The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached in October 2021*
Sermon Audio: Justification By Faith (Romans 3:19-31)
On November 10th, 1483 Hans and Margarethe welcomed their firstborn son into the world. The following day was the Roman Catholic feast day honoring St. Martin and the day their son was being baptized, so they decided their son would share the saint’s name. St. Martin of Tours had been famous for his piety, asceticism, and charity—at one point famously cutting his own cloak in two to share half with a naked beggar. Hans and Margarathe Luther hoped their own little Martin would share the saints devotion to God. But Hans was also a shrewd businessman who had worked his way out of poverty and now owned a small copper mine. He had great ambitions for his son to go to university and become a lawyer and so avoid the grinding poverty he had just lifted their family out of. So, once Martin turned 18 Hans paid for Martin to enroll and study law at the University of Erfurt where Martin spent the next seven years in study. He proved to be an excellent student and had a promising future ahead, only to suddenly—much to his father’s everlasting shame—abandon his pursuits of becoming a lawyer.
Two events upended Martin’s life. First, while he was studying at university he found a Bible in the school’s library and began to read it. He had never seen a Bible before and only ever heard snippets of it read in Latin at Mass. The Bible fascinated him and led him to begin to ponder more seriously questions of faith. Shortly after this, a close friend of his suddenly died. He began to ask himself, “What would happen if I were to die suddenly?” Then, later that Summer while travelling home on the open road Martin was overtaken by a violent thunderstorm. Suddenly, a lightning bolt struck nearly at his feet. He collapsed to the ground and prayed that Saint Anne would save him. Martin knew that his life was marked by sin and immorality and a holy God would be just to judge him. He promised God that if He would spare his life, he would change his life, that he would strive to become holy, that he would become a monk.
His father was furious, his friends were puzzled—what a foolish waste of a such a promising life. His father told him that he was breaking the fifth commandment, failing to honor his father and mother. His friends warned him that he was abandoning any hopes of a respectable life by throwing himself into a monastery. But Martin didn’t care—he realized that his biggest problem he now faced was his sin before a holy God. He would do whatever it took to solve it.
And so Martin gave himself over to the most strict form of asceticism he could. In order to punish himself for his sins he would starve himself, pray through the night and deprive himself of sleep, visit every shrine and relic of the church, and even whip and scourge himself. He spent countless hours confessing every sin he could think of and would dutifully follow whatever penance the priest would give him, till the priests themselves grew annoyed at Martin’s own sensitive conscience. He later wrote, “I kept the rule of my order so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery it was I. All my brothers in the monastery who knew me will bear me out. If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, readings and other work.”
And yet, despite his superhuman religious efforts, with every attempt Luther made to finally scour the last bit of sin out of his soul, he would find more hidden pockets of darkness; the more serious he became in adhering to God’s Law, the more despairing he grew. No matter how much he confessed, no matter how much penance he did, no matter how severely he punished himself, Luther could not find peace. Later, he confessed, “Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners.”
How could a man so serious about his religion come to hate God? Luther, as we will see, had profoundly misunderstood what the gospel was, what God was like. Like a man who recoils in terror at the sight of a doctor’s scalpel and syringe, certain that he is here to harm not heal, so too did Luther flee in terror before God’s righteousness, confused about what God’s righteousness meant for sinners like him. In the book of Romans we will find the kernel of truth inside Luther’s great fear, but we will also find the remedy and examine what led to the great Protestant Reformation 504 years ago.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” – Romans 1:16-17
“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). Here we are told two reasons the Law was given: (1) to silence mouths and (2) to expose sin.
What does it mean that the Law was given to “silence mouths”? Paul has been building an argument for the past three chapters that all mankind stands guilty before God. What are they guilty of? They have failed to uphold God’s Law. Much like our laws work today, God’s Law puts a moral obligation that restricts and compels our behavior, but unlike our law God’s Law is also set to govern our heart. It dictates what we are to love. In its most basic summary, Jesus says that the whole of God’s Law can be summarized into two commandments: Love God totally, with everything you have, and love your neighbor as yourself. Our civil laws may restrict us from harming or robbing our neighbor, but we would find it very odd for there to be a law on our city ordinances that requires us to love our neighbor. But since God is our Creator, He has the authority to dictate what every aspect of life should be like—what we love, what we hate, what we do with our bodies, what we do to others. But Paul is explaining that all of mankind has failed to follow these Laws, to live in accordance with our Maker’s design.
