The Epiphany of our Lord| January 4, 2015| Rev. Rolf Preus| Romans 3:23-31
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. Or is He the God of the Jews only? Is He not also the God of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also, since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law. Romans 3:23-31
We are Christians. Jesus Christ is at the heart of our faith. He is the Light of the world. To know him is to know God. All talk about God is talk about Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the heart of our faith.
But what is the heart of Christ? When we look to Jesus, what do we see? Who is he? What does he say? What does he do? What is he all about? Why did the Wise Men travel for hundreds of miles to see him? What sets him apart from all other religious leaders? What makes him the Light of the world, the light to lighten the Gentiles?
The prophet puts Jesus into context for us. He writes:
For behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and deep darkness the people; but the LORD will arise over you, and His glory will be seen upon you. The Gentiles shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.
The deep darkness that envelops the people is not simple ignorance. Were that the case, God could have send a good teacher. He wouldn’t have had to send his own Son. But God sent his Son. God became a man. Jesus is the Light of the world, not just because his teaching is true. He is the Light of the world because he is “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God.” When God becomes a man, Light descends into darkness and the darkness becomes light. What is the nature of this darkness into which God descends? St. Paul writes: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” That is the nature of the darkness.
Until the darkness is dispelled we are held captive by it. Until God forgives us our sins and makes us righteous we are spiritually blind and bound in slavery. Jesus is the Light. St. Paul explains how Jesus is the Light that lightens our darkened souls and leads us into the eternal light of heaven. Paul writes:
. . . Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood . . .
Three words we should know and understand are: justification, redemption, and propitiation.
To justify is to reckon someone to be righteous. It is a courtroom term. When the judge acquits the accused he justifies him. As far as the law is concerned, the accused is not guilty. The word justify refers to a judicial verdict.
Here we run into a problem. Paul says that all have sinned and then goes on to say that they are justified. How can this be? Not only does he say they are justified, but he says they are justified freely by God’s grace. But doesn’t this make God guilty of condoning sin? How can God justify sinners freely by his grace? Shouldn’t he require them to pay for their sins or to improve their conduct before he justifies them? If God freely, by his grace, acquits sinners of any wrongdoing – without requiring anything from them – it looks like he is making light of sin, and that’s not right.
But it is right. If you simply say that God justifies sinners you aren’t telling the whole truth. It is not right to say that God justifies sinners without explaining how he does it. He does it “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” There is no justification without redemption. God doesn’t forgive anyone except through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Jesus paid the price. To redeem means to set free by the payment of a ransom. Jesus set us free by paying his own life to God as the ransom price to set the world free from its sin. St. Paul writes that God set him forth as a propitiation by his blood. A propitiation takes away God’s anger. Jesus offered up his lifeblood on the cross to take away God’s anger against all sinners. He took their place. St. Paul writes, “All have sinned and all short of the glory of God.” Since all have sinned, Jesus gave his life as a ransom to redeem everyone. The anger of God against all sinners was stilled by the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross.
This is why we are justified through faith alone. Faith is the only way to receive a verdict from God. You either believe it or you don’t. If you believe it you receive it. If you don’t you don’t. All have sinned. All are justified. All are redeemed. The wrath of God against all has been stilled by the sacrifice of Jesus for all. But only those who believe in this gospel receive what it gives. Faith doesn’t put Jesus in the manger to become our brother. Faith doesn’t put Jesus on the cross to bear our sins. But, the apostle says of him: “whom God set forth as a propitiation by his blood, through faith.” Faith is the only way to receive the benefits of Christ’s death.
St. Paul continues:
. . . 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.
God forgave sins before Jesus was born. He did so without violating his own justice because he forgave sins and justified sinners for the sake of Christ, on account of the redemption he would pay, on account of the sacrifice he would offer up to God to propitiate his anger, to bear the punishment God’s justice required of sinners.
God forgives us freely by his grace, but his grace is not free. He purchases the forgiveness he freely gives. The price is dear. It is the holy obedience and sacrifice of his only begotten Son. God can be just and justify the one who believes in Jesus because Jesus has satisfied the demands of justice.
And this applies to everyone, Jew or Gentile. The Old Testament people of God did not earn their status before God. The New Testament people of God do not earn their status before God. We are all the same. We live under the same grace. We boast of the same Savior. Nobody is justified by works because everybody is a sinner whose sins justly call for God’s punishment, not justification. But Christ has redeemed us. He has paid the price we owed. He has borne the punishment we deserved and in this way has pacified God and taken his wrath away.
This is the light that lightens everyone who believes God’s word.
Therefore, we conclude that a man is justified through faith, without the deeds of the law.
The true faith is that we believe we are justified by God and forgiven of all our sins, not because of good works we have done or will do, but solely on account of the redemption of Christ who has taken away our sin and God’s anger against us. Christ is the Light that lightens our hearts because for his sake God is gracious to us and forgives us all our sins.
What is a sinner to do with his sins if he doesn’t know Christ? You can’t run away from God. You can deny him, but that won’t make him disappear. You can’t bribe him with false promises or con him by false appearances. Jesus Christ is the only way to find peace with God and the forgiveness of your sins and this is why this truth – that we are justified by God through faith alone in Christ our Redeemer – is the truth that lightens our lives.
We don’t deny the law by trusting in Jesus. To the contrary, we establish it. We take it with the utmost seriousness when we admit that we cannot make ourselves righteous before God. The law will always point out our sins. God’s law doesn’t adapt itself to our ability to obey it. It requires pure love. You either love God and neighbor as God’s law requires or you don’t and if you don’t you’re a sinner who has fallen short of God’s glory. You cannot begin to obey God until God justifies you freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. First you must trust in him who stills God’s wrath. Then you can love him, serve him, obey him, and give gifts to him. First God justifies you through faith alone. Then God works in your heart the love to respond to his love.
This is a wonderful work. God worked it in the wise men. They followed the star. They found Jesus and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. God receives our gifts for the same reason he receives us: for Christ’s sake.
We cannot know God except through faith in Jesus, his Son. He is both our God and our brother and has offered up to God his own righteousness to replace our sin and render us righteous before God. To know Christ is to know that the God who sees everything you have ever thought and done regards you with favor and forgives you all your sins. This is the most precious knowledge we could have. It is the source of every good thing we will ever do. Amen