where I was brought up, the locals held to them.  I recall that when I went to grammar school, the Catholics would be asked to leave the Assembly (along with the single Jewish boy), which was an act of worship which the Head thought quite unsuitable for a Catholic.

Between ancestral prejudice, and that with which I was surrounded, I easily adopted these views without ever really thinking about them.  Apart from Sean Brady at school, I doubt I ever spoke to a Catholic, and as Sean was so wet you could shoot snipe off him, his acquaintanceship did naught to help widen my mind.

As I passed through grammar school into the sixth form, these views hardened. In all my history lessons the Catholics were the villains: from ‘Bloody Mary’ and her Spanish husband, through to Louis XIV, the Catholics were ‘wrong ‘uns’ – the enemies of my country. It all fitted in too easily with the legends around the shash my grandfather wore.

A narrow view

tumblr_lyso25ChfP1qdsgxrAlthough a native of Yorkshire, parts of my summers were spent with my maternal grandmother who lived in Liverpool. We would often go over there in early July before school term finished – that was to celebrate the 12 July – the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 at which King William III defeated the forces of King James II and ensured the triumph of Protestantism in the UK. One of my maternal ancestors fought at the battle, and the family still has his sword.

But the anniversary was not a nice historical memory – it was a chance for a display of visceral anti-Papism. Liverpool was the place many Irish immigrants came after the famine of the 1840s, and many stayed nearby, leaving the city with a large Catholic population and a politics marked by sectarianism.  There were Orange Lodges in the city, to one of which may maternal grandfather belonged. He was a fierce old Calvinist Baptist, and could always be counted on for a stirring rendition of the loyalist anthem: ‘the sash my father wore‘. On the 12th he would wear that sash as he paraded with the other Orangemen and children dressed as ‘King Billy’ and Queen Mary – usually past Catholic areas.  It was the sort of thing others saw only in Ulster – but it was part of my family background.

My granddad hated Catholics. He regarded Catholicism as idolatry and Catholics as traitors and pagans. The ‘Paddies’ as he called them, were not welcome in his shop, and I doubt any of them entered it. He didn’t like Bishops or the Church of England, but his greatest ire was directed at the ‘Papes’. He would go over in the summer to his brothers in Belfast, and sometimes I would go with him.

They were a God-fearing bunch, and I daresay God may have reciprocated, because the ‘brothers’ as they were always known, were not men who knew the meaning of the word compromise.  They used to take me sometimes to hear a young preacher who they said was ‘alive in the Lord’. He had the loudest voice I ever heard – his name was Ian Paisley. I had not come across the word ‘charisma’ then, but when I did, he was the first such person I had seen in the flesh as opposed to the TV or cinema.

It as a Protestantism forged in the fires of the struggles of the seventeenth century, and in Northern ireland and Liverpool, it retained the heat thereof. It was there that I picked up a habit which took me years to kick. God forgive me, but I took on that narrow view.

I had, of course, never talked to a live Catholic – I don’t know there were any at home, and in Liverpool we avoided them. I knew what they believed – because my Protestant family and teachers told me. The idea that what they were telling me was their narrow view was not one my own even narrower view could take on board.

A Pilgrim’s progress


240px-Hebden_Bridge_RooftopsOn Jessica Hoff’s blog I am posting an exposition of Buyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. When I was a lad it was one of those books everyone had on their bookshelves, bit like those sets of Dickens. Back then even humble homes like my own had books on the shelves, and they were serious books. However much historians rubbish the idea of there being ‘respectable’ and disreputable parts of the working class, they weren’t there sixty odd years ago and I was.

My father was not a believer, but my mother was, and he was happy to let her take my bothers and myself off on a Sunday morning to chapel where we’d go off to Sunday School and be taught the basics of Christian belief. Brain-washing? Not at all. Neither of my brothers retained an ounce of Christian belief, so if it was, it was  unsuccessful. I remember nowt about it, save being taken out of the service and then coming back in later – and feeling conspicuous both times. But I took in the sense that when I first read Bunyan I knew what he was writing about.

Our horizons were narrow ones. We never went on a holiday, and beyond our bit of Yorkshire was mysterious and might well have been China for all I ever saw of it. But that was the physical horizon. Mentally it was quite different. Books took me to worlds I knew nothing of and might never see – but in the hands of a good writer I saw it all in my imagination. What I had seen with my eyes was little – what I saw with my imagination was everything.

So for me, Pilgrim’s Progress  was very real. I knew allegory instinctively, but I saw how it applied to my life and my very limited experience. I’d a natural desire to be good, but an equally natural instinct to be naughty. That certainly matched what I was told in Sunday School; it also matched Christian’s journey. I found his mishaps and mistakes helpful. I was like that. I meant to do something and got distracted and led astray. It was good to know that that did not put me beyond God’s love.

I didn’t have a problem with the hell-fire stuff which causes sensitive souls now to run off. If I misbehaved my father clouted me. He didn’t tell me I was an evil little child, or that I’d go to hell, but he did clout me because I’d done wrong. That didn’t mean he didn’t love me – it meant he did. There were those whose fathers didn’t care what they got up to; I was glad my dad wasn’t like that.

Expectations were low. I went to the local primary school where, it was rumoured, someone had once passed the 11 plus. When I did so there was amazement – not because of me, but because schools like that never had anyone who did. That always made me sad. It was back then I said I wanted to be a teacher.  When asked why, I couldn’t rightly say then – except that I knew I wanted to be of service.