A sermon by Rev Richard Keith on Genesis 15:1-6 and Romans 3:21-26
Martin Luther was born in 1483. Luther’s father wanted him to be a lawyer, but at the age of 22, Luther was caught out in the open in a storm. Afraid for his life, he cried out to St Anne, “Help me. I will become a monk.” Suffering nothing worse than a terrible fright and a good soaking, Luther left law school a couple of months later, sold all his books, and entered an Augustinian monastery. He devoted himself to fasting, long hours in prayer, pilgrimages, frequent confessions and harsh penances like cleaning floors that were already clean. His confessions often lasted hours over such trivial matters that his confessor urged him to go out and commit real sins, so he would have something worth wasting his time.
At the age of 24, Luther was ordained as a priest, and after officiating at his first mass, he suffered a nervous breakdown, overcome by his unworthiness and his terrifying responsibilities. Luther was encouraged by his superiors to use his intellectual gifts as a lecturer of the Bible and theology at the university of Wittenberg. He lectured on the Psalms, the book of Hebrews and Paul’s letter to the Romans.
But some time in 1515, at the age of 32, Luther became stuck on Romans chapter 1, verses 16 and 17. In these verses the apostle Paul wrote,
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
Luther had been taught that the righteousness of God meant God’s perfect justice, the standard which he demands from us, the standard by which he judges us. Luther asked himself, how can this be gospel? How can this be good news? This is bad news. This was the impossible standard which he himself had always tried to live by and had always failed. If this is the gospel, then there is no gospel.
But he found the solution to his problem in the text itself:
The righteous will live by faith.
It’s a quote from the prophet Habakkuk. For Luther it was a revolutionary thought. For it did not say that the righteous will live by their own good works, but by faith. The verse before says,
the gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.
It did not say everyone who attends mass or goes on pilgrimage or undergoes penance, but everyone who believes. And so Luther concluded that the righteousness of God that the gospel reveals is not an impossible standard that God demands from us, but it is the gift of righteousness that God gives to us. Just as the power of God is his power that strengthens us, just as the peace of God is his peace that calms our fears, so the righteousness of God is not a standard that he demands from us, but something which he makes ours, his righteousness for us, his righteousness that becomes ours by which God makes us right with him.
After all his years of monking and priesting and lecturing, Martin Luther discovered the good news of the gospel. Justification by faith. It is the insight that when we stand in the divine courtroom before God, the judge against whom we have sinned, we are declared not guilty, found innocent, acquitted of all charges not because we met some perfect standard, not because our good deeds outweighed our bad, not because we failed but our heart was in the right place and we meant well, but simply because we trusted in the mercy of God revealed in the cross of Christ.
Our message today is faith alone. Firstly, faith that alone receives the gift of salvation from God. Secondly, faith that alone removes all the barriers between us. And thirdly, faith that alone brings assurance and peace.
Romans chapter 3 verse 21 begins with a great big but. In the paragraph before Paul has concluded that there is no one righteous. No one who seeks God. All have turned away. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by observing the law. Then comes the best word in the Bible: but. It means the end of an old way and the beginning of a new way.
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known.
Because what we could not do through the law, by obeying the law, God did for us through his Son Jesus Christ. For the gospel does not reveal a righteousness that we reach up and grab for ourselves. But the righteousness from God that reaches down to us, that comes through faith in Jesus Christ all who believe.
For although all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ.
In these verses of Scripture, Paul affirms what we’ve been learning over the last few weeks. We are saved by Christ alone by grace alone. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement.
We are familiar with the concept of sacrifice. The scapegoat. The one who suffers for the sake of many others. Only last Wednesday, we commemorated Anzac Day. We remember the sacrifice of those who went to war and fell to preserve our peace and freedom. We enjoy what they purchased with their lives.
In a similar way, Christ died for us. He suffered the penalty of our sin. He endured the wrath of the Father for our rebellion. And in our place he died. He experienced the death that we had chosen. And he rose to life that we might live a new kind of life. Christ did it for us that we might be forgiven and live. That the debt might be paid in full so that no more would be required. That we might be set free from our past and set free for a new future in the service of God. Christ did this motivated only by his grace. On his own initiative. While we were sinners. While we were enemies with God. Before we had done anything good. Apart from the law. Apart from any merit that we might have gained. It is free. All done. Everything necessary already accomplished. As Jesus said with his last breath,
“It is finished.”
