“Justification: The Heart of the Reformation” (Romans 3:19-28)
Today is the last Sunday in October, and so we are observing Reformation Day. It will be 497 years ago this Friday, on October 31, 1517, that Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, thus setting in motion the great Reformation of the Christian church. We are the heirs of that Reformation, blessed to be so, and so we join with faithful Lutherans all around the globe in celebrating that historic event and all the blessings of pure doctrine and sound practice that came from it.
How do we celebrate the Reformation? By believing in and caring about the same things that Luther and the Reformers believed in and cared about. And foremost in that list, I would put one word: Justification. Everything else that we can talk about in the Lutheran church flows from, follows after, undergirds and supports this central, primary doctrine of justification. And so our theme for this Reformation Day, “Justification: The Heart of the Reformation.”
First, though, I suppose we should ask: What is justification? Understand that this term “justification” is a legal term, referring to the courtroom of God’s justice and how we stand before him. Righteous or not righteous? That is the question. When the day of reckoning comes, and even now–does God declare and will he declare us righteous, right in his sight, that is, not guilty? Or, on the other hand, will our judge pronounce us guilty, convicted and condemned for eternity? A lot is riding on the verdict–your eternal future.
The classic passage in the Bible on this subject is from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, the third chapter–our Epistle for this day–summed up in verse 28, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” But to really appreciate the brilliance and clarity and sheer power of this passage, we need to back up and follow Paul’s argument leading up to this point.
In chapters 1 and 2 of Romans and continuing into chapter 3, Paul lays out the argument, like a prosecuting attorney, that all of us are guilty in God’s sight according to the standards of his law. Jew and Gentile alike, whether we have the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone, like Israel did, or whether, as Gentiles, we simply have God’s law written on our hearts, telling us that certain things are right, certain things are wrong, our consciences convicting us when we know we’ve messed up, and that there’s a God on high to whom we are accountable–the fact of the matter is, all people everywhere, each one of us stands guilty in God’s courtroom, at his bar of justice. The law accuses us, convicts us, sentences us to death, and rightly so. No matter how good and moral we have tried to live, we all fail, we all fall, none of us measures up.
Paul the prosecutor does his summing up of the legal case against us in verses 19 and 20 of our text: “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.” That’s what the law does.
God’s law says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and strength.” But even as Christians, we can manage only a half-hearted obedience. Do we have a fervent yearning to be in God’s house every Sunday? Do we study the Bible and pray to God with hearts of devotion? Do we gladly hear and learn God’s word and hold it sacred? I’m guessing, not as well as we ought. Then there’s the other half of the law: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” How well do we do that? Do you love your neighbor and seek his good as much as you love yourself? How do you use your tongue in speaking about your neighbor? I could go on, but you get the point. The law declares, about you and me, “Guilty as charged.” And if guilty, then guilty of death. That’s the sentence, that’s the punishment the law requires. No probation or a slap on the wrist. No time off for good behavior. No softness in this law or this courtroom. It’s either, “Keep the law, perfectly, and you live,” or “Break the law, and you die, cut off from God forever.”
And so the law cannot save you. It can only convict you and condemn you, condemn you to death. But through this accusatory work, the law also does you the valuable service of showing you your sins. You see, you need to know that you cannot please God and earn salvation by how well you keep the law. You will never do it well enough! This is essential for you to know, so you don’t deceive yourself and delude yourself into thinking you can be righteous enough on your own. You need to be stripped bare of that pretension, so that your ears will be open to hear God’s other word to you, namely, the gospel, which is the only place where salvation can indeed be found.
That’s what Paul gets at next in Romans 3, and this right here is the heart of the gospel, Romans 3:21-28, the teaching of justification by faith in its most profound exposition. Paul writes: “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.” And then Paul adds: “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.”
The righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ. Justification by grace through faith. That’s what this passage is saying. For the law is not the only word to be heard in God’s courtroom. The judge will declare you “not guilty,” but it won’t be because of how well you have done according to the law. But your defense attorney, Jesus Christ–he who has done no sin, the only man who has ever kept the law of God as it should be kept–Jesus steps forward and takes your place when the death sentence is handed down. Justice must be served, and he is the one who will serve it. Out of God’s great love for us sinners, God puts forward his own Son, Jesus Christ, to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. The precious, priceless blood of the holy Son of God is shed on our behalf, covering our sins on the seat of God’s mercy.
And all this is a gift. It is all by grace, God’s undeserved favor, freely bestowed. It’s not a matter of your works; it’s a matter of Christ’s work for you. Redemption, salvation–or call it justification, the righteousness of God, your right standing before God–the thing is this: You can’t earn it. You can only receive it. Receive it as a gift.
That’s what faith is: Simply receiving the free gift that God is giving you, the forgiveness of sins won for you by Christ on the cross. That “not guilty” verdict pronounced by God–that sweet music is ringing in your ears, not because of anything you have done, but rather solely because of what Christ has done for you. Of that, you can be certain.
And now you know what the Reformation was all about. To restore this primary teaching of Scripture to its proper place of prominence, to let this sweet music ring out in all its clear and beautiful tones, to let this bright light shine out and break through the clouds that obscured it, to give all glory to Christ and to give comfort and consolation to troubled consciences–this was the special gift of Martin Luther and the Reformation. Instead of turning people back to their own efforts at keeping the law, which can only lead people either to pride and arrogance on the one hand or despair and hopelessness on the other, Luther pointed people to Christ and the cross, to this teaching of justification by grace through faith, apart from works of the law.
To underscore its importance, Luther would say of the doctrine of justification: “Nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls.” And again, “Upon this article everything that we teach and practice depends, in opposition to the pope, the devil, and the whole world.”
And so this article of doctrine permeated to every corner of the church’s practice. How the church did Penance, how the church did the Mass, the liturgy, catechesis, preaching–all this had to be reformed, in order to keep justification clean and clear and at the center.
So it is for us today. In our practice of doing church, will we keep justification at the center? Or will we shove it off to the side, as irrelevant and not very appealing to potential customers? That is the challenge we face in our day. Under the pressure of putting people in the pews and dollars in the offering plate, will we compromise and yield and give people what they want instead of what they need? Will we shove to the side, will we downplay the doctrine of justification, this sin-and-grace, Christ-crucified business, because it isn’t very popular? In our worship practice, for instance? In the hymns we sing–or don’t sing? In the liturgy we follow–or, sadly, leave behind? In our catechesis, our instruction, how light and fluffy and short we make it? In our church practices, do we Lutherans take justification for granted and downplay it because we think will gain us more customers? So you see, the Reformation is not over, my friends. The church continues to need reforming in our day also.
But when we grasp just how beautiful and central and life-giving this divine doctrine of justification is, that it is the very heart of the gospel–God’s gracious declaration of righteousness for Christ’s sake–then we will treasure this teaching. We will hold it dear, thank God for it, and let it permeate every aspect of the church’s life. And that is why we can say today, with joy and confidence, that justification is the heart of the Reformation.