October 28, 2018
Rev. Rick Langness
Ascension Lutheran Church Littleton, Colorado
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours this day from our triune God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
It is funny how quickly things can become old or commonplace. Just last year there was much hype and celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. This year it simply shows up as just another Sunday in the Church Year. Yes, 500 is a big number and something worth celebrating. But I question, have we lost the excitement because the Gospel itself has become old or common, and are we missing altogether the wonderful truth that Martin Luther discovered those many years ago?
Martin Luther was faced with a most difficult question, a question that we all must ask. How can a sinner stand before a righteous and holy God? Now before I go any further it is good and right that we unpack that question a little as church words like righteous and holy can become so common in our language that we overlook the meaning behind them. Righteous, then, is simply the quality of being right in all things at all times. There is no error, no mistake, no wrong, ever! This is a concept that is difficult for us to grasp in its fullness since none of us is righteous.
Earlier on in chapter 3 of Romans Paul quotes Psalms 14 and 53 when he says, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12) This is the reality of our condition and it is a truth that none of us like or even want to hear. Thus, like the church in Rome to whom Paul is speaking, we want to find fault with God and especially with God’s law. Like the Pharisees and teachers of the law who were constantly trying to find fault with Jesus, we also try to find to fault God so that we might somehow have a righteousness of our own. If we can show that God is unjust, then we have a means to justify ourselves before God. But what do we do if God is truly righteous and just?
Now there is more to the question. There is the issue of a holy God. Now to be holy is to be without sin. It is not an issue of simply being right; it is to be pure, without blemish, without any evil, without sin. This purity, this holiness, cannot behold sin. This is why I refer to the Father as being the standard bearer. He maintains the standard of holiness while the Son humbles Himself to take on human flesh and dwell with sinful man. Ultimately He will take on Himself the full weight of humanity’s sin and bear the judgment before the Father. As Paul says, For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21) Any sin, no matter how small or trivial in our eyes, ultimately deserves death.
The struggle that we face along with Martin Luther ultimately leaves us in a quandary. God demands holiness but we are not holy. God demands righteousness but there is none who is righteous. How, then, are we ever to stand before a righteous and holy God? This quandary leads us to question the love and mercy of God. We want to say with the world that God is unjust and His Law is unfair. We echo the thoughts of the house of Israel revealed to the prophet Ezekiel. “Yet your people say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just,’ when it is their own way that is not just. When the righteous turns from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it. And when the wicked turns from his wickedness and does what is just and right, he shall live by this. Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, I will judge each of you according to his ways.” (Ezekiel 33:17-20)
Now in truth, Luther’s question, our question, is not a new one. It comes home in the words of St. Paul. Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:19-20) We are all sinners and we can do nothing to justify ourselves before God. None of us can ever be good enough and none of us can ever overcome the sin in our lives. Even if were possible to stop sinning from this moment on, we would still be unrighteous and unholy before God because of what we have already done.
Here, then, I want to address a great heresy, a great false teaching that has infected much of Christendom. It is a simple idea, a simple statement that many people make. It is often made to a person who is struggling with guilt and it is usually made with good intentions but it is nonetheless a false statement. It totally misses the truth that fueled the Reformation. It is this statement, “You have to forgive yourself.”
Again, this statement sounds wonderful. Forgiveness is wonderful. Leaving unnecessary guilt behind is wonderful. But the problem is this, you do not have the authority to forgive yourself. Yes, your sin may have hurt you. It may have offended you. But the real offense, the real hurt was done to your neighbor and to God. Thus, if you want forgiveness, you must receive it from the one against whom you have sinned. Forgiveness comes to us from outside of us and it is only understood through the words that we hear, “I forgive you.” or, “You are forgiven.”
In truth, we all have times when we struggle with guilt. Some of us may even struggle as Martin Luther did. He would literally torture himself in hopes of getting rid of it. Luther was so overwhelmed with guilt that even the smallest of sin in the worlds eye would drive him to despair. And who knows, maybe even he had the counsel of a concerned friend who told him that he needed to forgive himself. In the end, however, Luther found no comfort or peace. He saw God as being unjust. And yet, his faith would not let him turn away from seeking God’s favor. That quest ultimately led him to the truth to which Paul speaks in the following verses.
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. For there is no distinction: for 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. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26)
Forgiveness came from outside of Luther. Luther was under the condemnation of the Law because that is what the Law does; it reveals the sin within our lives, through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now Luther finally grasped the reality of Jesus Christ and Him crucified. All of his sin, just as all of your sin and my sin, was born by our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He bore the judgment of the Father for all of our sin, once and for all. Thus, the forgiveness that came to Luther was a true forgiveness just as the forgiveness that come to you today is a true forgiveness. This forgiveness removes your sin and puts upon you the very righteousness of God. This forgiveness re-forms you.
If you struggle with guilt, then you know how it has formed you. You know how it has shaped you with despair. You know how your guilt has formed you into not connecting with others, how it is difficult to look others in the eye. Guilt forms us into carrying the weight of the world upon our own shoulders so that we might not be an offense to others. Ultimately, guilt forms us into trying to become someone that we are not, someone who fits the image of what others think we should be. Thus, I invite you to be re-formed, reshaped, into the man or woman that God not only created but redeemed with His very own body and blood given and shed for you.
There was a Christian song that came out about a year ago and the basic message was this, the cross has the final word. I like the idea but it still misses the mark of what we celebrate in the Reformation. You see, the cross cannot speak. It may be a visual reminder and point us to Christ but it is the Christ who has the final word. Faith comes by hearing and hearing the very Word of God. That Word is Jesus Christ. It is the Christ who has the final word and He has already spoken that authoritative word through our pastor when he said, “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
The Christ has spoken the final word to our sin. Here now in body and blood He speaks it again. The beauty of the Law is that it opens the door for us to confess our sin. We do not need to hide behind our guilt anymore. Through the acknowledgment of our sin we can then be re-formed, transformed, by the final word of Christ as He says to you and to me, “You are forgiven!” This is the manifestation of the righteousness of God who now declares you righteous, holy, and able to stand in the very presence of God. You are forgiven. Deal with it! In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.