Sermon for October 25, 2020, Reformation Day (Observed)

Romans 3:19-28 (Reformation Day—Observed)

“Righteous Through Christ Alone”

Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT

October 25, 2020

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Our text is the Epistle lesson recorded in Romans 3:

19Now we know that as much as the Law says, it speaks to those who are in the sphere of the Law, with the result that every mouth might be silenced and that the whole world might become accountable to God. 20Consequently, from works of the Law every fleshly person will not be declared righteous before Him, for through the Law is the recognition of sin. 21But apart from the Law, a righteousness of God stands revealed, while having been testified to by the Law and the Prophets, that is, 22a righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe. For there is no distinction. 23For all sinned and are falling short of the glory of God 24while being declared righteous undeservedly by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God displayed publicly as an atoning sacrifice, through faith, in his blood for proof of his righteousness on account of the passing over of sins which had occurred previously 26in the delaying of God, toward the proof of his righteousness in the present time, with the result that he is righteous and the one who declares righteous the one from faith in Jesus. 27Then, where is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of Law? Of works? No, but by the Law of faith. 28For we conclude that a person is being declared righteous by faith apart from works of the Law.

          A stone hits a glass window in only one place, but it shatters the entire window. A chain may be broken in only one link, but it renders the entire chain worthless, no matter how good the other links are. Even in our courts this general truth applies. When a person has done a wrong, the judge doesn’t ask how many right things he has done but condemns him for the wrong. You don’t have to touch an electric wire in several places to get a shock; just one will do. So it takes only one sin, one breaking of God’s commandments, to make us guilty of breaking the whole Law.

          Professor Martin Luther, lecturing in 1515 on the Book of Romans, taught this truth to his students: “The Law asserts that all are unrighteous, so that all because of this assertion may recognize that they are unrighteous and may cease considering themselves righteous and cease boasting, keep silent about their own righteousness, and become guilty in the face of God’s righteousness.”[1] And so we who are human flesh and blood are accountable to God. This means that we are under a legal process, a judicial sentence, which makes us liable to the penalty: “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23 ESV).

          Oh, but is it really all that bad? Aren’t people really good deep down inside? Let’s back up to Romans 3, verses 10 and following and see what God says as the apostle Paul offers six readings from 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.”“Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”“Their feet are swift to shed blood;in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Rom. 3:10–18 ESV). Again, Professor Luther in the lecture hall: “If we examine ourselves carefully, therefore, we shall always find in ourselves at least vestiges of the flesh by which we are afflicted with self-interest, obstinate over against the good, and prone to do evil. For if there were not this kind of remnant of sin in us and if we were seeking only God, surely this mortal man would quickly be dissolved, and our soul would fly to God. But the fact that the soul does not take to flight is a sure sign that it still clings to the filth of the flesh.”[2]

          “For through the Law is the recognition of sin. . . . For all sinned and are falling short of the glory of God,” the apostle writes by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. And so it is that each time the mirror of God’s Law is held up to us, we see that in and of ourselves we are lacking the glory of God. Any sliver of honesty in us will prompt us to realize sin is a problem that affects us deeply. Just as the bathroom mirror reveals all our facial flaws and out-of-place hair, so it is that the Law of God as we have received it in the Ten Commandments reveals all of our flaws before the Lord. We see our idolatry and our pride. We are shown our hypocrisy that we’ve tried to cover up and the gossip we’ve worked so hard to keep quiet. The Law reveals to us the embarrassing lying, cheating, and manipulating we hoped no one else would notice. The Reverend Professor Luther: “Through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. This knowledge through the Law comes in two ways, first, through contemplation, . . . second, through experience, that is, through the work of the Law, . . . For in this way the Law becomes an occasion for sinning, since the will of man which is prone to evil . . . becomes disinclined toward the good and tired of trying to do good, because it hates to give up what it loves, and it loves evil, as Scripture says. But yet, if it works and does what it is unwilling to do, compelled by the Law, then man understands how deeply sin and evil are rooted in him, which he would not have understood if he did not have the Law.”[3]

          Sin and evil are deeply rooted in each one of us. That is the fact. It is not an opinion. It is reality. And this reality places all humanity squarely under the divine justice of the Triune God, the Holy, Holy, Holy Lord (Is. 6). We are fleshly people, lacking the glory of God, failing to keep His Law according to the Commandments. We are brought before the Divine Judge, but as the defendants, we have nothing more to say in response to the charges brought against us. We have sinned against God. Some of the sin we know, the thoughts and words and deeds of which we are ashamed. But some is known only to the Lord. We can only cry out, “Lord, have mercy.” And it is then that we are able to hear, “It is finished.”

