Download or listen to the Festival of the Reformation (Observed): “Proof of God’s Righteousness” (Romans 3:19-28)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Tomorrow is the 494th anniversary of the day when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses—that is, 95 statements for debate—on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. From October 31, 1517, we usually mark the beginning of the reformation of Christ’s Church on earth. But why do we celebrate this day? Why do we mark it? What’s the big deal? How many of us have ever even read the 95 Theses? And that brings up a related question: why are we here, in a building that has “Lutheran” on the sign? If we do not have an answer to that question, then we might as well go somewhere else as come here. In fact, you probably have friends or family who have good reasons why you shouldn’t come here. There are all sorts of churches, with all sorts of names on the signs. Is there any reason why we should be Lutheran? Well, there are a bunch of reasons not to be Lutheran: If we are Lutheran only because we were raised by parents who attended a Lutheran church, we might as well close the doors. If we are Lutheran because we’re German, or maybe Norwegian, we might as well go somewhere else. If we are Lutheran because our friends and family are here, we might as well go somewhere else. If we’re here because we feel comfortable, or because we married into it, or because we haven’t yet found anywhere better, we should probably close the doors and go somewhere else.
There is, frankly, only one reason to be Lutheran, and one reason only: because you will hear the truth here. The truth about yourself and the truth about God. And that’s exactly what we hear from St. Paul in Romans 3. In Romans 3, there are two words that St. Paul speaks: one is that no person is righteous. The other is that God is righteous. The first word is that no person is righteous. That is, no one does the Law of God. All sin because they are sinners. Starting in verse 10, Paul quotes both Psalm 14 and Psalm 53: “No one 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, ESV). When we hear those words, we should not think of the worst people, say, Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, or some serial killer or rapist; we should think of the best people. We should think of people we like; we should, in fact, think of ourselves. I am unrighteous; I do not understand or seek God; I turn aside from His way, I am worthless, I do not do what is good; my mouth is full of bitterness and cursing; I have no fear of God. The psalmist and St. Paul are not talking only about your evil actions, the things no one knows about, the things of which you are ashamed. They are talking about your best actions, the things you hope everyone sees, the things of which you are most proud. As Isaiah puts it, far more crudely than we would, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a [used menstrual rag]” (Isaiah 64:6). That’s what he says. And no one wants to hear this word, this truth. I don’t want to hear it. It makes you cringe. But it is the truth that the Scriptures have to proclaim to us, because we would not believe it otherwise. We believe people are basically good, that everyone has a little good in him. But that’s like putting makeup on a corpse. Stenshoel-Houske [funeral home] do an excellent job, but no matter what they do, the body is still dead. We are not basically good, or even a little good. We are, all of us together, completely unrighteous. That’s the first word, the first truth, that St. Paul speaks to us. And he speaks it so that every mouth will be stopped in its defenses, excuses, reasons. He says it to show you and me and the whole world that we are, every one of us, accountable to God, who created us. “For by works of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight; through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).
But now, he says, now there is another word, another truth, not about us, but about God. And that is that He is righteous. He Himself has revealed His own righteousness, and it has nothing to do with us keeping His Law. (We’ve all know where trying to keep the Law will get us.) The Law and the Prophets bear witness to God’s righteousness; that is, what we call the Old Testament is full of God’s righteousness in the face of human unrighteousness. And the proof of God’s righteousness—Paul says it twice—the proof of God’s righteousness is Jesus. The proof that God is faithful when we are unfaithful, and righteous when we are unrighteous, is Jesus and Jesus alone. God put Jesus out for everyone to see, out for anyone to reject, anyone to abuse, anyone to deny; He put Him out on the cross as a propitiation in Jesus’ blood. That Greek word translated “propitiation” normally meant a place where a person went to sacrifice and make God or the gods happy. But here it is not a sacrifice we make out of our righteousness, but a sacrifice from God as proof of His righteousness. Proof that God never forsakes His unrighteous people; proof that He did not immediately condemn you in your sin, just as He did not immediately condemn and destroy Israel. This Jesus, this blood, this righteousness in Christ, He gives freely to you, without cost, without you becoming righteous first, without you doing anything except sin. Jesus is the conclusion of the entire story of the Scriptures; He is the final proof of God’s righteousness toward Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Isaac, and Jacob—and toward you. Even if you reject Him, reject His Son, forsake His Word and His Altar—God is faithful and righteous, because He cannot be unfaithful to Himself. Your rejection would mean eternal death and burying yourself under your guilt, but God remains righteous. He still gives and gives and gives.
That word is the only reason to be Lutheran. We are not Lutheran because of who Luther was. He would be the first to condemn us for following a man, rather than God. But he would also, just as quickly, condemn us for rejecting his teaching that God has proven Himself faithful by giving Jesus to you without cost or work or any action on your part at all. This is why you should be Lutheran: because we are not about Luther at all, but about Jesus. All our liturgy, all our hymns, all our Sacraments, all our preaching is about one thing and one thing only. That’s what the altarpiece in the church at Wittenberg shows: Luther in the pulpit, pointing at the crucified Jesus, with the people on the other side. The cross is our only theology. This is why we pray with Luther, “Lord, keep us steadfast in your Word!” This is why we pray with another confessor, Nicholas Selnecker, “In these last days of great distress, grant us, dear Lord, true steadfastness that we keep pure ’til life is spent, Your holy Word and Sacrament.” Because nothing else, and no one else, saves sinners from their unrighteousness. Lord God, grant us your grace that we preach no one else but Your Son, to the salvation and strengthening of sinners.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 10/29/11