“Setting Forth the Righteousness of God” (Romans 3:19-28)
The church authorities of Martin Luther’s day tried to shut him up. The Bishop of Rome began to take notice of Luther when he read a document written by this previously unknown German monk. It was a series of 95 Theses, or statements, which questioned certain practices and teachings of the Church. It was posted on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg on the Eve of All Saints’ Day, October 31, 1517. It quickly made it into the hands of those who owned recently-invented printing presses, and one copy made it into the hands of Pope Leo X.
Luther was a faithful son of the Church. He didn’t plan to cause a ruckus. He simply wanted Church teachings to match up with what the Bible said. And what he discovered was that certain practices and teachings of the Church were obscuring the glory of the Gospel. The free grace of God and the forgiveness of sins earned by Christ on the cross of Calvary had turned into something you had to earn by doing penance, paying for indulgences, performing acts of devotion before the relics of saints and martyrs.
And so, the Church wanted to silence Luther. Representatives of the pope visited Luther to convince him he was wrong. More writings came from the pen of Luther. By 1521, Luther was excommunicated. That same year, he was summoned to appear before the Diet of Worms, a gathering of leaders of the German states, and told to recant his teachings. After some time of prayer and deliberation, Luther appeared before the assembly and declared
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me God. Amen.
After that, if not for the protection of Frederick III, the prince of Luther’s home territory, Luther could have been executed as a heretic. But God had other plans, and as the cliché goes, the rest is history. The centrality of the doctrine of justification by grace through faith in Christ alone was restored to its proper place. They tried, but failed, to shut Luther up.
Today, God’s Law shuts us up when we still mistakenly suppose that there is something we have to do to earn God’s favor. St. Paul writes in today’s Epistle reading, “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.” (Rom. 3:19-20)
Human beings are really good at making excuses for their actions. I’m only human. Nobody’s perfect. I was raised this way. I was born this way. The devil made me do it. I’m not as bad as that person. Everyone else is doing it.
The Law of God silences our excuses and our claims. It silences the Jew who claims to have kept the Law of Moses that was given to them … the Ten Commandments and the rules and regulations of the Old Covenant. It silences the Gentile who claims to have a clear conscience … the universal standards that are implanted on the heart of everyone, the Law of God written on the heart. It silences Christians today who still think that we have something good in ourselves to offer God and somehow earn his favor. The whole world … every single person … stands condemned before God. There is no room for boasting. God’s Law has not been kept. The Law says “shut up” … “shut your mouth” … “just be quiet.” Stop trying to justify your actions and attitudes which are an affront to God. You are guilty. There is no getting around it. The purpose of the Law is to make it absolutely clear that you are a sinner. Like a mirror in which you see all your blemishes and warts and scars and wrinkles, the Law shows your sin and guilt in all its ugly reality.
That we are sinners is set forth for us in all its serious reality. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” You and I have fallen far short of that glory. No matter how hard we try, we will never come close. We think we have some good deeds to display before the Lord and show him how glorious we are. Instead, the prophet Isaiah says, “All our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Is. 64:6 NIV).
In stark contrast to the filthiness of our sin, God manifests … shows … sets forth his righteousness. But what Luther came to discover was that “the righteousness of God” is not his holy wrath and anger over sin, as you might expect. Rather, the righteousness of God is the glory of his Son’s death and resurrection on behalf of us sinners. After years of struggling under the weight of a troubled conscience, when Luther finally figured this out, he declared, “I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.” The righteousness of God is the way in which God acts justly and faithfully in accordance with his promises. It’s the way in which Christ was holy and perfect on our behalf. It’s the way in which our sin was credited to Christ’s account as he suffered and died on the cross. It’s the way in which Christ’s sinlessness is credited to our account. It’s the way in which God declares us righteous because of what Jesus did for us at the cross. That’s what it means to be justified … declared not guilty … forgiven. And it’s all free. A gift. “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.”
God manifests … shows … sets forth his righteousness by telling us that it’s “apart from the law.” It’s not about keeping a certain set of rules and regulations. “The Law and the Prophets bear witness to it,” that is, it was all foretold long ago in the Old Testament. Everything there was meant to point us to Christ and how we receive “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”
God manifests … shows … sets forth his righteousness by putting his Son “forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” Now there’s a big fancy theological word … “propitiation.” Basically, it means “to cover over.” The blood of Jesus shed on the cross covers over our sins. But there’s more to it. Paul may very well be pointing us back to the Law and the Prophets which pointed us to Christ. The word for “propitiation” in the Greek is the same one used to describe the “mercy seat,” the lid on top of the ark of the covenant in the Old Testament tabernacle. There, in the Holy of Holies where the ark was placed, above the mercy seat, God promised to be graciously present for the people of Israel. On one day of the year, the Day of Atonement, the high priest would take the blood of an animal and sprinkle it on the mercy seat. The life of that animal was to serve as the substitute for the sins of the people. The thing is, you had to keep doing this year after year. But now, Christ Jesus has become our once-for-all sacrifice. He is our mercy seat. His blood was shed for us. God himself in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth was graciously present for us at the cross, acting as our substitute. Risen from the dead, our Lord Jesus is graciously present for us today. In Christ Jesus, the righteousness of God is shown to us “at the present time.” It’s not just something that happened long ago and far away. His righteousness is shown to us today in the Holy Supper. Here, Jesus offers to us the fruits of his sacrifice to eat and to drink, his true body and true blood, and we receive the blessings of his sacrifice when we trust in the words “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sins.”
Justified, forgiven, righteous in God’s sight through faith in Jesus, you and I can show forth God’s righteousness as we proclaim the Good News. Our lips that were shut up by the Law are opened wide by the Gospel. We have been set free from our slavery to sin, death, and the devil. We have been set free from the fear of condemnation. In Holy Baptism, we have been made sons of the Father, brothers of Jesus who paid the price for our sins and earned for us a permanent place in the Father’s house. (John 8:34-36)
Like Luther, you too can say “Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me God.” [You can say it on the day of your confirmation, as you stand here and confess your faith before God and the congregation, the faith God gave you in your Baptism.] You can say it when you are faced with opposition against God’s Word. You can say it when you are tempted to compromise the truth for the sake of convenience, political correctness, or out of fear of being labeled a religious nut.
That’s a pretty tall order, to be like Luther. He’s a giant of a figure in history, that’s for sure. Back in 1997, Life magazine named him the third most important person of the last millennium. We Lutherans like to boast about our hero.
But boasting in Luther is also excluded along with boasting about our works. In fact, the Reformer once wrote this about himself: “What is Luther? The teaching is not mine. Nor was I crucified for anyone. God could raise up many Doctor Martins … How is it that I, a poor stinking bag of maggots, should come to the point where people call the children of Christ by my evil name?” In spite of Luther’s low opinion of himself, we give thanks to the Lord today for Martin Luther. We’ll even continue to use his name in the name of our church as shorthand for our confession of faith.
There is a proper kind of boasting, however. Paul said it in Galatians 6:14 … “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Now that’s the kind of boasting that Dr. Luther would approve of. That’s the kind of boasting that clearly sets forth the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus.