God's Righteousness is Ours
A sermon based on Romans 3:19-28
Sunday, October 31, 2010 – Reformation Day
By the late 1400's with the rise of the papacy, the light of the Gospel was all but lost. The truth of God's Word took a back seat to tradition and the decrees of councils and especially the pope. The people were directed to rely on their own good works for their salvation. Jesus was no longer thought of as a loving Savior, but solely as a stern Judge condemning every sin. When those who would restore the truth of the gospel arose, the enemies of the truth silenced them by hanging them or burning them at the stake. In short, it seemed as if the devil had succeeded in bringing about the final ruin of the kingdom of Jesus Christ.
But the Lord of the Church has said, "The gates of hell will not prevail against it." And in the year 1517 the enemies of God's truth were helpless against a little monk who nailed his 95 doctrinal thesis to a church door and ignited more than a reformation; an entire revolution. And it all began when this monk, by the name of Martin Luther, stumbled across the gospel in our text for this morning. There in Romans 3:19-28 he read that God's righteousness is our righteousness, not because of our works or anything we do, but purely by God's grace, received only by faith, revealed only in the Bible. And ever since then our Lutheran church has been built on these three Latin solas, "Sola Gratia;" "By Grace Alone," "Sola Fide;" "By Faith Alone," and "Sola Scriptura;" "By Scripture Alone." Listen now to those Scripture verses which led Luther to the truth of the Gospel as it's recorded for us in Romans 3:19-28…
19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.
21 But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. 28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.
I. By Grace Alone
Terrified by a near death experience, almost being struck by lightening, young Martin Luther vowed to enter a monastery. If he didn't have God's love, he would earn it by dedicating his life to God. He would serve him in all he did; he would pray diligently, work long hours, starve himself, beat himself, do whatever it took to make God love him.
But as young Martin struggled to keep God's law, he recognized what a horrible sinner he was. Having entered the monastery to try to earn God's love and favor, he quickly learned that he could never appease God's wrath by his own efforts. He could never live the perfect life that God demanded, let alone pay for his sins of the past.
On one occasion the young monk volunteered to clean out the latrine at the monastery, a tiresome and disgusting chore which he gladly did to get God to love him. But after he had finished cleaning, he had to immediately go to the head priest to confess the hateful thoughts he had about the other monks who had made this task such a burden. He found that while he could escape some of the overt sins of society by joining a monastery, he could never escape his own sinful nature; his own sinful thoughts.
He quickly came to understand all too well those Old Testament passages that said, "There is no one righteous, not even one… 12 All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one." (cf. Romans 3:11,12 and NIV footnote) Realizing his sin, the young monk came close to despair…
Was the young monk being too extreme? Was he too sensitive to his sin? No! Not at all! In fact, he couldn't be too sensitive! His sins were a big deal! Because of his sins, he deserved hell! And it's the same with us… Paul writes, "19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law…"
God has given his law to point out the seriousness of our sin. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer! Whoever lusts commits adultery! Whoever is greedy has no part in the kingdom of God! With an honest look at our lives compared to God's law; God's holy and perfect standards, we, like Luther, must come to the same conclusion: We are guilty! And we deserve God's just wrath and punishment! We fall short of his holy requirements and can never earn his favor! We can never win our salvation!
We, along with the whole world, are left with no defense. Every proud argument before our holy God is shot down. We are corrupt and sinful through and through and deserve nothing but hell from our perfect God! Therefore, every mouth is silenced. Like a child caught with his hand still in the cookie jar, we have no defense before our angry Father, but must shut up and hang our heads in shame.
But through that law, Paul points out, we become aware of what serious trouble we are in because of our sins. He writes, "through the law we become conscious of sin." Only when we despair of our own efforts, our own works, our own righteousness (which amount to nothing more than filthy rags)(cf. Isaiah 64:6), are we ready to hear what God has done for our salvation. God's law leads us to despair of ourselves that we might trust in him. Recognizing how hopeless we are on our own through the law, we are ready for what Paul has to say next…21 But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify… 24 [for all] are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
Now, a righteousness apart from the law has been revealed! It is God's righteousness given to sinful mankind. All people are justified, that is, declared to be righteous and sinless, meeting God's holy standard of perfection, apart from any action of their own, apart from their works or efforts, but purely by God's grace entirely outside of themselves. All people are justified freely, as a gift of God; not having earned his favor in any way, but by grace alone!
