The Reformation of the Church
October 31, 2010
“The Righteousness of Faith”
For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.” Romans 1, 16-17
It was at 12:00 noon on Halloween in the year 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. He wanted to have a debate about the selling of indulgences. The pope had approved selling indulgences to raise money to pay for the construction of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. Buying an indulgence supposedly got your loved ones out of purgatory and into heaven. “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” It was a racket. And it taught falsely about repentance. That was Luther’s main concern. People viewed indulgences as a means to gain forgiveness without repentance.
Repentance and forgiveness go together. They are at the very heart of the Christian faith and life. After Jesus died and rose from the dead, he said to his disciples as recorded by St. Luke,
Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. (Luke 24:46-47)
Repentance and forgiveness of sins go together. There cannot be the one without the other.
Repentance is a change of heart. What we loved we hate. What we hated we love. We no longer trust in what we trusted. Instead, we run to him from whom we ran. It is radical. It is life-changing. It is life-long.
Repentance is not a one time thing. It’s not like you get born again and sail on up to glory, never to sin again. Christians sin. They sin every day. The Apostle Paul spoke for all Christians when he lamented his sinful condition, saying:
For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Romans 7:18-19
Martin Luther struggled with the same thing. He had been taught that repentance brings about forgiveness. That’s what everybody had been taught. And it makes sense. Why should God forgive someone before he repents? That would be throwing pearls before swine! To forgive someone who has no intention of turning his life around would be gross injustice. We read in the Proverbs:
He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the just, both of them alike are an abomination to the LORD. Proverbs 17:15
It stands to reason that genuine repentance, life-changing repentance, turning away from sin and living a righteous life before God comes before the forgiveness of sins.
It stands to reason. But that doesn’t make it true. It isn’t true. If repentance brought about forgiveness then nobody would ever be forgiven. Why not? Because there is no such thing as perfect repentance.
St. Paul learned this from experience. So did Martin Luther. Paul was a Pharisee’s Pharisee. He was very observant of all the religious rules – far beyond most people – but he found no true peace in all of his religious devotion. No matter how hard he tried he could not make himself into a righteous man. He needed the righteousness of Christ and when he had received it, all his own righteousness paled into insignificance, as he wrote in Philippians 3:7-9,
But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith.
Martin Luther also had to learn the hard way that all of his efforts to make himself righteous only served to mire him deeper and deeper in his sin. As true as it is that without repentance we cannot receive the forgiveness of sins, it is just as true that without the forgiveness of sins we cannot repent.
When God forgives you he pronounces a verdict upon you. He tells you that you are just or righteous. He justifies you. That is, he reckons you to be righteous. To be forgiven of all your sins and to be justified are the very same thing. Forgiveness speaks of God taking the sin away. The sin that condemns us is sent away. It is gone. It is forgiven.
Justification is the same thing as forgiveness. But instead of talking about the sin being removed, it speaks of the flipside of the same thing. God imputes or reckons to you the righteousness that makes you a righteous person. Just as a sinful person has sin, a righteous person has righteousness. When God says you are righteous it is because you are. You have the righteousness that makes you really and truly just, holy, and good. When God justifies you, you can stand before him without fear, without shame, and with complete confidence that he is on your side and you are on his side.
If you don’t know whether or not God justifies you, you are in doubt concerning your relationship with God. You don’t know if you’re going to heaven or to hell. You cannot trust in God. Without faith there is no genuine repentance. But without forgiveness, without justification, without God telling you that your sins are forgiven and you stand righteous before him, there is no faith. You simply cannot trust in the God who is out to get you.
And this was Luther’s dilemma. He knew he had to repent to be forgiven, but he could not repent because he was not forgiven. He prayed. He deprived himself of bodily comforts. He examined his heart and sincerely tried to root out all hypocrisy and insincerity, but he felt the same old evil desires rising within him and he learned again and again that his heart was impure, unjust, and full of sin.
Then he had an epiphany. It was as he was struggling over our text for this morning. On the one hand, St. Paul said boldly that he was not ashamed of the gospel of Christ because it was the power of God to save everyone who believed it. Well, that was good news! The gospel has the power to save us from sin, from the power of death, from the dominion of the devil, and from hell itself.
That was good news, but Luther knew that it wasn’t for him. Why wasn’t it for him? Because the gospel revealed the righteousness of God, that’s why. A righteous God must punish sinners. It’s that simple. He, Martin Luther, was a sinner. The gospel revealed God’s righteousness. This meant that the gospel revealed God’s anger against him. Whenever Luther saw the word “righteousness” he saw God’s judgment against him. He could not love this judgmental god. He could only learn to hate him.
It was in the text of the Bible that Luther was saved. It wasn’t from church tradition. It wasn’t from a great hymn. It wasn’t from the liturgy. God preserves for us a faithful tradition, soul-strengthening hymns, and a beautiful liturgy. We should not despise these gifts. But for Luther, God used the bare Scriptures to open his mind and heart to receive the truth. It was as he was agonizing over the term, “the righteousness of God,” that it hit him. The text took his conscience captive. The same Holy Spirit who inspired the words that St. Paul penned broke through the hardness of Luther’s heart and through those words gave him new life. The righteousness of God was from faith to faith.
There you have it! The righteousness of God was not the righteousness by which a righteous God judges and condemns sinners. It was from faith to faith. It was a gift. God gave it. Faith received it. The Christian lived by it.
This is a righteousness that Jesus did. We didn’t. We couldn’t. In all our best efforts to love God above all things and to love our neighbors as ourselves we remained guilty of loving ourselves more than God or neighbor. And it is precisely in our own unrighteousness, our own sin, our own pathetic failure to be what God created us to be, that God preaches his gospel to us and takes away our shame and give us reason to stand before him with confidence.
Who could be ashamed of a gospel that sets us before God as righteous saints, covered in the very righteousness of Jesus Christ himself? This righteousness is from faith to faith. It is received by faith. We don’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. We don’t do it. It is freely given. It is given to faith. And it sustains faith. It actually produces the very faith that is necessary to receive it.
You won’t trust in the god who is chasing after you to condemn you for your sins. You’ll run away. You’ll deny his existence, and manufacture for yourself a fake god who doesn’t care if you break his law or who amends his law to suit your own desires. Turning the God who judges sin and sinners into a blind, indulgent, and permissive god who judges no one is only to create an idol. You can’t change God. He is who he is.
And the righteous God who judges sin and sinners is the same God who gives you the righteousness of his dear Son. In giving you this gospel that imparts to you Christ’s righteousness, God changes you on the inside. He brings you to repentance.
Repentance isn’t our own good work. It is God’s work. It is God’s achievement in us. It is achieved by God’s power. The gospel is that power. By revealing to us the righteousness of Jesus’ flawless obedience, by clothing us with it, by reckoning this righteousness to us, God justifies us and in so doing he also brings us to faith in him.
This is what the Reformation was all about. Sinners in need of a gracious God won’t find him in their own efforts or struggles. They need the gospel that reveals and bestows God’s righteousness. And so we have it. We trust in it. We are righteous with the very righteousness of Jesus. This is the foundation for every good thing we will ever do. This sets us at peace with God and assures us that heaven is our true home.
Thank God for the Reformation! Thank God for keeping the gospel of Christ in its truth and purity for us and for our children! Amen