Sermon: The First and Chief Article

Text: Romans 3:19-28
Festival of the Reformation
Listen to the sermon here.

 Grace to you and peace from God our Father
and the Lord Jesus Christ.

What would you say is the most essential teaching in the Christian faith? What doctrine comes first before everything else?  What is the most important thing the Bible has to say to you? A few teachings come to mind as possibilities, but only one doctrine is the most important. Today we commemorate the 505th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. On October 31, 1517, an Augustinian friar and professor of theology Dr Martin Luther posted 95 theses on the castle church door for debate concerning the sale of indulgences. However, in Paul’s letter to the Romans, Dr Luther found Christianity’s chief teaching. Romans made Luther see that the Church of his day had misunderstood how we are justified. To be justified means to be pardoned by God, acquitted, and declared innocent, and to have the relationship between God and us put right again. The question before us this morning is how, according to Romans, will we be justified? Paul tells us two things this morning. He tells us how justification doesn’t happen and how justification does happen.

How Justification Doesn’t Happen

He says first that justification does not occur by the works of the Law. “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight” (Rom. 3:20a). The works of the Law are things you do in obedience to God’s moral Law. God’s Law is his will for your life. It tells us that we should fear, love, and trust in God above all things. It tells us how to live in this world: love your neighbour as yourself. Don’t kill each other, and don’t steal other people’s stuff. Do this. Don’t do that. And so the first thing that Paul tells you is that no human being can be justified by trying to keep the Law.

Why? Because “through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20b). Sin is a spiritual disease, a corruption of our humanity that goes right to the core of our being. The Law unmasks us and shows that we are sinners. The Law reveals the rebellion in our hearts. It makes our sins against God and his Law known. We commit sins, so we might be tempted to think that we just need a little spiritual touch-up and all will be well. But all is not well. The problem is not your thoughts, words, and deeds. Those are simply the symptoms. The problem is Sin dwelling in your members. Sin has corrupted your mind, your will, your every thought, desire and action. The Law is like a spiritual MRI that makes the deep scan, going beneath the surface and revealing what’s wrong at the core. The MRI shows something deeper, something you can’t see or know for yourself. By giving us a detailed record of God’s will, the Law makes us vividly aware of how short of God’s requirements we fall. It makes us aware of our sinfulness.

Not only does the Law show us our sin, but it also closes our mouths. “So that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (Rom. 3:19). We are always quick to give an excuse and eager to provide rationalizations. The Law will shut your mouth before God. Imagine a defendant in a courtroom. The prosecuting attorney has done such a good job making his case that the defendant has nothing to say in defence. The prosecution holds the defendant accountable for justice.

The Law will hold the entire world accountable before the highest court of justice. We will be without defence. We will have nothing to say, and our mouths will be silenced. The Law gives you zero wiggle room. No one gets a pass for “the old college try.” There is a benchmark, and it is perfection. “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

We might look virtuous to others, but we are still accountable to God. One day, everything we have done said, thought, and felt will be judged by God himself. Sin is a universal problem. We are guilty before God. It is his Law we have broken. It is his glory we fall so of. Each of us is personally accountable to God. The gavel will come down and declare us either guilty or not guilty. So, we cannot be justified by trying to keep the Law because the Law shows that all people are sinners and holds us personally accountable to God’s judgment.

How Justification Does Happen

Second, when Paul talks about how justification does happen, he talks about what God has done. I want you to see two amazing words in verse 21, “But now.” Those two words tell you that everything has changed. Something dramatic has happened. We are all sinners who are personally accountable to God. “But now”, God has intervened. “But now”, God has not left us alone in our sin. “But now”, he has taken the initiative. God made the world; would it turn out to be a gigantic mistake? The world is full of wickedness, and God is the just judge. He can’t just let it slide. Something had to be done. So, God planned to deal with our sin and restore us to a right relationship with him. The history of that plan is unfolded in the pages of Holy Scripture.

God’s plan was implemented not by scrapping the world and starting over again but by saving it. Listen to this sentence from Romans and follow it closely: “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” (Rom. 3:22-25). That’s the Gospel in a nutshell. This is the Bible’s most important teaching. You are a convicted sinner, guilty as guilty can be. Yet, you can stand before God and be declared innocent by the blood of Another who died for you. It is based on grace, and that’s why it’s a gift. You can’t earn it by works.

The fantastic thing about the Gospel is even though we sinned against God, he took it upon himself to replace our sin with righteousness and his anger with reconciliation. This is where the word “propitiation” comes in.  A propitiation is a gift offered to make peace with someone angry with you. Think of it this way. It’s not uncommon for a husband to buy flowers, chocolate, or wine for his wife when he screws up and wants to restore the relationship. The thing that restored peace is the flowers, which in our text is known as propitiation. We are unrighteous, unjust and unholy. It’s unpopular, but we must understand that our sin and rebellion make God justifiably angry. That’s why Jesus is your propitiation. He is the thing, or rather the person, that made peace with God on your behalf. Because of Christ, no longer does the wrath of God abide on you. Jesus accomplished this by willingly giving up his perfect life. His life is a ransom paid for your redemption. When Paul says, “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”, the redemption is in Christ Jesus because his blood paid your ransom. He gave his life so you could be released from sin, guilt, and condemnation. You can’t pay for it, and you can’t work for it. It’s all of Christ. What coin do you have in your pocket that compares with the blood of Jesus Christ? What’s in your wallet that can compare to Christ’s perfect life lived for you, His innocent suffering and death in your place? You do not stand righteous before God because you have done good but because Christ has done good. You stand righteous before your God, covered not in the resume of your religious works but in the Blood of Christ your Savior.

So, if being justified is God’s declaration that you are righteous in his sight, and if you can’t pay for it because it’s “a free gift,” and you can’t work for it because it’s “by his grace,” and if you were ransomed through the redemption in Christ Jesus, then how do you get this justification?   To be justified before God is to be justified through faith alone. Faith is trust in the promise that God is favourable towards you because Christ is the propitiation for your sins. What could be easier than faith? Do you want this? If you want this, turn to Christ with no payment in your hand and no works to your credit. Lean on Christ. His promise of forgiveness is based on his body given for you and his blood shed for you. It is free as free can be!

Luther himself quoted our reading from Romans in our Confessions. Listen to Dr Luther,

“The first and chief article is this: Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification (Romans 4:24–25). He alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), and God has laid upon Him the iniquities of us all (Isaiah 53:6). All have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works or merits, by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood (Romans 3:23–25). This is necessary to believe. This cannot be otherwise acquired or grasped by any work, Law, or merit. Therefore, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us. As St. Paul says: For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. (Romans 3:28) That He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. [Romans 3:26] Nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls [Mark 13:31]. For there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12) And with His stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5) Upon this article everything that we teach, and practice depends, in opposition to the pope, the devil, and the whole world. Therefore, we must be certain and not doubt this doctrine. Otherwise, all is lost, and the pope, the devil, and all adversaries win the victory and the right over us.”

Luther, Smalcald Articles II.I.1-5, McCain Edition

The first and chief doctrine in the Bible is that you are justified freely without works, through faith alone, because Christ is the propitiation for your sins. That’s why we had a Reformation.

May, the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Published by revfenn

Canadian. Confessional Lutheran pastor. Loci Communicant. Husband. Dad. Bach enthusiast. Middle-Earthling. Nerdy interests on the whole.

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