“…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.”
Probably many of you remember the Hell’s Angels (thankfully they’ve been out of the news for years now): they’re the motorcycle gang famous in the 60’s and 70’s for outlaw behavior and physical violence. One of the most notorious of the Angels was a man named Sonny Barger, the founder of the Oakland chapter of the group. Somebody once asked him how they picked new members; and he said, We don’t pick ‘em. We recognize ‘em.
I think this little story has a unique resonance precisely because the Hell’s Angels were such bad actors: it shows that it’s the same for everyone, good guys and bad guys alike: you can talk the talk all you want, but the truth is in how you walk the walk. What we do, how we behave, is the best evidence of what it is that we really believe, of where our spirit is directed (for better or worse; for the Hell’s Angels, the spirit seemed to be directed to violent rejection of what most of us think of as civilized behavior.)
This is the basis of what Jesus is talking about in the Sermon on the Mount when he warns people against false prophets: he says, they “come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits….[E]very good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.” And appearances can be deceiving, labels don’t matter. In the gospel of Mark, chapter 12, there’s one of those scenes in which a group of scribes and Pharisees are trying to trip Jesus up; but there’s one scribe who’s just listening, and likes what he hears Jesus saying; asks him a question; agrees with Jesus’ answer, and is inspired to elaborate on it: at which point Jesus tells him, You are not far from the kingdom of God; which he doesn’t say to anyone else, anywhere in the gospels. And he says this to a scribe: a class of people Jesus normally holds up as the prime example of how organized religion gets it wrong. Jesus knows good fruit when he sees it.
This all comes to mind because of the verses in today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans which I quoted at the beginning, and which reflect this fact of life, that what we do is the best evidence of what we believe. These are verses that bear directly on our lives as Christians.
I have to provide a little context first. In this cycle of the lectionary we’ve just spent two months – and we will spend one more month – working our way through Romans. Paul almost never, in any of his letters, talks about Jesus of Nazareth, about anything that he said or did. What he talks about is Jesus Christ: that’s to say, he talks about just what it is that God has done in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; what all that means about who God is, and therefore about who we are; about how God, in Christ, is alive in our lives. We see different angles on all this in the different letters of Paul; but the letter to the Romans is his most thorough exposition of who Christ is and what that means for our lives.
This is going to require a little spadework, so please bear with me just briefly. Chapter 10, verse 9: “…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
Now, on the surface, this verse sounds like your basic cliché street-corner evangelist: Confess that Jesus is Lord and you’ll be saved! Or, put the other way: If you don’t believe in Jesus you’re going to hell! And, over the course of church history, that’s all too often just how this language has been used. This kind of over-simplification is a betrayal of Paul, and of the gospel. But in the next verse, verse 10, Paul explains just how this works: “ For one believes with the heart, and so is justified, and one confesses with the lips, and so is saved.”
Now. “Justification” is a big word for Paul – he uses it a lot, especially in Romans - and it’s an important idea which is often misunderstood. “Justification”, the way we usually understand the word, makes it sound like we’re being given a rationale for something we’ve done, so we can walk away with a clear conscience. But what Paul means by the word “justification”, rather, is more the way a printer uses the word: when a printer justifies a line of type, he brings it into line, so that it’s clean, and orderly, and works as a whole, and can be seen clearly. I think of “justification”, in Paul’s sense, like the act of focusing the lens of a camera: what you see at first is just a blur, but then as you focus it becomes sharply clear. That’s the process of justification.
So when Paul says, One believes with the heart and so is justified, he’s saying, When you believe, with your whole self, when you really believe, then you see clearly; you come from a unified point of view, you can act with integrity.
That’s the belief part. What follows is the behavior: one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the lips and so is saved. And by “confess” Paul does not mean simply pronouncing a creed, he’s talking about anything and everything we do in life. It’s what St. Francis meant when he said, Preach the gospel constantly; if necessary, use words. We confess what we believe through what we do, not just what we say.
One confesses with the lips and so is saved. “Saved” does not mean being admitted through the pearly gates. It means acting as a whole human being; acting with integrity; saved from being dominated by anxiety; or anger; or fear.
So that verse describes the process: one believes with the heart and so is justified, one confesses with the lips and so is saved: first you believe; then you act out of that belief. Now: here’s what all this has to do with our lives – for us professing Christians, who come to church: there’s more than one thing to believe, and so more than one thing to confess, more than one way to live out what you believe. If you believe as a Hell’s Angel, then that’s what you’ll confess with your lips, that’s how you’ll live that out, and you’re probably going to wind up in a lot of trouble, and make trouble for everybody around you.
But if you believe in your heart that Jesus is Lord – that his message of love and forgiveness and redemption is the truth, is the rule of life – and if you confess with your lips that God raised him from the dead – if you act in the knowledge that God’s love, and God’s power, in this life, are infinite – then you will be saved: you will grow ever more fully into the whole human being God created you to be, and grow in the love, and peace, and joy, and hope that God holds out to us, now and forever.
That is the gift of God in Christ; but it is also a call. As we believe with our hearts, God calls us to confess with our lips: to speak, and to act, on what we believe. There cannot truthfully be one without the other. I started thinking about this sermon five days ago: that’s to say, before the events of the last two days in Charlottesville. And if you ever wanted an example of how believing with the heart and confessing with the lips can go wrong, this was it: the hatred and bigotry spewed by neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and other white supremacist groups has resulted in three deaths to this point, and revealed the degree to which this kind of thinking and acting has been legitimated in our country (the Hell’s Angels pale by comparison.)
As Christians, God calls us to refuse to stand idle: to speak, and act, against such beliefs, and such actions: and against equivocation regarding such beliefs, and such actions. Let us honor this call, and remember some other words of St. Paul’s: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female: for all are one in Christ Jesus.” Amen.