APART FROM THE LAW
TEXT: Is. 40:1-5; Rom. 3:19-24
In the New Testament portion of our Daily Walk readings, we are moving from the book of Acts, which told us about the formation of the early church, into the writings of Paul. The writings of Paul in the New Testament begin with Romans, but they are not in chronological order.
Paul wrote the book of Romans while staying in the cosmopolitan city of Corinth, about 57 AD. He wasn’t just writing for the fun of it. After establishing churches throughout Asia Minor, Paul wants to go on to preach the Gospel in Spain. But he needs a support base that is closer than Jerusalem. Paul wants the church in Rome to support his mission to Spain, and so he composes this letter.
But Paul is at a disadvantage. He did not found the church in Rome, Peter did. Paul has never even visited the Roman church, and they know of him only what they have heard from others…stories that were often conflicting and sometimes not flattering. They are not quite sure what Paul believes, especially related to his own Jewish faith.
And that’s why Paul’s letter to the church in Rome reads more like a theological treatise than a letter. He is writing to explain what he believes. He needs to show the Gentile Christians that he accepts there faith as it is and to show the Jewish Christians that he doesn’t believe God is just a fickle deity that has given them over for a new love. He believes that once they grasp the depth of his faith in a God who is a God for all nations, that they will support his mission to Spain.
And so Paul launches into some of his most famous writing. He begins in the first two and a half chapters by painting a pretty bleak picture of humanity. If he is going to show that God has offered redemption to all, then he has to show that all are in need of that redemption. That makes the first two and a half chapters pretty nasty reading. Sin is heaped upon sin. He points out that God’s word has been written in Creation itself and so nobody alive on the planet can say they didn’t know what God wanted from them.
But nobody does it. The Jews who had the law in writing didn’t follow it, and those Gentiles who knew God through Creation didn’t get it either. Everybody’s in this sin thing together, he says. Nobody is righteous…nobody. The Law doesn’t help a single bit, it only shows us how far off the mark we are. Great. If you’re really reading what he says, you pretty much want to go out and hang yourself by chapter 3 verse 20.
And that’s why Romans 3:21 has had such power across the ages. For those who take their faith seriously, who are merciless with themselves in trying to do what is right and good and true, they read those first 2.5 chapters and know the truth of them. Martin Luther, whose break from the Catholic Church started the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, began his revolt at Romans 3:21. Through the medieval Catholic system of confession and penance, he had been trying with everything within him to do what was right. He was a Catholic priest. He believed in Jesus with all his heart and soul. He also believed the teaching of the church that you had to atone for all of your sins or face the fires of hell.
And so he tried. He tried confession and penance, but he worried that he might have committed a sin unknowingly and therefore would fail to confess it, leaving it unforgiven. He was in the confessional booth so often with mundane matters that his confessor told him to go out and do something worth confessing! He tried the mortification of his flesh, literally beating himself senseless in the hopes of pleasing a God who would otherwise judge him unworthy of heaven. But, through all of it, he kept his nose in the Bible. At the time, only the priests were allowed to read the Bible for themselves…only they were allowed to interpret for the people in the pews. Luther took that charge and that privilege seriously. He read. He read with prayer. He read to understand.
And as he read through the first 2.5 chapters of Romans, he read of his own condition…the impossible demands of the law and his own inability to do what was right. The more you knew the law, the more you realized how many different ways there were to sin. Luther was living that and he was right with Paul’s every word.
Then he read Romans 3:21 and the “But now” shouted out like the trumpets of heaven. “But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
That passage changed Martin Luther forever. He saw that the church had made a mistake. We did not have to work to save ourselves. That was impossible…as he well knew. God didn’t ask that, God didn’t expect that. God had actually shown up and given us redemption as a gift…a gift! You can’t earn a gift. You can’t pay for a gift. A gift is free. We call it grace.
And so Luther re-directed all the efforts he had put into trying to confess and atone for his sins into trying to show the church the truth of the Gospel, so that others might know the freedom he now felt. He wrote down 95 different points where he believed the church was in error and he posted them on the door of the cathedral in Wittenberg, Germany on the night before everyone would gather there to celebrate All Saints Day.
The church rarely likes to be reformed, and it got him in big trouble. The history of the Protestant Reformation was the result, and the rallying cry of that Reformation came from this section of Romans: “Sola Fides!” “Faith Alone!” We don’t have to work our way into heaven. Our redemption is given as a gift to all who will accept it.
