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"For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the Law." (Romans 3:28)
There's nothing more radical or ridiculous to the mind of religious man that those words. That a person's standing before a holy God is not based at all on keeping the law or good works or best efforts is absurd to every reasonable, rational human being.
This was a word that shocked the religious world of Paul's day. It's a word that continues to shock the religious world to this day. This is a Word that would never entered the mind of man had it not come down from above. It's like a meteor from outer space that comes from out of the blue. And when it collides with planet earth, it destroys every sensible religion on the planet.
Who could ever have hatched a scheme like this? That sinful man is made right with the holy God by doing nothing? To be more precise, by doing nothing because he trusts that God has already done everything. "For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the Law."
Those are truly strange words that cut against every intuition and instinct in me. They tell me that for once in my life, I must do – nothing. When every word we hear is, 'do and do more and never quit doing,' this Word says, do nothing, just shut up and listen. "You are right with God for Jesus sake alone."
For people who are worried about their salvation because they're not convinced in their heart that they have done enough or tried hard enough, this is good news. Lot's of people in Paul's day thought that this was really good news. Lot's of people in Luther's day thought the same.
I'm afraid however that lot's of people in our day don't think much about these words one way or the other. We've got a miracle cure, but nobody thinks they have the disease. People today aren't worried about their standing before a holy God. 'Sin' has become an outdated concept. Today, people seem to be more worried about the economy and the pursuit of personal achievement or happiness than salvation. "Doesn't the Church have anything more relevant and practical to offer than "For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the Law"?
Sadly, the Church has a track record of appealing to 'felt needs.' And so we give sinful men and women spiritual advice on how to become happier, healthier and wealthier sinners. Even the Church finds the message of the Gospel absurd, folly.
The only problem is, this strange and shocking word is God's Word. And the crater that its collision with this planet has caused is even deeper than we first thought. God's Word comes to us in the flesh and blood of His Son. And not the happier, healthier and wealthier flesh and blood of His Son, but the crucified body of Jesus Christ.
And the really great shocker is this. St. Paul says, "This was to show God's righteousness… It was to show his righteousness at the present time so that He might be just…" What that means is, it isn't just that WE need this to happen or even that it's mainly about US. This means that God wanted this to happen, just the way that it happened, to show HIS righteousness.
"In His divine forbearance, He had passed over former sins." Did He just IGNORE former sins? God forbid Adam to eat of the tree in the midst of the garden with this terrible but very sensible Word, "for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die." But Adam did not die that day and neither did Eve. And neither has God struck you and me down for our sin – and just think how many times we would have been struck down by now. He passed over them.
But what good is God's Word if it doesn't do what it says? What kind of God is this who says one thing and then doesn't do it? If He doesn't keep His word of judgment as He says, what's to say He'll keep His word of promise?
So the cross of Christ was and is, first and foremost for God's sake. It was for His own name's sake. It was for Christ's sake. God carried out His Word of JUDGEMENT against the former sins, including yours and mine IN THE PRESENT TIME, by the cross. And He has carried out His Word of PROMISE to former sinners and to you and me IN THE PRESENT TIME, through the cross.
So, not to put too fine a point on this, but what WE think about all of this doesn't change a thing. Whether we think we need such a Word from God or not isn't the real issue. This is God's cause. God is announcing His decision. God has decided the issue even while we don't think it's much of an issue at all. God has decided to show His righteousness to us at the present time so that He might be just and so that He might be the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus Christ.
This is God's Word. The same Word by which God created the world. "And God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light." He didn't consult the darkness to see if it felt that it needed some light. The darkness would have surely rejected such a ridiculous suggestion. It's not really about the darkness. It's about the Word doing what the Word says.
Likewise, God speaks His Word into the darkness of our sinful world and our sin filled hearts and minds, whether we think we need it or not. And His Word continues to create out of nothing. His Word speaks peace to those who are troubled by their sins before a holy God. And His Word speaks change and reformation to those who are content in their sins and think the have no use for Jesus Christ and His cross. The light shatters the darkness like a bolt from the sky.
The fact that these words often fall on deaf ears is nothing new. In our Gospel reading we heard how the Word is often received. The fact that Jesus is speaking to those "who had believed" makes it even sadder. "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will now the truth and the truth will set you free." (John 8:31-32).
"But, but, but" they said. "We've never been enslaved to anyone." "We don't need what you're offering. And frankly, we're offended that you think that we do need such a ridiculous Word as this." As John puts it, "He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him." They had no use for Him. (John 1:11)
They didn't see the trouble they were in because they were in the dark even though they thought there could see just fine. So the Word goes into the darkness uninvited, like an intruder, like a thief breaking into a strong man's house. "Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin."
The slave is in a precarious position. His days are numbered. The slave is not the son or daughter. He inherits nothing when the master dies or moves on.
Now the Son on the other hand is the heir. The Son continues on, and in this case, forever and ever. "So if the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed."
What a wonderful and glorious word that is. To be set free from the slavery and bondage of sin. Who can do that but God? This must be the Word of God with all of the power of God's Word to bind and to loose, to retain and to forgive the sins of sinners like you and me.
But what an absurd and strange Word this is. To be set free from sins grip on you simply by the Word of the Son? To have the darkness shattered, not by our works or efforts but solely by the authority of the Son's Word that declares you a free man? How strange is that?
It would be great if this account continued something like this, "And they all said, 'let it be unto me as you say, O Lord, for Your Word is truth"? But sadly, it doesn't go like that at all. The next verse after our reading goes like this, Jesus said, "I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you." This great Word of justification by faith and the freedom it brings falls on deaf ears. And even worse, men and women find it so offensive that the One who speaks it must die.
And all because we think the Law of God is the remedy for our sin. God's Word of grace ruins all of our accomplishments and progress. If it is by grace alone then we are robbed of all of our boasting.
The law is no remedy for sin. The law can do a lot of things. It can preserve and protect society. It may push us to do some good that may not have been interested in doing. But it can't solve our problem with sin. It can't make us right with God. In fact, it only makes matters worse. "For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin."
So, since we cannot justify ourselves before God by the keeping of His law, God has decided to do something altogether new, totally different, entirely unimaginable. He has decided to do something that only He can do and that requires no participation or cooperation from us.
He has decided to establish a righteousness that is totally and completely apart from the law. He has wiped out every distinction between those who keep the law and those who don't, those who try and those who don't, those who think they do and those who just don't care. Isn't that the craziest thing you've ever heard?
But that's what His Word declares. "For there is no distinction: 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…"
God has decided to wipe out all of the distinctions and start all over again in Christ Jesus. No new laws, no new programs. In fact, there's nothing for us to do, so don't even try. We're justified for Jesus sake alone. It doesn't matters whether you think you need it or not. It is the Word of God.
There is something about all of this that is not very strange at all really. Suppose your child were to ask you, 'Dad, Mom, what do I have to do to be your son or daughter?' Is there some law or some special chore or some program that I need to do?'
How would you respond to that? After fighting off the tears of disappointment that such a question could ever even be considered, you'd probably say, 'What do you have to do to be my child? Nothing. Listen to me, nothing. Just believe me when I say, 'you are my child and I love you and I will never let you go. You will always be my child."
So today as we celebrate the Reformation and the new beginning it sparked, what we're really celebrating is a return to God's Word. It's not about new programs or strategies for increased spiritual growth and development or ways to get closer to God. It's not about us at all. It's about Jesus. It's about listening to His Word that forgives your sins and declares you righteous before God the Father and calls you His brother, His sister, sons and daughters of God.
There' nothing for you to do. Just be still. Just listen. It'll set you free.