Sermon on Romans 3:19-28, for Reformation Day 2020 (A), "God's Righteousness"
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. What does God have to prove? He doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone, right? He’s GOD after all. But in Romans 3:19-28, it says twice that God proved or showed His righteousness (v. 25-26). What did He do and why? God showed His righteousness by justifying believers in Jesus. On Reformation Day, we continue to contemplate that great word “righteousness” as today we reflect on God’s Righteousness. As we zero in on this aspect, many other facets of this beautiful diamond sparkle unseen. We are only glimpsing the great gift of God’s Righteousness from one angle.
Righteousness is a central theme of Romans and Apostle Paul’s ministry itself. It became central to Martin Luther’s Reformation 500 years ago. Not only Paul and Luther beat that drum. This theme of righteousness runs all through the Bible. Two key points today: 1) God’s righteousness is His character, and 2) He imputes or credits His righteousness to us. His actions to save us are the proof of His righteousness character. In other words, God’s righteousness is seen as He saves His people throughout the Bible start to finish.
How does God’s righteousness express His character? If you ask someone to give you a “character reference” for a job, they’re hoping that person knows them well, and can positively describe their character so someone will trust them or hire them. That they are hard-working and not lazy. They have initiative and integrity, so they don’t need constant supervision and can work well on their own. A person of good character. But who can write God’s character reference? There’s none higher than Him? What does it mean that He is called “righteous?” In English we sort of confuse the matter by using two different families of words: “righteous” and “just” or “declared righteous” and “justification” to describe the same thing. The original Hebrew and Greek of the Bible have one primary word family. All the same idea: a righteous or just person is someone who obeys the law faithfully and is not a violator or sinner. A righteous or just person is not blameworthy or guilty before the Law.
But God authored the Law. So does it stand over God’s head and rule His behavior? Or is the Law a reflection of who God already is? It’s clearly the second. God’s righteousness is that He is in every sense most pure, most upright and without sin or any evil in Himself. Psalm 5 states it in the negative, subtracting any possibility of wickedness in Him: “For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you” (Ps. 5:4). Psalm 11 states it positively, adding all goodness to Him: “For the Lord is righteous; he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold His face” (Ps. 11:7). Notice evil is forbidden from God’s presence, but the upright stand in His presence. All month we’ve said having God’s righteousness is the only way to enter His presence. So God is clearly above His own Law, but not in the sense of violating His Law. Rather, it is a perfect reflection of who He is, and He is perfectly true to His Law, because it is an expression of His own pure, sinless character. “The rules of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” (Ps. 19:9b). So also God is holy and without sin.
This filled Martin Luther with nightmares and dread. Schooled in the scholastic theology of the Middle Ages, he read God’s righteousness as God’s fiercely just and unrelenting enforcement of His laws. He was understandably afraid. When Luther read about God’s righteousness and reflected on God’s character, He trembled in fear. When He read about the righteousness of God in the book of Romans, he started to think hateful thoughts about God. The young, confused Luther saw God’s Righteousness as a terrifying perfection and judgment that had him marked for destruction. How could God be so merciless and demanding when we are so weak? Luther saw us all as hopeless cases, and God unwilling or unable to do anything about it, because we were all far short of His glory. What was Luther missing?
In Romans 3, we find a vital clue. The reading opens by talking about the righteousness of the Law, and then a righteousness of God that is reveal apart from the law, though the Law points to it. What’s it talking about? The Good News or the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God’s Righteousness reveals not only His character as Holy, Perfect, and a Just Judge who dwells in unapproachable light—but also in mercy and grace. And while God is “above the Law” in the sense of writing it, Scripture also tells us that Jesus was born “under the law” to “redeem those under the Law.” This is God’s righteousness seen in mercy and grace. The Gospel is God’s redemption plan for sinners.
Luther had what he would later call his “Tower Experience.” His eyes were opened by the Holy Spirit, to understand this glorious Good News in Romans. He was truly converted to a living faith in God, as he studied God’s Word and connected the dots of God’s Righteousness in the monastery tower. The proof of God’s righteousness was His redemption plan for sinners—God’s pathway for sinners to find refuge and pardon in Jesus, and not be subject to the sin and judgment we deserve. God proved His righteousness by rescuing sinners. God’s righteousness was greater than the sum total of His just enforcement of the Law, as necessary as that was. It was seen also in mercy.
