Chinese Theological Review 18

On Justification by Faith

Li Weizhen

The closing talk at the Fifth Lay Training Class in Theological Reconstruction of the Nanjing Churches, given by Bishop K.H. Ting, was titled "De-Emphasizing Justification by Faith." He said in this talk that if we oversimplify and directly link belief and unbelief, going to heaven and going to hell, we will run into a political issue. He exhorted us: "I think that it would be better for Chinese Christianity, like many churches around the world, to de-emphasize justification by faith somewhat and not link heaven and hell, belief and unbelief so closely together. This is my hope." Bishop Ting also reminded everyone that "it is my feeling that if we still do not de-emphasize this in China, we will distance ourselves from the majority of Chinese, and this would be tragic."

The issue which Bishop Ting raised is an old issue in new circumstances. Before Vatican II, it existed within the Catholic Church and though now it is much less serious, we cannot say it has been solved. And because of this, people inside and outside the church are frequently suspicious; they say, When the Allied Forces attacked China during the Boxer Rebellion, most of those aggressors were believing Christians. Were they, then, justified by faith? And those unfortunate Chinese—the common people and the heroic soldiers who sacrificed themselves protecting the sovereignty of China—most of them did not know or had never heard of Christianity. They certainly were not Christians. As non-believers, could they be justified? Did they then go to hell? This is a realistic question, sharply put. It is a question Christianity cannot avoid, one which it must answer head-on.

In the Catholic Bible, the translation of justification by faith varies slightly from the Protestant, but it is still a famous biblical pronouncement of St. Paul and carries absolute authority. Through the ages, theologians have always felt the Bible is a saving book and that its Gospel of salvation cannot be in error. Thus, there is no question about justification by faith; it is not open to doubt.

One area of theological study is that we must clarify such questions using modern concepts of ethics and morality and modern scientific knowledge. We must make every effort to put things in a way that an impartial observer would find reasonable. This writer would like to adopt such an attitude in exploring this question, as a way of inviting broader discussion.

Why did Paul mention justification by faith? We see in Romans that many Romans who had come to believe in and follow Jesus Christ, abandoned their faith and turned to belief in other gospels when outside pressures were brought to bear. It was in response to this problem that St. Paul proposed justification by faith. With this as prerequisite, can we then, by extension, propose being unjustified by lack of faith? It seems as though we can. But without the mentioned prerequisite, does the converse theorem hold? This is much more complicated.

"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord Lord,'shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Mt. 7: 21). In general, all who can say Lord, Lord! have the sign and expression of believing in Jesus; yet this is not the only criterion. Jesus looks to see if faith has led them to do the will of God, as the most basic principle of whether they may enter the kingdom of heaven. Another passage, Matthew 25: 34-46, is even clearer; here the Lord tells us, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me." These are those who will enter the kingdom. There are others to whom he says, "Truly I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me." Verse 46 sums up: "And they [who did it not] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." At the Last Judgment, God will see whether the actions of each one of us have been done in the grace given by God and choices made to carry out the will of God. "For he will render to every man according to his works" (Rom. 2: 6).

From this we see that the idea of faith is not enough, the most important thing is to have the nature of faith, carried out in the virtue of action.

Then the question naturally arises: Can unbelievers also be justified? In order to explore this question, we must first discuss what sort of actions carry out the will of God. And can unbelievers, in their hearts, be said to believe in God? I would here like to recommend the concept of anonymous Christians of the theologian Karl Rahner. He felt that people could be classified as those who believed in God publicly and openly and those who believed in secret. The former are those of us who have been baptized and take part in religious activities as ordinary Christians; the latter know nothing of Christianity, but act according to their own conscience, desiring justice and peace, seeking and caring for human truth, goodness and beauty. They desire the infinite, though they are vague about it and do not acknowledge that they seek God in their hearts. But in fact they do sincerely and wholeheartedly seek the Lord and Rahner felt they belonged to those who believe anonymously. Their actions are mostly filled with the light of the Spirit and in essence they do the will of God. Though they are not called Christians, they are in fact very good ones and they should be able to gain eternal life.

Is there any biblical basis for Rahner's theory? A great deal can be found in Romans. "When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them" (Rom. 2: 14, 15). "For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal. His praise is not from men but from God" (Rom. 2: 28, 29). And chapter 10, verse 14 says, "But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed?" Clearly Paul has taken account of those places where the Gospel has not been preached. How do we expect these to be justified by faith, especially since we must recognize the universality of the saving grace of God that redeems all humankind. Thus the most reasonable explanation is that the faith Paul points to contains anonymous faith. The Vatican II documents have this very concretely in saying that those who, through no fault of their own, do not know of the Gospel or Church of Christ, but wholeheartedly seek God and act according to the dictates of their consciences, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, carry out the will of God: these may also gain eternal life. This is the same view which Bishop Ting holds in all his theological thinking on truth, goodness and beauty outside the church.