Gentiles who don’t have God’s Law, but have the knowledge of God given to them through conscience and creation have failed. Jews who have been given special revelation of God’s Law through Moses at Mt. Sinai have failed. And this failure has incurred judgment, as Paul explains, “But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed,” (Rom 2:5). So mankind stands guilty, judgment is coming, and this leads Paul to then consider what the purpose is then of God’s Law. Let’s take them in reverse order:
To expose sin
Paul says that it is through the Law that we gain a “knowledge of sin.” If you have ever gone into a gym to exercise and not really known what you are doing, it can feel kind of intimidating. But you can fall into a rhythm and start to think you are doing okay. But then along comes some fitness guru and they show how you are actually supposed to use the machine and what the correct posture is supposed to be while lifting that weight, and you know what happens? You suddenly realize just how bad you are at working out! The clear instruction exposed your weakness. Now take that analogy and stretch it to the depths of infinity to get an idea of what God’s Law is intended to do in exposing sin. Before I was a Christian I considered myself to be generally a pretty good person. I was usually polite and kind and didn’t go out of my way to be cruel; I could certainly think of a lot of people who were waaay worse morally than I was. But I remember when I began investigating Christianity I heard someone once confess that they had been using their time very poorly and I thought: Wait, being a Christian imposes restrictions on how you use your free time? The idea of my time not being my own made me incredibly uncomfortable—I liked having free reign over my time. But then along came God’s Law and shined a flashlight in my heart and exposed sin.
Let’s just take one command and grade ourselves: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That command tells us we are to pursue the good of other people around us with the same energy, creativity, passion, and priority we put on pursuing our own desires. How well can you keep that? If someone were to take every minute of your life, evaluate it, and then give you a grade based on the sincerity of your heart and the amount of time you spent pursuing that command, what grade would you get? Now, let’s imagine that you are standing before a holy, perfect God, and you must submit that report to Him at the judgment day—would anyone in this room feel confident? And that is just with one command! What of the scores of others commands? Paul gives this bleak assessment of humanity: “None is righteous, no not one” (Rom 3:10).
This is why anyone who thinks that they basically are a good person simply hasn’t tried hard enough yet. The demands of the Law exposes the sin of our heart.
To silence mouths
When the Law exposes our sin, its intended result is to make us quiet. Have you ever had a moment where you have been caught in some shameful thing, your wrongdoing is laid out in the open and there is no excuse to be made. What do you do? You hang your head in silence. What else can you do?
Well, here is what some people do:
1. They try to redefine what God’s Law is. Maybe I feel guilty for no reason? Is this really so wrong? This is probably just some cultural addition from fundamentalism that I don’t need to worry about.
2. They point to other people who are more sinful than them. Sure, I am not doing good here, but at least I’m not as bad as those guys. They become like the Pharisee in Luke 18, “God, I thank you that I am not like those other people over there.”
3. They create a fake religious system to get out from under their guilt. This is what happened in Luther’s day. The Roman Catholic church had wandered greatly from the Bible and had lost sight of the gospel. They created rituals and systems that sought to make things right between men and God, like performing acts of penance as a way to atone for your own sins, praying to saints and visiting relics and sacred sites (none of this is taught in the Bible.. They created doctrines like purgatory (which, again, is taught nowhere in the Bible), a holding place for people after they die where they can suffer and be purged of their sin, be made perfect, and then finally be admitted into heaven. This is what Luther threw himself into vehemently, but regardless, Luther could not help escape his guilt. People do this today through thinking they can make up for their own faults through their own good deeds, through hoping their morality will outweigh their immorality. But this will never work.
This is because God’s Law is intended to expose our sin and silence our mouths.
“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,” (Rom 3:21-24).
Let’s move through the verse slowly and glean as much as we can. First, we are told that the “righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law.” God’s righteousness has always been manifested through the Law because the Law is a reflection of God’s own righteous character. He is morally perfect. But now, something else has come to reveal the perfection and goodness of God “apart from the law.” Which is good news for us, because the law has come and exposed our sin and left us silent.
But, second, this righteousness is not contrary to the Law, in fact, “the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it.” We should not think that this righteousness that is offered to us in the gospel is somehow different or alien to what has been laid out in the Old Testament. It is not as if people in the Old Testament were saved in some fundamentally different way than we are. No, the Old Testament itself pointed forward to this new manifestation of the righteousness of God.
Third, this righteousness is revealed “through faith in Jesus Christ, for all who believe.” So, God’s moral perfection, His right-ness is in some way revealed through “faith in Jesus.” What does that mean? Of course, Jesus is God in the flesh. So, naturally He manifests the righteousness of God. Ah, we might think, this must be what Paul is talking about. God’s righteousness that is revealed “apart from the law” just means that Jesus came and lived a righteous life. His works, His teaching, His miracles, etc. show the moral perfection of God. Faith must mean that we follow Jesus’ path and try to live like He did. It is obviously more complicated than this brief sketch, but this represents the core of what the popular Roman Catholic teaching was of Luther’s day and what Luther himself understood.
