Romans 3:19-28 (Reformation 2019)

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

Those words are radical words, game-changing, church-reformoing words. Though they sound like Martin Luther, and they were certainly near and dear to the Reformer’s heart, they are much older and more inspired. They’re the words of the apostle Paul, writing over 1400 years before Luther. They represent Paul’s decisive break with pharasaic Judaism, the religious system he grew up with and into which he was schooled as a rabbi. They are the end to all bargaining, all transaction, all attempts to deal with God on the basis of commandment-keeping and good behavior and our attempts at spiritual improvement. This little sentence rocked the religious world of Paul’s day, and it set Martin Luther before pope and emperor to lay down the Gospel gauntlet before the church and the world to say: “Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me.”

Let that sink in deeply. Marinate your soul in it. Take a deep drink of  pure Reformation Gospel. You, a sinner, stand before the all-holy God of the universe, the Creator of all things, the righteous Judge, justified before Him solely by faith in Jesus Christ.

God will not be bargained with. He’s not impressed by your prayers, praises, good works, monastic deprivations or pious enthusiasms.  Whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the law. Everyone, including you and me. If you are born into this world, then you are under the Law, whether you know it or not, believe it or not. The works of the Law are hardwired into your hearts. You have a conscience that alternately accuses or makes excuses. And you have the Law beating down on you, dogging you to death. Relentlessly pursuing. Demanding not pretty good, not trying harder, not making progress in the right direction, but perfect holiness in thought, in word, in deed. Demanding absolute fear, love, and trust in God above all things, and a love for the neighbor that puts the other ahead of the self with Samaritan unselfishness.

The Law is not given to make you better or to give you some ladder to climb up to God. The commandments are not a ten-step program to holiness or a checklist to see how your spirituality is getting along. The Law is given so that every mouth would be shut, every religious bargaining chip taken away, every claim to God declared null and void, and the whole world held accountable to God.

All of this is quite counterintuitive to the religious old Adam. We are very religious by nature, in all the wrong ways. The old Adam, that original sinner that corrupts our humanity and drives us to sin, is a religious old Adam. He knows good and evil. He wants to run the show. And in his way of thinking, what goes around comes around. You do good, you get good. You do bad, you get bad. You do good, God is pleased. You do bad, God is mad. And if God is mad at you, then need to get right with God. Shift the equilibrium in your favor. And all the while making the case that you aren’t so bad after all. Not nearly as bad as others, and there are plenty of others to use as examples.“I thank God I’m not like other men. I fast, I tithe, I pray, I’m Lutheran. I’m LCMS Lutherans. I’m….Whatever.” Reformation Day is not an excuse to pray “I thank God I’m not Catholic,” as though not being Catholic is what saves you.

Through the Law comes the knowledge of Sin. Sin is a spiritual disease, a virus that’s invaded our humanity and goes right to the very core of our being. The Law is a spiritual MRI that does the deep diagnosis, going beneath the surface, revealing what’s wrong at the core. We see sins, and so we figure, we just need a little spiritual nip here and a tuck there, and all will be well. But all is not well. The MRI reveals something deeper, something you can’t see or know for yourself. The problem is not your thoughts, words, and deeds. Those are your problems, the symptoms. The problem is Sin dwelling in your members, Sin corrupting your mind, your will, your every thought and desire. We are creatures unbuckled from our Creator, and the Law says you can’t live that way. You need to die

If all we had is the Law, we wouldn’t want to deal with God. We’d run and hide in the bushes. Luther feared God. He even said he hated God, this righteous terrible Judge sitting on a throne in the clouds with the scales of justice in His hand, weighing sins against merits calculating your years in purgatorial fire. Luther hated that image of the righteous God who judges the sinner. It brought no comfort, no certainty, no assurance but only increased guilt and misery. He hated  the notion that God was righteous. He hated the noise of his conscience drumming away day and night, especially night, reminding him of every sin, every shortcoming, every failure to live up to God’s righteous demands and expectations.

Then comes Romans 3:21, the greatest change of direction in the Scriptures, a literal wrenching of the gears from Law to Gospel. But now.  But now a righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the Law – Moses and the Prophets bear witness to it. It’s a righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ. It applies to all without exception. All have sinned. All fall short of the glory of God. All are justified by God’s grace, His undeserved, unmerited kindness, a free gift given and received by faith, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

It’s all in the Blood. Not your blood, Christ’s Blood. His blood shed on a cross. His blood put forth as a sacrifice for your sin, for the sin of the world. What coin do you have in your pocket that compares with the blood of Jesus Christ? What’s in your wallet that can compare to Christ’s perfect life lived for you, His innocent suffering and death in your place? The whole medieval notion that there is some “treasury of merit,” a storehouse of accumulated righteousness from which one can withdraw (for a price, of course) is shown to be counterfeit coin in light of the blood of Jesus. 

Every attempt to bargain with God on the basis of works is an insult to the Blood. Every attempt to wave a good work before God and claim His favor is an insult to the cross of Jesus. Every time we attempt to justify ourselves and atone for our sins we insult the Blood that was shed for us, that paid the price for our sin, that freed us from captivity to Death, that is our clothing before God.  That blood demands but one thing: Faith. Trust. Rest. Silence.

You, a sinner born in Adam’s sin, stand righteous before your God in Christ’s righteousness. You stand righteous before your God not because you have done good, but because Christ has done good. You stand righteous before your God covered not in the resume of your religious works, but in the Blood of Christ your Savior.  You stand as a new humanity – redeemed, reconciled, restored, raised up.

Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness,
 My beauty are, my glorious dress. 

It’s the end of boasting. Faith boasts in nothing but Christ and Him crucified. Luther was fond of calling himself a “bag of worms” or a “rotting, festering carcass”  or simply “a beggar.” That wasn’t a self-esteem issue in need of therapy. Luther is simply following the apostle Paul who says “I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, there dwells no good thing. Who will rescue me from this body of death?” “Chief of sinners, though I be, Jesus shed His blood for me.” The old Adam is proud and boastful and arrogant. The new man in Christ sees things as they are. In my flesh born of flesh, there is nothing but Sin and Death. But in Christ there is everything – forgiveness, life, salvation, peace, joy, righteousness.

“We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” That sentence propelled a 34 year-old Augustinian friar, priest, professor of theology to challenge the institutional church of his day and stand before pope and prince and say, “Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me.” It returned the church to its Christ-center. It restored the voice of the gospel back to the pulpit. It sparked a Reformation that continues to this day, wherever the gospel of Jesus is preached and heard and believed. Here we stand, by grace through faith for Jesus’ sake.

We celebrate the Reformation the best when we take to heart these words of St. Paul. The Reformation is not about rebellion or innovation or change. It’s not about how the Pope got it wrong and the Lutherans got it right. It’s not about the freedom of the individual or the rights of the common man. It’s about only one thing: You, a poor sinner, are justified before God by faith in Jesus Christ apart from works of the law.