Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
In addition to being the day in which six of our parish confirmands publicly confess the faith and the other spiritual gifts that were given them in Baptism, today commemorates Martin Luther’s initiation of the Reformation on October 31, 1517. What began as an invitation for academic debate over the abusive doctrine of indulgences, soon became a call for the return to God’s Word as the sole authority for the Church’s doctrine and life. Scriptures clearly teaches that a sinner’s only hope in life or death is that Jesus’ perfect life, death, and resurrection are enough to save them. Solely by virtue of Christ’s substitutionary life and death, are sinners declared righteous before their holy God. Luther and the other reformers had to fight, some to the death, to preach this Gospel to Christ’s Church.
Today our confirmands will make a vow to do similarly if necessary. They will be asked: “Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?” To which they will each individually reply: “I do, by the grace of God.”
“Even death rather than fall away from it.” That’s a serious commitment, whether we’re talking about Martin Luther and the other Reformers or these six young adults. I pray that none of you need experience such a dilemma, but if you should be called upon to face martyrdom, that God would give you the grace and strength to remain faithful unto dead.
What could lead someone to make such a confession, to stake eternity on this Christian faith? In his later years, Luther often remarked that the turning point for him came when he understood the force of the phrase “the righteousness of God.” He writes:
First I saw this well, namely, that the free gift is absolutely necessary for obtaining the light and the heavenly life, and I worked anxiously and diligently to understand the well-known statement in Rom. 1:17: ‘The righteousness of God is revealed in the Gospel.’ Then I sought and knocked for a long time (cf. Matt. 7:7), for that expression ‘the righteousness of God’ stood in the way. It was commonly explained by saying that the righteousness of God is the power of God by which God Himself is formally righteous and condemns sinners. This is the way all teachers except Augustine had interpreted this passage: the righteousness of God, that is, the wrath of God. But every time I read this passage, I always wished that God had never revealed the Gospel—for who could love a God who is angry, judges, and condemns?—until finally, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, I weighed more carefully the passage in Habakkuk (2:4), where I read: “The righteous shall live by his faith.” From this I concluded that life must come from faith. In this way… all Holy Scripture and heaven itself were opened to me.[i]
Luther’s road to the Reformation—a monk in despair for his eternal salvation who found a gracious Savior on the pages of the Scriptures—is a story many of us have heard repeatedly. However, the Reformation did not take place because of one mulish monk with a troubled conscience. Luther preached Christ to an entire era burdened by the guilt of their sin and the fear of God’s judgment. It was a world of sinners that longed for the comfort and certainty found only in the preaching of Christ crucified.
But what about today? Do our sins bother us to the point that we worry about God’s righteous wrath?[ii] Do we ever consider the righteousness of God and what it means for our standing before the Lord?
There is no better place to look for an answer to these questions than in our text from Romans 3. If you look closely, you’ll see four times within six verses of our text that St. Paul refers to “the righteousness of God.”
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 (Romans 3:21-26).
The apostle had just spent two and a half chapters of his epistle laying out the real problem we have with God: Namely, our sin and His law. Paul strings together a list of Old Testament citations that should make anyone cringe:
“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” (Romans 3:10–18).
After Paul finishes here, no one escapes. Jews and Gentiles—all are exposed as sinners who can do nothing to earn a righteous standing before God. And that’s the point of the law: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in His sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).
God is the Judge and before His righteous law we have no hope. The law God gives is not a plan we can follow to placate His wrath. The law does the opposite to us. It condemns us. It reveals our sins. Under the law, our fears of wrath are justified. Under the law, the righteousness of God is a fearful thing.
At the time of the Reformation, there were two major controversies related to people’s lack of righteousness. Some, such as Desiderius Erasmus in his Freedom of the Will, wrongly thought their fallen will still allowed them freely to choose to believe. Luther was quick to point out in his Bondage of the Will that mankind lost free will in regard to spiritual things and we are, in fact, born slaves of sin. Others, such as preacher of indulgences, John Tetzel, wrongly thought they could do something to earn righteousness. But Paul leaves no room for fallen man’s participation in our salvation. “We hold that one is justified by faith, apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28).
Many today do not realize their own sinfulness or that they cannot be righteous on their own. Some people wrongly think they are not sinful, or at least not that sinful! There is a widespread idea that “good people” go to heaven. “Sure, I may have made some mistakes, but overall, I’m a good person, at least better than a lot of others.” But God doesn’t grade on a curve. He requires perfect righteousness.
Other people wrongly think they are free to choose to believe, to make a decision for Christ. They, in effect, turn faith into a human work. However, faith is only a work of the Holy Spirit. As we confess and the confirmands have memorized: I believe that I cannot by my own reason and strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified, and kept me in the true faith.
Some go to the other extreme. They believe that God could never love them after what they have done. They feel helpless and hopeless, lost and irredeemable.
I would argue that in the modern world, many more are disturbed by the righteousness of God, but instead of fleeing from His wrath, they have turned the tables and are standing up to fight with God.
The righteousness of God still weighs heavy on us. However, we have attempted to switch seats with God. We believe we are on the judge’s bench now and God needs to justify Himself to us! No longer are we concerned if we have not done enough to earn a right standing before God. No, we have eaten the fruit of the tree and bought the Devil’s lie that we can be gods. As such, we have decided to put God on trial and judge Him!
Robert Kolb writes, “Luther’s theology of the cross evolved from a concern that human creatures do not have (they cannot produce!) what God in His justice demands from them. Modern people complain because God does not produce what they demand as their rights from Him!”[iii]
God calls all people to repent, to acknowledge the sin the law reveals, and to live their whole life humbly in repentance (the first of Luther’s ninety-five theses, AE 31:25,83-85). God’s patience in the Old Testament led to the passing over of sins then (v 25). His patience now is for repentance (2 Peter 3:9).
For those who repent, for those who fear God’s righteous wrath for sin, Jesus comes to remove our fears. “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” (Romans 3:21-22). Our right standing before God and His righteousness comes in a manner wholly different from God’s commands, in a way which is not according to law. It comes as a pure gift to be received by faith, not as a reward to be earned. “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” (Romans 3:23-25).
In other words, Christ has removed God’s wrath by taking it on your behalf. He is your “propitiation.” He is the one who stands between you and God’s righteous wrath, so you receive none of it. You are justified because your sins lay on Jesus and God’s wrath is poured out on Him instead of you and Christ’s righteousness is credited to you by faith. All of this is given to you as a gift! It is free, by grace alone.
Today we find God’s gift of righteousness given in Word and Sacrament and received by faith. All are included under sins so all can be made righteous—justified, forgiven, redeemed—by faith (Galatians 3:22). In Holy Baptism, the Word with water forgives you, washes you with Jesus’ blood, and seals you for the day of your complete redemption. In Absolution, Christ’s words, through the pastor give you mercy and grace. In Holy Communion, the Word offers the same gracious, life-giving blood Jesus shed on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith.
This is the righteousness of God: For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[i] Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 5: Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 26-30. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 5, p. 158). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.
[ii] Epistle: Romans 3:19-28 (Reformation Sunday: Series B ) | 1517, https://www.1517.org/articles/epistle-romans-319-28-reformation-sunday-series-b.
[iii] Kolb, Robert, “Luther on the Theology of the Cross” in The Pastoral Luther: Essays on Martin Luther’s Practical Theology (Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, 2009). 35.