Text: Romans 3:19-28
St. Paul wrote to the Romans, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” (Romans 3:21-22, English Standard Version) Today we celebrate the Festival of the Reformation. Though Reformation Day itself falls on Thursday, we take the opportunity today to give thanks to God and glorify Him for the grace revealed to us in His Scriptures, and for calling His Church back to the Scriptures through His servant Martin Luther. On October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses, giving a start to the Reformation.
This year, I’d like us to look at a different portion of the text than we normally do. Normally, when Romans 3 comes up in the Lectionary, we take the opportunity – and rightly so – to be reminded that we are not saved by our works but by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. That is and (must always be) evident in our preaching, our hymns, and even the Liturgy. This year, I’d like us to focus on the words the Holy Spirit gives us through St. Paul, where he says, “The Righteousness of God.” What is the righteousness of God, and how is it shown? The righteousness of God is shown in His
- a) punishing the sins of those who break His Commandments, but also, and especially, in
- b) the sending forth of His Son as the atonement for all sin.
In order for us to understand what St. Paul means by the righteousness of God, we need to first talk about God. Who is God? How should we describe Him? Speaking for us as a group, we would probably refer to the words of Scripture to describe Him. How do the Scriptures describe Him? In addition to being a Trinity and the creator of all things, the Scriptures speak about God as being a God of love and truth and, also, of righteousness and justice. As the creator and source of all things, He is the one who determines what is right and what is wrong. For lack of a better explanation, we might say that he who invents the game also sets the rules. And, in a way, that is what God has done. He has revealed to us what is right and good and true. He has revealed to us how best to serve Him and love our neighbor. He has even written these rules on our hearts and revealed them in Scripture. We know them. The Ten Commandments.
God has revealed to us His holy will, the standard of what is right and wrong, what is good for us and for our neighbors. He has revealed these things to us, and what have we done? We have ignored His Commandments or explained them away. We have forgotten them and disregarded them. What’s worse, we who have been raised in the Church have known the Commandments since our childhood – and we break them anyway. This confession is what St. Paul is working toward when he said, “There is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (vv. 22-23) St. Paul worked in chapters 1-3 of Romans to demonstrate that, because God has revealed His Law in the Commandments and written it in human hearts, there is no excuse we can give. We are sinners, one and all, no matter which way you cut it.
Now, what is God to do with such a bunch? God is love, that is true; but He is also a God of justice and righteousness. He has revealed to us how to act righteously, and we have not done it. What is a righteous God to do with those who are unrighteous? Well, He’s to punish them. In fact, it would be unrighteous for God not to punish. We have already confessed this morning, that we deserve God’s punishment in both temporal and eternal fashions for own evil sins. When parents don’t discipline their children, they fail in their vocations as parents. If God did not punish those who break break the Commandments, He would make Himself to be unrighteous. The righteousness of God is shown when He punishes those who transgress His Law.
In the book of Numbers, the Holy Spirit gives us an account of how the children of Israel responded to the reports of the spies they had sent into Canaan. The twelve spies came back, telling of the great land, but also of the powerful people who lived there. Joshua and Caleb encouraged the people that the Lord was on their side and had promised to give them that land. But, the nation was swayed by the report of the ten wicked spies. They even prepared to stone Moses and Aaron, Joshua and Caleb before the Lord stopped them. The Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people despise Me? And how long will they not believe in Me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.” (Num. 14:11-12) In other words, the righteous Lord was prepared to punish the unrighteous breakers of His Law. He was going to do it, until Moses interceeded for them.
Moses said to God,
Now if You kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard Your fame will say, ‘It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land that he swore to give to them that he has killed them in the wilderness.’ And now, please let the power of the Lord be great as You have promised, saying, ‘The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression.’Numbers 14:15-18
Moses reminded the Lord that He is not only a righteous God, but a loving and merciful one – one who forgives transgression. The Lord shows His righteousness in punishing transgression, this is true. But even more so, does He show it by forgiving the sins of those who trust in Christ.
Instead of pouring out His righteous wrath on all mankind, which would be what we deserve, the Lord took another course – one which came only at great cost to Himself. God the Father saw our sin and considered the punishment we deserved, and instead put forth His only Son in our place. He sent His Son Jesus to take own our same human flesh and to bear our sins in Himself. Jesus actively and fully obeyed the Commandments and then suffered our punishment on the cross. On the cross, the Father poured out all His wrath on Jesus, as our substitute. Jesus bore it so that, in Him, we might be forgiven. And, how do we receive this forgiveness? We heard these words already, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith.”
Our God is a righteous God. He sent forth His holy will in the Ten Commandments and He wrote it in our hearts. In keeping with His righteousness, He punishes the sins of those who break His Commandments. But, He freely forgives those who believe in His Son. That is why Christ took on our flesh, so that God might both be just and our justifier through faith. This is what all the Scriptures are about, and it’s what Luther called back to our attention. Or rather, God called it back to our attention, through Luther. We are not saved by our good works. We contribute nothing to our salvation by them. Rather, we are saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ – whom He put forward as the sacrifice for sin in our place. In this way, God shows Himself to be righteous: in demanding payment for sin, but, even more so, in forgiving those who trust in His Son, even us.