“We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this festival of the Reformation comes from the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Dear friends in Christ, we humans like to talk, and our favorite subject is ourselves. We love to boast, about our accomplishments, about our skills and talents. We defend our actions or lack of action, we defend our failings or explain them away. We are always chattering, always boasting; to others, but especially to God. In the days of Luther, this boasting was encouraged by the church. If you believe that you achieve heaven through what you do, then you are going to spend a lot of time telling yourself, your neighbors, and especially God what you have done. You are going to brag, you are going to boast, you are going to focus on your good deeds and explain away or justify the bad. And that works well for a while. But then God speaks, and His Word shuts our mouths. “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.” God speaks His stern Word of the Law to shut our mouths, to make us be quiet, to cease our endless boasting. God speaks His Law to demonstrate that we are all held accountable to Him.
The Law demonstrates decisively that you, me, and all people are liable to the judgment of God, we are condemned to eternal destruction. We are all accountable to God for our sin. The Law stands us naked with Adam and Eve before God’s judgment throne, with no plea, no boast, with nothing to say. Our mouths are shut, for nothing we say can alter the verdict that is coming. This is the universal human condition; no man, woman, or child can escape. The Law demands perfection, “You shall be holy, as the Lord your God is holy,” and there is nothing we can say against it. There were few in the history of the Church that understood this more clearly than Martin Luther. If you would’ve asked that young monk to describe himself, he may very well have said, “accountable to God.” He understood with great terror what this meant, what this would mean on Judgment Day. He saw his sin more clearly than anyone else, and he despaired of his uncleanness. You will not understand, appreciate, or celebrate the Reformation unless you travel with Luther into the depths of your soul and see the filth, the corruption that dwells there. You will not rejoice this day unless you understand the Law’s verdict upon that sin: “Every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world be held accountable to God.” You will not revel in the glory of heaven unless you understand the horror of hell.
Luther lived fully aware of hell. The crushing burden of his sin drove him to seek salvation, and he tried every path that was offered by the Church to escape. He punished his body with physical and spiritual discipline; he sought after indulgences and relics. As a monk he was exemplary; as a churchgoer he was fanatical. He exhausted each and every avenue, but each led him further into despair, for he was climbing a ladder that couldn’t reach to heaven, as Saint Paul clearly says. “By works of the Law no human being will be justified in His sight, since through the Law comes knowledge of sin.” The Law isn’t designed to give grace; its task, given by God, is to show us our sin. But yet we are attracted to the works of the Law like a moth to a flame. Many Christians still believe that they can earn heaven by living a good enough life. We don’t ask for forgiveness, we justify, we explain away, we try to pile up some good works to outweigh the bad. We think that church attendance will earn us favor with God, or putting enough money in the offering plate. We are stuck in the Middle Ages, we are stuck with Luther, trying in vain to earn our own salvation.
But reconciliation with God can never occur on our own merits. You can never do enough good to outweigh the bad you were conceived with. Paul thunders forth the verdict: “There is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” All have sinned. All fall short of the glory of God. Luther wasn’t the exception, and neither are you. All are deficient, all lack the righteousness that God requires. You don’t have what it takes for heaven. You have fallen short, you are deficient, you lack, you fall short of the glory of God, no matter what you do in a vain and pathetic attempt to please Him. This is where Luther ended up; in despair, knowing that there was nothing he could do to earn grace. He, along with you and me, needed to be righteous, but the righteousness of the Law is impossible for us. Another righteousness is needed, and St. Paul declares that it has come: “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.”
The righteousness we need isn’t given by the Law, but the Law proclaimed it; it’s given by God Himself with the gift of His Son. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, but all “are justified by His 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.” God makes us righteous through the redemption of His Son! Christ’s blood is our righteousness, for God put Jesus forward as the propitiation for our sins, the means by which God is reconciled to us. God Himself provided the means for our reconciliation; He is actor in our redemption, our righteousness, not us. He sent forth Christ to bear our sin; your sin, my sin, and the sin of Martin Luther. He displayed Christ as the sin-bearer, the One who was innocent of any wrong, yet carried the corruption of the world upon His shoulders. And then Jesus shed His blood upon the cross, paying for all of that sin and removing its penalty forever. God is reconciled with you through the death of His Son, the sacrifice for your redemption, the sacrifice which sets you free.
Jesus Himself declares in our Gospel lesson: “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” It was that glorious freedom that Luther trumpeted forth. He reveled in the truth that Paul speaks of at the end of our text: “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” Christ has already done it, He has won salvation, and when we cling to Him in faith, faith which is itself a gift of God, we have all that He won through the cross and empty tomb. For Luther, it was personal; his troubled soul had found comfort in this glorious Gospel. But then he brought this freedom to the world, he fought for it and with others struggled to preserve it in the face of numerous enemies, and thanks be to God that the proclamation of the Gospel of God’s free grace through Christ still rings out in this world of sin. Through His death on your behalf, through His resurrection in victory on the third day, you are set free; free from the bondage of your sin, free from the condemnation of the Law, free from trying to earn your way to heaven.
For God didn’t ignore or wink at your sin, pretending that it doesn’t exist. He may have passed over the sins of the Old Testament saints, but only because they would one day be paid for. “This was to show God’s righteousness, because in His divine forbearance He had passed over former sins.” If God ignored sin, then He would not be a God of justice. His Law still stands, it still condemns, but it has now been answered—by God Himself. God’s justice is satisfied because the Law’s penalty was poured out upon His innocent Son. He forgives you because Christ has paid for your sin, just as He forgave the Old Testament saints because Christ would pay for their sin. God didn’t sweep sin under the rug, instead He removed its penalty forever, for He offered up Christ Himself as the required sacrifice.
Therefore, God remains righteous because He has made us righteous. “It was to show His righteousness at the present time, so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” He declares us righteous because we cling to Christ in faith. We believe, with faith worked by the Holy Spirit. Through the Word, through the Lord’s Supper, and through the waters of Holy Baptism, God declares us righteous by forgiving our sins and working faith within us. Today Peyton, Wyatt, and James were declared righteous in the washing of the water with the Word. God claimed them as His own, not because of anything they have done, but solely and only because of Christ. His redemption has been applied to them, right before your eyes! Those who are redeemed then do good works, not to earn righteousness, but because Christ has made us righteous.
Therefore, every mouth is once again shut. “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith.” The Law shuts our mouths, telling us that there is nothing that we can do to reconcile ourselves to God. But then the Gospel also shuts off any boasting, for it declares that Christ has done it all for us. Therefore, today we do not boast in ourselves, or even in Martin Luther. We boast in Christ, who saves lost and condemned people. He saved Luther, and the story of the Reformation has its roots in his personal struggle to hear the glorious Gospel of Christ. But then, thanks be to God, Luther was a beggar who showed other beggars where to find bread; he pointed the Church to the redemption and merits of Christ, and it is that glorious Gospel message that we hear and rejoice in on this Reformation Day and every day. In the Name of Jesus, who redeemed us with His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death, Amen.