But this gift is received by faith. As Abram learned in Genesis chapter 15. Abram had been called by God to leave his homeland, to go to a new land that his descendants would inherit. But Abram had no descendants. No great-grandchildren because he had no grandchildren, no grandchildren because he had no children. He complained to the Lord,
“O Sovereign Lord,what can you give me since I remain childless? You have given me no children.”
The Lord took Abram outside at night and said,
“Look up to the sky and count the stars, if you can. So shall your offspring be.”
And Abram believed the Lord. He heard his promise and trusted him. And the Lord credited it to him as righteousness. By his faith Abram made the right response to God’s promise. God took the responsibility for Abram’s problem and Abram trusted him. This is righteousness. It is not submitting ourselves to countless penances. It is not keeping up a credit of good deeds against the demerits of our bad deeds. It is trusting that God can do what we can’t, that God can do what he promised. Abram had tried for eighty years to become a father and had not produced one child, one heir for all his wealth. But God could do what Abram couldn’t. And God can certainly do what he has promised. Abram trusted him and God credited it to him as righteousness so that by faith Abram might receive what God had promised.
God has promised us salvation and life in Jesus Christ at the cost of his suffering and death. All this is yours, if you believe. You can’t save yourself with your trust. You can’t produce this life on your own through the power of your belief. Faith is not a little work that you can do because you can’t do any big works. Faith is the renouncing of all works. Faith is giving up trying to justify ourselves before God. Faith is emptying our hands of all our merits, because it takes empty hands to receive a gift. And so we become a child of Abram by following his example of faith and so we become an heir of his blessing. Faith is the right response to the promise of God. We are justified by faith and by this faith alone we receive the salvation that God has promised.
And this faith alone breaks down the barriers between us. We are male or female. We are young or old. We are single or married or divorced or widowed. We vote Labor or Liberal or No or Yes. All these differences are significant. But they ultimately mean nothing compared to the great division of humanity into Jew and Gentile. A division created by the promise of God to Abram. “To your descendants I will give this land.” God blessed this one family, this one nation, Israel, for the sake of a greater promise, “all nations will be blessed through you”. A promise fulfilled through Christ. Paul asks in Romans chapter 4,
“Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, since there is only one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.”
In 1989 I was astonished when the Berlin Wall came down. This barrier had been the great symbol of the Cold War, built by the communists not to keep the capitalists out, but to keep their own people in, and 200 people were murdered for trying to cross it. But in 1989 the wall came down. People were free to move from East to West and in October 1990 Germany became whole.
In Christ God has brought the wall down. The wall that divided who was in and who was out of God’s blessing. Israel in. Foreigners out. Descendants of Abram in. Strangers out. Jews in. The likes of you and me out. But in Christ all that now means nothing. If we have faith, if we trust in him, if we look to Christ for salvation and depend on him for our hope and life, we belong to him. All of us. Whether Jew or Gentile, circumcised or not, through faith we are family. Abram still has the blessing, but through his great descendant Jesus, he has blessed all nations. Even ours. So that none of the differences between us mean anything, if we share the most important thing, faith alone in Christ alone. Then for all our differences, we belong to each other. We are family. Children of God and brothers and sisters in Christ.
Faith alone removes all those barriers. And faith alone brings true assurance and peace. Paul says in Romans chapter 5,
“Since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
This is what Martin Luther craved. Peace with God. For years he believed in God, he served God, he denied himself for God, he surrendered to all kinds of afflictions and humiliations for God, he feared God, but he didn’t love God. He didn’t know God as his loving Father. He never had any assurance that what he was doing for God was enough. He was busy, busy, busy for God, like a man who has dug himself into a hole and imagines that he is sure to get himself out if he keeps on digging. Martin Luther had no peace, until he realised that his salvation didn’t depend on what he did, but on what Christ had done for him. “It is finished,” Jesus said.
And faith believes that. Faith trusts in that promise. Faith rests in that completed work. On the one hand, it means the end of justifying ourselves through work or ritual or self-denial. But on the other hand, it means the beginning of a new life. To receive that life for the first time is like being born again. To recommit to it again today is like starting from scratch. You don’t have to become a monk or a nun. You don’t have to submit to the burden of penances and pilgrimages. You must trust in Christ who has done the work for you.
“For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed, a righteousness by faith from beginning to end. As it is written, the righteous will live by faith.”
Believe that promise and you will live.