Sermons, Uncategorized

Held Accountable to God under the Law

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

“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.

“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. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:19-28).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

No slogan summarizes Reformation theology as well as the one drawn from our text: Justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. It was the motto upon which all the doctrines and beliefs of the Reformation stood. It was the very fortification and foundation upon which nearly half of the Western world at that time staked their lives and, indeed, upon which many lost their lives. Justification mattered so deeply. It was a matter of life and death. Heaven and Hell. The chief article of our faith. It must be preached and taught that way.

Especially today.

Because today it seems irrelevant. Few care about or discuss or even preach justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. It is seen as a nitpicking, dull, divisive dogma that went out of style with the advent of megachurches and religious subjectivism. Simply put, the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone is immaterial to American Christianity since many believers seem more concerned about having a better life now than following the doctrines of the Christian faith.

Sadly, it does not occur to people today that they might be justified, or even need to be justified before God, much less to consider how they might be justified. So the Romans Paul was addressing and all whom Luther was addressing in the 16th century, do not seem to be the same people we encounter today, the same people who purchase Joel Osteen’s book by the millions to find out how to live their best life now, or who hang on Oprah’s every word about how you can “be the change” you need to have a better life. In modern American Christianity, there is nothing at all about justification, unless you include self-justification.

What does it mean to be justified? It means to “to be put right,” “to be lined up straight.” Think of a newspaper, magazine, or even a Bible, where the text of each column or page lines up precisely on both the left and right margins. The text is justified, set straight, put right. For a person to be justified it means that they are put right with God. They are set straight and nothing in the person’s life—as far as the judgment of God is concerned—is out of place. They are justified in His sight.

In the days of Jesus’ earthly life, people understood the need to be justified before God. “Justification” was the foremost concern of the Jewish people. All too aware that their lives were not right (not where it counted in the eyes of an all-seeing and holy God), they did everything to put themselves right, to “justify” themselves. Some, like the Pharisees, added their own “traditions,” hundreds of rules and regulations to make sure they could keep God’s law.

In saying, “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 accountable to God,” the apostle proceeds to his logical conclusion by what we might call an argument “from the greater to the lesser.” Paul reasons: If even God’s chosen people, with all their advantages, have no inherent or earned righteousness, then certainly no one else can have any either.

Paul makes an important point regarding the law, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in His sight.” No one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by doing law works of any kind. It makes no difference which legal pattern people may choose to be under, whether it be Gentiles following the natural knowledge written in their hearts or Jews observing the Mosaic code. Neither group has any righteousness to offer at God’s bar of justice.

In fact, Paul goes even further when he declares that providing righteousness for people is not the law’s real function. It serves quite another purpose. He writes “through the law comes knowledge of sin.” The law’s most notable function is to lead to an awareness of sin.

Here’s our dilemma: We are all held accountable to God under the law. The standard is perfection. But not one of us can keep it perfectly as the law requires. We are all law-breaking sinners. Sinners cannot provide the righteousness a holy God justly requires. We can try, but never get there. Acquiring such righteousness is possible only by the grace of a loving God, who gives righteousness freely as a gift through faith in Jesus Christ. This exchange whereby God takes away the guilt of our sins and credits us with the righteousness of Christ is called justification.

How is one justified? “One is justified by faith apart from works of law.” The standard is perfection. Perfection never comes from law because it is a mirror of those who are imperfect and a lot worse in every way. Faith however brings perfection—the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus for all who believe.

Faith, in the sense of trust and confidence in God’s promise, is the channel  through which righteousness comes to the believer. Or, to use a slightly different picture, faith is the hand that receives this righteousness from God.

Righteousness comes in only one way, and it comes in the same way to all: by faith. When Paul says, “to all who believe,” he is not limiting the scope of God’s righteousness, as though it is intended only for some and not for others. Paul stated earlier that God shows no favoritism in dealing with sinners. Those who are disobedient (which is everyone, Jew and Gentle alike) are under His wrath. But that same impartiality also shows itself when God deals with people in grace and mercy. In that aspect of God’s dealing “there is no difference” as well.

How can he say that? On what does he base his statement? By inspiration the apostle supplies the rationale for his bold assertion: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift.”

