On December 16, 2005 Pope Benedict XVI along with cardinals, bishops, prelates and other church officials gathered in the Redemptoris Mater Chapel at the Vatican to listen to a sermon.
Raniero Cantalamessa was the preacher. He is a Franciscan Capuchin Catholic Priest. In 1980 he was appointed by Pope John Paul II: Preacher to the Papal Household in which capacity he still serves. Every Friday during Advent and Lent he delivers a meditation to minister to the spiritual needs of the Papal Household. This has been a Vatican practice for centuries.
What is so noteworthy about this Catholic Monk’s address on December 16th? Preachers should always try to be plain and simple so the listeners will get the point of the message. Cantalamessa’s message was very clear: if you want to be justified, it is by faith alone in Christ!
Below I will quote from the text of his sermon. (1)
With a few introductory comments, he opened his Bible and read these words to Pope Benedict XVI and others in the audience:
“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, …. That he might be righteous and justify the one who has faith in Jesus.”
The papal preacher, in fact, read from his Bible all of Romans 3:23-26. He then explained the legal term ‘justification’ as the act through which God declares man just. He assured his audience that sinners are justified not by any good deeds that they are capable of doing. He quoted this verse:
“But when the kindness and generous love of God our Saviour appeared, not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy…” Titus 3:4-5
He then explained:
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.
The Monk made it clear that as important as keeping the commandments is, it is secondary. “Before the order of commandments comes the order of gift and grace. Christianity is a religion of grace!” He implied that Catholic teaching about one’s personal contribution to their own salvation was a reaction, centuries ago, to the Protestant Reformation. But then he adds: “Gratuitous justification by faith in Christ is the heart of this type of preaching (he’s referring to Paul’s great theme of justification by faith in Christ) and it is a shame that this is, in turn, practically absent from ordinary preaching in the Church.”
Before he concluded his message, it seems he called on church people to make sure they have this “most necessary conversion. A conversion altogether special, which does not consist in abandoning evil, but rather, in a certain sense, in abandoning the good!” I take it he is saying we must abandon our dependency on our own goodness and trust Christ alone. Without such a definite conversion, no one will be in Heaven.
Unfortunately religions, even under the banner of Christianity have put the ‘cart before the horse.’ Many teach that good works will help you achieve the prize of acceptance by God. That is backwards according to the Bible. Good works are produced in the lives of believers after they put their faith in Christ alone for their salvation.
The Capuchin Monk repeatedly used the beautiful phrase: “gratuitous justification by faith in Christ.” He said it was at the heart of the Apostle Paul’s preaching and went on to prove that is wasn’t just Paul; he said it was the “pure teaching of Jesus.”
Although I found a few statements in the sermon a little confusing to my mind, on the matter of justification by grace alone through faith in Jesus Christ – his message was clear.
Have you realized you can not gain heaven as a prize or a reward based on good behaviour? Did you know that you cannot be justified on the merits of anything you can offer God? Salvation by grace and eternal life is a gift from God based on the work of Christ on the Cross. Have you accepted the gift?
The moment you place your trust (faith) in the Lord Jesus Christ as your very own personal Saviour is the moment you are justified by God and brought into His Family.
(1) St. Paul’s Faith in Christ – Advent 2005, Third Advent Meditation to the Papal Household, December 16th, 2005, R. Raniero Cantalamessa.