“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Romans 3:28). Can it be any clearer than that? Can it be any more plain even to the casual hearer? All have sinned, all fall short of the glory of God, all are justified by God’s grace, His undeserved kindness, a gift that comes through the redemptive blood of Jesus Christ. How can it be more clear?
And yet, it isn’t always so clear, is it? It was not terribly clear in Luther’s day, on that October 31st, the Eve of All Hallows, in 1517 when an Augustinian monk and teacher of the Scriptures nailed his 95 theses for debate to the church door in Wittenberg. It was not at all clear that there was a righteousness of God apart from the Law, received through faith and not as the result of our works. It was not at all apparent to the faithful who sat in church week after week and heard sermons on indulgences and obligations and religious duties, who feared the fires of purgatory for their loved ones and themselves, who bought masses in the hope that their loved ones would be freed from torment, who saw Jesus as a stern judge with the scales of justice in His hands measuring your sin against your righteousness. No, it was not at all clear, that one is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law.
And it is no more clear today in many parts of the Christianity. This central and core teaching, the hub around which all of Christian doctrine spins, the heart of the Christian faith, is in no better shape today. It is not at all clear today, whether one sits in a pew or an easy chair in front of the television, that a sinner stands justified, declared righteous with the imputed, external, alien righteousness of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Son of God, on no other basis than by God’s free grace through faith for Jesus’ sake.
The usual language today, as in former days, is Christ plus something. Christ plus love. Christ plus obedience. Christ plus your piety, your prayers, your devotion, your decision. Christ plus whatever it is that you do to plug into the power and make Jesus’ salvation yours. The doctrine of justification is treated by many today as a presupposition, a stepping stone to the “Christian life,” something “we all know” so let’s move on to greater things, an artificial category, the beginning but not the central core.
The Christian faith without justification in the middle is like a bicycle wheel without a hub. It may have a full set of spoke and a perfectly true rim, but without a hub it’s not going to spin.
What’s the problem? Why, when the apostle Paul says it so clearly, do we not get it? Two reasons come to mind from our text. First, we underestimate the Law. We think the Law is a set of principles, a guidebook to give us purpose, an owner’s manual to show us how to live in order to please God. We think the Law will make us better. That’s why we want to post the ten commandments in the courtroom and the classroom. Show those sinners the right way. Give them ten divine principles for the holy and moral life. That’s why we traditionally spend all that time with the kids on the ten commandments in confirmation class. We believe that the Law will make us better people, and that God will love us and receive us for trying.
But listen to what Paul says. He says, “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.” There you have it. What’s the purpose of the Law? To shut every mouth before God. God is not interested in what you have done for Him lately. He already knows about it, and it doesn’t impress Him coming out of your mouth. You (and I) are sinners, guilty under the Law before God. Idolators, blasphemers, despisers of His Word, disobedient to authority, murderers, adulterers, thieves, liars, gossips, cheats, and covetors. We sin in our thoughts, we sin with our words, we sin in our deeds. We sin by the things we do, and we sin by the things we haven’t done. And that’s just scratching the surface. Those are the symptoms; the condition is sin, the inherited, congenital disease of disobedience and death that comes from Adam.
The Law is intended to shut us up so we can listen, because only in hearing are we going to be freed from this mess. As long as we are credentialing before God, as long as our mouths are babbling over our holiness and obedience, our ears will be deaf to the only word that can save us, the justifying word of Jesus’ forgiveness. That Law says in effect, “Shut up and listen” because faith comes by hearing and there won’t be any faith as long as your lips are flapping.
The Law holds the whole world accountable to God. Like Hebrew National hot dogs, we answer to a higher authority. Everyone does, whether they acknowledge Him or believe in Him or not. The whole world is accountable to God under the Law, and just so there’s no mistaking it, the whole world feels the pressure of the Law. The wages of sin is death, and there is no one who misses Death’s pay day.
