“The Law and the Prophets Bear Witness” (Romans 3:19-28)
Today being the last Sunday in October, this is the day we observe Reformation Day, celebrating what happened 498 years ago, when, on October 31, 1517, Dr. Martin Luther went to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, and there posted 95 Theses questioning the sale of indulgences. That was the beginning of the great Reformation of the church, and as Lutherans we are here today as the beneficiaries of that movement and that heritage. We thank God that he used Luther as his instrument to bring the clear gospel of Christ to light, breaking through the fog and the clouds that had obscured it.
But how did Luther get there? How did he come to his evangelical breakthrough, his dawning discovery of the pure gospel, in contrast to the accretions of centuries that had covered over and clouded the truth? What led Luther to an increasing realization of how the church had gotten off track and where the true path of righteousness is found? When we know this, when we know how Luther came to this realization, then that in turn will bolster our faith and deepen our own understanding and strengthen our commitment to the truth.
Now there were many factors, of course. Luther’s experience as a monk, his inner spiritual struggle to find a God whom he could love, learning firsthand that monastic asceticism could not bring him peace–this was one part of the puzzle. His study of the church fathers, where they got things right and where they got things wrong. His study of the late medieval scholastic theologians, who taught, “To the one who does that which is within him, God will not deny grace”–Luther’s recognition that such teaching is false and conflicts with the gospel. His growing disgust at Roman merit-earning practices such as pilgrimages, relics, and indulgences, practices that were also big money-makers for the papacy. All of these things played a part.
But what I want to focus on today is what really lay at the root of Luther’s Reformation journey, and that is, his study of the Scriptures. Yes, the Bible, the Word of God–that is what led Luther to the truth. That is what led Luther to say, for example, in front of the emperor, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. Here I stand. I can do no other.”
The Scriptures, the Bible, the Word of God–this is what compelled Luther’s conscience and propelled the Reformation. The worst mistake the Roman church ever made was to make Luther a professor of the Bible. The young monk had earned his doctorate in theology and was named a professor at the University of Wittenberg. As such, it was his calling to study and teach the Bible–like, all the time, every day. And Luther took to this work like a duck to water. He just absorbed everything he read. His brilliant mind, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, enabled him to make great insights. And by teaching the Bible, he really took hold of it.
So actually reading the Bible, taking in its teachings–this is what led Luther to his evangelical breakthrough. It was reading passages like our Epistle for today, from Romans chapter 3; that brought Luther to the same conclusion that St. Paul reached: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Justification by faith. By faith alone. Sola fide. Justification by faith apart from works of the law. This is the central teaching of the Christian faith, and it became the centerpiece of Luther’s theology and of the Reformation of the church.
But it wasn’t just in St. Paul that Luther found this teaching. It wasn’t just in Romans or Galatians that Luther found the doctrine of justification. No, once the light dawned, once the light bulb came on in his head, then Luther discovered this wonderful gospel teaching all throughout Scripture. And not just in the New Testament. Did you know that Luther, as a professor of the Bible, taught mostly on the Old Testament? He did. He lectured more on the books of the Old Testament than on the New. And there in the Old Testament, Luther found Christ. He saw that the Old Testament, same as the New, teaches this freeing doctrine of justification by faith.
Which should be no surprise. There is only one true God. The same God is the God of the Old Testament as of the New. The Holy Spirit inspired the writing of both. The Old Testament points ahead to Christ. The New Testament says, “Here he is!” Salvation, righteousness, justification–it always comes the same way throughout the Bible, namely, by faith in God’s gracious promises, not by our works that try to impress him or earn our way into God’s favor.
Paul makes this very point–that righteousness through faith is taught in the Old Testament–Paul makes this point in our reading from Romans, where he says, “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.”
