Sermon for October 29, 2017

Romans 3:21-28 (Reformation Day—Observed)

“By Grace Through Faith”

Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT

October 29, 2017


In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our text is the Epistle lesson for the Festival of the Reformation recorded in Romans 3:

21But now, apart from the Law, a righteousness of God has been made known and is now out in the open, having been witnessed to by the Law and the Prophets, 22that is, a righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ into all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23for all sinned and are lacking the glory of God, 24while being declared righteous undeservedly by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God set forth publicly as an atoning sacrifice, through the faith, in His blood for proof of His righteousness on account of the passing over of the sins which had occurred previously and were yet unpaid 26in the delaying of God, toward the proof of His righteousness in the present appointed time, with the result that He is righteous and declares righteous the one from faith in Jesus. 27Then where is boasting? It was shut out. Through what kind of Law? Of works? No, but through the Law of faith. 28For we conclude that a person is being declared righteous by faith apart from works of the Law.


           “Out of love and zeal for truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following theses will be publicly discussed at Wittenberg under the chairmanship of the reverend father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology and regularly appointed Lecturer on these subjects at that place. He requests that those who cannot be present to debate orally with us will do so by letter. In the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.”[1] So begins Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. He nailed them to the Castle Church door which served as a bulletin board for faculty and students of the University of Wittenberg. From Luther’s day to the present, October 31, 1517, has been considered the birthday of the Reformation.

Five-hundred years later we, as the heirs of the Reformation, gather together to hear the Gospel publicly preached and taught among us. It is the Gospel that comforts, assures, and guarantees that God has declared us righteous undeservedly by grace through Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross with the shedding of His redeeming blood. However, five-hundred years ago, this was not the case. The practice of indulgences, the buying of the forgiveness of sins from the Roman church (which is still alive and well, by the way), and the Roman sacramental system that said a Christian must participate in doing works of penance to earn forgiveness for the earthly punishments of their sins, caused all kinds of questions for those who cared to think about such things.

“What do I have to do to be a good Christian?” the people asked. “Do your works of penance as prescribed by your priest and attend Mass in order to earn release from the temporal punishments of your sins. Whatever is not worked off in this life can be purified in Purgatory. Then, eventually, you can enter into heaven when all your punishment is completed.”

In this system, how do you know when you’ve done enough, or if you have done enough, to work off your sins? How do you know if you are really in a right standing with God? When is God satisfied with you? When is He no longer angry with you because of your sins and failures to obey His commandments? How much time will you have to spend in Purgatory working off the punishments you couldn’t complete during your earthly life? A person could never be sure and certain of their salvation and standing before God. There is always more work to be done to be right with God. You could literally spend your whole life trying and still end up with centuries in Purgatory in order to purify yourself from sin before entrance into heaven.

This was Martin Luther’s struggle: How can I be right with God? How can I be certain of my salvation? Without the pure preaching and teaching of the Gospel, this was impossible. God is holy, set apart without sin and hating sin. God alone is righteous. All sinners are separated from God and under God’s wrath and punishment of death and hell. What do I have to do to placate God? What works are enough to make God happy with me so He will let me into His heaven? I don’t know. I’ll never be able to know how many “points” I have with God or how many “points” I need. There’s no comfort in this. Luther wrote in 1545 in his preface to his Latin writings, “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, . . . Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience.”[2]

A disturbed, fierce, and troubled conscience plagued Luther and many others. God was seen as a God of wrath and punishment. He is that, to be sure. God hates sin and, because He alone is holy and righteous, must punish both the sin and the sinner. That is true. But God is also a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (Ex. 34:6). This truth, however, can only be known about God through the Gospel of Jesus Christ and not through indulgences, acts of penance, or our own works.

Luther was studying the text of God’s Word in Romans in preparation for his university lectures: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Rom. 1:16-17 ESV). By the power of the Holy Spirit, the Gospel was opened to Luther. “There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ 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.”[3]

God does not discriminate: all sinners deserve His wrath and punishment. “For all sinned and are lacking the glory of God.” Before the impartial God, all who have sinned are equally shut out from God and His heaven and are left facing His wrath and punishment. Indulgences didn’t change that fact (as if a person can simply purchase God’s favor). Acts of penance didn’t change the fact. God knows, Luther did them all and did them well, but nothing changed for him. Attending the Mass didn’t change the fact. As one commentator put it, “’No distinction’ is the absence of any basic difference among people with respect to their standing before God. Jews may have the law and circumcision; Americans may lay claim to a great religious heritage; ‘good’ people may point to their works of charity, but all this makes no essential difference to one’s standing before the righteous and holy God.”[4] The Gospel, however, changes everything.

