Bethel Evangelical Lutheran worshiping Jesus at 8th and N. East Ave. in York, NE.402-363-0022

Reformation 2017

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Romans 3:19-28

Dear Fellow Heirs of the Reformation,

What was the Reformation all about? There are a lot of ways to answer that question, but the bottom line is that it was about the answer to the most important question there is. How can I be sure that I have eternal life with God? Luther struggled mightily with that question, but that’s what caught the attention of so many people. Everyone, at some point in their lives, struggles with that question. People identified with Luther’s struggle, and rejoiced when he shared with them the beautiful, comforting answer that God gives in his word.

The church of Luther’s day had done a good job of teaching the Biblical truth that God is holy, and righteous, and just, and almighty, and all-knowing. They did a good job of teaching what sin was. People knew what God demanded, and they knew that they didn’t measure up to God’s demands. Whether they knew the words or not, because few people could afford to have their own Bibles and even fewer could read and understand the Latin of the most available translation, they felt the truth that Paul presents in Romans. In the verses just before our text Paul quotes numerous verses from the Psalms that hammer home the point. No one is righteous, not even one. All have turned away. There is no one who does good, not even one. So, Paul concludes, whatever the law says is addressed to those who are under the law, so that every mouth will be silenced and the whole world will be subject to God’s judgment.

People of Luther’s day, people today, people throughout history have wondered “how can I be sure that I have eternal life with God?” As they looked at themselves in the mirror, as we look at ourselves in the mirror, we all have to come to the same conclusion. I have sinned and fallen short of the righteousness God requires. I can’t possibly have eternal life with God! He is holy and I’m not. He is righteous and I’m not. I’m under the law. I haven’t kept the laws of man perfectly, much less the law of God. When I stand before God someday he can push play on the record of my life and all I can do is hang my head in silence. There’s no excuse. The evidence is undeniable. I broke God’s law more times than I can count. I’m subject to God’s judgment. As much as I don’t want to admit it, I have to agree that he has every right to declare me guilty and order me out of his presence forever.

The church had the preaching and teaching of God’s law down pat. They were experts at making people see their sin and feel their guilt. It’s actually an easy job because everyone’s conscience already tells them they are guilty before God. All the church had to do was confirm what people’s consciences were telling them.

But it is also the job of the church to provide a solution, an answer to the question about how we can be saved. That’s where the church of Luther’s day failed miserably. They told people that the only way they could escape the judgment they deserved for their sins was to do good works. The best thing they could do was enter a holy order, take a vow of poverty and celibacy, and spend hours every day praying, confessing their sins, and helping others. Even then, you couldn’t be sure you had done enough. But, at least you would have a better chance than the common people who had to do secular work and who were too busy with work and family to pray on the appointed hours every day. The church’s answer to the question “how can I be sure that I have eternal life with God,” was “you can’t be sure. The best you can probably hope for, if you really work hard at doing good things, is a shorter time of suffering in Purgatory before you finally make it.” What a sad state of affairs, not only because it was a very depressing, hopeless message, but even more so, because it was a false message.

So, put yourself in Luther’s shoes. You can probably identify with him to some extent because there have been times when you have had a troubled conscience. Imagine being driven by that troubled conscience to do everything you can to become so righteous that you can finally be sure you have eternal life; joining a monastery, fasting, praying, beating your body, walking hundreds of miles to Rome, crawling up twenty-eight sacred stairs on your knees while praying at each one, confessing your sins for hours, and still hearing God’s law say, “not good enough.” Imagine yelling at God, “I hate you God. I’m trying my best to please you and do what is right, but no matter what I do, it’s never enough.” And then, one day, instead of seeing the word “Righteous” and angrily thinking “how can God demand what I can’t give him,” the Holy Spirit helps you see the whole sentence. The just, the righteous, shall live by faith. And then he points you to Romans 3 where Paul explains that no one will be declared righteous in his sight by works of the law. You’ve been thinking about righteousness all wrong. You can’t become righteous before God by fasting, and praying, and making pilgrimage, and confessing, and doing penance. But now, completely apart from the law, a righteousness from God has been made known. The Law and the Prophets testify to it. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all and over all who believe. Righteousness is from God. He gives it as a gift that is received by faith. What peace for his troubled conscience! What joy! He said he felt as if he were born again and passing through the open gates of heaven.

But, there is still a problem. It sounds too good to be true. In fact, if God really is holy and just how can he give righteousness to unrighteous people? That’s not justice. If a human judge declared a guilty person “not guilty” we would seek his impeachment. Paul has the answer for us.

The answer is redemption, the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God publicly displayed as the atonement seat through faith in his blood. The redemption that was pictured for God’s people each year on the Day of Atonement, when the high priest entered the most holy place and sprinkled the blood of the sacrifice on the atonement seat that covered the ark of the covenant which contained God’s law summarized on the two tablets of stone. God was showing that righteousness would come through a sacrifice and the shedding of innocent blood, the blood of his holy, righteous, innocent son, Jesus.

God did this, he sacrificed Jesus on the cross, to demonstrate his justice, since, in his divine restraint, he had left the sins that were committed earlier unpunished. He did this to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so that he would be both just and the one who justifies the person who has faith in Jesus.

God is righteous, holy and just. In Jesus, his justice, his requirement that sin be punished, has been met. Jesus declared, it is finished. Because of Jesus’ perfect life in our place and because he suffered the punishment for sin in our place, God remains perfectly just while at the same time offering us the righteousness we need so that he can declare us not guilty, forgiven.

How can I be sure that I have eternal life with God? You can’t, if you think that you have to earn it by anything you do, by works of the law. If that’s what you think you will be tortured by your conscience that gives witness to God’s law and says, “it’s never enough.” But, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul tells us, “you can be sure that you have eternal life because it doesn’t depend on you doing enough righteous things. It depends on what Jesus has done for you. And because of what Jesus has done for you God gives you the righteousness you need to have eternal life. What happens to boasting then? It has been eliminated. By what principle—by the principle of works? No, but by the principle of faith. For we conclude that a person is justified by faith without the works of the law. When you say that you are sure that the moment you die you will be with Jesus in paradise you aren’t bragging about how good you are, but about how good God is. Eternal life, and the faith to receive it, is a gracious gift of God.

The Reformation took off and is still being celebrated today, 500 years later, not because of Luther, but because God used Luther to highlight the most wonderful answer to the most important question in life. How can I be sure that I have eternal life with God? Because it is by grace that we are saved through faith. Because the righteousness God requires has been purchased for us by Jesus and given to us as a free gift of God’s grace. Because this truth is not something Luther, or the church, made up. It’s written in the Bible. The Law and the Prophets proclaim it.

How can I be sure that I have eternal life with God? Because of Jesus.