Sermon: Romans 3:19-28, October 28, 2021

 
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A sermon preached by Pastor Lewis Polzin on October 31, 2021 at St. Peter–Immanuel Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, WI, on Romans 3:19-28. You may play the audio of the sermon here.

A mostly unedited transcript of the sermon follows the jump:

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

The text this morning is from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, the third chapter:

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.

Thus far the text.

My dear friends in Christ,

The righteousness of God. This is the phrase that gave Luther the most trouble prior to the Reformation. Now let's do a little bit of a history here. Luther, you know, was a monk, an Augustinian monk. The Augustinians were focused greatly on the knowledge of God and the teaching of that knowledge; it was an educational order. And so it was important for Luther to well know a whole lot about the doctrines of the church and to teach them to the people. As he studied and worked, he became greatly troubled by this phrase, the righteousness of God. It comes up in quite a few places through the Scriptures. The church had taught this righteousness of God is the thing that we are to seek, the thing that we try to grow into, the thing that we attain by showing God our good works. By the end of our life, we are to be righteous as God is righteous. The problem for Luther was that, well, he wasn't attaining that, he was having difficulty. He was so focused on being righteous and he realized it wasn’t just his deeds that showed he was righteous, but how he completed those deeds, the motivation and the execution.

And so when Luther was assigned things like scrubbing the bricks that made up the hallway, he wouldn't take the big boar bristle brush. He would take the small brush and he would scrub in between all the grout and in the cracks and in the gaps in the stone and work to get all of the dirt out. Still, he wasn't satisfied. His work was lacking in his mind. He thought the problem was how it translated from his mind to his body, so he tried to discipline his body so that there were no more temptations, there were no more stray thoughts. He thought that if he can get his body under control, then maybe his mind would follow, that his inclinations, his desires would be tending toward God and not toward the sin that inhabited his heart. And so he would go back to his little dorm room and he would grab his flagelater and he would whip his back until it hurt and it was bloody. It wasn't enough. He began to realize that his heart was the problem. And so he started confessing every single thing that he could imagine, because he knew that, according to church teaching, if he went into his death with unconfessed, unforgiven, unabsolved, impenitent sin, he would be consigned to spend time in purgatory. And so he went to his father confessor, Johann Staupitz, and he would confess every single little thing, every stray thought, every stray feeling, every stray emotion, not to mention all the other stuff that he would do, like that one brick that he just couldn't get everything out of or the one time he didn't feel like he whipped himself enough. It got so bad that Staupitz actually looked at Luther one day and said, Come back when you have something interesting to confess.

Staupitz knew Luther was troubled. So Staupitz assigned Luther to Wittenberg. He had a teaching position open at the university and a preaching position open in St. Mary's church. And so he said, Luther, get your mind off of yourself and onto something and someone else, and sent him to Wittenberg to teach. And Luther began to teach. Now, Luther was a pretty decent scholar, but it wasn’t like he was able to really study the Scriptures up to that point. You must remember that the Bible, at that time, was not exactly available for everybody to pick up and start reading. The printing press had really just been invented and Bibles were coming off of it left and right, but they still weren't as ubiquitous as we find them today. I myself, I think have at least seven different copies of just the ESV translation in my office, not to mention all the other copies of other translations. Luther was lucky if he was able to get just a single book out of the Scriptures. And on top of that, the books were written in Latin, not the original Hebrew or Greek. Now, if you knew Latin like Luther did, it was fine, but it wasn’t the original. So he learned the languages and got into those copies, too.

But really, he began learning even as he was teaching. And as he was learning, he was teaching things like the book of Genesis. And he saw a whole lot of God in Genesis, a wrathful God that would pour out his wrath on the nations, even going so far as to destroy the entire world in a flood. Then he was preaching in the New Testament, teaching Galatians and Romans. And he started getting an inkling that maybe everything that he knew about this righteousness of God wasn't exactly right. The righteousness of God is what he had been told was something that he was supposed to achieve in this life, something that he was supposed to strive for. But, well, Paul gave him pause.

Paul talks about it in Romans chapter three, this righteousness of God. And he talks about it as if God is the one who makes us righteous, not the one who demands that we be righteous. Well, we all know kind of how the story goes. Luther gets ticked off at Johann Tetzel, who's preaching and teaching about indulgences and trying to sell people into salvation and Luther posts the 95 theses, which really is just a Roman Catholic document and wasn’t Lutheran at all. That’s why we celebrate on October 31st, because that's when he put that up on St. Mary’s door, but that's not really the Reformation–it may have been the spark that ignited the fire, but the fire caught on when Luther caught on to the righteousness of God and how it comes to him as a free gift through Jesus Christ. After all, Paul tells us 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.

Now, Luther would look at this as a Roman Catholic and go, Yes, yes, Paul, the law is what holds us accountable to God. Thus, we must fulfill the law in our works. Sounds good. And in a way it's true. After all, doesn't God tell us if you obey all that is within the law, you shall live. Luther knew this to be true. And so he tried and failed because he was a sinner. He knew that before God, his mouth was stopped because of being accountable to God means I have no defense. Now you can try to justify yourself before God, but good luck with that. You'll get into heaven over the cold dead body of Jesus, which of course we know is neither cold nor dead, but Luther knew that if this was true, there was no hope for him. To be accountable to God by the works of the law, no human being will be justified in his sight.

