Can’t Justify Yourself
Reformation 2022| Romans 3:19-28| Pastor James Preus| Trinity Lutheran Church| October 30, 2022
The greatest task of the Lutheran Reformation was to properly distinguish between the law and the Gospel. If a person does not understand the difference between the law and the Gospel, then he cannot understand the Bible.
The law is what God commands of us: Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind and love your neighbor as yourself. Do not misuse God’s name. Don’t commit adultery, steal or gossip. This is the law of God. The law tells you to do, but it is never done. Therefore, the law condemns you as a sinner. Therefore St. Paul writes, “No human being will be justified by works of the law, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
The Gospel does not command works, but rather tells you what work Christ Jesus has done for you. The Gospel is the good news that Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the whole world. Being true man, yet without sin, he was able to suffer in our place. Being true God, his passion for our sins is a sufficient price for the sins of the whole world. The law tells you to do, but it is never done. The Gospel tells you to believe, and it has already been done for you.
The purpose of the Lutheran Reformation was to keep these two teachings unmixed. The law condemns. The Gospel saves. The law demands works. The Gospel demands no works, but faith alone. Works must not be mixed with faith, otherwise faith is no longer in Christ alone. Yet, the purpose of the Lutheran Reformation was not to eliminate the law. Both the law and the Gospel have their proper place in the teaching of the Church. The law brings sinners to repentance, telling them that they have fallen short of God’s glory. The Gospel rescues sinners from despair by promising eternal life for Christ’s sake as a gift.
Today you will not hear so many direct attacks on the Gospel, at least not by those who want to be considered Christians. However, you will hear many attacks on the law. Have you noticed that the moral standard today is not the same as the moral standard fifty years ago? People have grown soft on the law. And why shouldn’t they? Isn’t the Gospel more important? So, the Third Commandment may still say that you should not despise preaching and God’s Word, which means that you should not skip church for frivolous reasons, but gladly hear and learn God’s Word at every opportunity. But we want to be a church of the Gospel, not the law! So, people skip church without qualm of conscience. The Sixth Commandment still forbids adultery, fornication, and homosexuality. But that doesn’t make us sound like a very loving congregation. Besides, everyone moves in together before they’re married. We can’t expect people to hold so strictly to God’s Law, when after all, we’re a Gospel church.
And of course, this brings faithful Bible-believing Christians to respond that we need to preach the law more! And they’re right. But we must remember what is most at stake: the Gospel. Why do people reject the law? No, it’s not because they prefer the Gospel. They reject the law, because they reject the Gospel. And in rejecting the Gospel, they become twice as much slaves of the law as they were before.
The chief use of the law is to show us our sin and need for a Savior. If you read through St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, you will notice that he spends the first two and a half chapters condemning everyone on earth, both Jew and Gentile, as sinners falling short of God’s glory. Why does he do this? In order to get them to despair of their own works and trust rather in the work of Christ Jesus. Your works are not good enough. If you trust in your works to be justified before God, you will be condemned to hell! You must stop trusting in yourself and trust rather in Christ Jesus, who alone has lived a perfect life and has paid for all your sins.
So, how is it that law-rejecters reject the Gospel? They don’t actually reject the law. Rather, they try to chip away at the law so that it becomes more manageable. Why do people now say that it is not a sin to skip church? Because they don’t want to be called sinners when they skip church. Why do people now say that it is not a sin to fornicate, cohabitate outside of marriage, practice homosexuality, gamble, get drunk, and so forth? Because they don’t want to be called sinners. Why don’t they want to be called sinners? Because they want to justify themselves!
To justify means to declare righteous or just. It means to declare a person innocent of sin. It is the fallback position of mankind to justify themselves. But in order to justify themselves, people don’t simply throw out the Law; they change the Law in their favor. They simply cut out those commandments that they break or change their meaning, so that they do not need to repent of their sins. In this way, they can continue in their sin with a clear conscience.
