“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” (Romans 3:28)
In the history of Christianity, in the history of the entire world of religious beliefs, there is no more profound, no more radical statement than this verse from the apostle Paul in his monumental letter to the Romans. A person, a sinner from birth steeped in the sin of Adam, a natural born enemy of God is justified (declared to be righteous) by faith (that is, trust in the promise of God) apart from works of the Law. There is no more profound, radical statement than that.
Paul knew that he was turning the tables on the whole religious world with this sentence. He was, after all, a trained Pharisee, educated under the finest rabbi of his day in the subtle religious art of legalistic righteousness. How to do the righteousness of God in order to be the righteousness of God. The Torah, the foundational first five books of Moses, was a Torah of works. Do the Torah, and you will live and be rewarded by God. That was the premise. The Pharisees, of whom Paul was a card-carrying member, tried to make the Torah doable. The cataloged and codified and categorized 613 positive and negative laws. 613 dos and don’ts that would do the righteousness of God.
It seemed reasonable at the time. It still does today. God sets the standard. God is righteous, and God judges according to His righteousness. So, if you want to be in right with God, you rise to meet Him. You climb the ladder. You pursue your path to enlightenment. You work your way up to God with your prayers, your pieties, your creeds, your conduct, you religious dancing through hoops. You do it as God sits there on the rainbow and weighs out your merits and demerits to see how you stack up. That was the image of Jesus that Luther grew up with – Christ on the rainbow as the Judge of the living and the dead, holding the scales of God’s justice in His hand, weighing your sins against the merits of your good works to see how you stacked up to God’s Law.
Understandably, it terrified Luther, who took his religion seriously. It drove him to bouts of depression when he realized that even isolated in a monastery he could not escape his sin. He tried to keep the law of God, and yet it bar seemed to move higher and higher each time he tried. He tried fasting and other disciplines of the body. He tried prayer. He tried constant confession. And each time, the Law came back like a mirror revealing the ugly truth that Martin Luther was a sinner, falling far short of the glory of God, and nothing in his religious life could bring any comfort and confidence before God.
Fortunately, Luther was also a professor of the Bible. He had lectured on the book of Romans. And he encountered the very same thing that surprised the apostle Paul and caused him to write the book in the first place — that it is a fundamental religious misunderstanding to think that you can justify yourself before God by works of the Law. You might say that Luther, in despair of comfort from the religion of his time, went down into the church basement and stumbled across a case of 1500 year old good news that the church had nearly forgotten. And he uncorked a bottle of it and got so giddy over it, he invited all his friends to have a drink too. We call that the “Reformation.”
The Reformation hinges on our epistle reading this morning. This is Lutheran, dare I say “Christian” doctrine in a nutshell. First the Law and its purpose. The Law speaks to those under the law — you, me, and everyone in the world — not to provide rules and regulation to justify yourself and make your case before God, but literally to shut your mouth, to silence all religious claims on God, the put an end to all bargaining, all transactions, all the ways we try to bride and butter up God. The Law says, “Enough of it all! You are guilty and accountable before God, and you are caught in spiritual quicksand. The harder you struggle, the deeper you’re going to go under.”
It’s counterintuitive. We think God gives rules so that we can engage on a kind of self-help project. And so we take up the rules and try to do them, and we discover that there is no end. Even if you get the action right, your attitude is judged and found lacking. Not only your deeds, but your thoughts and words come into the crosshairs.
And the verdict of this: “By works of the law no human being will be justified in the sight of God.” No one. Not the most religious and pious person you know. No one will be justified in God’s sight by the Law, but through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. That’s the first surprise. The Law isn’t there to make you good. In fact, the Law won’t make you good. It will make you worse. It will amplify sin to an earsplitting volume so you can’t miss it. It will magnify your sin so much you can’t bear the sight of it. It’s like looking at your face in a magnifying mirror. The sight never improves on magnification. The Law magnifies sin. So don’t be surprised when you look into the magnifying mirror of the Law and catch a glimpse at the truth of who you are as a child of Adam. It’s not a pretty site.
The good news does not come from the Law. The Law is strictly bad news for a sinner. Good news for a sinner comes in a completely different way. God who is righteous justifies the ungodly. That’s the second surprise, and the one that catches the religious world entirely off guard. God justifies the ungodly. He reckons for righteousness the faith of those who trust in Jesus Christ, that His blood atones for their sins, that His death is their death, and His life is their life. God accounts this trust in the promise as righteousness.
Here’s the deal. There is no distinction as far as God is concerned between any human being. All have sinned – some politely, some impolitely, some coarsely, some in a more refined way. But all have sinned. All fall short of the glory of God. All are damned and doomed by the Law of God, and if the Law is all we had we’d be done for. And all are justified as a free gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Here then is the chewy nougat center of the Christian faith, what distinguishes Christianity from every other religion in the world. It’s not prayer, commandments, disciplines, hymn singing, sacrifice. It’s this: That God is both just and the Justifier. His justice and His mercy meet in the death of His Son where He did justice to our sin and justified sinners for Jesus’ sake.
This is the truth that sets men free – that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Jesus, the Son of God, has set you free from the Law of sin and death. He has done in His flesh what you wouldn’t and couldn’t do in yours, namely, keep the perfect requirements of God’s law down to the last and least stroke of the pen. His thoughts, His words, His actions were all in accord with the will of His Father. Perfectly. And He offers and applies this perfect life to you as your own. This is how you are justified before God – God sees you clothed in His Son. And He took that perfect life and offered it up as a pure and unblemished sacrifice, an innocent Lamb who by His blood takes away the sin of the world.
The entire Old Testament speaks of it, especially in terms of its sacrifices and institutions. God is merciful and gracious, abounding in forgiveness and steadfast love. The righteous live by faith in the promise. It’s all over the pages of the Torah and the Prophets. But religion that is bent on finding works and self-generated righteousness will miss it every time. It happened with Israel, it happened with the Church. The Church that is supposed to be the steward of God’s priceless treasure – the eternal gospel – instead becomes, as it so often has in its history, a purveyor of programs rather than the “mouth house of forgiveness” that God intends for His church to be.
The church is ever in need of reformation, ever in need of being called back to that saving, eternal good news of sins forgiven for Jesus’ sake. We cannot simply rest and say, “Yeah, we know all that.” Yes, we do. Or we should. But the question is whether we actually believe it. Do you believe that you stand before God at this very moment justified for no other reason than God’s undeserved kindness, on no other basis than the finished work of Christ? Do you believe that were you to die in the next moment and appeared before the judgment seat of God that though your works would be judged you would not be judged by your works?
As the church is ever in need of reformation, so each of us baptized believers in Jesus are in need of reformation. Repentance, really. The first of Luther’s 95 theses stated that the entire life of the Christian was to be one of repentance, a constant turning away from sin to righteousness, from the law to the Gospel, from God’s wrath to His mercy, from death to life. Each day is a personal reformation day in which the saint continues to be formed into the image of Christ as the sinner is again buried in the tomb of Baptism.
Jesus has made you a member of His Father’s household. Not as a slave, but as a free son. You are baptized. You have His Word. You have His Body and Blood. These all testify that you are not a slave but a son. For if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
In the name of Jesus, Amen