The Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity
October 8, 2017
“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith.” Romans 3:23-25a
As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Lutheran Reformation, let us consider what it was all about. The truth for which our forefathers in the faith contended 500 years ago, and that we believe, teach, and confess today, are summarized by three brief assertions: grace alone, faith alone, and Scripture alone.
I say the beginning of the Reformation, because when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517, he was not yet a Lutheran. Oh, he was well on his way. He could see many things that were wrong with what the established church in Rome was teaching, but it wasn’t until about a year later that he came to understand what grace is all about. This breakthrough didn’t come from out of the blue. God didn’t speak from heaven to enlighten him. Luther didn’t find this truth by searching within his own heart. It was in reading the Bible that Luther came to understand how a sinner, under God’s judgment and heading to hell, is rescued from his sin, forgiven, set at peace with God, and given eternal life.
The word grace is filled with wonderful comfort. No other word describes God’s attitude toward us better than the word grace. This is why it is so important that we understand what it means. Grace is God’s favor. It is his undeserved kindness. It is his unmerited love. An easy way to remember what grace is is by turning the word into an acronym. An acronym is a word made of the first letters of a number of words. For example, FICA means Federal Insurance Contribution Act. FEMA means Federal Emergency Management Agency. We use acronyms all the time. The word grace is spelled G-R-A-C-E. This acronym means “God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense.” God’s riches are the riches that God gives us. He gives them freely, that is, without any cost to us. These riches are the forgiveness of sins, freedom from guilt, peace with God, fellowship with God, eternal life and salvation. God gives all these riches to us. It costs us nothing.
Grace is “God’s riches at Christ’s expense.” “At Christ’s expense” means that there was a cost and Jesus paid the cost. Jesus is the only One who could pay the cost for these treasures because eternal life is won only by the obedient and only Jesus was obedient. As St. Paul writes in Romans 5:19,
To try to gain eternal life by your obedience to God is wrong for two reasons. First, it is wrong because you cannot do it. Second, it is wrong because Jesus has already done it for you. You cannot do it. In our text the Apostle writes, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” He doesn’t say that some have sinned and some have not sinned. He says that all have sinned. It is on account of our sin that we cannot raise ourselves up to God. Our sin keeps us away. In God is life. We cannot find true life, indeed we are consigned to death, unless and until God himself reckons us to be good enough for him, good enough to stand before him in his glory.
But how can we get God to reckon us to be good? The word is “justify.” It means to reckon someone to be just or righteous. How can we, who are sinners that fall short of God’s glory, get God to tell us that we are righteous? We cannot. St. Paul writes,
All have sinned. All are justified freely by God’s grace. How? What does God do that we couldn’t do that makes it possible for him to justify everyone who has sinned? The Apostle answers: “Through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” God justifies us freely by his grace through Christ’s redemption. To redeem is to pay the price for our freedom. Jesus offered up to God his innocent life of perfect obedience on the altar of the cross as a sacrifice to take away our sin and God’s anger against it. After speaking of Christ redeeming us, St. Paul goes on to say about him, “Whom God set forth as a propitiation by his blood, through faith.” To propitiate is to pacify, to take away anger, to set at peace. Consider the wonder of Christ’s obedience and death! God sends him out of love for us. It is his grace – his undeserved kindness – that sends him. And when we ask, “But God, what about my sin?” he tells us that Christ has redeemed us: he offered up his own life to set us free from our sin. And when we ask, “But God, what about your anger?” he tells us that Christ is the propitiation. He has removed the anger. The blood that God demands for all sin has been shed by Jesus. The propitiation by his blood is through faith. We receive this grace and are set at peace with the God who is at peace with us through faith. But the conscience argues against faith.
The conscience accuses, indicts, and condemns. The fearful soul runs this way and that to find relief from the guilt and deliverance from the punishment he knows is coming upon him. And as he tries every religious scheme known to man to become good enough for God, to get rid of God’s anger, he finds himself falling deeper and deeper into the pit of sin, guilt, and death. He’s trapped and cannot set himself free.
This was Luther’s dilemma. He didn’t understand grace. He didn’t know where to look to find it. Is grace found in God? Or is grace found in us? Where do we locate grace? Luther grew up believing that grace was a quality that God infused into the soul. God gave you grace. You cooperated with that grace by doing the very best that you could do to obey God’s commandments. God’s grace would help you along the way. It would give you the power to do those things that would make you holy. You looked for God’s grace within your own heart.
Luther looked for grace within himself and he couldn’t find it. Instead, he found sin. He wasn’t the first person to seek assurance within only to find conflict and doubt. Listen to how St. Paul describes the conflict that rages within every Christian. He writes in Romans 7,
We Christians have a problem. It has to do with our own sinful flesh. We have been born from above in Holy Baptism. We have received the gift of the Holy Spirit who lives within us. We trust in Jesus our Savior and receive from him the forgiveness of all our sins. But there still lies within us our sinful flesh. We will not be rid of this interior evil until our bodies die. So there is a conflict inside of us. We want to do the good that God wants us to do but we end up doing the evil that our flesh desires. It’s a never ending battle. Somebody says something unkind to us and we reply in kind. We know we should bless those that curse us. So we confess to God that we did wrong. God is gracious. He forgives us for Christ’s sake. We are free. Then what happens? We do it again. We sin. We hate it. We repent. God forgives. And it comes back to bite us again and again.
We Christians commit sins of thought, word, and deed, and every one of those sins comes from within us, from our sinful flesh.
Now consider Luther’s dilemma, and the dilemma of everyone who wants to find God’s grace within himself. When you look for God’s grace within your own heart you will find your own sin because as surely as God’s grace lies within, so does your sin. And as you engage in spiritual navel gazing, trying to locate the grace inside, you will become very confused. When you see your sin you might despair of God’s grace, thinking to yourself that if God were gracious you would surely feel it. Or, when you see your own sin you might try to escape its consequences by denying that it is sin, convincing yourself that you really aren’t such a sinner after all, at least not as bad as those people over there.
What Martin Luther discovered about God’s grace he did not discover by looking within his own heart. It was by looking within his own heart that he was led to despair. No, he learned what he learned by reading the Bible, specifically St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Of the many fanciful interpretations of the Reformation is the one that features Martin Luther as discovering the gospel by means of an inner struggle, as if he consulted his own heart to validate the truth.
It was the other way around. Luther’s inner struggle, his pitiful efforts to gain God’s grace and favor that included so much fasting and self-flagellation as to threaten his physical health did nothing toward bringing him to the knowledge of God’s grace. It was not until he looked outside of his own heart, outside of his own feelings, outside of his own experience to the gospel clearly and purely presented by St. Paul in the Epistle to the Romans that he found what he was looking for. Grace is God’s favor, his undeserved kindness, his deep love that forgives undeserving sinners like us, on account of Christ’s obedience and suffering for us. Grace is in God’s heart and God’s heart is revealed to us where Jesus shed his blood for us. God’s riches at Christ’s expense: Jesus purchased for us the treasures of God’s grace.
Where the pure gospel is proclaimed and Christ’s sacraments administered according to his institution, there God’s grace is revealed. There our faith has its sure foundation. There we receive from God forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. We are saved by grace alone.
Rolf D. Preus