Here we may sum up the foregoing as follows: Faith can be divided into public and hidden or anonymous faith. Thus there are some people who seem to believe in no religion and live only according to their consciences. Conscience was given by God when God created humans in the image of God, so that their thirst for justice, peace, truth, goodness and beauty, in sum for the infinite, means that objectively they do the will of God and in essence live lives of anonymous faith. There are also others who, though they have been baptized and are called Christians, who go to church and who seem to be leading religious lives, yet in truth live lives completely against the will of God. Can we say they have faith?

If what I have said here is reasonable, then the question sharply posed at the beginning of this essay has been answered. Then why did Martin Luther emphasize justification by faith?

Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the cathedral doors in 1517. We need not bother here with clarifying these or getting entangled in this history. For the Church of his day, there was no separation of Church and State. Therefore, to protect the political interests of the Church, the corruptions of the secular world had been brought into the Church. Looking at all this impartially today, taking a calm look at Martin Luther and those like him, the 95 theses he presented hit the mark. His emphasis on justification by faith was an attempt to wake up the church leaders of the time and the believers who followed them and return to the correct path of the Gospel. But since the reformation and the reforms in the Catholic Church, justification by faith has become a bone of theological contention between Catholics and Protestants. The Catholic Church says that only once a person has received grace can they perform righteous acts, while Protestants emphasize preaching a gospel of justification by faith. This argument has gone on for four centuries, right up to the end of last century, when, through the efforts of theological committees on both sides, a consensus was reached, with both sides agreeing that we sinners are saved by grace and that through faith in Jesus Christ we become righteous and are justified.

Why do some people want to emphasize justification by faith today? If we analyze this only in terms of understanding of doctrine, it is quite possible that we will find many and widespread differences. In remote areas especially, clergy and congregants, in their preaching of the Gospel and salvation, frequently overdo claims such as: Unless you believe you will go to hell. I fear their aim is simply to scare people out of their wits so that they will make haste to convert. They do not realize how great a negative impact these words have.

But think of the fact that there are 1.3 billion Chinese who do not believe in Christianity—where is it these preachers want to consign all these people to? As Bishop Ting said, "it is my feeling that if we still do not de-emphasize this in China, we will distance ourselves from the majority of Chinese, and this would be tragic." And to speak concretely of individuals, who goes to heaven and who to hell— this can only be known on the Day of Judgment. If someone wants to supplant Jesus in deciding who goes to hell, not only is this against doctrine, we have to guard against raising non-doctrinal questions, for these can be very serious.

Thus, in dealing with this passage in the Bible, we must first understand individual passages from the standpoint of universal salvation found in the Bible as a whole, and then interpret the passage in the spirit of Vatican II. If we must preach on this passage on justification by faith, then we must make clear that there is public faith and there is the hidden faith that lies in the deepest recesses of each soul, so that those who do not have public faith will feel comfortable hearing it, willing to be in contact with us and share with us. Only in this way, can we truly be salt and light and yeast to the world. This is a very difficult passage to preach on. It is part of the Bible and we must preach it, but if we do not thoroughly lay out the meaning of faith in this passage, all the problems we do not wish to come up, will come up. What shall we do? In fact the content of the Gospel is abundant and overflowing and need not reduced to justification by faith. This is why Bishop Ting speaks of down-playing or de-emphasizing justification by faith. Down-playing is an excellent way to put it. I believe that our congregants will increasingly come to identify with this idea.

In writing this essay, my hope is that my readers will come to know the depths of the hearts of those outside the church and their thirst for the infinite. We Christians should see this as a kind of hidden faith. In fact, looking at church history, faith has through the ages been understood in terms of its content and principles. Recently the view of a pluralistic faith has appeared; currently, a point we cannot overlook is the necessity for a more rational or reasonable explanation of faith. We can see that our understanding of faith is developing, moving with the times.

Today, when we see the faith hidden deep in the inmost hearts of those outside the Church, it certainly does not mean that we should ignore or treat lightly those who profess their faith, but we must not put obstacles in the way of the Gospel; the mission of the Church is still extremely important. One part of that mission is to bring this hidden faith to a profession of faith in Jesus Christ and bring people into the Church, through the sacraments and other means of salvation, that we may more effectively and holistically bring people to salvation, that they may better know God and accept the grace God offers.

May God be with us.

Nanjing Theological Review 1(2003):122-127.
The author is a Catholic who lives in Nanjing.