The Righteousness that Avails Before God
Reformation Sunday Sermon 2003| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| 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 pathetic spectacle of a young man striving to become good enough to escape the fires of hell may evoke sympathy, but nowadays one wonders why anyone ever feared such a thing. As you know, hell has gone out of style. The theological trendsetters have decided that a loving God could not possibly damn anyone for any reason. The sinner in search of a gracious God is a quaint picture belonging to a bygone era when folks still believed in divine retribution. Back in the days when Lutherans were Lutheran and Catholics were Catholics we all knew that sinners deserved to be damned by God in hell. This is no longer the case and we must admit that it makes a celebration of the Reformation seem a bit irrelevant. Surely, we are told, a merciful God who loves all people could not seriously consider sending a young man with a sensitive conscience to hell. Martin Luther’s story just doesn’t connect with modern sensibilities.
When the prophets of modernism keep on pounding the same drums for generation after generation the drum beat is bound finally to become impressed upon the mind. All you have to do is be alive in America and you can hardly avoid being influenced by the notion that divine justice is unknowable. We can wonder. But can we know? Can we really know what God says? If God does have something to say how can we know for sure what it is? What are the standards God has set down for us, if indeed He has set down any standards at all? Uncertainty upon uncertainty leaves most people without any clear picture of God or God’s justice. From this general religious haze all sorts of homemade religions are created. They don’t produce the earnest quest of a Martin Luther for the gracious God because they don’t confront the need for God’s grace because they don’t deal honestly with sin. That’s because they don’t know the difference between God and man.
Treating sin in an honest way requires us to make a clear distinction between God and man. God sees what is hidden. He looks at the heart. Listen to how Jesus teaches us the nature of sin. He says, “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.” (Matthew 15:19) You and I cannot look inside the mind and heart of another person. God can. He knows what everyone wants. He sees the evil thoughts that we keep well hidden from each other. And notice what Jesus calls these evil thoughts. He refers to them as sins: murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. Jesus regards the inclination or desire to do evil as making the person with that inclination or desire an evil person. But only God can see the heart. We read in 1 Samuel 16:7, “For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.’”
When Martin Luther was a young man he received much instruction that was right and much that was wrong. One falsehood that had been pounded into his brain was that the desire or inclination to sin was not itself sin. That is, God did not find fault with someone merely for having an evil desire. Only if he acted on the evil desire, was that sin. Along with this false notion that clearly contradicts our Lord’s words went the equally false notion that if someone did the best he could do that would be enough for God. Luther learned from God’s word that the desire to sin was sin. He learned that doing the best you can do is not good enough – not when you are a sinner. The best a sinner can do is to sin.
If the only sin for which God will hold us accountable is that visible sin we can see with our own eyes, why then all we need to do is to hide our sinfulness by an outward show of hypocrisy. And that, of course, is what people do. The Irish have a saying: “O what a gift that God could give us: To see ourselves as others see us!” Sad to say, we generally cannot. We cannot see what we are doing when we are doing it. And we don’t want to look inside to our own motives and desires and admit that the sin we see in others is festering within ourselves. The reason we don’t want to do this is because when we learn to do this we will learn despair. We’d rather remain ignorant than to learn that we are under God’s wrath and deserve His punishment and there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves. Despair is a frightening thing to learn. Luther learned despair. God delivered Luther from this despair by means of the clear teaching of St. Paul in Romans. Listen to St. Paul:
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.
We will not believe in Jesus as our true Redeemer until the law shuts us up. The way God’s law shuts us up is by giving us the knowledge of our own sin. The law doesn’t teach us an abstract doctrine of sin that we can file away somewhere for future reference should we feel so inclined. No, the law stands up and speaks against us and as we begin to defend ourselves the law penetrates our every defense and levels God’s own holy and irrefutable judgment against us. It shows our conscience that the deeds of our flesh are sinful because our flesh is sinful. By the law is the knowledge of sin. From God’s law we learn we are not righteous and that we cannot make ourselves righteous. Yet only the righteous can claim God’s blessings and only the righteous can enter into the kingdom of God.
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.
We need a righteousness that we do not have. We need a goodness, a purity, a spiritual loveliness, what the Bible here calls “righteousness” in order to come into fellowship with the righteous and holy God. But where is it? What is it? It is not a righteousness that comes from our obeying the law. We don’t do this righteousness. Someone else does. And the Old Testament, that is, the Law and the Prophets gave testimony to this righteousness. Whose righteousness is it? It is God’s righteousness. But it is not the righteousness whereby God is a righteous Being who stands in judgment against us sinners. No, this is a righteousness that is given to all those who have faith in Jesus. It is a righteousness that we receive by believing in Jesus. All who believe in Jesus have this righteousness and are righteous before God on account of it.
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.
Just as surely as all have sinned and so all need a righteousness they do not have, just so surely all are justified freely by God’s grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. All sinned. All are justified. Justification is when God reckons to sinners that perfect righteousness of Jesus. This is a free reckoning on God’s part. We are justified freely by God’s grace. It is never deserved or earned by us. But it is deserved and earned. Not by us, but by Christ. He has earned this righteousness by redeeming us and being the propitiation for our sins. A propitiation propitiates someone. To propitiate means to pacify or reconcile. Jesus offers up His body and blood on the cross and thereby Jesus propitiates God. His bloody sacrifice is the propitiation, or means of setting aside God’s anger. As the hymnist puts it, “Jesus Christ our blessed Savior turned away God’s wrath forever.”
All sinners are justified freely by God’s grace. Faith does not cause this redemption. Faith does not propitiate God. Faith does not send Jesus to the cross to shed His blood for us. Faith does not make Jesus into the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. But faith receives all this. Faith alone receives Christ, His righteousness, and the peace with God that goes with Him. Faith alone receives God’s grace, that is, forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life in heaven where there is no sin, death, sorrow, or doubting of God.
Does God have the right to justify sinners who are not righteous? How can God say that an unrighteous sinner is a righteous saint? God has every right to justify the one who has faith in Jesus because Jesus brings God’s righteousness to everyone who believes in Him. God can in perfect justice justify those who believe in Jesus because Jesus has fulfilled all the demands of justice and He has done so for the entire world of sinners.
Those who are justified by faith alone and not by their works cannot boast in themselves. They can confidently say that they are righteous before God and that God in heaven sees nothing wrong with them at all. They can make this boast because they are boasting of Christ and His righteousness, not of themselves and their own works. It is only when this pure gospel is proclaimed and believed that true Christian humility and love can take root and flourish. Only those who know that their good works cannot help make them righteous before God will be able to begin to do good works for the glory of God and the benefit of the neighbor.
And when our consciences accuse us and make us afraid of God’s judgment, we have the God-given confidence that we are righteous before God, clothed in the righteousness of His only begotten Son, our brother. This is the greatest treasure in the world and this is why we celebrate the Reformation of the Church that God wrought through His servant, Martin Luther, who brought to light this precious biblical teaching.