Fourth Sunday in Lent
April 3, 2011
“Justified by Faith” (Romans 3:21-28)
In our series of sermons on the Book of Romans, today we come to the #1 passage in the Bible on the #1 doctrine of the Christian faith. The doctrine is the doctrine of justification, and the passage is our text for today, Romans 3:21-28, reading as follows:
“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. 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, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 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.
“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. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”
Now when I say that justification is the #1 doctrine of the Christian faith, I mean it is the central article of the faith, the article on which the church stands or falls. It is, as our series title says, “Righteousness Revealed,” the righteousness of God revealed in the gospel, the righteousness by which God justifies sinners. Justification is how God declares us sinners righteous, and that is, it is justification by grace through faith in Christ. You and I are “Justified by Faith,” and not by our works of the law.
And so when I say that our text in Romans is the #1 passage on this doctrine, I mean it is the place where this doctrine is taught and explained most thoroughly, so there can be no mistake about it. St. Paul most clearly makes the point that we are justified, declared righteous, by grace through faith, apart from works, and it’s all because of what God has done in Christ.
Now to walk us through this passage, I want to stop at two places in particular, the court room and the temple. That’s where Paul takes us with the imagery and the language he uses.
The first stop is the court room. There’s a trial going on, and guess who’s the defendant? You are! You are on trial, as you come before God’s bench. Your life is being examined, to see if you have kept the law as it is supposed to be kept. Have you kept it?
The law books are brought out. How has the defendant–that’s you–how has the defendant done in loving God? Have you loved God more than any other thing in life? Have you consistently sought out and done God’s will? Have you obeyed him? Do you love and serve God with everything that is in you? That’s what the law requires.
The evidence of your life is brought forward. Oh, it’s not looking good. Too many times you’ve put your own desires above God’s word. Too many times you’ve yielded to temptation, not taking seriously God’s threats against sin. Too many times you’ve let God’s word go in one ear and out the other, pushing it out because you simply wanted to be your own god. Facts are stubborn things, and this negative evidence is not going away.
Well, maybe you can do better on the other part of the law, the part about how you treated your neighbor. Let’s see what the charges are. You the defendant have not respected the authorities God has placed in your life, starting with your father and mother. You wished harm against people you have gotten angry with. Oh, and God’s law also requires you to do good to your neighbor when you see his need. What about sexual temptation, including lustful thoughts? Let’s not go there, shall we? Stealing? No, I don’t mean just robbing a bank; I mean all those little “misdemeanors” too, like taking advantage of your neighbor or cheating on expense accounts or tax returns. What about how you’ve used your tongue to talk about your neighbor? The evidence is brought forward. Oh, this won’t take long. I think the court has heard enough.
God is the law-giver, the judge, and the jury. His verdict is forthcoming. How does he find you, the defendant? Guilty as charged. Guilty according to the law. Now comes the sentencing. What does the law require for a life that has been sinful from the start? The penalty is death. That’s as far as the law can take you. “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” No divine approval coming for you. Only a sentence of death.
End of story? Not yet. We’ve got another stop to make. Time to go to the temple. And here you aren’t doing a thing. See what God is doing. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” OK, that’s what the law gets us, but go on, “and 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.” This is a new thing, a different thing, a temple sort of thing.
God puts forward his own Son, Christ Jesus, “as a propitiation by his blood,” it says. The word that is translated here as “propitiation”–now there’s a word you don’t hear every day–is the Greek word “hilasterion.” It’s sometimes also translated as “atoning sacrifice.” It’s the word used to refer to what is called in the Old Testament the “mercy seat.”
“The mercy seat.” Here’s the background. The temple was the place where sacrifices for sin were made, all kinds of sins, all kinds of sacrifices, lambs, bulls, goats. Lots of sin, lots of blood. “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness,” Leviticus says. Those sacrifices generally took place just outside the temple itself. But once a year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would take the blood of the sacrificed animal and go inside the temple, through the Holy Place, and on into the Holy of Holies. The High Priest was the only one allowed to go in there, and only on that one day of the year.
The purpose was to offer up one all-comprehensive sacrifice for all the sins of all the people for that whole year. “No sin left behind” was the idea. Everything had to be covered. Literally. Covered with blood. For the high priest would take the blood of the sacrifice and sprinkle it on the lid of the Ark of the Covenant, the so-called mercy seat. “Kipporeth” in the Hebrew, “hilasterion” in the Greek.
Now inside the Ark of the Covenant were the two tables of the Law–the Ten Commandments, which the people had sinned against. So literally, the blood of the sacrifice was covering the sins the people had committed against the law, atoning for those sins.
This was pointing ahead to what God would do in Christ. For he, Jesus Christ, is the Lamb of God that covers all our sins and the sins of the whole world. Sacrifice made, sins atoned for. The perfect sacrifice to truly cover all the sins of all the people for all time. All of us guilty according to the law, but all of us covered by the blood of Christ, the spotless, sinless, righteous Lamb of God. And thus our sins are forgiven. And you didn’t do a thing to earn it. God did it all. It’s all a gift.
It’s a redemption, that’s what it is. And here Paul uses a different term, one that has to do with setting a prisoner free by means of a payment. The prisoner cannot free himself; but someone else comes along and pays the price for him, which sets him free. That’s a redemption. In this case, it is “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” As we say in the Catechism, Christ “has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death.”
And that bring us back to the court room. You have been found guilty according to the law, the sentence is death, and the just punishment of the law must be kept. Justice must be served. But here comes Jesus Christ, and he serves the death sentence for you! Justice is done, and God now has a basis for acquitting you, without being an old softie who’s slack on his own law. No, Christ has kept the law, obeying it perfectly, and yet also serving the punishment that the law requires. So you’re covered! Law kept, sentence served, everything is cool. New verdict: “Not guilty, you honor! Look at the blood!” So now God the judge is being perfectly just and righteous when he forgives our sins and justifies us sinners, declaring us righteous, not guilty.
And so it is. You are free to go now. Free to go to heaven, to enter into eternal life. Free to go about life now with a new status, righteous, because of Christ. You’ve been justified, justified by faith.
Oh, there’s that faith thing. Maybe this is where we get to contribute something toward our salvation. It’s because we made our decision for Christ that we get to take a little credit for God overturning our sentence, right? Nope, no way. It’s a gift, a free gift, from start to finish. Faith has its value solely because of its object, namely, Jesus Christ the righteous one. Your works do not enter in. Faith, in fact, is giving up on your own works, and instead simply trusting in what God has done for you in Christ, his free gift of justification.
And so there you have the doctrine of justification, justification of the sinner before God by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, apart from works of the law. Justification is the central article of the Christian faith, the article on which the church stands or falls. Justification is the article on which you stand or fall! And by faith you will stand, stand before God righteous on that day when we all appear before his judgment seat. “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Yes, you and I are “Justified by Faith,” and thank God we are!