Summary: A sermon based on Romans 3:19-28 for Reformation Sunday, with emphasis on human inability to perfectly keep the law and God's free gift of grace through Christ's suffering and death on the cross. This free gift of grace gives us a tremendous freedom.
Reformation Sunday Yr C, 27/10/2013
Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
“The universality of law and grace”
Today we Lutherans—and some other Christians, hopefully Anglicans, since they are in full altar and pulpit communion with us now!—celebrate Reformation Sunday. Of course the first thing most of us Lutherans think of is the historical personage of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther, along with his reforming work and writings. We Lutherans most likely think of the emphasis on the five “solas,” namely: Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone, and the cross alone. We may also think of Luther’s 95 theses, which he posted on the Wittenberg church door, with the intention of debating them with other church and university scholars; but which became popular among many as part of a “battle cry” for desperately needed reforms within the Roman Catholic Church of Luther’s day. Or, we may think of how the power of God’s word touched the hearts, minds and lives of ordinary people across Europe due to Luther’s German translation of the Bible, which swiftly placed it into the hands of ordinary folks everywhere, thanks to the invention of the printing press. Or, we may think of the older and more recent classic movies on the life of Luther and that historic day when Luther took his famous stand before the emperor—refusing to recant the reform-oriented teachings that he believed Christendom was in such dire need of at that time. For those who are history buffs, all of these are significant factors that contributed to the Reformation. There is so much we can focus on and emphasise as we celebrate Reformation Sunday. However, I’d like to focus on what I believe is keeping the main thing the main thing; sometimes referred to by Lutherans as “the doctrine of doctrines”—namely, justification by grace alone through faith alone, which is given to us by God through the saving work of Jesus as a gift of unconditional love.
So, here we go.
Philip Melanchthon, the great Reformation scholar, thought his close friend, Martin Luther, was exaggerating again.
It’s not merely our bad works which are sinful, Luther said. Our good works are flawed as well. Even when we are in the presence of God through prayer, we are incapable of unselfish purity.
They made a bet. If Melanchthon could say the Lord’s Prayer without a single selfish thought, Luther would give him his horse.
When Melanchthon emerged from the church sanctuary some minutes later, his face was troubled. “You were right,” he said to Luther. “I kept wondering whether I’d get your saddle as well.”
Yet this is precisely the good news. Luther said. We need not depend on ourselves. All we need for our salvation has already been accomplished by God through Jesus Christ. We are “justified by his grace as a gift.”
This insight changed the course of human history. It can also change the course of our personal history.1
So, Luther’s reading and interpretation of the Bible not only changed his life—it also changed and continues to change the lives of countless Christians. For Luther as well as for us Lutherans, Paul’s letter to the Romans is perhaps the most detailed and powerful book in the Bible that emphasises the doctrine and practice of justification by grace through faith as God’s free gift thanks to the saving work of Jesus.
Today’s second lesson is kind of like a golden key that opens up the door of God’s grace through Jesus to humankind. Paul’s reasoning powers reach their heights here. Our passage begins with Paul’s emphasis on the universality of the law. According to Paul, the law demands perfection, and every single human being, with the exception of Jesus, is unable to perfectly keep the law. So, Paul tells us, the chief function of the law is to reveal, to show us our sin, to remind us that we’ve all fallen short of God’s glory, by being unable to perfectly keep the law. Without the law, we would never know that we are sinners and have sinned—so the law is good in that it helps us to accept this truth about ourselves. No matter how good we may be, even a Mother Teresa or an Albert Schweitzer were sinners, and could not perfectly keep the law. So we all stand before God the Judge as sinners, and he pronounces us “Guilty.” According to the law then, we all deserve punishment for our guilt; for failing to perfectly keep the law. We cannot justify ourselves by keeping the law.
However, thank God that is not the last word! Our justification comes from another Source. Paul says the law and the prophets also realised this truth—and here most likely he has in mind the example of Abraham, where we are told that the patriarch trusted in God and God’s promises and therefore God reckoned, God treated, God regarded Abraham’s faith as righteousness. Paul then goes on to emphasise that there is another universality at work in humankind’s justification. All human beings are justified by God’s grace, which comes to us as a gift; through redemption in Christ, who is God’s sacrifice of atonement by his blood, made effective through faith.