Preachers are served the Gospel on a platter with the Epistle text appointed for Reformation Sunday. Romans 3:28: “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.”
No slogan encapsulates biblical Reformation theology (and the teaching of Martin Luther) as well as the one drawn from this verse: Justification by faith apart from works, as Paul put it, and if apart from works, then the justification of the sinner is by faith alone - sola fide. It was the motto upon which all the doctrines and beliefs of the Reformation stood. It was the very bulwark and foundation upon which nearly half of the Western world at that time staked their lives and, indeed, upon which many lost their lives. Justification mattered so deeply. It was a matter of life and death, Heaven and Hell. It must be preached that way.
Because today it seems irrelevant. Few care about or discuss or even preach justification by free grace. It is seen as pedantic, obtuse, intellectualist, divisive dogma that went out of vogue upon the triumph of sentimentalism and religious subjectivism. Simply put, the doctrine of justification by faith alone is immaterial to American Christianity since believers no longer follow the Reformation doctrines of the faith, but rather follow the sentiments of their heart. “Follow your heart,” is the new gospel of nebulous spirituality not Reformation Christianity. Faithful pastors and priests much preach against this aberrant new spirituality, which is really a rehabilitation of the offerings of the serpent in the Garden of Eden.
Simply put, the doctrine of justification by faith alone is immaterial to American Christianity since believers no longer follow the Reformation doctrines of the faith, but rather follow the sentiments of their heart.
It does not occur to people in this day and age that they might be justified, or need to be justified before God, much less how they might be justified. So, the Romans Paul was addressing in this verse, and all whom Luther was addressing in the 16th century, do not seem to be the same people we encounter today, the same people that purchase Joel Osteen’s books by the millions, and who count Oprah a prophetess.
Preachers, however, will want to assert that, not only is Romans 3:28 the most Lutheran verse in Scripture, but it is also the most relevant verse for today.
Start with the word “justify,” a word that persistently appears on word processing programs. Place your cursor on the tool bar where it says “format,” and open the menu on the word “paragraph.” A dialog box will offer you the option of placing your text to the left, to the right, to the center, or having it justified.
What it means, of course, is the text in your document lines up precisely on both the left and right margins, because the word “justify” means to put right. The text is put right, set straight into a tidy shape, with nothing out of place. For a person to be justified it means that they too are put right. They too are set straight and nothing in that person’s life—as far as the judgment of God is concerned—is out of place. They are justified in His sight.
In the days of our Lord Jesus’ earthly life, people understood the need to be justified before God. “Justification” was the number one item on the agenda. It was the foremost concern of the Jewish people. All too aware that their lives were not right (not where it counted in the eyes of an all-seeing and holy God), they did everything to put themselves right, or to use the language of Paul and Microsoft®, to justify themselves.
No effort would be spared in trying to get there by keeping the Law. This is the point: They could try, but they could not get there; never did, never could, never would. They were law-breaking sinners. It was precisely on this point that Paul made to them the most profoundly relevant disclosure: “A man is justified by faith apart from works of law.” The standard is perfection. Perfection never comes from law because it is a mirror to those who are imperfect and a lot worse in every way. Faith however brings perfection — the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus.
Perfection never comes from law because it is a mirror to those who are imperfect and a lot worse in every way. Faith however brings perfection — the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus.
Here is the Good News of the Gospel, the Good News of Paul to Jew and Gentile alike, the Good News of Martin Luther to sinners who must be justified before the Almighty Judge. God Himself was in Christ, not as a judge but as a Servant, accomplishing the work of putting us right. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” In other words, God had come to us as a loving Father making us justified by faith in what He has accomplished on our behalf through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus His Son.
Are people so different today? Is justification really irrelevant now? Is our only point of contact with the life-giving Gospel a by-product of Microsoft’s word processor? Holy Scripture says, “No.” The word may not be on everyone’s lips, even though it appears as an icon on their computer screen, but still the concern of justification is in their hearts. Paul say, “A man is justified by faith in what God has done for us, apart from the works of law.” So it is that the religions of the world labor with half the truth. All seem to know the human life needs to be put right. The Buddhist tries to make it so through ascetic living, the Muslim by rigorous adherence to Shariah law, the Jew by obeying Torah Law, the Mormon by a legalistic sub-culture and the fundamentalists and charismatics by doing this, not doing that, having this gift and exercising it this way and that, and so on and so on. All know the human life needs to be put right. None seem to know how this can happen apart from works of their own laws, from their own new and improved techniques. It seems the Law is written on our hearts by nature and we crave the hidden techniques for self-enhancing, self-justification. But the Gospel of being freely justified by grace is totally foreign to us. This is why it must be preached, why someone must declare: “A man is justified by faith in Christ alone, apart from works of law.” There is no other way.
The quest for being right has never left us through all our modern, technological development. Still the answer remains unchanged, too. We can be right, apart from works of law. It is for Christ’s sake, not because our failure is trivial and does not matter, but because Jesus has dealt with it once and for all bearing our sins in His body and nailing them to the tree of the Cross. God did not let bygones be bygones. He dealt with our sins so we could be justified while yet sinners. And justification is through faith, by believing in Jesus Christ. God’s way of righting us is the only thing that matters in His merciful sight.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in Romans 3:19-28.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Romans 3:19-28.