October 29, 2006
Text: Romans 3:19-28
“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (v. 28; ESV). This truth, so clearly confessed by St. Paul, was rediscovered by a 16th Century German monk who had so agonized over the question, “How do I appease a righteous and angry God?” And really, this is the question for all of us today. How do we get right with God? How do we avoid His eternal wrath and condemnation? Can we earn his favor by our own good works? What about our good nature or disposition? St. Paul writes, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (v. 23). Or as he puts it even more explicitly earlier in this same chapter, quoting the Old Testament, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (vv. 10-12). If there is no goodness in us, we cannot hope to be saved on account of anything within ourselves. Rather, Paul says, a man is justified through faith! We are justified because Christ justifies us, and that justification becomes our own through faith!
Martin Luther spent many years trying to please God by his own works before he came to know the truth of the Gospel. He was terrified by the righteousness of God. Brought up in the piety of Medieval Roman Catholicism, Luther was taught that he had to make satisfaction for his sins. He had to make himself right with God. How could he ever know if he had done enough? How could he ever know if he had been saved? He was taught to look at Christ not as a loving Savior but as an angry Judge! Luther knew his own sinfulness. How could he stand before this angry Judge and live? Oh, the terrors of Luther’s conscience! Again and again he would go to confession, seeking to confess every one of his sins, finding little lasting comfort in the counsel of his father-confessor. Luther would starve himself for days at a time, beating his body into submission and hoping somehow thereby to earn God’s favor. It was to no avail. The Law continued to accuse and condemn. Luther writes of that time:
"Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God
with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated
by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes
sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was
angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners,
eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the
law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also
by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” Thus I raged with
a fierce and troubled conscience" (“Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin
Writings.” John Dillenberger, Martin Luther [Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1961] p. 11).
For many years, Luther painstakingly searched the Scriptures for some kind of peace. All this time, unbeknownst to Luther, the Holy Spirit was behind the scenes working faith in the soul of this sinful monk by means of His Holy Word, until one day, quite suddenly, Luther came to realize that he had misunderstood the Gospel entirely. He had misunderstood the concept of the righteousness of God, the “righteousness of God” that comes “through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe,” as St. Paul says in our text this morning. Suddenly Luther came to realize that the righteousness of God is the free gift of God to all who believe in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins! In other words, we are accounted righteous by God for Christ’s sake! Now when God looks at us He does not see our sin, but rather Christ’s righteousness! When He looks at us, He sees Christ, as St. Paul writes in Galatians, “all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (3:27; NIV). The sinner in you, the old you has been drowned in baptism. The sin has been covered up. It has been buried in the tomb of Christ and you now stand before God having been clothed in Christ’s righteousness.
This is the discovery that Luther made through the words of St. Paul in Romans chapter One, “He who through faith is righteous shall live” (v. 17). That is to say, the “righteousness of God” spoken of by St. Paul is that by which God Himself makes us righteous through faith. “At last, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words,” writes Luther.
"Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through
open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me.
Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory. I also found in other terms
an analogy, as, the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God,
with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise,
the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.
"And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had
before hated the word “righteousness of God.” Thus that place in Paul was for me
truly the gate to paradise" (pp. 11-12).
At last, Luther had found peace, the peace with God that comes along with justification through faith (Rom. 5:1). This faith, which was given by God Himself, sustained Luther through every trial and temptation encountered during Luther’s lifetime and throughout the Church’s Reformation. This was the faith that allowed Luther to stand in Worms before the Emperor and Princes of the Holy Roman Empire and before the highest representatives of the Pope of Rome, and declare on pain of death, “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.” Luther would stand on the faith revealed in Scripture, and upon no other. Neither Church tradition nor all the man-made rules of the Pope and his curia nor the devil Himself could bind Luther’s conscience. His conscience was bound to God alone, in whom he trusted for the forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation.
Dr. Martin Luther is a great hero of the Church. We marvel at his faith even today. And yet, this gift of faith and justification is given by the grace of God in Christ also to you, dear friends. Dr. Luther’s story is also our story. Luther loved the hymn we just sang, “Salvation Unto Us Has Come” (LW 355), which was written by a dear friend of his, Paul Speratus. He loved it because it was his life story, and indeed, it is the life story of us all. Our good works cannot avert our doom. They help and save us never. But “Faith looks to Jesus Christ alone, Who did for all the world atone; He is our one redeemer” (v. 1). He frees us from sin. Through His death, we have been freed from the power of sin and the Law. All our sins have been forgiven. And so now our living and resurrected Lord grants us faith; faith in Him for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life with Him in heaven. We confess, along with Luther, that such faith is not something we drum up within ourselves, but it is rather the free gift of God. Luther confesses in the Small Catechism, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith” (Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed). Such faith is trust in God for salvation in Christ along with every grace and blessing.
This faith is not blind. It knows the One in whom it trusts. Faith is always in something. Be it a right faith or a false faith, it is always directed toward an object. And so note very carefully that faith itself does not save; not even right faith. Only the object of faith, the object in which it trusts, can save. And the object of our faith is none other than Jesus Christ, whom “God presented” as “a sacrifice of atonement” (Rom. 3:25). Faith is not a work by which we earn our salvation any more than any other work of the Law. It is rather the means through which we grasp and receive that salvation which Christ Himself earned for us on the cross. “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law… the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (vv. 21-22; ESV). Indeed, we “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (v. 24).
Jesus Christ is therefore the one saving object of our faith. Faith does not look inward upon itself, but outward, to its Lord Jesus. Luther wrote this definition of saving faith, “faith goes out of itself, clings to Christ, and embraces Him as its own possession; and faith is certain that it is loved by God for His sake and not for the sake of its own works, worthiness, or merit” (What Luther Says, p. 496). Saving faith casts the sinner upon Christ the Savior. And any sinner who is cast upon Christ the Savior can be sure that he is justified before God freely, by God’s own grace, through faith, without works. And then, being justified already by faith in Christ, works follow naturally. Luther writes in his treatise, The Freedom of a Christian, “Behold, from faith thus flow forth love and joy in the Lord, and from love a joyful, willing, and free mind that serves one’s neighbor willingly and takes no account of gratitude or ingratitude, of praise or blame, of gain or loss” (Dillenberger, pp. 75-76). These are the fruits of our God-given faith. Such is the Christian life.
This is our great heritage as sons and daughters of the Reformation. A 16th Century monk was led by the Holy Spirit to rediscover the words of St. Paul that “He who through faith is righteous shall live” (Rom. 1:17). And so this monk discovered that the Word of God both condemns and saves, kills the sinner and makes alive the saint, crucifies and resurrects. God is not only Judge, but He is also Savior. Though by the Law we are condemned, we are saved by grace through faith in the sin-atoning death of Christ. On account of Christ, the Lord forgives our wickedness and remembers our sins no more (Jer. 31:34). The Son has set us free, and we are free indeed (John 8:36). “Dear Christians, one and all rejoice, With exultation springing” (LW 353:1), for God has delivered His people from sin and death through His own dear Son. He has justified us in His blood. He has clothed us with His own righteousness. All praise and thanks be to Him forever and ever. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.