Preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
This week we celebrate the 501st anniversary of what is commonly thought of as the start of the Protestant Reformation, when Martin Luther marched down to the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg to tack up his debate points arguing against the sale of indulgences. To be sure, if the story of Luther with hammer in hand is a true one (there is some debate as to whether or not it actually happened that way) October 31, 1517 is a momentous date in history, sparking a chain of events that would lead to the Reformation and the formation of the Lutheran Church. But Luther was, in 1517, only fighting against the sale of indulgences by Albrecht of Brandenberg, the Archbishop of Mainz and his deputy, the Dominican friar Johann Tetzel, who sought to use the profits from those sales to pay a debt incurred when the archbishop purchased the Electorate of Mainz. This allowed him to have a seat on the committee that elected the Holy Roman Emperor. In 1517, Luther had yet to make his most important discovery, that one discovery on which the church of Christ stands or falls: that the just live by faith, and indeed, that Christians are justified (made righteous) by faith apart from works of the Law.
In his 1545 preface to his Latin writings, Luther wrote that he made this discovery in his study in the tower of the Wittenberg monastery in 1519, though how long it took him he does not say, merely that he pored over the scriptures day and night. Feeling depressed— or as he apparently put it in the Table Talk, feeling down “in the toilet”— and “crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue,” he began to study again Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.
Paul, writing in the year 55, had not yet come to Rome, and so he wished to give an account of the Christian faith to those believers in the city so that their faith might be strengthened in the face of an adverse culture. Early in Romans, Paul speaks of the sins common to the world in which the Roman congregation is living. They live in a city where the people have “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served a creature rather than the Creator” [Romans 1:24-25]. The Romans worshiped gods made in man’s image, and in some cases, worshiped men that they had elevated to gods, especially in the cult of the emperors, especially Augustus, Tiberius, and the Divine Julius, to name a few. Like all idolaters, Paul says that God “gave them up to dishonorable passions”— they engaged in perverse sexual practices, viewed bloodsports, and enjoyed other vices. Their authors and poets wrote stories that, while admittedly seen as literary classics today, nonetheless were bawdy or held up immoral behavior as good and proper, or at least laughable as opposed to serious. Their politics honored deceit and slander— people worked as “witnesses for hire,” and Roman lawyers, rather than arguing cases on the basis of the law, sought to use character assassination and slander as a means to win. The pagan Romans were given to other gods, and most especially to the god of the self.
The congregation at Rome was prey to temptations to follow suit, to give in to the dominant culture. Some members of it apparently did so. Paul says so himself. “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, even one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man— you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself— that you will escape the judgment of God?” [Romans 2:1-3] Paul continues: “For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law” [Romans 2:12]. The Gentiles who live outside of God’s Torah will perish in their sin, and those who live under the Torah, those who consider themselves to be Jews, children of Abraham, are likewise condemned when they sin. There is no one righteous— not one! As Paul says in our reading this morning, “for all people have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” No one can live according to God’s Torah and trust in his abiding by it to save him from sin— he still does evil. Even trusting in one’s own ability to resist temptation is an evil act in and of itself because it places one’s own willpower over and above God. Being a good Jew (or a good Christian) by following the rules will not save you.
Luther struggled with this. The Law, as Paul says, brings knowledge of sin. God is righteous, but man is not. When you realize that you are under the Law, your unrighteousness becomes apparent, and in Luther’s day, God was seen as an implacable judge, whose righteousness caused him to punish sinners. Where was the hope that Christ supposedly brought? Baptism got you in the door of the church, but after that, you were on your own to work out your own salvation. What you did with the initial grace you received in baptism determined your fate. And if the Law roundly condemns all sinners, how could anyone ever appease God or be loved by him? It is not as if Luther’s church was free from the vices of first century Rome about which Paul wrote. In his own pilgrimage to the Eternal City, Luther saw atheists masquerading as priests, using the church as a source for gain. He saw brothels full of clergy. Bishops violating the requirements of their offices by fathering illegitimate children. He saw relic brokers selling people false hope. And of course, he saw the sale of indulgences. God’s grace at a good price. How could there even be salvation for God’s church when its own people were so broken? And it’s not like the late-medieval Germans were saints, either. Their penchant for sin was no different than anyone else’s. How could any of them be saved?
You and I of course struggle with the same old sins that the ancient and medieval Romans and Germans, and indeed, all of humanity, struggle with. We make our own gods out of money and sex, buying things that we think will make us happy or turning people into objects for our own gratification, using them to achieve the aims we want and discarding them. We deify people— our leaders, our celebrities, sports heroes— and when they fail to meet our expectations we either despair of ourselves or we turn on them. How many times have we seen, in the aftermath of an election, our friends and neighbors wailing in the street because their candidate didn’t win, and how America is doomed? We treat these people like gods and expect them to deliver the life we want in a Godlike way, when of course, they cannot.
