On Reformation Sunday, we will hear from ‘Lectionary Series A’ the most Lutheran verse in the Bible: Romans 3:28, “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.”
No slogan encapsulates the teaching of Martin Luther as well as the one drawn from this verse: justification by faith apart from works. Therefore, as Saint Paul put it, 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 is 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.
But today it is completely irrelevant. No one cares about or discusses or even really preaches justification by free grace. Just scan the Christian radio stations and view a few broadcasts. It is a relic, an anachronism, passé, the crusty old stuff about which dead guys quibbled. It belongs to the theological debates of yesteryear. It is seen as a pedantic, obtuse, intellectualist, divisive dogma which 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 the sentiments of their heart. “Follow your heart,” is the new gospel of nebulous spirituality, not Reformation Christianity.
Go on, try it for yourself. Approach a work associate or an extended family member and ask them if they are justified by faith apart from works of law? You can expect a blank stare—even if they are a Christian.
It is hardly likely even most of your Christian friends would be able to distinguish between justification by faith alone and being justified by works of law. It is simply not an issue. They are likely to say, “God looks on the heart,” or, “Doctrine is divisive.” In fact, a Gallop survey from a couple of years ago revealed how nine out of ten professed Christians (!) could not articulate a basic understanding of justification. They simply did not know what the Gospel was according to Saint Paul, the Gospel reiterated by Martin Luther, but they did know the Gospel according to Ben Franklin: “God helps those who help themselves.”
In fact, a Gallop survey from a couple of years ago revealed how nine out of ten professed Christians (!) could not articulate a basic understanding of justification.
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 can be justified. So, whomever Saint Paul was addressing in this verse, and whomever Luther was addressing in the 16th century, does not seem to be the same people we encounter today. These same people who purchase Joel Osteen’s books by the millions and count Oprah a prophetess. The categories of Romans 3:28 do not jive well with consumerist, postmodern people. Justification by faith alone is totally irrelevant. The agenda of Paul and Luther is utterly foreign to the Age of iPod® and Burger King style Christianity, where you can, “have it your way.” Or is it?
I want to suggest to you that not only is Romans 3:28 the most Lutheran verse in Scripture, it is also the most relevant verse for us, as well as our Sharper Image® neighbors, to hear preached. It does, in fact, answer the very question preoccupying contemporary minds, when they have a moment to think. It is this verse that scratches where the postmodern soul itches.
Preaching the texts of Reformation Sunday, perhaps, should start with the word “justify.” Just what is it supposed to mean? It simply is not a household word in present day vocabulary, is it? It is an archaism, antiquated, a polysyllable which belongs on the bottom of a heap of such outmoded words as “expiation” and “propitiation.” It simply is not common parlance. It has lost its meaning and, therefore, relevance and use long before you and I were ever born.
Well, at least until we sit down at our personal computers with their sophisticated word-processing programs. If you work on the most popular word processor in the world—produced by a certain Seattle-based company—you need only 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. We know this word. There is a point of contact with our contemporaries, literally, at our fingertips.
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. And for a person to be justified means they too are put right. They are set straight and nothing in that person’s life—as far as the Law, righteousness, and judgment of God are 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. Actually, like us, I am not sure they used the word “justified.” Nonetheless, “justification” was the number one item on the agenda. It was the foremost concern of the Jewish people. All too aware how their lives were not right before the Torah (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 Saint Paul and Microsoft, to justify themselves.
Some, of course, worked harder at it than others. Among those who worked the hardest, hard enough to make a card-carrying Puritan blush, are those we know as the Pharisees and Scribes. They worked overtime trying to keep the Commandments of God, to get themselves right with Him, to fulfill their Covenant obligations, to remove the curse and bring the blessings. It was good old transactional theology. I do my part, God does His.
I can appreciate them. They wanted to be right with God. No effort would be spared in trying to get there by keeping the Law. And this is the point: They could try, but they could not get there; never did, never could, never would. They were law-breaking sinners. And it was precisely on this point Saint Paul made the most profoundly relevant disclosure: “a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.” For the standard is perfection: “Be ye perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Perfection never comes from the Law because it is a mirror to those who are imperfect in every way. Faith, however, brings perfection and that perfection is Christ (John 8:29; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 2:10). Christ is the perfection the Law requires. Christ is our righteousness, our perfect righteousness, for He is the righteousness of God (1 Corinthians 1:30).
Now let us look to another time and place. In Europe, in the sixteenth century, Martin Luther was born into an age where justification was the looming everyday issue (not outrageous tweets on Twitter). Luther may have been more aware than most of his own shortcomings and sins, but everyone knew they needed to be put right before a holy God. In this climate, a strange hope arose. If a person fell short in one area, it could be compensated for in another area. Gifts to the political-religious institution they knew as the Church of Rome could be traded for indulgence. Now, an indulgence was a certificate of pardon from the temporal punishment a person incurred because of sin. It was a free pass out of temporal punishments, including purgatory (a kind of hell for Christians, not eternal damnation). So, if you wanted to avoid God’s present anger and punishment for your sins, if you did not want God to smite your crops, stomp your livelihood, or inflict you and your family members with the plague, then some financial generosity or the equivalent in land holdings directed to the coffers of the Vatican somehow expunged your sins and transgressions as the treasury of merit was opened in Heaven and the Pope drew on this account for you… while you deposited an appropriate cash retainer.
