Does the doctrine of justification really matter anymore? This is a worthy question to engage if you are planning to observe the festival of the Reformation on October 31st. This is the Sunday in which many churches will commemorate Martin Luther’s initiation of the Reformation on October 31, 1517. What began as an academic debate over the abusive doctrine of indulgences, soon became a call for the Church to return to God’s Word as the sole authority for the Christian’s doctrine and life. These were the scriptures which taught in no uncertain terms that a sinner’s only hope in life or death is that Jesus’ perfect life, death, and resurrection are enough to save them. Solely by virtue of His dying and rising in their place, are sinners declared righteous, or justified, before their holy God. Luther and the reformers had to fight, some to the death, to preach this gospel to Christ’s Church.
Luther’s road to the Reformation—a monk in despair for his eternal salvation who found a gracious Savior on the pages of the scriptures—is a story we have heard repeatedly. However, the Reformation did not take hold simply because there was one verbose monk with a weighty conscience. Luther preached Christ to an entire era burdened by the guilt of their sin and the fear of God’s judgment. As Oswald Bayer notes, “Many thousands joined his song and found in the turning point of Luther’s life the watershed of their own lives.”  It was this world of sinners—haunted by their sin and terrified of God’s judgment—that longed for the comfort and certainty found only in the preaching of Christ crucified.
But what about today? Are we still haunted by God? Do our sins bother us to the point that we worry about God’s righteous wrath? Does the concept of justification, how one can be right in the eyes of God, even cross our minds?
I would argue that in the modern world, many are still haunted by God, but instead of fleeing from His wrath, they have turned the tables and are standing up to fight. With all the suffering and pain we see around us, we demand answers! Justification still weighs heavy on us. However, we have attempted to switch seats with God. We believe we are on the judge’s bench now and God needs to justify Himself to us! No longer are we concerned if we have not done enough to earn a right standing before God. No, we have eaten the fruit of the tree and bought the Devil’s lie that we can be gods. As such, we have decided to put God on trial and judge Him! Robert Kolb writes, “Luther’s theology of the cross evolved from a concern that human creatures do not have (they cannot produce!) what God in His justice demands from them. Modern people complain because God does not produce what they demand as their rights from him!”
We believe we are on the judge’s bench now and God needs to justify Himself to us!
I have obviously been painting with a broad brush in the previous analysis. Yet, every Sunday when we take (or better, are given) the pulpit, we are addressing people haunted by God, and not just on Halloween! Many are terrified by Him, either because they fear God’s righteous wrath coming to condemn them or because they fear God is absent from their suffering and they demand answers. God is feared as an implacable monster of wrath and judgment or as a ghost of someone who once gave people hope but has been gone for a long time.
Your sermon ought to address both of these fears. Given it is both Reformation and Halloween, setting up our fears of God in these terms could be appropriate. Fear of wrath and fear of indifference/absence weigh heavily on the consciences of people who take God seriously. Do not dismiss either of them but be prepared to preach Christ as the answer to these fears.
In fact, both fears are answered by preaching justification. Romans 3 could not serve as a better text for this. Saint Paul has just spent two and half chapters of this majestic letter laying out the real problem we have with God: Namely, our sin and His law. After Paul finishes with us here, no one is left standing. All are exposed as sinners who can do nothing to earn a righteous standing before God. “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). God is the judge and before His righteous Law we have no hope. The Law God gives is not a plan we can follow to placate His wrath. The Law does the opposite to us. It reveals our sins. Under the Law, our fears of God’s wrath are justified.
But, for those who fear this deserved wrath, Jesus comes to remove our fears. “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” (3:21-22). That is to say, our right standing before the holy God comes in a manner wholly different from God’s commands, in a way which is not according to law. It comes as a pure gift to be received by faith, not as a reward to be earned. “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 propitiation by His blood to be received by faith” (3:23-25).
Our right standing before the holy God comes in a manner wholly different from God’s commands, in a way which is not according to law. It comes as a pure gift to be received by faith, not as a reward to be earned.
In other words, Christ has removed God’s wrath by taking it on our behalf. He is our “propitiation.” He is the one who stands between us and God’s wrath, so we receive none of it. We are justified because our sins lay on Jesus. God’s wrath is attracted to sin like a magnet. Jesus has taken our sins, so the wrath comes for Him instead of us. In this way, we are freed from that wrath and redeemed through His blood. All of this is given to you as a gift! It is free, by grace alone. The monster of God’s wrath is gone, for Christ has paid the righteous price for your sin, “So that He might be both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (3:26).
Further, this work of Christ shows God is no ghost, who is for all intents and purposes absent from the sufferings of this world. No, He takes the greatest suffering into Himself as He hangs on the cross to die for sinners. The whole creation is burdened under sin, but the Creator who puts on flesh, takes that burden upon His shoulders. His work of justification not only declares the sinner righteous, but it also sets the creation to rights as well. You will need to go beyond Romans 3 to make this point, but Romans 4 is not far away. Paul writes, “[Christ] was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (4:25). Christ’s dying and rising justifies the sinner. Additionally, in Romans 8 we learn this justifying work of Christ is setting all creation right. “The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (8:21). Christ, in other words, takes the suffering of the world on His shoulders and is making all things new. He is not a ghost who does nothing about our suffering, but the risen Lord who will turn our sorrow into laughter.
Christ In the Text
Whether our fears look like those which haunted the Church in the 16th century or like those haunting us in the 21st century, Christ Jesus removes our fears. Because He has shed His blood for sinners, you stand righteous before God on account of Christ. Since judgement has been put to death in Christ, the curse is removed and soon we will see all things made righteous. With this message preached from your lips this Sunday, your church will again rejoice in the doctrine of justification!
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.
Lectionary Podcast- Dr. Charles Gieschen of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Romans 3:19-28.