Luther wrote many books, among them a commentary on the book of Romans. It was studied down through the centuries…I even studied it in seminary. But well before me, back in the 18th century, another priest…an Anglican this time…was having some of the same issues that Luther had early on. John Wesley couldn’t manage to do what was right. He was a priest, but he had neither righteousness nor faith, and he knew it.
And then one night, as he wandered the streets of London, he was invited to a prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street. He went, and the person presiding was reading from Luther’s commentary on the book of Romans. They were in this same spot…halfway through chapter 3. And right there…in verses 21-24…John Wesley reports that his heart was “strangely warmed.” The faithless priest who also was trying to work his way into heaven, imagining that God was like his own harsh, demanding father; also heart the thunderous “But now” of verse 21.
Redemption was not a wage to be earned but a gift to be accepted by any who would. He did. He was a new man. Suddenly, he too was kicked out of his pulpit and found himself preaching in the streets and the fields, sharing his joy in the grace of God to all who would listen. He started societies…bands of people who met in homes to renew the church. They had a method to their meetings, and soon these “Methodists” were carrying the message throughout England and finally to the colonies.
Wesley, too, wrote many books, telling the world that it was grace that saves us, not our works. Bowing and scraping to a harsh master was never meant to be the Christian way. God was gracious. God gave the gift to him, even though he had stood in the pulpit many years without believing a word of what he preached. God gave the gift to anyone and everyone who would consent to receive it.
More than that, Wesley could see that God’s grace had been at work in him, even before he knew it…even when he swore God was not with him. But God’s grace had always been there. Before he knew it, in the moment that he understood, and then throughout the rest of his life as he opened his heart in gratitude. Just as Luther chanted, “Faith, faith, faith,” so Wesley chanted, “Grace, grace, grace.”
The rest of Romans goes on to explain why the Law is still important and how it is that Jesus has the authority to offer such a gift. But there is no point in reading any further until you’ve seen the incredible message of Romans 3:21-24. The guilt of the first chapters is washed away. It doesn’t matter. We might have some earthly messes to clean up from our sin, but the heavenly record is washed clean…freely. It’s a gift. We can’t earn it and God doesn’t want us trying to pay for it. That’s rude to try to pay someone who is offering us a gift.
There’s no boasting that we managed some kind of great holy feat that earned us salvation. There’s no seeing ourselves as better or worse than anyone else. None of us can keep the law, and all of us can be forgiven, simply by accepting the gift—no matter who we are, no matter what we have done. Grace…the gift of God.
At least in the West, these words of Paul literally changed the course of history, as both Luther and Wesley not only accepted the gift, but dedicated their lives to making sure that others were set free from their feelings of guilt and shame and inadequacy before God.
And so the message comes to us. Many of us are still bound by that old sense of guilt. Sometimes people tell me they won’t come up for communion because they aren’t worthy. Wesley would have dragged those people up to the front anyway saying, “Of course you’re not…that’s the whole point. Neither am I, neither is anyone here…but God wants us there anyway; God loves us anyway; it’s a gift, it’s free, grace, grace, grace!”
While the righteous are trying to crawl to God across broken glass to atone for their sins, the riff raff are running right over them and dashing into the arms of God. Redemption is free…the prison bars are open, and God Almighty turns out to be love. That’s why the last shall be first…those whose sins are so great that they know they cannot atone for them, hear the Gospel and have nothing to lose. They accept the gift eagerly. Those whose sins are less are often still caught up in pride. They don’t want a handout, they want to pay their way. They can atone for these few sins and achieve perfection.
And so they crawl while the others run in ahead of them, forgiven, free, as a gift. One of those running freely ahead was John Newton, a slave trader who had renounced his faith in God, only to find it again in a storm and through the teaching of George Whitfield and John Wesley. Knowing the evil he had done in the slave trade, he knew he was a wretch…and yet the Amazing Grace of God was free to him as well. He became a minister. He wrote our closing hymn.
There are still some churches where you will hear “Sin, sin, sin!” But with the chorus of Luther and Wesley, and John Newton behind us, we call back, “Grace, grace, grace!” The sin is forgotten. God is love. Our redemption is a gift that we need only reach out and accept. Our hearts will be “strangely warmed,” we’ll start posting the message on doors, and we’ll probably get kicked out of the pulpits of those who want to keep the people enslaved to sin. But God’s grace is amazing, and once we grasp it, the world will never be the same.
The version of Amazing Grace we have in our hymnals is almost like the original. John Newton wrote six verses, and we have the first five. The standard sixth verse, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years,” was not his. The original final verse says:
“The earth shall soon dissolve like snow, the sun forbear to shine; but God, who called me here below, will be forever mine.” Amen and Amen.