God justifies (declares people righteous) “by His grace as a gift.” Because no person has any merit to bring, justification must come as a gift. Being declared just is something that is done to or for the sinner. It’s not something he does for himself. Therefore, receiving justification as a gift is the only way justification works—and that’s also the way it always works.

When Paul says that all are justified, we need to be careful, however, not to understand him, as though he were saying that all will be saved. That would be the false teaching of universalism. Natural man, wicked sinner that he is, retains the power to resist God’s grace. In their stubborn unbelief, many people unfortunately refuse to accept Christ’s merit, and they will be lost for their unbelief.

This has far-reaching implications. Think of what it implies for you personally. If all sinners are justified, then surely you are too—despite all the sins and shortcomings that Satan argues should disqualify you. Because “there is no difference,” God assures you that His grace is for all, including you.

Objective justification has great significance also for our outreach and evangelism efforts. If all have been justified, then there is no one to whom you cannot go with the Gospel’s good news. You can tell anyone and everyone, “Your sins are forgiven by Christ’s substitutionary death. He has earned a robe of righteousness for you. It’s there for you. Accept it; believe it.

God’s motive for justifying sinners is mercy; His method is redemption, a word that means to buy back, especially from slavery or debt or captivity. The purchase price is greater than one can raise on his own. Somebody on the outside must step in and help if there is to be rescue. And that is exactly what God did! He provided “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).

God is a holy God who can’t just wink at sins and dismiss the sinner’s many infractions as if they didn’t matter. Sinners must be held accountable to God under the law. God, in His Word, is clear and direct on that matter: “The wages of sin is death.” Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22). Sin carries a heavy price that had to be paid—and it was! God sent His very own Son to be the substitute to die in our place. Christ became true man so that He might shed His blood as a sacrifice and die the sinner’s death, or as Paul puts it, “who God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith.”

The apostle’s terminology here reflects the activity God had directed Israel to observe annually on the great Day of Atonement. God commanded this festival as a graphic reminder of Israel’s need to confess its sins, be sprinkled with the blood of the atoning sacrifice, and then symbolically transfer those sins to a scapegoat that was driven out in the wilderness, bearing away the sins of the people. God’s intent was to remind Israel of its need for a Savior and to strengthen in them a longing for the promised Messiah, the Redeemer, who would do for them literally what was being enacted symbolically: shedding His blood for the propitiation, for the forgiveness of His people’s sins.

In Christ, justice has been served. Without compromising His integrity as a just and holy God, the Father shows kindness to redeemed sinners, whose guilt has been pardoned and whose debt has been paid. In Christ, God can see the sinner as just and holy. In Christ, we are justified by grace alone through faith alone.

Here is the Good News of the Gospel, the Good News of Paul to Jew and Gentile alike, the Good News of Martin Luther to sinners who must be justified before the Almighty Judge. God Himself was in Christ, not as a judge but as a Servant, accomplishing the work of putting us right. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” In other words, God had come to us as a loving Father making us justified by faith in what He has accomplished on our behalf through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, His Son.

Paul says, “One is justified by faith in what God has done for us, apart from works of the law.” So it is that the religions of the world labor with half the truth. All seem to know the human life needs to be put right. The Buddhist tries to make it so through ascetic living, the Muslim by rigorous adherence to Shariah law, the Jew by obeying Torah Law, the Mormon by a legalistic sub-culture and the fundamentalists and charismatics and papists by doing this, not doing that, having this gift and exercising it this way and that, and so on and so on. All know the human life needs to be put right. None seem to know how this can happen apart from works of their own laws, from their own new and improved techniques.

It seems the Law is written on our hearts by nature and we crave the hidden techniques for self-enhancing, self-justification. But the Gospel of being freely justified by grace is totally foreign to us. This is why it must be preached, why someone must declare: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” There is no other way.

The quest for being right has never left us through all our modern, technological developments. Still the answer remains unchanged, too. We can be right, only apart from the works of law. It is for Christ’s sake, not because our failure is trivial and does not matter, but because Jesus has dealt with it once and for all bearing our sins in His body and nailing them to the tree of the Cross. God dealt with our sins so we could be justified while yet sinners. And justification is through faith, by believing in Jesus Christ who was held accountable to God under the law for the sins of the world—your sins, my sins.

Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. 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.

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Sermons, Uncategorized

Justification: The Article upon Which the Church Stands or Falls

Click here to listen to this sermon: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Uj004X2sUFiX3wGqo57neyLaWuUCv7BS/view?usp=sharing

“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 3:23-25a).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Martin Luther is generally remembered on this Reformation Day for the posting of the 95 Theses, statements for debate on repentance and the sale of indulgences. But a more complete statement of faith prepared by Luther is the Smalcald Articles. It was Luther’s hope that this document would be used for discussion at a general council of the Church or, should he die before such a council was held, that it would be regarded as his “last will and testament.”

The Smalcald Articles clearly establish the differences between Romanism and Lutheranism. Nowhere is this more evident than in Article I. It reads:

The first and chief article is this:

1 Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification (Romans 4:24–25).

2 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).

3 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).

4 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. [Romans 3:26]

5 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.[i]

Article I is short, to the point, and like Luther himself, pulls no theological punches. Notice how many of the passages cited come from our Epistle, Romans 3:19-28. It is easy to see why this pericope was chosen for Reformation Day.

The key teaching of Lutheranism, “The article upon which the church stands or falls,” is justification—particularly, justification by grace through faith in the work of Christ. “Justification” has to do with being or being made or being declared “just,” or “righteous,” or “right.” Scripture teaches that we are justified by Christ, who took our sin into Himself and atoned for it on the cross and who imputes (or credits) to us His righteousness. When we are united to Christ—which happens by Baptism, in Holy Communion, and when we receive His Word—we are justified, freely, apart from any works of our own. To believe, trust, and depend on the fact that Christ saves us is to be justified by faith.

Now, it might seem that justification is another theological term whose meaning has been lost in today’s secular climate. Christianity is about the forgiveness of sins. But many people today do not think they have need to be made right with God. “Sin” is thought to be an outmoded concept.

And yet people today still search for “justification” for themselves and what they do. They still crave approval, and they want to consider themselves to be good and right. And when they fail to measure up even to their own standards or that of their peers—let alone God’s standards—they tend to construct explanations and  excuses that would exonerate them. It turns out that justification is the article on which we all stand or fall. It’s just a matter of where we look for our justification.

We can look for justification in our political or ideological beliefs: “I am good despite my personal failures, because my cause is just.” Post-modernism can be a way to justify ourselves: “The truth I reject is nothing more than a construction, so I am blameless in rebelling against it.” We can seek justification through atheism: “God does not exist, so no one can condemn me.” Or we can simply seek to justify ourselves by comparison: “Nobody’s perfect, but at least I’m better than so-and-so.” These are all attempts at self-justification. They are endless mental exercises by which we can consider ourselves to be good.

But something is missing in these attempts: a correct understanding of sin and personal culpability for that sin. Many believe there is no such thing as objective morality to sin against. They assume morality is purely subjective, varying from one culture or one person to another. No one has the right to “impose” his personal morality on anyone else. And yet, those who reject the very possibility of moral truth, are constantly making moral judgments of others: demanding social justice, human rights, and ethical approaches to the environment.

We tend to frame conflicts with others as arguments over moral transgressions—“You’re selfish!” “You don’t really love me!” “That’s not fair!”—with both parties accusing each other and defending themselves. Our transgressions still leave us with guilt, which can torment us for the rest of our lives. And yet we still tend to insist that “I am a good person.” If someone else considers us “bad” or “wrong,” we defend ourselves—with excuses and arguments maintaining that our vices are not bad but good, even something to be celebrated. In truth, we do not need to be righteous in order to be self-righteous.

Far from being an outdated theological concept, justification is a preoccupation, if not an obsession, for people today. We always feel the need to show that we are right. At work, online, in our casual conversations, in our relationships with others, we are always seeking approval, scoring points, making excuses, and defending ourselves. At the same time, we are also always accusing and judging others. Often, such criticism is not dispassionate moral analysis, but attempting to cover our own flaws by highlighting the far greater flaws of others. Underlying the need to be justified is our yearning for affirmation, for thinking that our existence matters, for our need to think that our life is worthwhile.