Luther read this and was in terror. He read this and knew that he indeed had no chance of getting into eternal life life with Christ because his works of the law were woefully lacking, there was always more that he could do. I mean, the monks were dedicated to doing the works of the law. They set everything aside, even family and obligations to go into monasteries, because this was seen as a good work that would propel you straight into heaven. Luther did this; he went against his father's wishes to be a lawyer. His father, a simple miner and no lord, had paid for his way through law school so that in their old age, Luther could take care of old Hans and Margarethe. So Hans set the money aside, but Luther entered into the church, entered to become a monk. It was more holy than even obeying your father and your mother. And now faced with the demand of the righteousness of God, Luther knew that he had disobeyed his father and mother. He broke the law. He still had disobedience in his heart and on his hands because he knew what his sin was.

After all, doesn't Paul say, I did not know what it was to covet until I heard the law that says do not covet. And thus, I coveted all the more. Luther knew that all the law was increased when he heard it; every time he heard, Honor God, he realized he did not honor God and his heart did not want to honor God all the more. Every time he heard, Honor your father and mother, he knew that he had not honored his father and mother and so he desired not to honor them even more. Every time he heard, Do not murder, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not covet, he knew that his heart increased his trespass. And so there was no standing before God.

And so this righteousness of God was out of reach until he realized that the righteousness of God, as Paul says, has been manifested apart from the law although the law and the prophets do bear witness to it. They had testified that the righteousness of God was coming. The righteousness of God was there for all of the people. The righteousness of God comes through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. I believe, said Luther, I rest my hope in Jesus. Do I then have this righteousness of God? He got to ask this question of his students. And his students loved him for this because they saw a professor who was struggling to understand the word of God. And as he struggled to understand it, so also did they struggle as he worked through it, so also did they work through it as he held fast to the word. So, too, would they hold fast to the word. And they began to disseminate his teachings out into the world. And the struggle became real.

This righteousness of God that comes through faith in Jesus Christ, is Luther's and it is yours for you have faith in Christ. You look to the one who was crucified upon the cross. You look to the one who is resurrected out of the grave. You look to the one who has ascended at the right hand of God the Father, and looks at you, not as a judge, who's going to hold you to account for all of the evil that you've done, but instead is the one who has born all the punishment of God, His wrath poured down upon him on that cross and who says, No, you will not bear up under the judgment of God. You instead have my righteousness. Christ and his final word from the cross, tetelestai, It is finished, declares you to be righteous. And this is not some kind of fake righteousness where you walk around and you go, Well, Lord, I know that I'm a sinner, but you think I'm righteous. Well, let's just keep that arrangement between the two of us. This righteousness is a real righteousness for when the Lord speaks, things happen. When the Lord says, let there be light, there is light. When the Lord says, let there be earth, there is earth. When the Lord says, let the earth bring forth vegetation, it does. When the Lord says, let the earth bring forth the beast of the field, it does. When the Lord speaks, the universe complies. So, when he speaks to you that you are a righteous child of God, you truly are, but not by your works, by the Lord's works. The Lord Jesus Christ’s works.

You are righteous. He has completed all things. All things have been obeyed by him. He has fulfilled the law and gives that righteousness to you. And you know that that's true because Christ died. The law says, if you live perfectly, you shall live. Christ did this. He lived perfectly. There is no way that he should have died upon that cross unless the righteousness that he had earned is given away to you. And thus, he dies in peace. But of course we know that's not all. The rest of the story, thank you, Paul Harvey, is that Christ is vindicated in his death. And he’s raised from the dead, bringing you into life, everlasting with him. He is the righteousness of God. He is the thing delivered to you by faith. He is the one that points you to the fact that you have been saved.

You belong to God. And as Luther discovered this, he proclaimed it from his classroom. He proclaimed it from his pulpit. He declared it in front of councils, in diets, in front of the emperors and popes and said, No, the righteousness of God is a free gift given to me by Jesus Christ. And you may take my life, but you will never take away the freedom that I have in Christ Jesus, the freedom of salvation, the freedom to know that, yes, I am a sinner, but my propitiation, the greatest bulwark against the flood of God's wrath, is Jesus Christ. And you cannot take him from me.

Jesus, his righteousness is here. He gives it to you in his word, through his absolution, through the sacraments. The righteousness of God comes to you in these things. Luther held fast to this. And so, too, should you, so that you may see that God is passing over your sins for he has already poured his wrath upon his son who took your sin to himself and looks at you with his favor and his grace because you have this righteousness of God. There is no cause for us to work for our salvation. There is no cause to judge our works or others’ works and see how far we’ve gone or how far we’ve fallen. We should know that, yes, we are all just poor, miserable sinners. And yet, we all have been given the gift of Christ's righteousness. All of us are poor, miserable sinners. And all of us have been given the grace to know that we are saved. That salvation that comes to us through the blood of Jesus Christ. We have been given this today.

We give thanks for Martin Luther. We give thanks for this doctrine that he brought back into the church. We give thanks that we indeed have been saved and that we may know for certain that we shall see our Lord face to face. We know that in that day we will not stand before him facing his wrath, facing his judgment unto hell, but, instead, we'll be welcomed into the place, the rest that has been prepared for us since before the foundation of the world.

Imagine, if you will, not knowing this, the horror that must come across as you discover that the law is good and God demands our obedience to the law. Imagine that just for a moment, that is what we should feel. We should know that we are sinners. We should know in our hearts that we have only earned God's condemnation, but now in Christ, by faith, we also know that one is justified apart from the works of the law, not because of us, but because of Jesus. May we all have the strength to apprehend that this day, that you have been saved through the blood of Christ poured out for you and that you indeed are welcomed into life everlasting, never more to worry, never more to suffer, never more to be put to shame, but to know that Christ Jesus is yours now and forever. The righteousness of God is yours this day and always. In Jesus’ name, amen.

Now may the peace of God which passes all human understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord! Amen.

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