The Righteousness of God!

The Festival of the Reformation–31 October 2021

Romans 3:19–28

19 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.  20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. 

21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—  22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:  23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,  25 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.  26 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. 

27 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.  28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (ESV)

How can people be righteous before God?

Our Lord Jesus promises: If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. Today we celebrate the Festival of the Reformation because the truth of the Lord’s Word set free a troubled monk by the name of Martin Luther. 

The year was 1511, and brother Martin could find no peace. He confessed his sins for hours on end, he fasted and tortured himself. And yet he could not arrive at the peace of knowing that his sins were forgiven. He was brutally honest. He knew that he did not love God with all his being and he certainly did not love his neighbour as himself. In fact, the more he dealt with God, the more he came to hate and despise God for giving laws that no human being would ever be able to keep. How can people be righteous before God when they cannot even BEGIN to keep the Law of God for a single day?  

Luther’s Discovery of the Gospel

Fast forward to 1519. Brother Martin is now a professor of Sacred Scripture at the newly founded University of Wittenberg. And it was there, as Luther studied and abided in the Word, that light began to dawn into his darkness. Heaven broke upon his soul as he chased down ONE term. He was seeking to understand the righteousness of God. You see, he read St. Paul’s words in Romans chapter 1, that in the Gospel the righteousness of God has been revealed. Luther was puzzled over how that could be good news. Moses was bad enough, but when Jesus started teaching about the Law, He made it a thousand times worse. Moses said “Don’t commit adultery.” Jesus said:  “If you even look lustfully at another person, you have committed adultery in your heart.” Moses said: “Don’t murder.” Jesus said: “If you have been angry or said hateful words to your brother, you have killed him in your heart.” The more Luther puzzled, the less he understood how the righteousness of God that was revealed in the Gospel could be GOOD NEWS. 

Luther prayed and read more. He pondered and studied. He continued to abide in the Words of Jesus, and suddenly he saw the truth, and the truth shone with shocking brilliance. The righteousness of God that is revealed in the Gospel is not a righteousness that human beings bring to God; it is a righteousness that God freely gives to human beings. The righteousness of God is NOT a perfection you have to achieve through the keeping of God’s Law; rather, the Gospel is all about a perfection that Jesus achieved FOR YOU and delivers to you. The righteousness of God is not something you DO, it is something you can only RECEIVE. 

When Luther finally saw the true nature of the righteousness of God, he said it was as though the very gates of paradise swung open before him. He had continued in the Word of Jesus, and the Word of Jesus did exactly like Jesus promised: it set Luther free. His faith was now filled with joy. The Gospel revealed not a God ready to crush him for his failures and sins; rather, the Gospel revealed a God who LOVED him, sinner though he was, and who provided him a perfect righteousness.  

In Romans, St. Paul writes: the Gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes… For in [the Gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith” (1:16-17). Do you see? The righteousness of God is not the justice by which God condemns sinners but rather the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith in Christ. The righteousness of God is not God’s condemnation of sinners who fail to keep God’s Law but rather God’s mercy for sinners brought about through the death and resurrection of Christ. Luther had long understood the Law; now he understood the Gospel. As he ran through the Scriptures anew, he saw again and again that it was true: the Gospel is something given to sinful humankind as a gift, undeserved and unearned. The Gospel is grace alone, received apart from human works, received as a gift in Christ alone by faith alone.

God—the Justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus!

On this Reformation Sunday, I proclaim to you the Bible’s most important teaching: that you, a sinner, are to trust only in Jesus for forgiveness and salvation, just as the apostle Paul preaches: For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law and that God is the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Did you hear that? FAITH in Jesus! Paul also declares that sinners are justified by [God’s] 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.

Did you hear that? Justified by faith – faith only in Jesus — apart from works of the Law! God justifies the one who has faith. Faith in whom? Faith in the crucified, dead-on-the-cross Jesus, whose blood propitiates or covers all the sins of all sinners for all eternity!

And so I ask you: Why does God forgive you? How does God save you? Why does God give you heaven? Through the Law? Or through the Gospel – the preaching of GOOD FRIDAY Jesus, the only Saviour? Do you put God under obligation to save you, forgive you and give you heaven through the Law, namely, the Ten Commandments? Does your commandment keeping forgive you, save you or give you heaven? Can you expect God to forgive you because you try hard to keep the commandments? No way! Just the opposite!

The Law shows you your sin!

Scripture clearly says that by works of the law no human being will be justified in [God’s] sight, since through the law COMES KNOWLEDGE OF SIN. The Ten Commandments do not save anyone; God did not give them for that purpose. Instead, the Ten Commandments are God’s CAT Scan, MRI or X-Ray machine. They reveal our malignant spiritual disease, which is thatall have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.Jesus put it this way: Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin (John 8:34). Since the fall of Adam and Eve, all people are sinners, enslaved to sin, bound to self-centeredness, addicted to the desire to be like God. And thus, all people are doomed to eternal death.

Thanks be to God that He uses the Ten Commandments, the Law, to SHOW US OUR SIN! We are so blind to our spiritually sick situation that God has to reveal it to us THROUGH HIS WORD, namely the Ten Commandments! Through the law COMES KNOWLEDGE OF SIN. And this is the divine work of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus says: [the Holy Spirit] will convict the world concerning sin (John 16:8).Even in your life, the Holy Spirit uses the Law to convict you of your sin.

Why? So that you will confess the truth about yourself. That you are a sinner! So that your old Adam dies – DAILY! So that you kick the habit of constantly trying to use the Law to get saved. That you stop depending on what you do or don’t do to convince God to give you heaven. THAT YOU FINALLY AND FOR THE REST OF YOUR EARTHLY LIFE TRUST ONLY IN … GOOD FRIDAY DEAD-ON-THE-CROSS JESUS FOR SALVATION, FOR FORGIVENESS, FOR HEAVEN! So that you are justified by faith [in Jesus] apart from works of the law.

The Law does not justify you, save you, forgive you or give you heaven. Rather, the Law shows you your sin and puts the old Adam to death on a daily basis. Only the Gospel justifies, saves, forgives and gives you heaven. And so, we echo St. Paul’s words in Romans, chapter 1(:16): [We are] not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. Did you catch that? The Gospel is the power of God FOR SALVATION! Not the law! The Gospel! The Gospel saves sinners.

The Gospel is the good news that Jesus died FOR YOU to save you!

The Gospel is the good news that Jesus died FOR YOU. And that in and through the preaching of the Gospel the promise of forgiveness is actually given and bestowed. The promise gives what it says. The Gospel gives what it promises. Namely, that all your sin is forgiven because His divine Good Friday blood purifies or cleanses you from all sin, no matter how big or bad your sins may be. God the Father put His Son Jesus on the cross as a propitiation by his blood.In other words, Jesus is the one and only sacrifice that covers all your sins and that counts for your salvation. Only His Good Friday body and blood atone for your sin. Only in Jesus who kept the Law perfectly in your place are you forgiven. Justified before God.

On his deathbed, Martin Luther had in his possession a scrap of paper on which were written the words: We are beggars before God. That is true. Here is something high and great for you and me to take to heart as we celebrate once again the Festival of the Reformation. Here is a timeless truth that will outlast the trivialities of this present age — the truth that our salvation lies not in our commandment keeping but in our being beggars who day by day are brought back to God by His grace, forgiveness, and mercy. 

In Holy Baptism, God has made you a humble and repentant “beggar before God”. And as God’s beggar, you really know God in all His forgiveness and in the power and glory of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Yes, as God’s beggar, you have the faith which says: I trust that Jesus died for me and that all my sin is forgiven for Jesus’ sake. That my salvation does not depend on my commandment keeping but on Jesus bearing all the sin and hell of my commandment breaking. That is the Gospel, the good news of all that Jesus did FOR YOU! And that is how faith speaks. Faith only speaks of that which it is given, namely, the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Amen.