Monday, October 30, 2017

Sermon on Romans 3:19-28, for the 50th Anniversary of Emmanuel Lutheran Church of Maui, and the 500th Anniversary of Reformation Day, "To God Alone Be Glory!"

            Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Today is a joyful day, a day to praise God and sing aloud; to give all the glory to God alone for His great salvation! God, by His grace and favor, has blessed Emmanuel Lutheran Church, with 50 years of sharing the Good News of Jesus on this island of Maui. 50 years of worshipping together as a family in Christ, 50 years of baptisms into God’s family, 50 years of prayer and intercession for this community, 50 years of preaching Jesus Christ. So many blessings have developed from the work of the Holy Spirit among us. Not to our credit, but to God’s credit, to His glory alone. 50 years of sharing the Gospel Truth that we are loved by God, we are forgiven freely by Jesus Christ as a gift, and that Jesus has called and blessed us into service toward others.
            And bigger than our tiny corner of the globe, we also celebrate the worldwide blessings of 500 years of the Lutheran Reformation, dating from October 31, 1517. The same blessings God has shown us, multiplied the world over, by churches that proclaim the same Gospel of Jesus Christ Sunday after Sunday. 500 years ago this Tuesday, Martin Luther first challenged the church with 95 Theses arguing that God’s grace is not for sale, but that God calls us to a life of repentance and free forgiveness. Luther didn’t know then how greatly the church and the whole world would be transformed. 500 years later, the ripple effects are still being felt. But as Luther would reflect on it some years later, he would say: “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing…I did nothing, the Word did everything.” He knew, as we should, that he couldn’t boast in what he’d done. It was not his power or intellect, it was not by force or bloody revolution that reformed the church, but the Word of God being free to do its work. Luther did not boast, because it was the Holy Spirit working through God’s Word to heal the church. A church that had become so confused and corrupt as it forgot or obscured God’s Word. Still today we need to open God’s Word and study it earnestly, to guard against new temptations to forget or obscured God’s Word. As Luther opened the Word of God for his own study, and taught it to the church, the Word did its work. All Glory goes back to God alone.
            And really, 500 years is just the tip of the iceberg. Even though God used Martin Luther to bring the focus back to Christ, the Good News of Jesus Christ has always been at work in human history. As our first reading from Revelation 14 says, it is an “eternal Gospel” proclaimed for all people on earth. From the dawn of creation, until the final judgment. God’s message of salvation stretches from the beginning of time till eternity, and we can and should celebrate His grace in every season, in every millennium. What was significant about 500 years ago, was that the Gospel rang out clearly where it had been muffled or almost silenced for so long, and began to ring out those joyous notes loud and clear again: “To God alone be the Glory.”
            But Luther’s reminder that we have no grounds to boast, points us to Romans 3 today, which 1500 years before him, urged that we have nothing to boast about. Certainly not boasting in our works. For we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We don’t boast before God, because no one stands as righteous before Him. Nobody has satisfied God by perfect obedience. Only Jesus Christ, has done so. Only Jesus has perfectly and completely satisfied God by His perfect obedience and sacrifice. And the Reformation was all about putting Jesus back as front and center for our salvation. And that His work was complete for us. So while we cannot boast in our works, Paul says in Galatians 6:14 “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” We boast in the cross of Jesus; we boast in the Lord, because He is our salvation! We have nothing to offer to God except our sin; but Jesus has offered God His perfect life, death, and resurrection; His righteousness on our behalf! That’s something we can boast about, because all the glory goes to Him, and not to us!
            Now Romans has some very important theological language, that we don’t use every day, but words that carefully show that all our salvation comes by faith in Jesus—not by our contribution or effort. This heart of the Gospel all but shouted out to Luther from Romans. He saw words like “gift”, “redemption”, “justified by faith apart from works”, and realized that salvation is God’s free gift. It’s not a merit system, but by grace. Salvation is not probation, where your good efforts are measured and graded, and God shortens or lengthens your punishment based on your works. Salvation is not a debt-repayment plan, where we negotiate lower payments for our forgiveness, based on what we can afford to contribute. No, salvation is God’s free gift in Christ Jesus, a total erasing of our debt before God. “Redemption” means that God has purchased us back from sin and death by the precious blood of Jesus. Jesus’ redeeming work gives all the glory to God.
            And this is complete; sufficient; it is not a partial or incomplete assignment, like students sometimes sheepishly turn in to their teachers—it is Jesus’ 100% effort, completed, and accepted by God! How do we know that God accepted it? Jesus rose from the dead! God affirms Jesus’ innocence; He accepted the payment for our sin by raising Jesus from the dead. And now Jesus tells us, go tell the whole world about it! Repent of your sins and be forgiven! Believe and have eternal life in Jesus! Don’t reserve any credit for yourself; give all glory to God alone! The Gospel is “anti-credit” to us.
            But perhaps most important in this reading are a “word family” or group of related words. English hides the connection between them, but the words “justify, justification, just, or Justifier” are all related to “righteous or righteousness”. This word family can be pictured in a courtroom, where God is judge, and there are two possible verdicts, when we are on trial. We can be guilty or innocent—or in the language of the Bible, unrighteous or righteous. Righteousness and justification are about God giving an innocent verdict. To be justified is for God to declare us righteous. But the key question for this Bible passage, and for Luther in the Reformation, is how do we get this verdict? How does God justify us?