The purpose of the Law is to bring knowledge of sin, to give us the divine diagnosis of our condition, the way a doctor connects the dots of your symptoms and gives you the underlying cause. You think you have problems? The Law says you are the problem. You think you have a few bad habit to straighten out? Think again. The Law says you are shot through with sin. You’re a terminal case. This is not going to get better by itself, and you can’t fix it.
That’s the second reason we don’t get justification. We underestimate the depth of our sin. Jesus nails those who would play fast and loose with the notion of sin. “Everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” Sin is slavery. Every sin is a form of slavery, an abrogation of freedom, a denial of our humanity. And the thing about slavery is that you cannot free yourself from it. Someone else, from the outside (extra nos) has to redeem you, pay the price and buy you back.
The Jews of Jesus’ day didn’t see it, and so they didn’t get it. They had Abraham’s blood running through their veins, what more did they need? They’d even forgotten their past, that they lived by mercy not merit, by grace through faith. “We’ve never been enslaved to anybody,” they said. Remember that little thing about 400 years in Egypt? How easily we forget! Sin is slavery, and everyone who sins is a slave to sin. You cannot free yourself any more than the Israelites could free themselves from Egypt.
That brings us to the Jesus point, which is also the justification point. Jesus has redeemed you from slavery to sin. If the Son sets you free, you truly are free. He redeemed you not with gold or silver or money, but with His holy, precious Blood and with His innocent suffering and death. He was made your sin, though He Himself knew no sin. He was baptized into your sin and death. He drank the cup of God’s wrath poured out on you. He became you under the Law; He became all humanity under the Law, to bear our sin and also to be our righteousness.
Jesus is perfect humanity under the Law. He fears, loves, trusts in God above all things. He rightly honors God’s name and Word. He is the obedient Son of His Father and His mother. He helps and befriends His neighbor; He is sexually pure, chaste, and holy. He does not steal, lie, gossip, slander or covet anything. He is perfect Man under the Law, and that perfection is yours by grace through faith all for Jesus’ sake.
He was made your sin. He is condemned humanity, one huge rebellious Man, covered with your sin. He is the drunkard, the adulterer, the murderer, the thief, the liar. He is damned with our damnation, cursed with the curse of the Law, receiving in His own body what you and I deserved. But He gets it instead. He does justice to our sins in two ways: He keeps the Law for us where we could not; and He dies under the Law for us as we deserve to die. This is the “righteousness of God” that brought hope and joy to Luther and the reformers. Not the righteousness of God under the Law by which we are judged and found wanting, but the righteousness of God under the Gospel who justifies the sinner for Jesus’ sake.
We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
In the years after Luther’s death, many saw Luther in the section we read from Revelation 14, the angel flying overhead with the eternal Gospel to proclaim the good news of Jesus to those who dwell on the earth. That’s certainly overstated. Luther was not prophesied in Scripture, and he was no angel. He was a preacher, teacher, and reformer who got a taste of 200-proof Gospel good news and wanted the world to have a good, stiff drink along with him. It’s an observation from history that as Luther the man increased as a hero of the Reformation, Lutheran doctrine decreased and deteriorated into generic Protestantism. The point of the Revelation text remains to this day: Even in the midst of the world’s end, with smoke and fire and war and disease and famine all around us, there is an angel hovering in midheaven, ready to proclaim the Gospel to the world, the good news that men and women born and steeped in sin are justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ who has redeemed them by His blood. Hopefully, it will be proclaimed by the churches who call themselves “Lutheran,” but if not, then someone else. God always has His preachers.
That eternal Gospel comes to you here today, in our own smoke and fire that reminds us of the coming fire on the last day. Fear God and trust His Son. In Christ you are holy and perfected, in Him you are justified and sanctified, in Him you have life even in your death, in Him you are righteous before God enveloped in a robe of righteousness not your own but made your own through faith. In Jesus Christ, you are free. Free from the power of sin, free from the condemnation of the Law, free to live under Him in His kingdom and to serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity.
For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. Believe it. Live it. Proclaim it. Could it be any clearer than that?
In the name of Jesus, Amen