So first, God’s righteousness is an expression of His character, but secondly, we said that God imputes or credits this righteousness to us. When’s the last time you used the word imputes? Right…not part of our everyday speech. It’s another legal word, like righteousness. If guilt is imputed to you, you are charged with being guilty. If innocence or righteousness is imputed to you, you are held innocent in the eyes of the court. In Paul’s theology, God imputed our guilt to Jesus and imputes Jesus’ righteousness and obedience to us in its place. It’s a legal transfer. Luther called it the “Great Exchange”—the heart of the Gospel, or the Good News. This “imputed righteousness” is how God is “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
Luther’s rediscovery of Paul’s teaching on God’s Righteousness led to similar discoveries in the Psalms and the rest of Scripture. It was incredibly uplifting for Luther. I hope the same is true for all of you! We all stand in fear and awe of God’s righteousness. He dwells in unapproachable light. Sin is like gasoline in the presence of God’s holy fire. But thanks be to Jesus Christ, we don’t approach in the sin-soaked rags of our own righteousness, to be consumed by the fire of God’s holiness. Instead, in Jesus we are stripped clean of our sins and self-righteousness, washed with pure water in the waters of Holy Baptism, and clothed with the clean robe of Christ’s righteousness, imputed to us by God. So dressed, we enter His wedding feast, His celebration with joy and with God’s worthiness as a gift—by His invitation and His robe of righteousness. As the book of Hebrews says, this gives us boldness and confidence to approach God’s throne of grace. It uplifts us to the very throne of heaven! God imputes Christ’s own righteousness to us by faith!
So God’s imputed righteousness is a big deal! The big deal is proof of God’s righteousness. God didn’t have to prove anything but He desires to show His righteous character. As righteous, He must not permit or tolerate unrighteousness. Just like a good government can’t tolerate violence and lawlessness against its citizens. But mere law enforcement would still leave us out in the cold of our sin. Standing under a Just Judge, but with no mercy in the court, we would all be doomed to the condemnation earned by our sins. But by imputing our sin and guilt to Christ—He took the full weight and penalty to the cross. By imputing His righteousness to believers by faith, God upholds His righteousness and opens eternal life to us. He doesn’t sacrifice or compromise His law or character. He still hates wickedness and loves righteous deeds. But His righteousness is more than just a strict application of the Law; it includes a generous mercy that is far more than we could ever deserve. Having God’s own righteousness imputed to us is truly a big deal! This means hope for all the guilty and condemned. It means we have “a strong, a perfect plea, a great High Priest whose name is Love, who ever lives and pleads for me!”
The strength and perfection of that plea is Christ’s perfect righteousness. In previous weeks we’ve shown that any alternative, even a pumped up, inflated mixture our own righteousness just fails and falls flat. Perfect is not our 1% combined with Christ’s 99 %. It’s Christ’s 100% all the way. God has a very explicit purpose in making salvation all about His grace. To silence every mouth and make every man, woman and child on earth accountable before God. To remove all ground of boasting, because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. So, anything based on us and not on His imputed gift of righteousness, is an unfinished job or incomplete righteousness. Anything unfinished, incomplete, or not perfect, still falls short of the glory of God. It’s no good to be “mostly righteous”. That falls short of the glory of God. When the standard is purity, nothing less than 100% is accepted. Doesn’t matter if it’s .02 % or 92% impure. It’s still short of the glory of God. All or nothing.
So what proof of God’s righteousness do we find at the throne of God, when we come to make our strong and perfect plea? “Behold Him there! The risen Lamb! My perfect, spotless righteousness, the great unchangeable I AM, the King of glory and of grace!” Jesus ever stands as the proof of God’s righteousness. His reign on the heavenly throne is an eternal testament to God’s righteousness, mercy and love. The God who is awesome in character and mighty to save us. The God worth all the glory and honor and praise eternally due His Name. Amen and amen!