How Sinners Become Saints
The Reformation of the Church| Rev. Rolf Preus| October 25, 2009| 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)
The Reformation of the Church is a festival that we Lutherans celebrate every October 31 or on the Sunday before October 31. It was the eve of All Saints’ Day – Halloween – of 1517. A young friar by the name of Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. He wanted to start a public conversation about the practice of selling indulgences – pieces of paper that allegedly got you out of Purgatory. But the underlying issue was that addressed by the apostle Paul in out text for this morning: How does a sinner become a saint?
Sinners go to hell. Saints go to heaven. How does a sinner become a saint? If he doesn’t become a saint, he’ll go to hell forever because no sin can enter into heaven. If sinners could go to heaven, heaven wouldn’t be heaven anymore. All of the suffering of this life and all of the suffering of hell is on account of sin. So it is perfectly clear that we must have our sin taken away if we are to go to heaven. Only saints – holy people – can go to heaven.
How can you get rid of your sin?
Well, you can’t. But people try. They may deny that they have any sin to get rid of. They may choose to ignore the whole matter. Don’t talk about sin and maybe it will go away. Some religions don’t think so much in terms of sin as they do in terms of karma. Do this and that will happen. There is no true God and no real judgment, just a rather impersonal cause and effect.
Nowadays in America sin is being defined away. When people do something that is clearly sinful it is spoken of in clinical terms of dysfunction. I don’t suppose that dysfunction is good, but then it isn’t exactly sinful, is it?
Luther tried to get rid of his sin by going through various religious exercises designed for that purpose. He learned that he became more sinful, not less sinful, by relying on his own efforts.
Sinners insist on trying to justify themselves. The very idea that a sinner can turn himself into a saint is absurd, of course. If you are a sinner by nature and you do what comes naturally you will sin. That much is clear. But the yearning for self-justification is so strong that sinners will rely on themselves – on their own sin – in search of an illusive righteousness.
What does God’s word say?
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 law of God condemns the whole world as guilty. It silences every excuse. It contradicts every denial. In fact, it imposes precisely the knowledge that the sinner cannot tolerate. “By the law is the knowledge of sin.” God’s law teaches us what true love requires. We have not loved as God demands. We have hated, lusted, coveted, and harbored malicious judgments in our hearts. We have worshipped idols of our own creation and have despised God’s word, preferring our own opinions. God’s law reveals our sin to us.
That’s why people insist on amending God’s law. They don’t want this knowledge. It condemns them in their own conscience. Sinners cannot make themselves into saints. Sinners cannot work their way to heaven. They can only work their way to hell.
Jesus worked our way to heaven for us. This is what Luther discovered right here in the Epistle to the Romans. The inspired apostle writes:
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.
What is the righteousness of God apart from the law? It is a righteousness that we don’t do. It is apart from the law, apart from our obedience to the law. It is a righteousness that someone else does for us.
There can be no righteousness if no one has done anything righteous. God demands genuine righteousness before he will justify anyone. To justify means to pronounce righteous. It is a declaration of God that says someone is righteous. God can hardly say that someone is righteous if there is no righteousness.
The righteousness of God apart from the law is a real righteousness. It is the righteousness that was witnessed to by Moses and the prophets. The entire Old Testament pointed forward to this righteousness. It is the righteousness of God. It is done by Jesus, true God and true man. And it is ours, not by our obedience, but through faith in Jesus Christ. Everyone who believes in Jesus Christ has this righteousness.
St. Paul continues:
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,
When Luther preached the doctrine of justification through faith alone he was met with vigorous opposition. And so it is today. Whenever this truth is confessed the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh join together in denouncing it. Faith alone? Are you suggesting that that is sufficient to please God? Are you saying that faith will somehow eliminate sin and undo whatever wrong you have done?
No, faith doesn’t undo the wrong we have done and turn sin into righteousness. As a matter of fact, faith doesn’t do. It receives what Jesus has done for us. What faith receives is fully sufficient because what Jesus has done is fully sufficient. As the apostle says, “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” If Jesus had not redeemed us, faith would have nothing to grasp. But faith grasps – it holds on to – what Jesus has done for us. He has redeemed us. He has shed his blood on the cross as an offering to God to set us free from sin. This offering is a propitiation, that is, Christ’s offering pacifies God and takes away his anger against sinners. This is what faith receives. It receives what Jesus accomplished by dying for us all.
We need what Jesus did because we are all sinners. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. All means all. No one is excluded. This means that no one is excluded from those who are justified freely by God’s grace. There is nothing lacking in God’s grace to justify the whole world. Indeed, God, for Christ’s sake, has justified you, no matter who you are, no matter what you have done. But you receive this verdict of justification and are personally justified only through faith.
The apostle 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.
People question God’s justice. Why do people get away with murder? Why doesn’t God punish those who deserve it? Sinners living in a sinful and unjust world cry out for justice.
But God is just. He is perfectly righteous. He demonstrates his justice by justifying those who have faith in Jesus. This is just because Jesus is our righteousness before God. Jesus’ righteousness is without flaw. Jesus’ righteousness comes not only from the fact that he is God in the flesh and therefore inherently righteous and incapable of sin. His righteousness is more than that. His righteousness was earned. He did it. He obeyed. He loved with a perfect love. He did what the law demanded. He did it as our substitute. He suffered what the law threatened to do to sinners. In his righteousness he suffered what we sinners deserved to suffer. God is perfectly just when he justifies those who believe in Jesus.
Our text concludes with these inspired words of the Apostle Paul:
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.
Sinners can’t boast before God. The righteousness that we have through faith is not a righteousness that we have accomplished. It is a righteousness that Jesus Christ has accomplished. We didn’t do it. Jesus did it. Therefore, we cannot boast of being righteous. It is Christ’s righteousness. We boast of Christ. If we were justified by our works we could boast of doing those works that made us righteous. But it was Jesus, not we, who did these works. It was his obedience, not ours. It was his suffering, not ours. He redeemed us. We didn’t redeem ourselves. He propitiated God. We didn’t. He justified us. We could not and did not justify ourselves.
Luther didn’t discover the gospel within his own heart. His heart was as deceitful as any other sinner’s heart. He didn’t discover the gospel because he was smarter than anyone else, though he was certainly a brilliant man. Luther discovered the gospel that lay hidden underneath all sorts of false teachings and human traditions because he was determined to find it and he knew where to look for it.
Luther sought out the instruction of God’s Word, the Bible. He read it. He read it again. He read it again and again and again. He wouldn’t let go of it. In St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans Luther found what had always been there.
It is good to thank God for sending his servant Martin Luther to reform the Church. Luther, like John the Baptist, came in the spirit of Elijah. He confessed the truth regardless of consequences. He is the angel or messenger foretold by St. John in Revelation 14 with the everlasting gospel to proclaim.
It is everlasting because it will always be true. It is everlasting because it gives us eternal life. We rely on this gospel, not on anything we think, say, or do. We trust this precious truth that we are justified through faith alone in Christ our Redeemer. Being justified we are heirs of eternal life. As Martin Luther would say, “This is most certainly true!” Amen