The Reformation of the Church| Rev. Rolf Preus| October 28, 2012| Romans 3:19-28
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)
Every year we celebrate the Reformation of the Church that God worked through his servant, Martin Luther. It was 495 years ago this coming Wednesday, on Halloween of 1517, that Martin Luther nailed his ninety five theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. What began as a public debate about repentance soon divided the western Church. That division remains.
In our day we see the influence of the Church waning and anti-christian propaganda on the rise. Most Europeans left the Christian faith long ago and America is not far behind. Who would not celebrate a reunification of the Church so that she could stand united against the rising tide of secularism, moral decay, and general godlessness? It is tempting to minimize the issue of the Reformation as being of little account in comparison with the challenges the Church faces in our own day.
That would be a terrible mistake. The issue that divided western Christendom nearly five hundred years ago is the central issue of the church of every day. It is the question upon which our lives rest. How can a sinner become a saint? How can someone that God’s law condemns as guilty become righteous before the righteous God?
This is the question that you must consider. There is no more crucial issue for you. You have problems for which you seek solutions. You ask God for his help. Perhaps you face financial challenges. You cannot pay your bills. You’re in debt. Maybe your health is failing. A relationship that is precious to you is shot and you don’t know how to repair it. You face an uncertain future and are powerless to control it. There is no lack of experts who can provide you with a means of escaping whatever predicament you find yourself in. And much of what they say makes sense.
But I have news for you. Your biggest problem is beyond your power to address. Your deepest need is for what you can do nothing – absolutely nothing – to get. You are a sinner before the holy God and you stand guilty before the One who holds you and your future in his hands. The law of God that condemns the homosexual, the abortionist, the idolater, the adulterer, the thief, the murderer, the pedophile, the cheat, and the liar is the law of God that condemns you. With them you are guilty before God. God’s law says so. Whether engraved by God on stones on Mt. Sinai or engraved by God in your own conscience, the law accuses you, tries you, and convicts you. When you make excuses, it shuts you up. It shows you your sin.
This is no incidental doctrine that you can ignore, leaving it up to the preachers and theologians to settle. You must face it. It is a brutal truth that hammers you down into the ground before God, giving him just cause to damn you to hell to suffer forever. “By the law is the knowledge of sin.” Trying to silence the law, trying to cloud that knowledge, is to invite rebuke. Be quiet! Don’t argue. You’re arguing with God. He is right and you are wrong.
Just before the words of our text, St. Paul lists a catalogue of sins that prove that the whole world is guilty before God. In demonstrating the universal guilt of humanity, he focuses in on sins of the tongue – sins of deceit, cursing, and bitterness. He concludes by saying: “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” The problems of the human race are the fault of the human race and every single member of the human race is to blame. Every time we have spoken to hurt our neighbor we have demonstrated that the law is right to judge us guilty and to hold us accountable before God for what we have done.
Still, religious folks teach sinners how they can overcome their sins. They lie. The monkish works of self-denial that captured the allegiance of Martin Luther and the twelve step self-help programs of the religious entrepreneurs of our day are grounded in lies. The self-appointed religious experts ignore what the Bible says and promote instead the religion of the flesh. They teach that sinners can do something to escape their sin. They cannot. If you think they can you are doomed.
This is what Luther discovered. It’s a painful discovery. Yet it is when we learn this painful truth about ourselves that we can receive the wisdom that is from above. It is the wisdom of the gospel. The gospel tells us that the righteousness we cannot do is given to us freely by God. St. Paul calls it the righteousness of God. It is the righteousness, not of our doing, but of Jesus’ doing. The law that stopped our mouths, judged us guilty, and showed us our sin could find no fault with Jesus. It could not find Jesus guilty. It could not show Jesus his sin. That’s because Jesus did not sin. He had no fault for the law to find. The law could not judge Jesus. The law was made for sinners and Jesus was sinless. Everything he did was righteous. And it was for us. It was as our representative. His righteousness is ours, not by our doing anything at all, but through faith in him.
All have sinned. All fall short of the glory of God. All are justified freely by God’s grace through the redemption of Christ. The law tells you that you have sinned. If you trust in the law to become righteous before God you are trusting in sin. The gospel tells you that you are freely justified by God’s grace through Christ’s redemption. If you trust in the gospel to become righteous before God you are righteous before God. That’s what God says. It is the righteousness of God that is through faith in Jesus Christ. Why faith in Jesus Christ? Because only Jesus has obeyed the law and only Jesus has suffered for our disobedience to the law. This is the righteousness of God. It is the obedience and suffering of Jesus.