          No, the verdict is not, “We are finished; we are doomed!” The verdict is a declaration of righteousness, a pronouncement of “Not Guilty,” which is completely undeserved. With Jesus’ cry from the bloody cross, “It is finished,” the complete payment for our sins had been made. Jesus was for all time the One-for-all sacrifice that cleanses us from our sins, redeems us, and makes us sinners to be accounted righteous before the Holy, Holy, Holy God. The offering of Jesus’ blood, like that of a lamb without spot or blemish, atoned for our sins (1 Peter 1:19). The shedding of Jesus’ blood on the cross gained God’s gracious acceptance of us unclean sinners. That’s what the big word “propitiation” means. By Christ’s blood, we sinners have also been pardoned and cleansed from our sins. That’s the word “expiation.” Also, through the blood of Christ, you and I now have beneficial access to God’s holy presence. That’s “reconciliation.”

          Dr. Luther, writing the Smalcald Articles in 1536, stressed the importance of the work of Christ alone that we sinners receive by grace alone through faith alone. The Reformer wrote, “The first and chief article is this: Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification (Romans 4:24–25). He alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), and God has laid upon Him the iniquities of us all (Isaiah 53:6). All have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works or merits, by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood (Romans 3:23–25). This is necessary to believe. This cannot be otherwise acquired or grasped by any work, law, or merit. Therefore, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us. As St. Paul says: For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Romans 3:28) That He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls [Mark 13:31]. For there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12) And with His stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5) Upon this article everything that we teach and practice depends, in opposition to the pope, the devil, and the whole world. Therefore, we must be certain and not doubt this doctrine. Otherwise, all is lost, and the pope, the devil, and all adversaries win the victory and the right over us.”[4]

          Either Christ has died to save us from our sins through the shedding of His blood and is risen from the dead so that we are declared righteous by God’s grace or we are lost eternally. There is no middle ground. It’s either Christ alone or Christ is nothing. You know which option the world chooses. The world sees no need for Jesus. The world fails to see its sin and need for the Savior. The world isn’t interested in God’s grace or in much of anything that has to do with God. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ continues to be proclaimed by the Church because that’s her mission.

          As Lutheran Christians, we stand on Scripture alone as the inspired and inerrant Word of God. We teach the Law of God—the Ten Commandments. We teach the truth of sin and humanity’s falling short of God’s glory. We instruct about the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh fighting against the Gospel and the new life of faith that God delivers to people through the Good News of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Because the Word of God says so, we teach that the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper really do offer, give, and seal the forgiveness of sins. Baptism saves! Baptism delivers personally to us, through the Word of God in and with the water, the very blood of Christ that washes away our sins and delivers saving faith. The Lord’s Supper is truly Christ’s Body and Blood, in and with the bread and wine, for us Christians to eat and to drink for the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation as the blessings of Jesus’ cross come personally to us in this Holy Meal.

          And this is fact. It’s not an opinion. It is reality. And the reality is that, with Jesus’ death and the shedding of His blood, people are cleansed from sin and reconciled to God. With His resurrection from the grave, people are given the victory over death. Jesus Christ places all humanity squarely under the grace and mercy of God. The Holy, Holy, Holy Lord of heaven and earth loved humanity so much that He gave up His One-of-a-Kind Son into death so that Jesus might shed His blood for you, me, and all people. Because the Savior has shed His blood and atoned for the sins of all, God declares you “not guilty,” “forgiven,” “reconciled.” You are declared righteous undeservedly by His grace through the redemption which is yours in Christ Jesus.

And that’s the message that we Lutherans boldly share with our community and with our world. What we do and what we say and how we say it as the Church matters—and it’s all about Jesus! So we will continue to be faithful to the Scriptures and to our Confessions. We will preach and teach Law and Gospel according to the Word of God. And we will give the world Christ in Gospel Word and Sacraments so that many might believe in Him as their Savior, receive His forgiveness, and rejoice with the whole Church in heaven and on earth in the mercy of our great God and Savior. Amen.

[1] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 25: Lectures on Romans, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 25 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 233–234.

[2] Ibid., 245.

[3] Ibid., 240.

[4] Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 263.

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