The Reformation is the name given to a series of reforms and reorganizations of the Western Church at the local, regional and national levels in the sixteenth century. The world-changing phenomenon was essentially a religious, liturgical, and theological marvel spearheaded by a Roman Catholic friar, priest, preacher and professor, Dr. Martin Luther. Luther’s German-based Reformation is known as the “Conservative Reformation,” which also saw other less conservative reformations and even “radical reformations” spring up around Europe.
The significance of the Conservative Reformation as a theological and liturgical event was decisive. At the heart of Luther's teaching lay the Biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone (sola fide). Social historians have doubted such a “theological” doctrine could ever have attracted mass support by itself. But the personal testimony of men like Hans Sachs and Albrecht Durer, together with the flood of pamphlets which poured forth in German-speaking lands in the early 1520’s, indicate it was precisely this doctrine of sinners being justified before God not by works but rather through faith in Jesus Christ alone, and its liberating message, which drove support for the initial Reformation message all across Europe. Recovering the Gospel purity in the doctrine that a sinner is justified by God’s grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), on account of Jesus Christ alone (solus Christus), on the authority of Holy Scripture alone (sola scriptura), proved to be a double liberation: sinners freed from an oppressive system of salvation by works and monetary payments, and the Gospel freed from the debris heaped upon it by, of all things, the Church herself. Such a recovery of the Church’s birthright and mandate warrants celebration.
No finer nor more appropriate celebration could there be on Reformation Sunday than the pure preaching of the Gospel and the Sacraments administered according to the Gospel. The texts appointed for this day underscore the Gospel of justification by divine grace through the gift of faith on account of the person and work of Christ. Preachers would do well to integrate the Gospel lessons from John 8:31-36 or Matthew 11:12-19 with the Epistle. No less important is the text from Revelation 14:6-7. Here, we will concentrate on the gist of Romans 3:19-28.
The line of demarcation distinguishing Law from Gospel could not be more clearly presented. Follow the logic of the Apostle’s progression and the expositor should have an easy day. What is more, setting the stage for your preaching in the same way as Paul does—evoking a juridical setting, that is, a courtroom scene—will help to convey both the Law and the Gospel with unmistakable lucidity.
Verses 19-20 really project the conclusion to Saint Paul’s argument from 3:9-18 which present a damning indictment of all humanity, both Jew and Gentile. The whole section may be seen as Paul the prosecutor’s closing argument. Hence, the final two verses of this section:
“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” (Romans 3:27-28).
This is the Law; pure, unadulterated law. Zero wiggle room. No human being will be justified before God by the works of the Law. Condemned, therefore, before God are all religions of works and all such trusting in one’s trusting, so to speak. Moreover, humanitarian ethics devoid of grounding in the love of God and prompted by the Holy Spirit are also condemned. No one gets a pass for, “givin’ life the ol’ college try.” There is a benchmark and it is perfection, period. “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
Luther was acutely aware this was the standard and was befuddled at how such a requirement could be attained. Indeed, he understood how fulfilling the Law was only to do one’s duty — not actually the attaining of divine righteousness itself. As Jesus says: “you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Luke 17:10).
The Law itself speaks, Paul says in verse 19, and it speaks to those within the Law. The Greek construction has the Law speak with a present and active voice: “is speaking.” To whom, though? Who is presently within or under the Law? Everyone is. Every mouth is silenced when the Law speaks to those who have not attained to righteousness. Again, this would be everyone.
Furthermore, there are strata of the Law to silence every mouth. First, there is the law of nature. There is also the law of conscience, Paul wrote about in 1:18-32. Then there is the revealed law; the Decalogue, but also the Torah. However it may be, the Law speaks to everyone, Jews and Gentiles. All are within the Law (3:19).
The climax of Paul’s legal case leaves any would-be defendant, “without defense.” They have nothing to say. Their mouths are silenced. The terminology in this section is unmistakably forensic and broadens to a comprehensive level: “all the world might become accountable to God.” He is the juridical authority to whom everyone must give a justification. But the prosecuting Law speaks first, and every mouth is silenced. Then comes the verdict but not the sentencing: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in His sight, since through the Law comes knowledge of sin” (3:20). Through the works of the Law comes a proper recognition of sin. Here the Law does, in Luther’s words, “it’s proper work,” namely condemn and lead to a knowledge of sin.
The phrase “works of the law” has an antithesis when it comes to righteousness—faith. What keeping the Law could not do, the gift of faith does. Here is a strong juxtaposition not only presented but announced in 3:21: “But now.” It is relief, saving liberation.
“Faith” only occurs once since 1:17, but the noun occurs eight times in 3:21-31, and the verb “declare righteous” occurs four times in the same verses. Michael P. Middendorf explains the significance:
All of this vocabulary combines to justify the title given to this section in this commentary’s introduction: “restatement and expansion of the theme: God’s righteousness is declared to all, Jew and Gentile, through ‘faith of[/in] Jesus’ (3:21-31).”
Verses 21-26, it should be remembered, are not merely central to the Reformation. This is the heart and center of Christianity itself. It is by faith or through faith we are justified and united to Christ who is our righteousness and is Himself the propitiation of our sins, hence the overtones of Jesus’ atonement. The result is the justifying or rendering or accounting as righteous those who could not attain righteousness by, “works of the Law.” Again, Middendorf is a sure guide:
What now stands openly revealed is the righteousness of God: the meaning and content of which is spelled out in the verses to follow. Paul has explained how God is righteous in His judging (3:4), how our unrighteousness demonstrates God’s righteousness (3:5), and that no one will be declared righteous before Him from works of the Law (3:20). At the same time, he maintained his earlier assertion that the righteousness of God is also revealed in the Good News, which is God’s power to save (1:16-17).
The hopelessness of knowing our sin and that no one is righteous, “from works of the Law,” is now overwhelmed by the righteousness of God revealed, which is apart from one’s doing of the Law’s works (3:21). This glorious relief brings all eyes to focus on Christ Jesus. He is the righteousness of God. The recognition of Him as our righteousness, trusting that the promise-making God proved Himself the promise-keeping God in Jesus Christ, is what constitutes faith. The Apology of the Augsburg Confession summarizes this truth:
Therefore, men cannot keep the Law by their own strength, and they are all under sin and subject to eternal wrath and death. On this account the Law cannot free us from sin or justify us, but the promise of the forgiveness of sins and justification was given because of Christ (Ap IV, 40).
The faithfulness of God is in Christ Jesus. It is the faith of Christ which is gifted to sinners, so He who is righteousness may be our righteousness. It is His righteousness that is credited to us who have received faith. His righteousness is imputed or accounted to us over the entire course of our lives so we may walk in the present as ones who have been justified.
Both themes—God’s own righteousness in keeping His covenant word in Christ Jesus and the righteousness of Christ Jesus, who is the righteous one of God, imputed to us through the instrumentality of gifted faith—must be upheld when preaching the Gospel. God has been faithful in Christ Jesus. He has kept His covenant promises in and through the Son of God, born of a woman, born under the Law. And this news of God’s gift of Christ our righteousness is received by faith, and truly this faith becomes our faith.
Set Christ as the righteousness of God before your auditors. Let them see Jesus. They should not be trusting in their trusting or having faith in their faith. Rather, Christ is the object of our faith and trusting for it is Christ who saves, not faith. Faith is the instrument and gift. Christ is the Savior.
Concordia Theology- Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Romans 3:19-28.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Romans 1:16-17, 3:19-31.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach 2 Timothy 4:6-18.