The Rev. Paul J Cain, Jr.
Romans 3:19-28 (ESV)
Righteousness Through Faith
Reformation Day, (Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost), 31 October 2010
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The story comes from Scotland, but it happens everywhere. A preacher was preaching an evangelistic sermon to people in the slums. He urged them to “make a new start,” to “use their willpower to the utmost,” to “turn over a new leaf.” and the like. A woman standing within earshot, mindful of her past, heard only law in this message. All she could say to the preacher was, “Your rope’s not long enough for me!”
Trying to live a good moral life in order to please God eventually leaves you dangling at the end of the wrong rope. No rope of the Law is long enough to reach down into the abyss of despair where the struggling soul is fighting its desperate battle against the power of indwelling sin. Only the far-flung lifeline of Jesus Christ, “The power of God for salvation,” is sufficient for that. That is the message of the Epistle appointed for this Reformation celebration, Romans 3:19-28. (Adapted from Encyclopedia of Sermon Illustrations, 565)
19Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
The law is a mirror. A mirror can show you that your face is dirty, but it cannot wash it for you. The Law, specifically the Ten Commandments, cannot be primarily a moral code for us as Christians. If Israel, the original recipients, could not keep it, why do we think we can?
Morality can be one way to put ourselves back under the law, contrary to what St. Paul teaches us in Romans and Galatians. What is the primary purpose of the Church? Of the Divine Service? Of Sunday School or Confirmation Class? Is it to teach morality? No! That is not the primary purpose. The Holy Christian Church is the people God gathers in this place by His Spirit around His Word and Sacraments. The Church, through Her called and ordained servants of the Word, baptize all nations, and teach the baptized and those preparing for baptism, teaching them to observe all that Jesus has given us in His Word.
Certainly, morality is taught. It is not the focus. If you, or someone you know send your kids to Sunday School or Confirmation solely for a moral upbringing, know this: your children are looking to you primarily to learn morals. If they see you send them while you stay at home, what are they more likely to follow? It’s more often the case that they will discount anything they learn here because it doesn’t seem relevant to you anymore.
The law cuts us. It accuses us. It convicts us. Who can boast when each of us sees a frightening, real view of ourselves in the mirror of the law? Every mouth is stopped, St. Paul writes. For no human being will be justified in God’s sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
Pull out your old catechism and pray the Ten Commandments before Confession and Absolution next Sunday—any Sunday. After each “What does this mean?” pause and think, “How have I broken this commandment by my actions or inactions? Thoughts, words, or deeds? Through the law comes knowledge of sin, not salvation.
21But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.
Hear the Good News! The righteousness of God, manifested apart from the law, is given through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. Rejoice! Your sins are forgiven you, every single one of them, no matter what the size!
The law and the Gospel are found throughout the Holy Scriptures, both the Old Testament and New Testament. From the Fall of Adam, we see the gracious promises and hand of God with His people through thousands of years until the coming of Jesus. We see the grace and mercy of God most clearly as the Son of God hangs dead upon the cross and later as He emerges victorious from the tomb. God’s promises in His Word have been present throughout history, though human beings have at times obscured them. It was God who directed the Sixteenth Century Reformers to the truths of the Scriptures that were always there. We are Lutheran not because of something Luther came up with. We are Lutheran because Luther got the Church back into the Word and therefore the gracious promises of Christ Jesus found therein.
The final impact of the Reformation is just that, reform. What the Lutherans believed, taught, and confessed was nothing new. They preached Christ and Him crucified and Risen for the forgiveness of sins apart from the works of the law. The message hasn’t changed over the centuries. We believe, teach, and confess the same eternal truths of the Divine Word.
In a sense, it doesn’t matter if I give you a theoretical “Lutheran answer,” if that answer would contradict the Scriptures which teach that righteousness comes by faith, not works. Any denomination, sect, cult, or false religion has its own answer to a variety of questions and situations. The danger is that those answers may affirm, contradict, or ignore what the Bible has to say.
We thank God together that our Lutheran answer is (and must always be) the one the Bible gives. Our answer is our answer because that’s what the Scriptures proclaim it to be, not just one guy’s opinion. That is what is so neat about Reformation Day. That is why it is worth celebrating.
A Church, a truly Christian Church, centers upon Christ and His Work on the cross, revealed in His Word, the Holy Bible. Merely having Jesus’ name posted prominently doesn’t matter, if Jesus’ message is not prominent, or worse yet, ignored or contradicted.
We don’t come with a preconceived notion or opinion or theory and then try to find proof passages to prop it up. The danger there is misusing the Word and taking it out of context. A truly Christian Church searches the Scriptures, taught by the Holy Spirit, and then proclaims, “This is what we believe, teach and confess!”
We believe, teach, and confess that which is clearly taught about sin and salvation in the Holy Scriptures. At its most basic, consider Romans 3:22-24. This passage clearly presents both law and Gospel and is worthy of memorization.
22bFor there is no distinction: 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…
22b and 23 present the law. No human is any holier than any other person on his or her own. All have sinned. That doesn’t leave anyone out. All fall short of the glory of God. Living a good life by your own standards just doesn’t cut it in God’s eyes. Yet, there is hope, but not in the law. See verse 24.
22bFor there is no distinction: 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,
Law and Gospel are clearly presented here, without apology, in an easily memorable form. I commend these verses to you to present as you have opportunity, as people ask you for a defense of the hope that you have in Christ Jesus.
The sentence, and the complete thought, however, continues into verses 25 and 26.
22bFor there is no distinction: 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
God set forth Jesus as the propitiation for our sins. In other words, Jesus is the atoning sacrifice by His blood for our sins, yours, and mine. God was lenient before, so that he could show His righteousness in Jesus both during His earthly ministry 2000 years ago, and at the same time, today.
God reveals His righteousness today, at the present time. Sin had to be punished. That punishment was poured out on Jesus. The eternal consequences of your sin are done and over with, with Jesus’ death. That satisfied God’s justice. God showed Himself perfect in that He is perfectly loving and perfectly just. Now, He gives the benefit of Christ’s work on the cross to you. You have faith as His gift to you by the working of the Holy Spirit. He is the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus, in other words, you. You are justified, made right, declared right in the sight of God, because of what Christ has done.
27Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
That is our hope. That is our salvation. That is our heritage as Reformation Christians in the tradition of Luther. Be careful, lest we despise the Word of God and take our heritage for granted. That sometimes happens to all great gifts.
So, what does this mean—for you? It means that you, freed and forgiven, no longer have to feel as though you aren’t good enough. It means that you don’t have to be so hard on yourself, expecting perfection in you and those around you. It means that boasting is really inappropriate. Take no credit for your good works, for it is Christ at work in you through the Holy Spirit.
What else does this mean? It means that we have a message of truth that needs to be shared with our neighbors. The Word of the Lord endures forever. The Church needed a Reformation, and it always does. Share the whole truth of the Word, law and Gospel, lovingly, and out of a motivation of love.
22bFor there is no distinction: 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus….Amen.
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.