Righteous before God
Reformation Sunday| Romans 3:19-28| Pastor James Preus| Trinity Lutheran Church| October 31, 2021
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” Romans 3:21-22
Five hundred years ago this past April, Martin Luther stood trial before Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, king of Spain and archduke of Austria, along with many other princes and bishops of the Church. This trial was no small matter. This was not being sent to the principal’s office or going to court for a traffic violation. No one here has experienced the intimidation Martin Luther felt as he stood before the highest human court on earth. What could this lowly friar have done to cause himself to be brought before the emperor himself to stand trial? He wrote and taught God’s Word based on Holy Scripture. That doesn’t sound bad, but Luther was found to be criticizing the councils and decrees of the church and pope! In other words, Luther taught the Word of God instead of the words of men.
Luther was asked two questions in his trial: First, whether the books and pamphlets collected with his name on them were indeed his writings; and second, whether he would recant any of them. Luther admitted that they were indeed his writings. To the second question he answered, “Since then your serene majesty and your lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner, neither horned nor toothed: Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand; may God help me. Amen.” And for this answer, Luther was declared an outlaw.
How did Luther make such a strong confession and stand firm before the emperor himself? What gave him the ability to endure this intense trial and stand on what he had confessed? Because, while this was indeed the greatest human court Luther had ever stood before, Luther had been put on trial by a much greater judge than Charles V. Luther had been put on trial by God, and had been found righteous.
Righteous is a word we don’t use much anymore. Yet, it is perhaps the most important word in any language. The Bible speaks at length about what it takes to be righteous. If you are to go to heaven, then you must be righteous. If you are unrighteous, you will go to hell. There is no greater question than, “Am I righteous before God.” Charles V had the authority to cast Luther’s body in jail or hang him at the gallows. God has authority to throw both his body and soul in hell (Matthew 10:28). To be righteous means that you are in a right relationship with God. To be righteous means that God finds no fault in you, that you are innocent of all sin. Righteousness is the opposite of sin, so if you want to be righteous you must be without sin.
There are two ways that righteousness of God is revealed in the Bible: First, by the Law. This is the first righteousness Martin Luther learned. And it terrified him. Because the Law simply tells you what to do, but it gives you no power to do it. The Law is good. The Law is the eternal, immutable will of God. Do you want to know what God wants? Look at the Ten Commandments. God wants you to do them, not just outwardly, but with your whole heart. God wants you to love him with all your heart, soul and mind, and your neighbor as yourself. And he wants you to do this with your thoughts, words, and actions. If you do this, then you are righteous. If you do not do this, then you are unrighteous and stand condemned before God.
This is what Luther wrestled with. He knew the Law of God. He knew that it is not the hearers of the Law who are righteous, but the doers of the Law who will be justified (Romans 2:13). (Justified means to be declared righteous). And this made him terrified of God. He didn’t fear God with the loving fear of a child toward his father. No, he feared God with utter hatred. “How could God demand such things of me? It’s impossible to accomplish them! How can I love God, when he constantly threatens me with death and hell?” This is how Luther thought. His friends and teachers would try to comfort him with a frequently repeated saying, “If you do what in you lies, God will not deny grace.” In other words, if you do your very best, God will do the rest.
But could Luther be sure he did his best? Have you done your best? Are you a good Christian? Sure, you’ve failed. We all do. No one is perfect. Certainly, God knows that! But have you at least tried your best? Could you have tried to be a better husband or wife? Could you have tried to be a better father or mother, son or daughter? Do you always do your best at school and work? Are you the best Christian you could be?
Do your best is not comforting, because it still depends on you! And if it depends on you, then you will always doubt whether you have done your best. And if you look at God’s Law, you see that even your best is not good enough. Scripture says, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12) The Law reveals God’s righteousness in the form of God’s wrath against all sinners, as St. Paul says, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their ungodliness and unrighteousness suppress the truth.” (Romans 1:18) Yes, Luther had already been on trial before God’s Law. And his Law found him utterly unrighteous, a walking damned man.