And then there’s our cult of self. How often have you told someone, “I’m a good person,” or heard the same said by someone else? Or alternatively, “I’m not a bad person?” We think of ourselves in these terms. “I haven’t done anything ostensibly bad or wrong, so therefore, I must be good!” Or, “I have done everything right, therefore I must not be bad!” We are like the Pharisee in the parable—“thank God I’m not like those other sinners!” Unfortunately, that isn’t going to cut it. If all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and if, as Jesus says, God alone is good, then to even think that, if we do what we think God wants us to do, we have any sort of standing with him through our deeds, we are sorely mistaken and judged along with the rest of those “obvious” sinners.
Paul knows that there can be no comfort taken in one’s works or deeds. Keeping Torah does not make a person righteous. It does not make him right before God. But Paul preaches good news to his Roman audience. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and none are righteous before him, but God has revealed his own righteousness in his son, Jesus Christ, who gave his life as a propitiation for the sins of the world on the cross. It’s Jesus who makes a person righteous, who justifies that person before God’s throne, who makes it so that when God the Father looks upon the sinner in the docket, he sees his own beloved Son and declares that sinner cleared of the debt of sin. This is what Paul means when he says that Jesus became a propitiation for sin by his blood. That word propitiation, or “hilasterion” in Greek, is the same word for the “mercy seat” spoken of when describing the Ark of the Covenant in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. At the Feast of the Atonement, the high priest would sprinkle the blood from the sacrifice onto to the mercy seat, and the sins of the people would be forgiven. In the work of Christ, the blood of the Son of God wins the atonement for all people, both Jew and Greek, whether or not they have been able to keep the Law perfectly. They haven’t. Even Paul, the most observant of all the Pharisees, who kept every part of the law as perfectly as possible, still failed at this. But Christ’s death and resurrection is the gift by which God gives grace to mankind as a free gift and delivers them from their sin. This is true for Paul, it is true for Luther, and it is true for us, too.
But how does one receive this grace Christ won for the world when he gave himself as a propitiation for all sins? By faith! Paul says, “Where then is boasting? It has been shut out. Through the work of the Law? Through deeds? By no means! but through the law of faith. For we hold that a person is made righteous [justified] by faith apart from the works of the Law” [Romans 3:27-28]. Faith in the work of Christ is all-sufficient to receive his grace which makes it possible for a person to stand before God and be declared righteous. The Law, while being God’s good and gracious will for humanity, cannot save a person when he has sinned, though God certainly desires that his children try to abide by it. The Law does not grant life. Faith in the work of Christ is what makes a person alive. Christ is at the very center.
This is what Luther discovered while poring over Romans in the tower at Wittenberg in 1519. He was agonizing over what Paul meant when speaking of the “righteousness of God” in Romans 1, when he had a breakthrough: The righteousness of God about which Paul speaks is not an abstract quality of God, but rather it is the righteousness, the justification, that he grants to a person by faith. Thus Luther was able to grasp that when Paul says that “the just person lives by faith,” he doesn’t mean that a person is justified by the way he lives, but rather that faith in the work of Jesus Christ grants grace that makes living possible! No longer was God a terror who crushed sinners who could not keep his statutes. Instead, God, in the work of Christ, gives those who trust in the work of his Son the gift of faith which grants them eternal life. It is this truth, that we are justified by grace through faith in the work of Christ alone, apart from the works of the Law, that underlies all of Luther’s theology, and it is the article of faith upon which the church stands or falls. This is the kernel at the heart of the Gospel. This is the heart of the Good News, and to borrow the tagline for the LCMS’ Reformation 500 celebration, “it is all about Jesus,” and he has done this work for you.
If your heart is troubled today over your sins; if you feel the Law crushing you, convicting you; if you realize how often you have trusted in yourself rather than in God; if you doubt your salvation, do not despair! Christ’s work has covered your sins, too, and he has made you righteous in his blood shed on the cross. This promise is for all people, and “all people” includes you! Because of him, you have standing before God when he asks all people to give an account of their deeds. Because of him, you have hope for everlasting life. Because of him, your sins no longer can rob you of the promise he has won for you in his work. So take heart, and trust in him. He has erased your sins. He has made you righteous. He has made you free to live as a redeemed child of God.
As redeemed children of God, bought by Christ, brought to new life in him by grace through faith in his work, go forth this Reformation Sunday in joy, trusting in his promises. Amen.
And now, may the peace which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.