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Pope explains St. Paul's approach to justification by faith November 19, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI continued his series of Wednesday talks on the influence of St. Paul at his general audience on November 19, concentrating on the Apostle's approach to the question of justification.

St. Paul, the Holy Father observed, devoted much of his writing to the question of how man can be justified in the eyes of God. St. Paul himself was "blameless as to righteousness under the Law" before his memorable encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus. But after his conversion "he began to consider all the gains of his irreprehensible religious career as 'rubbish' in the face of the sublimity of his knowledge of Jesus Christ."

In his letter to the Philippians, the Pope continued, St. Paul explains how he abandoned his old attempt to justify himself in terms of the Law, and moved to "a justice based upon faith in Jesus Christ." The Apostle emphasized that all men are sinners, incapable of justifying themselves. Yet they are now justified by His grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus."

Martin Luther interpreted St. Paul's writings to say that justification is achieved "by faith alone," the Pope said. But St. Paul encountered argument among the people of Corinth, and rejected it. Some members of the Christian community at Corinth, the Pope recalled, held "an opinion that crops up again throughout history," believing that the Christian freedom of which St. Paul wrote meant freedom from the moral law, "and that hence Christian freedom means freedom from ethics." That is a fundamental error, the Pope noted.

When St. Paul wrote of freedom from the requirements of the Law, the Pope explained, he referred to the ritual observances dictated by Hebrew law. Those observances were important to the Jewish people, particularly when their religious identity was threatened by the predominant paganism of that time. But St. Paul taught that "the God of Israel, the only true God, has become the God of all peoples," and in Christ the people of Israel-- and all other people-- could find the completion of their religious identity. Thus men justify themselves before God, St. Paul concluded, by identifying themselves with Christ. "Being just simply means being with Christ, being in Christ; that is all," the Pope said.

The sola fide approach taken by Luther is correct, the Pope concluded, "if it is not placed in opposition to charity, to love." Faith means communion with Christ, which implies following God's law of love. Faith inevitably produces works, the Pope said. "Faith is looking at Christ, conforming to Christ. And the form of Christ's life was love."