So how do we get right with God? Not by our attempts to please God, by our obedience to his law. For in that, we will always fall short. Our sin will always condemn us, no matter how hard we try. Have you made that discovery for yourself, that same discovery St. Paul made and Luther made, that you know you are a sinner, no matter how hard you try, that you do not keep God’s commandments as you ought, and that you are condemned as unrighteous in yourself? I hope you do realize this, for if you don’t, you will feel no need for a Savior, you would not put your faith solely in him, and thus you would miss out on the salvation that only Christ can give. Sadly, that is the case for so many in our culture and in our community today: They feel no need for a Savior, and so they feel no need for Christ and his church.
But what Paul teaches here, and what Luther discovered, is that the righteousness that avails before God only comes through faith in Jesus Christ. And the whole Bible, both Old Testament and New, teaches this same truth. This is why Paul writes, “The Law and the Prophets bear witness to it.” “The Law and the Prophets”: That’s simply shorthand for referring to the Hebrew Scriptures, what we would call the Old Testament. Paul is saying that the Old Testament teaches that we are put right with God, justified, through faith and not by works.
What might Paul be thinking of here? Well, he tells us a few verses later, right at the start of the next chapter, Romans 4, where he gives a couple of examples of how in the Old Testament we find that people were justified by faith and not by works. His examples are from the life of Abraham and the life of David, two of the key figures in all of the Bible. First, Paul will quote this verse from Genesis 15, about Abraham: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” That’s justification by faith, not works, and it’s taught in the Old Testament. “The Law and the Prophets bear witness.”
And then Paul will quote this verse from one of the psalms of David: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” See? There is the forgiveness of sins, right there in the Old Testament. Once again, “the Law and the Prophets bear witness.”
And Paul finds this principle at work all over the place. He even opens Romans by quoting an Old Testament verse that teaches righteousness by faith: “The righteous shall live by faith,” which is from the prophet Habakkuk. “The Law and the Prophets bear witness.”
So the Old Testament teaches that a man is justified by faith and not by works of the law. But faith in what? God’s promises, yes. But which promises? What is this promise from God that we trust in for forgiveness and for righteousness before God? It is this, what Paul talks about right here in Romans 3, where he says that we are justified by God’s 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 too the Old Testament pointed ahead to, this redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Over and over again in the Old Testament, we see God providing a substitute to take the place of someone who ought to have died but doesn’t. Instead, someone else dies in their place. Think back to the Garden. “In the day you eat of it, you shall surely die,” God told Adam. But when Adam and Eve did eat, they did not die that day. Someone else died in their place. God clothed their shame by providing them with animal skins, meaning that those animals died that day. This pointed ahead to Christ, who clothes our shame and covers us with his righteousness.
Another example. Abraham was told to sacrifice his son, his only son, Isaac, whom he loved. But just as Abraham was about to lower the knife, there was a ram caught in the thicket. Again, the Lord provided a substitute. And this pointed ahead to the sacrifice made on the cross by God’s only Son, his beloved Son, Jesus, in our place. Again, “the Law and the Prophets bear witness” to the righteousness God provides for us through faith in Christ.
One more example. In our text, Paul says that God put Christ forward “as a propitiation by his blood.” What is this “propitiation” business? This harkens back to the worship practice of Israel at the tabernacle and the temple, specifically, on the Day of Atonement. On that day, once a year, the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies and sprinkle blood on the mercy seat on the Ark of the Covenant, to atone for the sins of all the people for that year. That’s what this term “propitiation” is referring to. Well, in an even greater way, it is the blood of Jesus, shed on the cross, that atones for the sins of the whole world, for all time–yes, for all of you here today! Your sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. Believe it. Receive this gift by faith.
So you see, in all these cases, and in so many more, “the Law and the Prophets bear witness” to the righteousness that is ours in Christ. The Old Testament and the New both teach this saving gospel of justification by faith apart from works of the law. St. Paul saw this. Luther saw it. And as heirs of the Reformation, we see it too. This is our faith. This is our hope. It is our hope for everlasting life. And this hope is sure–and it is yours–in Christ.