But then, the next point provide a serious puzzle, “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,” (Rom 3:22-24). Here is the dilemma that Luther was puzzled by. How can Paul admit that we are sinners, but then say that we are “justified”? The Roman Catholic church understood that “justification” is the process by which a sinner is made righteous through their good works, through the religious systems of the Church, through the sacraments, and through their suffering in purgatory. It was a process by which one was made righteous. But the problem, Luther realized, was that the word “justification” didn’t mean “to make righteous” but “to declare righteous.” A declaration is not a progressive act, but instantaneous. When a judge bangs his gavel and declares that the defendant is “not guilty,” he is not subjecting the defendant to a process by which they then are transformed into one who is innocent—the judge is recognizing that the defendant is innocent, and so makes a formal, legal declaration of that innocence. That is what justification means. Which creates a problem for us. How can a righteous God justify unrighteous sinners? How can God be just and a justifier of sinners?
Here is what Luther began to see: whatever it means, we know that justification comes by “grace as a gift”—grace is undeserved favor, and a gift is something freely given, not earned. So our justification is not something we earn or work for. Rather, it comes through someone else’s works, namely “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” What is “redemption”? Redemption is the language used of the slave market; you would “redeem” someone by purchasing them. God is described as the “Redeemer of Israel” because He set them free from their bondage in Egypt. And here, we are told that in Jesus there is redemption—a price paid to set slaves free. But what is the price?
“…Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith,” (Rom 3:25). The price Jesus paid was His own blood which served as a “propitiation.” What does that mean? A satisfaction of divine anger. It is the same term used to describe the place in the Holy of Holies where the high priest would go in on the Day of Atonement to sprinkle blood to atone for Israel’s sins. But now Jesus has shed his own blood to serve as a propitiation for our sins to be received by faith.
So let’s put the argument all together now. Through the Law of God, no human being will be justified—declared righteous—in God’s sight because it is through the Law that knowledge of sin comes. Our sin is exposed, and we are left without an excuse or defense, totally silent. But, God did not leave us in our desperation, but revealed a new way for His righteousness to be made manifest on earth. Jesus comes to reveal the righteousness of God, not only as an example, but as a means by which God’s righteousness wouldn’t only be held up as the standard that we all aim for but fail at—but in some way to give God’s righteousness as a gift. So Jesus’ righteous life ends in a horrifying death where he, like the animal sacrifice whose blood is sprinkled on the altar, dies in the place of His people, absorbing their punishment for their transgressions, for their law-breaking. And then, wonder of wonders, God turns to these sinners whose debt has now been forgiven, and sins atoned for, and bangs the gavel of heaven and booms, “Righteous!” Here is how Paul summarizes it elsewhere, “For our sake [God] made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” (2 Cor 5:21).
What remarkable acts of piety or devotion must we do to receive such a gift? Look again at the text, we are told in vs. 22 that this comes “through faith” and then in vs. 25 that it is “received by faith” and then finally, in vs. 28, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” It is by faith and faith alone. So that means that if you have been brought to a point where God’s law was exposed you, left you without an excuse, and you know that you deserve God’s judgment, but you trust that Jesus’ work can save you, forgive you, and deliver you and make you right with God, then you will be saved. You will be declared righteous. Upon realizing this truth, Luther was transformed and said that he felt as if he had walked through the gates of paradise.
Friends, because we are saved by faith alone, that means that anybody can get in on this. There is no moral equivalent of “you must be this tall to ride” to be declared righteous. All that is required is a simple trust in Jesus.
Second, this means that we desire to obey out of love of God, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law,” (Rom 3:31). One of the biggest criticisms that Luther faced when he began teaching the doctrine of justification by faith alone was that it would result in moral laxity and licentiousness. If you tell people that they are already made right with God, what motive would they have to obey God then? But Paul doesn’t see that as the result, rather, Paul understands that those who have been justified by faith alone, not by works of the law, then become those most serious about now upholding the law. Why is that? Well, if your obedience of God’s Law is dependent on you earning your salvation then that shows that your obedience has always been motivated by fear or a desire to get something from God. If your salvation is already secure, then your desire to obey comes out of a simple love of God.
Lastly, this means that our acceptance with God is not contingent on our performance. On good days and bad days, when our spiritual disciplines are soaring and when they are failing, when we feel like the greatest Christian and when we feel like we are just barely limping along, our standing before God is the same because our standing is found in the righteousness of Christ.
What though the vile accuser roar
Of sins that I have done;
I know them well, and thousands more;
My God, He knoweth none