This is the sermon I preached on Reformation Sunday, 11/30 at St. Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran Churches. The scripture text is Romans 3:19-28.
Doing seems to be an intrinsic part of who we are, especially as Americans. We are a nation of doers. In the church, we are a community of doers--it's part of our DNA. This sometimes carries over into to our faith life as well. There are even pious cliches that may sound good, but are dead wrong; such as "God helps those who help themselves."
In faith, we are not to be passive. We are to participate in our relationship with God, just as we would any other relationship. However, we cannot on our own, make ourselves right with God. That's what today's second reading is all about. These verses lifted the burden from Martin Luther's life and opened his spiritual eyes.
You see, at that time, Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk. He did everything he knew of to become a better Christian and to please God. He deprived and hurt his body in order to please what he saw as an angry God. This passage of scripture turned his and will turn our lives upside down.
There are some wonderfully descriptive words of God's work in this reading. We hear the good news that people are "justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law," v.28.
Justified, grace, righteousness and faith are the key words in this passage. That sounds good, but what does it mean? These are church words and we may feel that our everyday life in our work world or school world is so different than our church life.
Paul's writings in Romans display the breach between peoples and between people and God. Through Christ, God has provided the cure, making them right before God, in other words, justified. God then buys them out of slavery, that is, redeems them. No one could be justified by the law. Although the law could not justify, it is from God and serves God's purposes, one of which is to reveal human sinfulness.
For Martin Luther, the doctrine of justification was more than the center and focus of Paul's thought, it was the "article [of the Augsburg Confession] by which the church stands or fails." It is the touchstone and heartbeat of all Christian theology and spirituality. God makes us his own.
The verb form, to justify, denotes God's powerful, cosmic and universal action, effecting a change in the situation between sinful humanity and God, by which God is able to acquit and vindicate believers, setting them in a right and faithful relationship to himself (Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin & Daniel G. Reid, eds., Dictionary of Paul and His Letters). God wants to be in relationship with us. That's so hard for us to conceive of and yet, it's true.The God who is the maker of the universe wants us as his own.
It is through grace that we are justified. Justification by grace through faith is not a case of God changing his mind. If we look at Romans 4, Paul illustrates that the Jewish Scriptures document that this has always been God’s way of accepting those who trust in him (Fred B. Craddock, M. Eugene Boring, The Peoples' New Testament Commentary).
Grace is a gift. Salvation cannot be earned by human merits or schemes. It is not based on who we are and what we have done or not done, but on the God who is revealed in Christ. Because of that, we have nothing to boast of. Salvation by grace excludes the possibility that one group could flaunt their own privilege or accomplishments against another group.
God himself is righteous. God's saving act in Christ, manifests and confirms God's righteousness. God's righteousness is not passive, but is an active putting things right, an act of God that creates a new situation.This does not change God, but creates a new relationship between God and humanity. Paul here affirms the early Christian faith that the world really is different because of what God has done in Christ.
We are justified by faith. Paul and later Martin Luther, will not allow salvation to be seen as a combination of faith and works or a cooperative enterprise between God and humans. Salvation is entirely the gift of God's grace appropriated by faith. This faith is not a human achievement, for which believers can take credit. It is the gift of God. (Craddock and Boring).
Faith means putting together the recognition of our inability to achieve our salvation with the acceptance of the truth that God has done all that is necessary. Believers are those who have committed themselves to be Christ's people. Paul speaks of "a law of faith" versus a law "of works" (3:27). This brings out something of Paul's strong emphasis on the centrality of faith.
Most of the time, when we see the phrase, "faith in Christ," it can be interpreted as faith of Christ. This makes a huge difference in our understanding of how faith operates in our lives. It means that it's not our faith that is being talked about, but it is Christ's faith working in us. This really emphasizes the way God in Christ does everything necessary for our salvation.
In our reading from Romans, Paul offers a cosmic vision AND an invitation to faithful practice that is as beautiful, challenging and effective today, for each of us, as it was at the time of the Reforation and throughout the history of the people of God (Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, workingpreacher.org). The Reformation is ongoing. The church of Christ is always in need of reform. As in Luther's age, God's word is alive, speaks truth, and surprises us with grace.
As Martin Luther wrote in the Small Catechism [concerning the Third Article of the Apostles' Creed]:
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my
Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy [Spirit] has called me by the Gospel, enlightened
me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers,
enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with
Jesus Christ in the one true faith...This is most certainly true. (The Small
Fred B. Craddock & M. Eugene Boring, The People's New Testament Commentary
Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin & Daniel G. Reid, eds., Dictionary of Paul and His
Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, workingpreacher.org
Martin Luther, The Small Catechism