(Written by Pastor Tim Redfield)
Romans 3:19-28 – Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.
21 But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. 28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.
When we look at the scriptures and the facts of our salvation, it is important to distinguish between “head knowledge” and “heart knowledge.” Many people have “head knowledge.” This means that they know the facts of the Bible. They can recite the stories and they can quote passages but they don’t have a genuine faith in Christ. When a person has “heart knowledge”, they understand that all these Bible truths apply to them. A person with “heart knowledge” has true saving faith. They understand that Christ has forgiven them. They understand that they have eternal life. Romans 3 helps us to see the Righteousness of God. This righteousness needs to be more than just “head knowledge.” When it becomes “heart knowledge”, then we realize that we fall short of God’s Righteousness and God freely gives Righteousness to us.
In the opening verses of this section, we are reminded that the law condemns every one of us. God’s Word tells us that God is completely perfect. This is the definition of God’s righteousness. He is perfect and sinless. The law tells us that we need to be perfect if we want to obtain forgiveness and eternal life. If God’s law were the only message that the Bible gave us, it would be impossible for us to be saved. Without faith in Christ, we would be under the law. Verse 19 describes this by saying, “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.” Because of God’s law, we are without excuse. We are accountable for our sins.
The next verse says that we cannot become righteous before God through obedience to the law. It says, “no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law, rather through the law we become conscious of sin.” Because the perfection described in the law is so high, we can never be declared righteous by God through our obedience to the law. There has to be another purpose for God’s law. The purpose of the law is to lead us to see just how sinful we are. We sin in our thoughts, words, and actions. We sin every day. Everything about us is tainted by sin because we are born with a sinful nature. The law makes us conscious of this fact. If this was the only message of God’s Word, we could only fall into despair. We would throw up our hands in frustration and say that religion is pointless. We might even grow angry with God because the perfection he demands is completely impossible for us to achieve.
These are the thoughts that occurred to Martin Luther. As we look at the Reformation that Luther started, we need to understand the change that occurred inside of Luther’s heart. The reason the Reformation happened was because of the spiritual turmoil that was going on in Luther’s heart. He understood what Paul said in verse 23. Luther understood that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The Catholic Church had emphasized this point to Luther. Luther wanted to live up to the glory of God. He wanted to be saved and have eternal life. Unfortunately the Church of his day had given him the wrong message.
The Church told him that he was able to please God. They told Luther that he could perform the works that were in line with God’s law and therefore have the hope of eternal life. The problem was that Luther took God seriously and he took sin seriously. So when God told him that he had to be perfect, Luther understood that this meant absolutely perfect. The Church told him that he had to do good works out of humility and that they had to be done out of love with no expectation of reward. Do you see the problem? If someone is doing a good work because they expect to be forgiven or expect to obtain eternal life, then they are expecting a reward. Even a true confession has to be done out of love for God and not out of fear of punishment. Luther was terrified of this righteous God who demanded perfection.
Luther wanted to be certain of his salvation and yet he could never be certain when he was forced to look to his own good works. Luther knew that God needed to be appeased. However, Luther saw no way to make God happy. In Luther’s mind, the Righteousness of God was something that God has in himself because he is perfect. Luther was taught that he had to achieve this kind of righteousness. The Church had told him that the sacraments would give him an infusion of God’s grace so that he could perform works out of love and please God. And yet Luther still saw that his works were imperfect and tainted by sin.
Luther thought that if he kept on striving to do good, maybe God would be pleased. Maybe God would show him some favor when it came time for judgment. Luther wanted to be certain so he decided to completely dedicate his life to serving the Lord. He decided to become a monk. That way he could continually do good works before God. He could pray and meditate and even put his body through suffering. Luther’s conscience was very troubled by all of his sin. He desperately wanted to be certain of his salvation.
Think about how hopeless we would be if we had the same thoughts that Luther had. Like Jesus says in the gospels, we would be “a slave to sin.” We would be living under the Old Covenant. According to the Old Covenant, the Law of Moses, we have to obey the law in order to be blessed. We would never receive the blessings of eternal life and forgiveness because we do not live up to God’s righteousness. We would fall into despair. We would never understand God’s love. We would view him as an angry judge who delights in our punishment. We would be tempted to completely turn our back on religion.