            If we step back, we see that Paul speaks of two kinds of righteousness. Two standards, if you will. The first, is righteousness measured by the law. The second, Paul says, is a righteousness apart from the Law, or the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus (who is our Defense Attorney). Under the first standard, of the Law, we are all held accountable to God, all silenced before Him, and none of us are justified in His sight. None of us meet the first standard. We are guilty and condemned under the Law. But the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus, does not measure what we have done, but measures Jesus’ righteousness. For all who believe in Jesus, God justifies us freely, by faith. Jesus became our substitute in death, and His righteousness is counted to our behalf. So in God’s courtroom, this is His verdict: we are guilty under the law, but pardoned or justified by what Christ did for us. Verse 26 says, “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.”
            Justified or righteous—both are speaking of the same concept—that Jesus takes away guilt and supplies us His innocence, His righteousness instead. Still today we gather in worship to be justified—to hear God’s verdict, His forgiveness, and to believe it and have eternal life and the comfort of a clean conscience before God. God’s verdict comes not by what we have done; but because Jesus perfectly took our place. And this means, that all glory goes to God alone! Justification is about Jesus.
            Circling back to how this was at the center of the Reformation, the church at that time was teaching that it’s not by faith in Jesus Christ alone that we are saved, but that faith plus works is how you are justified. Luther forcefully proclaimed passages like Romans 3:28 again and again: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” If works of the law are ruled out of our justification; if, verse 20, “by works of the law no human being will be justified in His sight”; then it is only by faith in Jesus that we are justified. There’s no wiggle room. Luther said the church stands or falls on this article of justification. This was the make or break issue, the hill to die on. Why? Because where would we be if God justified us by our works? Plainly, NO HUMAN BEING would be justified! To trade away this free Gospel of gift, for any other message, is to lose our very salvation! St. Paul said it most emphatically in his letter to the Galatians 1:6–8 “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” Paul warned this was a spiritual life or death issue, and don’t accept any distortions—even if an angel from heaven should preach it! Hold to the grace of Christ!
            The church stands or falls on this article of justification by faith, because only by faith does God give that righteous or innocent verdict. Believing in Jesus; receiving His free gift. Anything else keeps credit with us, which steals it from God; even faith is God’s gift to us. To God be all the glory!
            Many opposed Luther and feared that it would take away incentive for doing good works, if the Bible were taught plainly. If people aren’t working to be good, in order to get into heaven, then they will just stop doing good, or will be lazy! Of course, no one can argue that humans aren’t usually lazy about doing good. But in reality, trying to earn your salvation, as Luther discovered, is a fearful and exhausting effort, doomed to failure and despair. Also, works done for this reason are from the wrong motive. But once we are freed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, freed from the fear of judgment, from attempts to pay an impossible debt—then we are truly free to do good works of love for God and love for neighbor, out of the freedom of the Gospel. We are given a new motive—thankfulness for what God has done! And this puts the cart back behind the horse—faith in Jesus saves us, but good works naturally follow as the fruit that comes from God’s new life in us. So works are not lost or forgotten—they are simply removed from the equation of justification, and put back in the context of loving our neighbor as ourselves, for their earthly good.
            It is a beautiful thing that God gave Martin Luther the insight to rediscover the Gospel in the Holy Bible, and to boldly bring that powerful Word back to work in the church. Doubtless, had Luther surrendered in the face of threats to his own life, or had he given up—God would still have raised up another reformer. But in any event, the church would only be healed by restoring Jesus Christ to front and center. Only by reclaiming the Good News that we are saved by grace alone, through Jesus Christ alone, did the church begin to heal, and to send forth once again that loud and clear song of salvation. And that song rings out loud and clear: “To God alone be all the glory, in Jesus’ Name, Amen!”
Sermon Talking Points
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  • The book of Romans as a whole, and Romans 3:19-28 in particular, was crucial to Martin Luther’s rediscovery of the Bible, as He immersed Himself in study of the Bible. This passage gives such a clear description of salvation by faith in Christ Jesus, apart from the works of the Law. Nevertheless, it has some theological terms that may not be familiar to us, and some weaknesses of the English language prevent us from seeing the relationship of all the ideas. Here is a quick  vocabulary list to help clarify:
  • “the Law and the Prophets”—expression for the Old Testament (v. 21)
  • “works of the Law”—obedience (or lack thereof) to God’s commandments (v. 20, 27, 28). This is excluded from our justification
  • “justified”—in Greek it’s part of one word family, together with “righteous” or “righteousness” (below), and means “to declare righteous/innocent”. “Justified” can be thought of as God’s legal verdict of innocence—not by “works of the law”, but only by faith in Jesus (v.20, 24, 26, 28)
  • “righteous/righteousness/just”—in Greek, all part of the same word family, meaning upright and innocent. Note there are two kinds of righteousness—by the law (we are actually all unrighteous by this measure) and the righteousness “apart from the law” (v. 21), which is the “righteousness of God through faith in Jesus” (v. 22) (a free gift!)
  • “believe/belief/faith”—again, all one word family in Greek, but split in English into the verb “believe” and noun “faith”. Means our trust in God, or “honesty about dependence” on Him.
  • “propitiation”—a putting away of God’s wrath against sin. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was the satisfying of the just demand of the Law that sin and evil be punished. (v. 25)
  • “redemption”—to buy back, from sins and death (v. 24)

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