Not only do we judge and justify ourselves and one another; we also judge and justify God. “How can God allow evil and suffering in the world?” both believers and non-believers ask. “He must not be good.” Against that accusation, believers can form arguments to justify God, as if He needs our help to explain His motives and actions. Non-believers, ironically, justify the intellectual concept of a righteous God by concluding that such a being does not actually exist.

But the problems of evil and suffering do not go away even when God’s existence is rejected. No longer is the question “Why does God allow evil and suffering?” but “Why does existence allow evil and suffering?” If God cannot be justified due to the evil and suffering in the world, existence itself cannot be justified for the same reasons. If existence cannot be justified, life is meaningless, absurd, pointless, and (in a tragic number of cases) not worth living.

But what if, instead of having to justify ourselves, God Himself gives us the approval, affirmation, and assurance that our existence matters, that despite our many, obvious shortcomings, our lives have His approval? He does! We do! The incessant desire to justify ourselves is put to rest when we are justified by Christ.

How does Christ justify us? By dying.

The Second Person of the Trinity assumed a human nature. Instead of living in earthly glory as we might expect and as He was certainly entitled to, He chose to be born in poverty and to live a life of homelessness. But He did good works—by healing the sick, raising the dead, reconciling people who had been at each other’s throats—and His teaching blessed the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the persecuted, and so on. Jesus’ goodness was evident to all, even to His enemies, who hated Him for it. He accomplished what other human beings throughout history have always tried to do but failed: He was justified by His good works.  

Nevertheless, Jesus did not escape accusations, judgments, and condemnation. He was, in fact, wrongly convicted and sentenced to death. While others have supposedly died an innocent death, Jesus is the only person to have truly died an innocent death. At His execution, though, He fully exerted His divine power by doing something that defies our capacity to understand or to imagine: He took the evils of the world—that is to say, the sins of the entire human race—into Himself. “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). St. Paul put it even more strongly: “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

When on the cross Christ “bore our sins in His body,” He also took the punishment that we deserve. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). The “wonderful exchange” also means that Christ’s righteousness—along with access to the Father, freedom from guilt, and eternal life—become ours. God the Father now counts our sins as belonging to Christ. He also counts Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us. Thus, when we face the judgment of God the Father, He will consider all of Christ’s good works—His healings, His acts of love, His obedience to the Father, His perfect fulfillment of the Law—to be ours. This is what it means to be justified by Christ.

This is unbelievable, one might think. It would be tremendous if it were true, but how could it be? How could God become a human being? How could anyone—even God—bear another person’s sins, let alone the sins of the entire world? It staggers the mind. It is beyond understanding. Interestingly, Luther agrees. “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him,” he writes in the Small Catechism. Essentially, Luther admits, “I believe that I cannot… believe.”

Notice how Luther anticipates—and repudiates—the mindset of both the modernist and the postmodernist. “I believe that I cannot by own reason… believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord.” So much for the “Age of Reason.” So much for modernism. Human reason is not how we receive Christ Jesus and His gifts. “I believe that I cannot by my own… strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord.” So much for the will to power. So much for postmodernism. Exerting our own power or effort is not how we receive Christ Jesus and His gifts.

So how do we? Luther goes on to explain: “But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” Faith, this belief and trust in Christ, is a gift from outside ourselves. The Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity, creates our faith. Rather than human reason or power, faith is how we receive Christ Jesus. God does this by calling me through the Gospel, His means of grace—Word and water, body and blood—which creates, sustains and grows faith.

For Lutherans, the doctrine of justification is the “chief article” on which the Church stands or falls. Every other key teaching—the Sacraments, Scripture, worship, vocation, the two kingdoms, prayer, the Christian life—has as its keystone our justification by Christ.

And it is also the chief article on which individuals stand or fall. Restless hearts and anxious minds find peace in justification. Frenetic lives of self-justification have rest in the salvation of Jesus Christ. The incessant need to prove our own worthiness and our failure to ever do so are nailed to the cross, buried in the tomb, and put to death forever. What Good News!

 We confess: “[We] 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 3:23-25a). That is to say, by God’s grace, for Jesus’ sake, you are righteous and holy; you are forgiven for all of 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] McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (pp. 262–263). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

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