Reformation: Back To The Basics

Romans 03:19-28 / Reformation / 30 October 2011 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA

“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (Romans 3:19-28)

It doesn’t get more basic than that, does it? This is the heart of the Christian faith. In fact, this is what sets Christianity apart from every other religion in the world. A sinner, condemned by the Law, sentenced to death and damnation by God’s own law is justified, declared righteous by a forensic act of God’s Word, by faith, trust in Jesus Christ and His atoning blood shed on the cross, apart from works of the law. How much clearer could Paul have been?

If you want a single verse that summarizes and encapsulates the “Gospel,” the good news of Christianity, it is this verse from the book of Romans. And yet, it’s overlooked, or marginalized, or made into one of many truths or tenets, or it gets buried under a long list of dos and donts, things you must do and not do in order to stand before God justified. With a single sentence, the apostle Paul turns his entire religious past and training, everything he had learned at the feet of the rabbis, upside down. “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”

And yet it took a Reformation to bring this sentence to light. It is very often the most basic things that we forget first or overlook in view of everything else. That’s why we have a Reformation Day in the church. Reformation Day is a reminder day for the church, remember what is most basic and essential of our faith lest we forget.

When Martin Luther discovered this verse, he was searching for clarity and comfort. He was looking for confidence that he, a poor miserable sinner, could stand before an all holy and righteous God. He knew the way of his teachers, the medieval scholastics who had trained him, who said that one did the best one could and then God would reward those efforts with grace so that one could do even more and better. But Luther knew the awful truth. There was no more and better. He lived in a monastery as a friar. He devoted himself to the study of religion and to the disciples of prayer and fasting. He isolated himself from the temptations of the world. And there was nothing to calm the fear that everything he did was not good enough, and indeed he wasn’t getting any better but worse.

It’s a wonderfully happy coincidence that a man named Paul went through the very same struggle 1500 years earlier. Paul, a trained Pharisee under the greatest rabbis of his day, including a man named Gamaliel who was considered the best of the best, could find no rest or peace from the Torah. He was trained to believe the Torah, the teaching of God handed down from Moses, was a Torah of works, a way to do the righteousness of God in order to become righteous before God. This is very similar to the scholastic tradition that Luther encountered. We shouldn’t be surprised that Luther grabbed on to what the apostle Paul was saying in Romans and wouldn’t let go. It was the same struggle.

It’s a natural mistake for us to think that God-given rules and regulations are intended to make us better. We are inveterate self-improvement junkies. We can’t resist the notion that we can improve ourselves through self-discipline. We’re literally drunk on the idea, and religion feeds this notion that the answer to all our problems lies inside of us rather than outside, and that the way to God is like climbing a stairway up to heaven. Two steps up, one back, two more steps up, working ever higher and higher until we attain that lofty goal of being “righteous” before God.

It’s a natural mistake for us to look at the law as a means to an end. Why would God give us a Law if He didn’t intend for us to keep it? Why would He give us commandments if He didn’t think we could do them? Aren’t the commandments the way out of dilemma? We’re sinners, and what better way to get the sinner in shape than to give him or her some biblical, divinely inspired principles, right?

Go to the self-improvement aisle of any Christian bookstore or even your local Barnes and Noble and you’ll see it in book after book. Book after book of principles, gleaned from the Bible. They must be biblical because they quote the Bible, right? Things for you to do. Disciplines for you to undertake. Programs for you to follow. All with the purpose of doing the righteousness of God. Luther knew all about that. More than any of us in this room. The apostle Paul knew what that life is about, climbing up the ladder of holiness, keeping the Torah by one’s efforts.

And then comes the big insight that changes everything. First, the true nature of the Law. God’s Law isn’t intended to make you better, but to reveal how bad things actually are. To amplify sin and make sin utterly sinful. You see, that’s what happens when you take the commandment and you mix it with Sin. Sins multiply. Paul said he didn’t even know what coveting was about until he read the law and then began to covet like crazy. Tell a child don’t do something, and that something, whatever it is, becomes the center and focus of their existence. And we wonder why rules don’t work? Oh, they can keep things in check and keep a lid on things, but rules don’t make better people, any more than a commandment that reads “Thou shalt produce apples” will bring apples from an orange tree. It’s not going to happen.

Whatever the law says, Paul says, it speaks to those who are under the law, which he has just shown is everyone, whether Jew or Gentile, whether you have the written Law or simply the Law written in your heart. The law exists so that every mouth would be silenced before God and the whole world be held accountable to God. That’s the purpose of the law. To shut us up before God. To silence all the ways we have of using religion to butter God up. To bring to light what we’d rather not talk about, the true nature of our selves as sinners. You see, through the law comes the knowledge of Sin.

I know it’s written in small letters in the text, but you should capitalize that word Sin. As in sinful condition. It’s naming the condition. Like cancer or measles or whatever. Sin. Not simply “sins,” what we are preoccupied over, but Sin, the condition that causes us to sin. That’s the problem. Through the law comes the deep diagnosis of the symptoms. You have Sin. It’s not simply that you sin in thought, word, and deed, by things done and by things not done. You have Sin. You have a deep systemic condition that can only be cured by Jesus’ death and resurrection and your baptismal dying and rising in Jesus. You cannot deal with the Sin that infects our humanity. You can mitigate some of the symptoms, yes. You can put a bandaid on some of your sins but you can’t cure the disease of Sin. That’s the first great insight. That through the law comes the knowledge of Sin.

The second great insight is that there are not one but two ways of God’s righteousness. The first is the one you do. The righteousness of works, and it is precisely what the sinner because of Sin cannot do. But the second, ah, the second way. That’s the ticket. Not what you do but what Christ does. Not your perfection but His perfection. Not your sacrifices but His perfect sacrifice, His blood shed on the cross, His obedience to death under the Law in your place. Not by your works but by faith in Christ’s work, trust that what Jesus did justifies you before God.

I used a little poker analogy at Jim Legro’s funeral yesterday out in Temecula. Those of you who knew Jim and Patsy while they were here knew that Jim loved to play poker. I used this analogy and had a chance to refine it a bit. Poker is part luck and part bluff. There is the luck of the draw and your ability to lie, that is, bluff the others at the table. You may be holding nothing more than a pair of twos or even less, but you can bluff everyone into thinking you’re holding a lot more. And that’s kind of how it is with our life under the law. The law reminds us that we’re holding nothing, even as we bluff our way through this life and act as though we’re holding a winning hand.

But every poker hand comes to an end, sooner or later, and the truth is revealed. And then you see who’s been bluffing. The Law calls the hand on all our religious bluffing, and we lay our hand down before the judgment seat of God knowing we’re holding nothing. Oh there may be an ace or some other high card of our accomplishment, but the hand amounts to nothing, and we know it. And one by one the cards are turned over. But they’re not the cards you were holding. Ace, King, Queen, Jack, Ten. And you stare at them and say, “Hey, wait a minute! That’s not my hand!” And the Lord smiles and says, “Of course not! You’re hand was a loser. Around here, you win with my hand, not yours.”

“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”

Where is the religious boasting and bluffing and all the ways we try to put on our Sunday best before God? It’s excluded. In fact, the only way to keep the Law is faith. Trust that God in Christ turns losing hands into winners, justifies sinners, and declares you and me to be righteous in His sight. And works? They’re to serve your neighbor and show your faith since no one but God can see faith anyway. And they’re done in the freedom of being justified.

But we hold that one is justified before God by faith apart from works of the law.

It doesn’t get more basic than that.

In the name of Jesus,