It is extremely important that we understand the significance of the gospel of Christ. We not only look at the facts of our salvation history but we also take them to heart. Jesus lived the completely sinless life for us that God demanded. He took our punishment. He became righteousness for us. This is more than just a historical event. It is the life giving message of the gospel. It completely changes our hearts and our lives.
Paul emphasizes the free gift that we receive from God. There is nothing that we have to do to earn our own salvation. There is nothing that we could do. We have been thoroughly corrupted and we have completely fallen short of God’s glory. Verse 24 tells us that we “are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” Jesus is the sacrifice of atonement. It is through his blood that we have been saved. God’s justice demanded that there needed to be a punishment for sin. That punishment is death. Rather than giving us that punishment, God punished his one and only Son.
Because Jesus has been punished, we have been justified. In Catechism class we sometimes define the word justified by saying that because of Christ it is “just-as-if-I-had” never sinned. When God justifies us he declares us “not guilty.” We are forgiven because of the merits of our Savior. This is an incredible blessing and we should not take it for granted. Forgiveness is a life changing fact. We are no longer slaves to our sinful nature. The truth of the gospel has set us free to live for Christ. We live under the new covenant – a covenant of grace. We know the truth of the gospel and the truth sets us free.
When Luther understood the freedom of the gospel, he took this light of the gospel and let it shine in a world that was darkened by works righteousness. He understood that God’s righteousness is not a standard that he had to live up to. Rather God’s righteousness has been revealed by God to the World. God freely gives this righteousness. Luther understood that since all our works are tainted by sin, God had to give righteousness to man through absolutely no merit of man. Luther was relieved that he did not have to live up to the perfection of God. The great peace and comfort that Jesus gave to Luther led him to boldly proclaim the gospel.
Luther never intended to break away from the Catholic Church. Luther wanted the Church to come back to the truth of the gospel. He posted his 95 Theses because he wanted to debate the teachings of the Catholic Church regarding indulgences. The Church however wanted nothing to do with the debate. The Church at that time liked the control it had over people by teaching Works Righteousness. They didn’t want to teach gospel freedom because it would have taken away their power and authority. The Church was so angry with Luther that they ordered him to take back what he had said or he would be excommunicated. Luther stood up for the truth of Scripture. Luther stood up for Christ even though it meant that his life would be in danger.
The gospel changes our hearts just like it changed the heart of Luther. When we take the gospel to heart, when it becomes more than just facts, then we live a life that freely proclaims Christ crucified. Christianity is a lifestyle. It is not just something that we do for an hour on Sunday and then perhaps for a few minutes during the rest of the week. We desperately need the law and the gospel in our lives every day. We need the message of the law so that we do not fall into either arrogance or despair. It is the height of arrogance to think that we can commit sins just because we have been forgiven. This shows a knowledge of the facts of forgiveness but not a real understanding. When we take sin seriously and take our forgiveness seriously, then sin is detestable to us and we want to avoid it.
When we see how detestable sin is, it can tempt us to despair because we know that we have committed many sins and we deserve death. The gospel takes us back to the foot of the cross. There we see Jesus dying out of love for each one of us. When he endured the nails in his hands and feet he thought about you. When the crown of thorns was pressed on his head he thought of your sin. When he cried out, “It is Finished!” he was declaring that you are forgiven. He thought about you. He loved you. He freely gave himself for us. He triumphantly rose from the grave for us. The joy that we celebrate on every Easter is the joy that motivates us to thank and praise our God with every part of our lives.
At the beginning of his life, Luther only had a “head knowledge” of the righteousness of God. He knew all the facts but he did not know how to obtain that righteousness. It was not until Luther found the truths of the gospel that he finally got the “heart knowledge” that he had been seeking. He had always understood that he fell short of God’s glory but now he understood that God freely forgave him in Christ. Just like Luther we need to have a proper understanding of the Righteousness of God. When we only see this righteousness according to the facts of the law, then we see it as a standard that we can’t live up to. When we see God’s righteousness as the free gift that we have in Christ, it is a life-changing motivational force. This forgiveness dwells in our hearts and we are given the perfect righteousness of God.