October 28, 2018
“How Can a Bad Person Be a Good Person?”
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; 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, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law. Romans 3:19-28
The Christian faith is simple. While it is centered in God’s great love for us in Christ and this love is the focus of our faith, before we can understand this love we must learn the truth about ourselves. What is God’s truth about you?
God tells you that you are bad. He doesn’t want backtalk, arguments, denials, or excuses. He wants you to be quiet. Hold your tongue. You are bad. You are not good. You have done wrong. You have not done what was right. You have sinned. You haven’t done the just deed. Admit it. Confess it. You are guilty and you are accountable.
The human race screams its defiance! How dare you accuse us? This does not describe us! We are not this way. Well, maybe they are, but I’m not. Who do you think you are to accuse me of such things?
God is God and you are not. He who created us in love and in love provided for everything we needed in life has every right to expect love from us. We owe him. But we haven’t paid what we owe. We haven’t sought God; we’ve sought our own wants and advantages. We have turned aside from his commandments. We’ve spoken evil to do harm. We’ve caused misery and destruction. We have not feared God.
Each of the commandments says it plainly, “We should fear and love God that we may . . .” But we have not feared God. We have feared losing the things we love. We have feared judgment from the world. We have feared many things, but we have not feared God above all things.
If you want to be good enough for God, you must fear, love, and trust in him above all things. You must be good, just, and righteous. But you are not. You must be good. But you are not good. What does God want you to do about it? He wants you to shut your mouth and agree with him.
Luther tried to make himself good enough for God and he learned that he could not do enough to make himself good enough. In fact, the more he tried to make himself good, the worse he became. Working his way to heaven, he was digging the pit into hell. He did what the church told him to do. He couldn’t deliver. Then he learned that the church wasn’t speaking for God. So he went to the Bible to see what God demanded. He found himself to be guilty. His mouth was stopped. He was accountable to God.
We need to listen to God when he shows us that we are bad. Instead of making excuses for ourselves we must admit to God our sin and guilt. Who dares do so? St. Paul makes it clear.
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
The Reformation of the Church is a church festival among us Lutherans that falls on October 31 every year. Most Lutherans today are more familiar with Halloween than they are with Reformation Day. We will be having Vespers this Wednesday evening at 6:15. We will observe the Reformation of the Church on the day appointed for it. We are also observing the Reformation this morning, so we have two opportunities to take to heart this wonderful event. Why should we remember it?
Luther’s personal experience was Luther’s personal experience. It isn’t yours or mine. If the Reformation is simply about Luther finding peace with God, we can thank God for his kindness to a 16th century monk and move on to more important matters.
But the Reformation is not just about Luther’s experience of grace. It isn’t just about Martin Luther. It is about the gospel that Luther discovered in the Bible. It had been covered up by all sorts of human opinions that hid it from sight. In Luther’s day, it was the Roman Catholic doctrine of merit. God gives you grace to do good. You do good. God gives you more grace to do more good. You do more good. You do what you can. Can you do enough to find peace with God? Can you do enough to become just before God? Can you? No. You must remain perpetually in doubt about where you stand with God. You can find no true peace, no true joy. You don’t know where you stand with God and you are forbidden to know.
Today, the religious climate is different. Most people aren’t trying to find their way to God by doing good. They don’t believe that they are sinners. They don’t believe that God judges sinners. They are operating within different religious categories. Sin, repentance, atonement, and forgiveness are hazy concepts at best. Sin is now dysfunction. There is no real moral accountability. Repentance is trying to turn over a new leaf. Atonement is doing good to those you’ve hurt. Forgiveness is not talking about the offense.
Like in the 16th century where much human tradition covered up the true gospel, today in the 21st century much human tradition covers up the gospel. But the needs sinners have to find a gracious God have not changed. You are bad and you must be good. That remains true for every generation.
Whether you try to make yourself good and end up making yourself more sinful, or you define sin away so that nobody is really guilty of anything, in either case you are left guilty before the God to whom you must give an account.
The message of the Reformation is the message of the Bible. God loves sinners. He forgives them. When they confess to him their sin and guilt, God is gracious to them. God tells them that on account of Christ and what Christ has done for the whole human race, he forgives them all their sins. God tells the guilty sinner: You are good. You are just. You are righteous. You are good, just, and righteous not in yourself, but in Christ. The goodness, the justice, the righteousness that makes you good, just, and righteous is not your own doing. It is Christ’s doing. He is your righteousness before God.
This is why we need Christ. St. Paul writes:
All have sinned. Whether they acknowledge it or not, whether they confess it or not, they have sinned. They fall short of God’s glory. They stand condemned. These, who are condemned by their own sin, if not their own conscience, are justified freely by God’s grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. God reckons them to be just – righteous – not because of anything they have done or will do, but because of Christ’s redemption. Jesus shed his blood for this world of sinners. Therefore, all who sinned are freely forgiven by Christ’s redemption. Paul writes: “Whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith.” Christ is a propitiation. This means he bears God’s anger against all sinners and takes it away. He says to God: “Punish me, instead of those sinners whose sins I am carrying. Do to me what they deserve. Let me bear the anger, the judgment, the curse, the punishment – let me be the one with whom you are angry so that the world might be delivered.”
God, for Christ’s sake, justifies sinners. He reckons them to be righteous. He forgives them. And he gives this forgiveness to them freely. St. Paul writes:
God can forgive those who deserve his punishment. God can justify – reckon to be righteous – unrighteous sinners. How can a just God justify sinners? For Christ’s sake! Christ bore the sin. Christ fulfilled the demands of God’s law. The people for whom he died did not fear, love, and trust in God above all things. They loved themselves more than God. They loved themselves more than their neighbors. They deserved to be punished. But God forgave them. He justified them. He counted them to be righteous, good, as good as good can be. He did so by giving them the credit for Christ’s obedience and suffering, just as Christ took upon himself the blame for the world’s sin.
God justifies us through faith in Christ. We don’t deserve it. God freely does it. He counts us to be righteous by giving us the credit for Christ’s righteousness. This is how we find a gracious God.
The issues Martin Luther faced in the church of his day were quite different from the issues we face today. There is one thing that has not changed. It will never change. Sinners need forgiveness of sin. We are sinners. We need forgiveness. We need Christ. Christ bears our sin and washes it away. He makes peace between God and us. God forgives us for Christ’s sake. He justifies us freely by his grace. We don’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. Our good deeds don’t gain it. God gives it freely to undeserving sinners. We receive it through faith alone. That’s what the Reformation is all about. That is something to celebrate year after year.
Rolf D. Preus