But all this is really a rejection of the Gospel. They justify themselves, because they don’t want to be justified by Christ. Those who supposedly reject the law are legalists, who block out the Gospel. You are not saved if you justify yourself. You are only saved if God justifies you. And Scripture says that no one will be justified by works of the law, even if you bend and shape the commandments, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. You will not be judged according to your loose interpretation of the law, but according to God’s strict interpretation of the law. Therefore, we should read the law in its clearest sense and not try to escape its judgment.
There is no other Gospel than that sinners are justified by grace, that is, as a gift, through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Only Jesus paid for our sins on the cross. Only Jesus is righteous. Only Jesus can grant us His righteousness as a gift. Therefore, St. Paul writes in the first chapter of Galatians, “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.” There is no other Gospel. You can’t find a better Gospel by cutting up the law and claiming that you aren’t that bad. You can’t find a better Gospel by trusting in your works. The only Gospel worth confessing is the one which proclaims Jesus Christ alone as the Savior and is received through faith alone. This is the only Gospel which saves.
In our Epistle, St. Paul says, “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.” Why does he say that the righteousness of God is apart from the law, but then he says that the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it? He uses the word law in two ways. The first time he means the Commandments. There is a righteousness of God apart from us doing the commandments, the righteousness that is received through faith in Jesus. The second time, he means the Holy Scriptures. The Law and the Prophets refer to the Old Testament. The Scriptures teach of a righteousness gained apart from the law, that is, apart from the commandments. Lutherans hold to Scripture alone. Only Scripture can tell us how to be saved. Therefore St. Paul says that even if an angel from heaven should preach a contrary gospel, don’t believe it, because Paul preaches the Gospel of Holy Scripture.
St. Paul says that God put Christ Jesus forward as a propitiation by his blood. The word propitiation can also be translated as Mercy Seat. The Mercy Seat was placed upon the Ark of the Covenant on which the blood of atonement was sprinkled once a year for the sins of the people of Israel, as Moses writes in the book of the Law (Leviticus 16). So, Paul teaches us that the Law and the Prophets, Holy Scripture, bear witness that God would put forth Jesus to be the Mercy Seat by His blood and in that way, he would make us righteous. This is the righteousness apart from the law, which the Law and the Prophets bear witness to. This is the only Gospel which saves.
The problem with justifying yourself is that it is a lie. You must be just in order to justify. But Scripture makes clear that all have sinned and therefore are unrighteous. So, how can the unrighteous make rules in order to declare themselves righteous? That’s absurd! Yet, that is what every other so-called gospel does. Every false gospel is unjust people declaring themselves just for doing unjust works. But the true Gospel as revealed in Scripture shows the just God proving Himself to be just, not by condoning sin, but by making atonement for sin through the suffering and death of Jesus Christ the Righteous.
The most important article of the Lutheran Confessions, which really sums up what it means to be a Lutheran is Article Four of the Augsburg Confession, written in 1530:
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)
The Gospel that sinners are justified before God, not by works, but through faith, when they believe that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who made satisfaction for our sins, was the center of the Lutheran Reformation. It was why so many were willing to be imprisoned and die rather than deny it. Yet, this Gospel is still the most important issue in the church today. If we lose this teaching, we lose our certainty of salvation. If we lose this teaching, we lose our faith in Christ, who alone can set us free from our sins. That is why we must hold to God’s Word so diligently now as ever. We can’t lose the law and hang on to the Gospel. If you lose the law, then you lose the Gospel. The law tells you that you are a sinner. The Gospel is only for sinners. If you refuse to repent of your sins, then you refuse to let God justify you with the Gospel. There is no other Gospel. Jesus is the only way, truth, and life. No one is justified before God the Father except through faith in Jesus.
Beware not to justify yourself with excuses that try to tame the law. Rather, let the law in Holy Scripture condemn you as a sinner. Then look to Scripture alone for the only Gospel which saves, the Gospel that proclaims that the just God declares the ungodly to be just through faith for the sake of Jesus’ precious blood.
Let us pray:
Heavenly Father, remove from us the delusion that we could justify ourselves, open our eyes to our sins that we might repent of them, and open our eyes to Jesus, who has saved us from our sins through His death on the cross, that we might be saved through faith in Him. Protect this faith among us, so that we might inherit eternal life. Amen.