Reformation Sunday Sermon 2003
Righteousness that Avails Before GodĒ
The pathetic spectacle of
a young man striving to become good enough to escape the fires of hell
may evoke sympathy, but nowadays one wonders why anyone ever feared such
a thing. As you know, hell
has gone out of style. The
theological trendsetters have decided that a loving God could not
possibly damn anyone for any reason.
The sinner in search of a gracious God is a quaint picture
belonging to a bygone era when folks still believed in divine
retribution. Back in the
days when Lutherans were Lutheran and Catholics were Catholics we all
knew that sinners deserved to be damned by God in hell. This is no longer the case and we must admit that it makes a
celebration of the Reformation seem a bit irrelevant. Surely, we are told, a merciful God who loves all people
could not seriously consider sending a young man with a sensitive
conscience to hell. Martin
Lutherís story just doesnít connect with modern sensibilities.
When the prophets of modernism
keep on pounding the same drums for generation after generation the drum
beat is bound finally to become impressed upon the mind.
All you have to do is be alive in America and you can hardly
avoid being influenced by the notion that divine justice is unknowable.
We can wonder. But
can we know? Can we really know what God says? If God does have something to say how can we know for sure
what it is? What are the
standards God has set down for us, if indeed He has set down any
standards at all? Uncertainty
upon uncertainty leaves most people without any clear picture of God or
Godís justice. From this
general religious haze all sorts of homemade religions are created.
They donít produce the earnest quest of a Martin Luther for the
gracious God because they donít confront the need for Godís grace
because they donít deal honestly with sin.
Thatís because they donít know the difference between God and
Treating sin in an honest way
requires us to make a clear distinction between God and man.
God sees what is hidden. He
looks at the heart. Listen
to how Jesus teaches us the nature of sin.
He says, ďFor out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders,
adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.Ē
(Matthew 15:19) You and I
cannot look inside the mind and heart of another person.
God can. He knows
what everyone wants. He
sees the evil thoughts that we keep well hidden from each other.
And notice what Jesus calls these evil thoughts.
He refers to them as sins: murders, adulteries, fornications,
thefts, false witness, blasphemies.
Jesus regards the inclination or desire to do evil as making the
person with that inclination or desire an evil person.
But only God can see the heart.
We read in 1 Samuel 16:7, ďFor the Lord does not see as man
sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the
When Martin Luther was a young
man he received much instruction that was right and much that was wrong.
One falsehood that had been pounded into his brain was that the
desire or inclination to sin was not itself sin.
That is, God did not find fault with someone merely for having an
evil desire. Only if he
acted on the evil desire, was that sin.
Along with this false notion that clearly contradicts our
Lordís words went the equally false notion that if someone did the
best he could do that would be enough for God. Luther learned from Godís word that the desire to sin was
sin. He learned that doing
the best you can do is not good enough Ė not when you are a sinner.
The best a sinner can do is to sin.
If the only sin for which God
will hold us accountable is that visible sin we can see with our own
eyes, why then all we need to do is to hide our sinfulness by an outward
show of hypocrisy. And
that, of course, is what people do.
The Irish have a saying: ďO what a gift that God could give us:
To see ourselves as others see us!Ē
Sad to say, we generally cannot.
We cannot see what we are doing when we are doing it.
And we donít want to look inside to our own motives and desires
and admit that the sin we see in others is festering within ourselves.
The reason we donít want to do this is because when we learn to
do this we will learn despair. Weíd
rather remain ignorant than to learn that we are under Godís wrath and
deserve His punishment and thereís nothing we can do to save
ourselves. Despair is a
frightening thing to learn. Luther learned despair.
God delivered Luther from this despair by means of the clear
teaching of St. Paul in Romans. Listen
to St. Paul:
We will not believe in Jesus as
our true Redeemer until the law shuts us up. The way Godís law shuts us up is by giving us the knowledge
of our own sin. The law
doesnít teach us an abstract doctrine of sin that we can file away
somewhere for future reference should we feel so inclined.
No, the law stands up and speaks against us and as we begin to
defend ourselves the law penetrates our every defense and levels Godís
own holy and irrefutable judgment against us.
It shows our conscience that the deeds of our flesh are sinful
because our flesh is sinful. By
the law is the knowledge of sin. From
Godís law we learn we are not righteous and that we cannot make
ourselves righteous. Yet
only the righteous can claim Godís blessings and only the righteous
can enter into the kingdom of God.
We need a righteousness that we
do not have. We need a
goodness, a purity, a spiritual loveliness, what the Bible here calls
ďrighteousnessĒ in order to come into fellowship with the righteous
and holy God. But where is
it? What is it? It
is not a righteousness that comes from our obeying the law. We donít do this righteousness.
Someone else does. And
the Old Testament, that is, the Law and the Prophets gave testimony to
this righteousness. Whose
righteousness is it? It is
Godís righteousness. But
it is not the righteousness whereby God is a righteous Being who stands
in judgment against us sinners. No,
this is a righteousness that is given to all those who have faith in
Jesus. It is a
righteousness that we receive by believing in Jesus.
All who believe in Jesus have this righteousness and are
righteous before God on account of it.
Just as surely as all have
sinned and so all need a righteousness they do not have, just so surely
all are justified freely by Godís grace through the redemption that is
in Christ Jesus. All
sinned. All are justified. Justification is when God reckons to sinners that perfect
righteousness of Jesus. This
is a free reckoning on Godís part.
We are justified freely by Godís grace.
It is never deserved or earned by us.
But it is deserved and earned.
Not by us, but by Christ. He
has earned this righteousness by redeeming us and being the propitiation
for our sins. A propitiation propitiates someone. To propitiate means to pacify or reconcile.
Jesus offers up His body and blood on the cross and thereby Jesus
propitiates God. His bloody
sacrifice is the propitiation, or means of setting aside Godís anger.
As the hymnist puts it, ďJesus Christ our blessed Savior turned
away Godís wrath forever.Ē
All sinners are justified freely
by Godís grace. Faith
does not cause this redemption. Faith
does not propitiate God. Faith
does not send Jesus to the cross to shed His blood for us.
Faith does not make Jesus into the Lamb of God who takes away the
sin of the world. But faith
receives all this. Faith
alone receives Christ, His righteousness, and the peace with God that
goes with Him. Faith alone
receives Godís grace, that is, forgiveness, salvation, and eternal
life in heaven where there is no sin, death, sorrow, or doubting of God.
Does God have the right to
justify sinners who are not righteous?
How can God say that an unrighteous sinner is a righteous saint?
God has every right to justify the one who has faith in Jesus
because Jesus brings Godís righteousness to everyone who believes in
Him. God can in perfect
justice justify those who believe in Jesus because Jesus has fulfilled
all the demands of justice and He has done so for the entire world of
Those who are justified by faith
alone and not by their works cannot boast in themselves.
They can confidently say that they are righteous before God and
that God in heaven sees nothing wrong with them at all.
They can make this boast because they are boasting of Christ and
His righteousness, not of themselves and their own works.
It is only when this pure gospel is proclaimed and believed that
true Christian humility and love can take root and flourish.
Only those who know that their good works cannot help make them
righteous before God will be able to begin to do good works for the
glory of God and the benefit of the neighbor.
And when our consciences accuse
us and make us afraid of Godís judgment, we have the God-given
confidence that we are righteous before God, clothed in the
righteousness of His only begotten Son, our brother.
This is the greatest treasure in the world and this is why we
celebrate the Reformation of the Church that God wrought through His
servant, Martin Luther, who brought to light this precious biblical
Rev. Rolf D. Preus