And this grace is not just some divine decree without any basis in reality. It is "by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
When mankind sinned, God was faced with a dilemma. Being a God of love and grace, he wanted to forgive sinners and punish no one. But being a just and holy God at the same time, he had to punish sin and uphold his righteous law. How could God be both just and the one who justifies sinners? The answer is in Jesus Christ. God did punish every sin; every sin of yours, every sin of mine, every sin of every human of all time. He punished those sins in Christ. Jesus suffered hell for those sins. And now God can and does forgive our every sin while maintaining his justice. And we are forgiven because of Jesus blood shed on the cross.
But not all will receive the benefits of Jesus blood shed for them. For the benefits are only given to those, as Paul puts it, "who have faith in Jesus"…
II. By Faith Alone
In the town of Wittenberg, where Luther was a professor, a certain monk was preaching that to receive the benefits of Christ's death on the cross, one had to buy an indulgence, a piece of paper signed by the pope that gave someone forgiveness of sins. This enraged Luther who quickly posted his 95 theses challenging the practice of the sale of indulgences. He understood these verses in Romans 3 which made it clear that one need do nothing but believe in what Christ has already done…
22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe… 27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. 28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.
When Luther translated these verses from Greek into German he added a word. He wrote, "We maintain that a man is justified by faith alone apart from observing he law." But why did he add the word "alone" when it's not in the Greek? Isn't he adding to God's Word? Some made that charge, but Luther was correct in adding "alone" to accurately convey the meaning of the text. Salvation is not by works at all, but by faith alone.
When the jailer at Philippi asked Paul, "What must I do to be saved?" The response was simply, "Believe in the Lord Jesus." What a surprising answer that must have been! He didn't need to do anything! Christ had already done everything for him! He was saved by faith, apart from any works of the law. And even this faith didn't merit his salvation. But the faith itself was a gift of God.
A man once went swimming at the beach but accidentally went out too far. The undertow pulled him in and the man began to drown. Thankfully, the lifeguard on duty spotted the man, swam to him, and pulled him on to dry land. The swimmer, whose life was saved from drowning, would certainly not brag because he trusted the lifeguard. What else could he do?
In the same way, when a believing sinner is justified by faith, he can't boast of his faith. He did nothing. Christ did everything. Where then is boasting? There is none! It is by grace we have been saved through faith. And even this faith is a gift of God; not by our own efforts, but by grace, so that no one can boast. (cf. Ephesians 2:8-9) All praise to God alone for giving us Christ, for giving us salvation, and for giving us the faith to trust in his promises!
But how do we know of those promises? Only through the Scriptures…
III. By Scripture Alone
In 16th Century Germany the Scriptures were all but lost. The pope and the bishops of the Catholic Church had made the claim that the Bible was much too complicated a book for the average Christian and only they could translate it; only they could interpret it. The pope's decrees and the traditions of the church quickly held the same, then more, authority than the Word of God. And as a result, they almost lost the doctrine of grace alone. They almost lost the doctrine of faith alone. In short, they lost the comfort of the gospel.
Luther, having found that comfort of that gospel, set out to translate the Bible into the language of people. For it is by Scripture alone that God's message to us is revealed. Paul wrote, "19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.
It is only by the Scriptures that we see our true selves and our need for a Savior. While our consciences can and often do point out our sins, at other times they don't. By our sinful nature our consciences are already deadened to some extent and don't operate the way they should. By nature we call greed "ambition." We call lust "a natural craving." We call sinful lifestyles "alternate lifestyles." We call sin "human weakness" if we point it out at all.
But God's perfect law points out our sin in all its ugly filth. It points out how horrible we really are. It points out our selfish nature, our rebellion toward God, our failure to live up to his perfect standards and the punishment in hell that we rightly deserve. God's law points out our desperate situation.
But thank God for his Word! For once it leads us to see our great need for help, his Word also reveals our hope for salvation… 21 But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.
That message, the gospel truth that Jesus lived a perfect life for us and gave us his perfect righteousness taking away our every sin, is not something we could have figured out on our own. It's not something we could just intuitively imagine. It's been made known to us, revealed to us, made abundantly clear through the Scriptures alone. God revealed it in his Holy Word, in the books of Moses, referred to as "the Law," and in all the Old Testament prophets. It's been revealed to us in the books of the Gospels, in Paul's letters, and in every book of the Bible.
Give thanks to God for giving us his Holy Scriptures! Don't ever take them for granted! Martin Luther first put these Words into the hands of the people and ever since it has been translated into more languages than any other book! And there are plenty of English versions. Take advantage of that wonderful blessing! Read the Bible regularly. Study it daily. Learn more about God's promises and about his righteousness for you. Learn how he credited his perfect righteousness to you by grace alone without any merit on your part. Learn how he made you righteous by faith alone apart from works of the law. Learn that God's righteousness is ours in Scripture alone. Amen.