When God justifies you he tells you that you are righteous. But you did not do something to make yourself righteous. Jesus did. It is through his redemption. He gave his life up for you as the price to set you free. You were under the judgment of the law. The law pinned you down and held you accountable. Jesus obeyed the law and thereby satisfied its demands on you. This is how he set you free.
God set him forth to be a propitiation by his blood. This means that when Jesus sheds his blood for us God’s anger against us is taken away. God’s justice requires that he punish sinners. God punishes Jesus instead of us. God punished Jesus for all of your sins. Everything you have ever done that makes your conscience afraid of God; that makes you want to run from God; that makes you ashamed; that calls for God’s punishment was placed on Jesus and Jesus suffered as the guilty one. He, the innocent One, suffered as the guilty one. In this way God can be just when he justifies those who believe in Jesus. He can be just because Jesus has satisfied the requirements of justice by bearing the anger of God against all sinners.
The word propitiation is rarely used these days but the concept of propitiation is well known. God poured out his anger on his dear Son and thereby his anger against us was stilled. Is that an offense? Or is that a comfort? It’s an offense. It offends Jews, Muslims, liberal theologians, and the sophisticated post-Christian adherents of the religion of American Midwestern Niceness who feel it very inappropriate to focus on such things as anger and blood and blood that takes away anger. But for sinners who need a Propitiator this truth provides genuine peace.
Denying sin cannot get rid of it. Rationalizing it, projecting it on others, redefining it, or trying to undo it will succeed only in compounding it. Only Jesus can take away sin. Only his righteousness will do to replace your sin. God can be just and the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus. Those who seek justification in what they do rely on what condemns them to save them.
St. Paul concludes that we are justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law. Only God can justify us. Only God can say that we are righteous in his sight and by his saying it make it a reality. All are sinners. So says God’s law. All are righteous. So says God’s gospel. The law speaks to our behavior. It always will. As long as we live lives in these dying bodies the law will judge what we think, say, and do. And that law will show us guilty. It will shut our mouths when we presume to talk back.
The gospel speaks to faith. The gospel is the power of God to bring us to faith. And the gospel that brings us to faith is what faith trusts. The gospel is not true because faith believes it. The gospel is true because God is true. Our sins are forgiven and God reckons us to be righteous because Jesus offered up to God his righteous life as the ransom price to set us free. Jesus bore God’s anger. He pacified God. On account of Jesus’ obedience and suffering God tells us that we are righteous, that he is at peace with us. God’s anger against us is gone. This is what the gospel tells us. This is what we believe. And through this faith we receive this forgiveness and peace. It defines us.
It is through faith and it is through faith alone. We are righteous because God says so. This is no fake or pretend righteousness. It is the righteousness of the most holy obedience and suffering of the God-man Jesus Christ. We are righteous. It is not our doing. It is Christ’s. He did everything good and suffered everything bad. Faith receives Christ and his benefits. This is why faith gives us lives to live.
Here is how we confess this precious truth in the Augsburg Confession:
Our churches also teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works but are freely justified for Christ’s sake through faith when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven on account of Christ, who by his death made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in his sight (Rom. 3-4).
I pray that none of us will ever take for granted this biblical truth that God, through his servant Martin Luther, brought to light nearly five hundred years ago. This is no historical detail. This defines our lives and prepares us to die in peace. God speaks. First, he speaks his law. He humbles our boastful hearts and silences our lying tongues and our bragging mouths. Then he speaks the words of his gospel that forgive us all our sins, freely by his grace, through Christ’s redemption. This is the source of our faith. Every genuinely good feeling that we will ever feel, every pure and holy word we will ever speak, and every kind deed we will ever do will be felt, said, and done in faith, the faith through which we sinners are justified by our gracious God for Christ’s sake.
Let us pray:
In faith, Lord, let me serve thee, though persecution, grief and pain
Should seek to overwhelm me, let me a steadfast trust retain;
And then at my departure take thou me home to thee
And let me there inherit all thou hast promised me.
In life and death, Lord, keep me until thy heaven I gain
Where I by thy great mercy the end of faith attain. Amen