Yet, Scripture reveals God’s righteousness in a second way, apart from the law, the righteousness of God through faith in Christ Jesus to all who believe. This righteousness is revealed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus, our God and Lord, took on human flesh and was born under the Law for us. Unlike us, however; he fulfilled the Laws demands. Jesus truly was righteous in human flesh, the only man ever to live a truly righteous life. Yet, to remove the cloud of God’s wrath against all unrighteousness and sinners, Jesus took the sin of the whole world upon himself. The only righteous man ever to live became the only sinner. And God’s wrath poured out upon the sinner Jesus, not that Jesus himself sinned, but he clothed himself in our sins. And the righteous Jesus, our human substitute and God, satisfied God’s wrath against sin. This is what St. Paul means when he says, “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” Propitiation is the act of taking away wrath, to turn anger away. Propitiation means that God’s righteous wrath against sin is satisfied, so that his wrath no longer threatens the sinner.
This is what Jesus has done for us in the Gospel. This is a righteousness that depends not on our works, but on Christ who fulfilled all righteousness. And this righteousness is given to us as a gift. That is what grace means. Grace means that this righteousness is given to you as a gift from God.
This righteousness is received through faith. When you have faith in Christ Jesus, God counts that faith as righteousness. Not because faith is some noble work that you do, but because faith holds onto Jesus. God is pleased with your faith, because he is pleased with Jesus. If your faith is not in Christ Jesus, then God is not pleased with your faith. This is also why we must not trust in our works, otherwise, we would not be trusting in Jesus. When you stand before God’s judgement throne, nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness will rescue you from hell. We cling to Jesus and his cross alone.
Christ Jesus is our righteousness. Jesus is righteous and he gives his righteousness to us. We are sinners, and we give our sins to Jesus. This is a great and blessed and strange exchange. But it is the only way we can be saved. We repent of our sins and turn to God for forgiveness, and he forgives us for Jesus’ sake. When you are forgiven, you are declared righteous. When you are declared righteous, you are forgiven. This is God’s doing, out of his own fatherly grace and mercy, for the sake of his Son, whom he sent to save us.
The Law cannot make you righteous. It can only reveal your unrighteousness. Yet, this is good. You must repent of your sins and look to God for forgiveness. The Gospel alone makes you righteous through faith, because Jesus alone is your righteousness. This is the Gospel Luther became convinced of. This is the righteousness that saved Luther in his trial before God. Having felt God’s harsh condemnation, he now felt God’s sweet friendship and peace. Luther was righteous through faith in Christ alone. God said so. No human court, not even an emperor, could make it otherwise.
St. Paul warned the Galatians in chapter one of his Epistle to them, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” Luther held to the Gospel preached by Paul, the only Gospel of the Bible (Galatians 1:6-7) He was convinced that Scripture alone taught the true faith. Not an angel from heaven, or an emperor, or Pope Leo X, or all the popes and church councils in the world could stand against this Gospel that a sinner is justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone, apart from works.
No other book in the world can claim to be God’s book. No other book in the world can claim to show the way of salvation, except the Bible. Unless our teaching is firmly rooted in Scripture, it is no good. Luther was convinced with the Psalmist who spoke to God in Psalm 119:46, “I will speak of your testimonies before kings and shall not be put to shame.”
This is what it means to be Lutheran. It is to know the truth declared by Jesus and to be set free by it (John 8:31-32). It means to hold on to God’s Word and trust that God has justified us for Christ’s sake. Our sins are forgiven. Through faith in Jesus Christ, we are confident that we will stand righteous before God in the heavenly courtroom. Even if we are condemned by men here on earth, God justifies us for Christ’s sake through faith alone, apart from our works.
Verse 9 of Salvation unto Us Has Come states:
Faith clings to Jesus’ cross alone
And rests in Him unceasing
And by its fruits true faith is known
With love and hope increasing.
For faith alone can justify;
Works serve our neighbor and supply
The proof that faith is living.
May our faith abound in fruit, so that we may show love to our neighbors and so glorify our Father who is in heaven. Amen.