Romans 3:19-28 (ESV)
Now we know that 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. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
Two Little Words
Dear brothers and sisters loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
St. Paul has a pretty big vocabulary, but in the epistle reading for our Reformation Day observance the words with the biggest impact are very simple. Two little words: “but” and “now.” “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” These two little words mark the most important turning point in all of history. St. Paul has spent the biggest partof these first three chapters of his epistle to the Romans explaining that no one can escape the indictment of the Law. Jew or Gentle, it makes no difference, everyone must submit to judgment in the same court. No human being can be brought into right relationship with God on the basis of doing what the Law requires. This is the message, and although it seems very simple people really don’t want to hear it. The Law encourages effort, which we like to think is a good thing because we can take responsibility for how we stand with God. More effort? I can do that. Do better? Working on it. What kind of a Christian are you? Get it together! But human effort inevitably falls short, and the Law which commands is always the Law which condemns, for sin entered into our world and now “All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”1
This is the condition of humankind: turned away from God, dwelling in spiritual darkness. This is life under the Law. This is life under the knowledge of sin. For Martin Luther this is exactly where he got stuck as an Augustinian monk trying to do his very best to get in right relationship with God. The Apostle writes that the Law speaks a word of accusation to those who are under the Law, so that “the whole world may be held accountable to God”2 For Luther this idea of accountability before a righteous and holy God was terrifying. Rightly so. What does it mean to be held accountable to God? Well, it’s more than being answerable. It’s being “accusable.” It gets back to our situation under the Law. To be “accusable” is to stand before God our judge as one already pronounced guilty. We know the familiar story that we roll out every year as we celebrate our remembrance of the Reformation – that Luther tried mightily on his own to be accountable to God, for he believed that this was the life of a Christian. You see, Luther took the Roman Catholic church at its word regarding how to get into right relationship with God. And what the church taught was that you must do what is in you, you must do your best, in order to be justified before God. God would do his part, yes, but you surely needed to do yours. But Luther knew very well what it meant to be “accusable” under the Law. So he kept coming back to the same problem over and over. He did everything he was supposed to do, he became a monk, spent countless hours in prayer and meditation, he checked all the boxes that were supposed to make you more holy. And yet his conscience nagged him with the same questions: how do I know if I have done enough? How can I ever please God when the Law remains a word of condemnation? How can I get out from underneath the accountability that God requires?
Of course today for most people in our society this sounds quaint and simple-minded, even absurd. The idea that one’s conscience should be burdened with sin, that one should be tormented over his or her standing before a holy and righteous God is not something that most people take very seriously in our time. Even if there is a God, surely he doesn’t want us to feel bad, does he? And what is sin anyway? Shouldn’t I be allowed to decide for myself what is good for me? Well, by no mere chance does St. Paul precede the fullest, most profound, and incisive proclamation of the Gospel in his letter to the Romans with the fullest, most profound, and incisive proclamation of the wrath of God poured out on sinful humanity. The Gospel is the power of salvation to everyone who has faith. Neither salvation nor faith can be understood in any meaningful way unless there is something to be saved from, and unless there is an object of our belief, something to grasp. The salvation and faith we have in Christ are only properly understood against the dark backdrop of the wrath of God on all ungodliness and wickedness. Everyone stands in desperate need of deliverance, but today fewer and fewer people recognize the problem and therefore cannot or will not hear the assurance of the righteousness of God freely given to repentant sinners. Indeed, I would argue that today perhaps more than ever people are suffering all manner of crises that are at their core a manifestation of this spiritual under the Law, even though of course they won’t see it that way. In particular this demonic hold that social media and online content holds on so many people shows them a life which is unattainable and unrealistic, this just leads to doubt and unhappiness. n There is a lingering sense that existence itself is without meaning and purpose. Of course we can add to that the unrelenting anxiety and uncertainty from this ongoing pandemic. But even all these things are the works of God’s Law. For Luther the true and proper use of the Law is just this, that sin should grow, that humanity should thereby be shown sins, weakness, spiritual blindness, death, and hell – in short, God’s wrath. St. Paul sum all of this up with these words: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”3
“But now.” Back to those two little words. But now something has happened which changes the course of our relationship to God. The only thing that could save us before God is God himself, and that is exactly what he has done. This “now” is the time of God’s favour which he pours out on his people. This “now” is the day of our salvation, for God sent his only begotten Son to be accountable in our place. On the cross Jesus is the One who is “accusable” before God, for at that time, a moment which reverberates throughout all history, of your sins and my sins were heaped upon Him at Calvary. So we “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”4 To be redeemed means that a price has been paid. A price was paid to ransom from death the forfeited life of humankind. The ransom paid was his life. It was an atoning sacrifice, paid for in blood, for “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”5 The books of Moses, the prophets, the psalms – they all pointed to this event, and they still do. The promise was given even way back in the garden, and many times thereafter. Many believed it, and their faith was counted to them as righteousness. Those two little words – “but now” – herald the turn from the revelation of God’s righteousness in wrath to the revelation of his righteousness apart from the Law, in grace and mercy, made known in the bitter, innocent suffering and death of our Lord Jesus Christ.
When Martin Luther finally understood this, then those little words for him were the springboard to hearing the Gospel anew, that all of his effort and strife were as nothing in the sight of God for obtaining the righteousness of God. He then looked around at the Church and realized that something was not right, and he set about trying to change it, to reform it. His focus was always on the Gospel, the message of the forgiveness of sins as a free promise on account of Christ. Many others joined in the effort. And so this is what the Reformation is all about. It’s not about a man, although Luther was important, and surely God used him in a great way in his Church. As Lutherans the reason why we have this day on the calendar is to celebrate this renewal of the right preaching of the Gospel, that the grace of God has come to us by faith, a simple trust in the promises of God which were made manifest on the cross of Christ. It is not that there was “no Gospel” before the Reformation, but man had obscured it in the Church with a bunch of man-made ideas and philosophies.
But now God has made manifest his righteousness which is now ours, he is true to his Word, and that Word will go forth. In and through that Word alone, and not in the pronouncements of popes or bishops, not in prayers to saints, not through the sale of indulgences or any other man-made speculations, but only in the Word which reveals to us the forgiveness of sins and justification on account of Christ. He is the only Savior, the only high priest, the only Redeemer, and now He sits at the right hand of God the Father as our intercessor. He alone has promised to hear our prayers. In all our needs and all our concerns it is the highest worship to seek and call upon this same Jesus Christ with our whole heart.
And now the peace of God which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
1 Ro 3:12.
2 Ro 3:19.
3 Ro 3:20.
4 Ro 3:24–25.
5 Eph 5:2.