God offers and gives to us undeservedly by His grace a declaration of “Not guilty.” The holy and merciful, just and loving God declares sinners “righteous” through faith in Christ Jesus who redeemed all people from their sins by becoming the once-for-all sacrifice for all sin. The righteousness of God, the “rightness” of God, is given freely and undeservedly to sinners who have been declared “right” because of Jesus’ blood and righteousness. Jesus, true God and true Man, took humanity’s place under the Father’s wrath and punishment. Nailed to the cross, Jesus suffered death and hell in the place of humanity. He bore all people’s sins as if they were His own. Jesus suffered the full anger and wrath of God because of those sins. He shed His blood to make atonement for sinners, purchasing for everyone the forgiveness of sins.

The forgiveness that Jesus purchased and won for you and me and all people with His death and resurrection is a complete forgiveness. Scripture says, “The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 Jn. 1:7 ESV). All sin is forgiven. There is no punishment left for you and me to “work off” here in time or in a fictional Purgatory. Jesus endured the complete punishment, temporal and eternal, for us. He now gives you and me His own righteousness which is received by faith through the Gospel. Because of Christ’s death and resurrection, you and I are declared righteous by God’s grace “through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth publicly as an atoning sacrifice, through the faith, in His blood.”

It’s all been done for you—all the work of securing your forgiveness and all the work of purchasing your salvation from sin, Satan, and death. It is finished at the cross of Christ! “The prime doer in Christ’s cross was God. Christ was God reconciling. He was God doing the very best for man, and not man doing his very best for God” (P.T. Forsyth). This is the Gospel that gives us the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. This is the Gospel that is the assurance and guarantee that by grace through faith in Jesus, our sins are forgiven and we are declared righteous. All the punishment has been paid in full. Nothing is left to be done. Heaven is ours—the gift of the Father to us through the blood and merit of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Another of the Reformers, Philip Melanchthon, wrote in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, “But the promise of forgiveness of sins and of justification has been given us for Christ’s sake, who was given for us in order that He might make satisfaction for the sins of the world. He has been appointed as the Mediator and Atoning Sacrifice. This promise does not depend on our merits, but freely offers forgiveness of sins and justification, as Paul says in . . . Romans 3:21, ‘The righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law’” (Apology IV 40-41).[5]

Luther wrote in the margin of his Bible citing Romans 3:21-26 as “the chief point, and the very central place of the Epistle, and of the whole Bible.” It is so because it is pure Gospel. It answers the questions with which we struggle. “How do I become right with God?” Answer: God declared you righteous undeservedly by His grace through the redeeming work of Jesus on the cross. God makes you right with Himself through faith in Jesus Christ, forgiving you your sins and announcing that you are “not guilty” of sin because of the saving work of Jesus. “When is God satisfied with me? When is He no longer angry with me because of my sins?” Answer: Right now. Through faith in Jesus Christ, you have received the complete forgiveness of sins. You are declared righteous before God eternally. This is His gift to you. He is no longer angry with you because of your sins. He is most pleased with you because you stand covered in the blood and righteousness of Jesus. “Can I be certain of my salvation?” Absolutely, 100% yes! You are declared righteous by faith apart from works of the Law. While you could doubt your own works and merits, which always are found lacking before God, you can never doubt the work of Jesus Christ on the cross for you. The Gospel Word and your Baptism are your guarantee and complete assurance.

The Good News of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection comforts, assures, and guarantees you that God has declared you righteous undeservedly by grace through Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross and the shedding of His redeeming blood. You are heirs of this Reformation faith—this Gospel faith—in which you are saved by grace through faith. Forgiveness, everlasting life, and salvation are yours as gifts of God, not by your works, but solely through the work of Jesus so that you can be certain of His Gospel promises to you, now and forever. Amen.

[1] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 31: Career of the Reformer I, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 31 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 25.

[2] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 34: Career of the Reformer IV, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 34 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 336–337.

[3] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 34: Career of the Reformer IV, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 34 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 336–337.

[4] Douglas J. Moos, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 226.

[5] Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 87–88.

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