Furthermore, rightness or holiness—such that was needed if one were to stand before a perfectly holy God—could be transferred from one person to another. This was the basis for indulgences. The saints, of course, had accrued or merited plenty of rightness, and their merits could be borrowed, so to speak. Purchasing an indulgence certificate was like buying blue-chip stock in Saints Incorporated. It was a good investment, a trustworthy insurance policy to protect you against any unwelcome acts of God; like judgment, for instance. And even if your “All Saints Insurance Policy” did not provide you with enough coverage to keep you out of purgatory, purgatory itself was a place where you could be put right. It was a place where you would be purified and rendered holy as God slowly roasted your sins away, like a chicken in one of Kenny Rogers’ rotisserie ovens. So, sixteenth century souls were, for a lack of a better word, “comforted” with the hope they could, eventually, with either enough money or enough time suffering (oops, I mean being purified) in purgatory, complete the task of their own justification and stand right in God’s sight.
Martin Luther, however, stood up against the spiritual Enron of his day and reiterated to them what the Apostle says in Romans 3:28: “A man is justified by faith apart from works of law.” Luther was emphatic. The Divine Service (Mass) and the Christian life is not about the worship and works we must do so we can make ourselves holy and just, but what God does for us on the Cross and through an empty grave making us holy and just in His sight. We are not to serve the Church in order to be justified, but God serves us through the Church in order to justify us, by grace, through faith, because of Christ alone.
Luther, standing on the shoulders of Saint Paul, says human efforts to make ourselves just are inadequate. We cannot bring a clean thing out of something unclean. In fact, when we try to justify ourselves, the Wittenberger said, we actually make matters worse. We become self-righteous. We busy ourselves with doing for God rather than receiving His gifts in Christ by faith, and by faith in Christ alone. No other, not even a saint, has merit enough for themselves, let alone extra to spare. As Jesus Himself said, “When you have done all your duty, say ‘I am an unprofitable servant!’” (Luke 17:10). We have not even begun to do our duty, let alone render ourselves clean, let alone render others clean and just through our extra rightness! No, but what stands beyond death is not an opportunity to burn off your dross, but rather the judgment of God for all who appear before Him without the perfect righteousness of Christ received in, “justification by faith alone, apart from works of law.” Enron’s treasury of merit was proven to be bankrupt. Rome lost her northern European assets because she was trading in junk bonds. Bernie Madoff would have been proud.
Here is the Good News of the Gospel for preachers to proclaim to contemporary hearers who know about justification through Microsoft: God Himself was in Christ, not as a judge but as a Servant-King representing mankind, 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” (John 3:16). In other words, God has 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.
God Himself was in Christ, not as a judge but as a Servant-King representing mankind, accomplishing the work of putting us right.
Are people so different today? Is justification really irrelevant now? Is the preacher’s only point of contact with the life-giving Gospel a by-product of Microsoft’s word processor? I do not think so. 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.
A few years ago, four men placed a rucksack of explosives on their backs and entered the London Underground, embarking on a venture they could not possibly have expected to emerge from alive. Almost monthly, men and women drive mobile fertilizer bombs or strap on explosive vests and detonate them in public places in Kabul, Baghdad, Tele Viv, Jakarta, even Boston and Orlando. These are extreme examples, but they are attempts, according to their own beliefs, to justify themselves. What other prize would be worth the sacrificing of one’s own life, as well as the taking of other lives who just happen to be there? But their creed is that this act will justify them and put them right for all eternity. It is one grand work of an uncompromising law. Such a pity they could not hear the Apostle say how, “a man is justified by faith in what God has done for us, apart from the works of law.” So it is, with the religions of the world as they labor with half the truth. All seem to know 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. The fundamentalist and charismatic by doing this, not doing that, having this gift and exercising it this way and that… and so on and so on. All know 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 faithful pastors must preach: “a man is justified by faith in Christ alone, apart from works of law.” There is no other way.
You can take God out of a person’s reckoning, but you never take away their need for justification. Therefore, I maintain justification is the truly relevant issue to people of every time, every place, this time, this place. Preach it that way.
And where is it to be found? One could go the way of the Pharisees and medieval monks and try and try to satisfy the demands of some laws or principles. One could join them on their treadmill, trying and trying to be without reproach, even with some best-selling spiritual gift technique (The Purpose Driven Life, The Prayer of Jabez, Your Best Life Now for example), but ever finding each faltering stride they take leaves the treadmill running away from them and the Law condemning their efforts as insufficient.
We could, on the other hand, lower our standards. We could present ourselves for judgment, not against the exacting standards of God’s perfection, but against the norm of our fellow human beings and say, “Comparatively, I am basically a good person.” Only the conscience will not really let us get away with the gospel according to Jerry Springer, which is why we spend all day trying to justify our thoughts, words, and deeds. And even if our conscience does, we still want to be right in the eyes of others, too. This is where the fallibility of our humanly ordained standards comes apart at the seams. You cannot please all the people all the time. Try as you will to do the right thing, sooner or later someone will decree it is wrong. They may challenge your principles, criticize your attempt to live them, and even strap explosives and detonators to their backs to make their point, so strongly do they disagree. You have got to preach the Biblical standard of the Law to dispel the delusion. Proclaim how Paul, with Luther after him, spoke right into the ear of the present-day soul when he said, “a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.”
The quest for being right has never left us through all our modern, technological development. And still the answer remains unchanged, too. We can be right, apart from works of the 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 we are 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. Now take this gracious Gospel and cast down all efforts at self-justification and proclaim the Law and the Gospel this Reformation Sunday with full confidence in its relevance and a well-known point of contact, thanks to Microsoft.