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.
 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.
 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith.  For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Romans 3:19-28 (ESV)
For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Romans 3:19-28 (ESV)
This may just sum up all of the epistle of Romans. In fact it may sum up all of the Pauline Epistles. It is Martin Luther’s doctrine in a nutshell. Believing this is what makes us Lutherans, as opposed to Baptists, Catholics, or Methodist. We are justified by faith apart from works of the law. But not just any faith, faith that believes in Jesus Christ whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood. This propitiation, atonement, reconciliation with God that is attained by the Blood of Christ, shed in place of our blood, is received by faith. Faith that believes that Jesus died in our place, has propitiated, reconciled God to us, saves. Faith that believes God is now kindly disposed to us, despite our sinful nature, and the so called good works that are nothing but filthy rags in the sight of God, This faith saves. This is the doctrine, not only of the Reformation, not only of Martin Luther, but the doctrine of the New Testament, and therefore the doctrine of the church the one holy and apostolic Christian Church. It is the doctrine upon which the church stands or falls.
Some believe us Lutherans make to much of this verse, supposedly just one among many in the Bible. Certainly, they say, the Bible teaches more than justification by faith alone! Yet, I’m not sure that it does. In reading any book there are passages, phrases that serve as keys to explain what the book is about. These phrases, these passages are so powerful that they color everything else in the book. Sometimes these phrases don’t come untill the end, and serve to twist everything preceding on its head. Sometimes they are in the front, sometimes in the middle. Sometimes there are clues at the beginning, that aren’t caught until the end. Yet these phrases, passages, demand that the rest of the book be interpreted through them. There are a few of these phrases in the Bible. The verses that teach the gospel, that teach justification by faith alone.
This verse is chief among them. “Man is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” When this is understood the Bible is understood. When this is not understood the rest of the Bible is confusing, and misunderstood. Faith alone justifies. It justifies apart from works of the law. If you ignore this verse, the Bible won’t make sense. Yet this verse is most often ignored, down played, or thrown out. It doesn’t make sense to us. It goes against everything our Old Adam would have us believe.
That is because our Old Adam, our sinful nature, wants to believe that it isn’t so bad that it can’t make up for bad behavior by doing good, possibly with self imposed punishment here on earth. Our Old Adam expects the Bible to be like any other religious book, a book of law that tells us what we should do to earn heaven, to make up for our sins. Our Old Adam even thinks he understands the Bible. He thinks he understands the Old Testament with the eye for an eye. He thinks he understands the sacrificial system as a way of atoning for one’s sins, the greater the sin the greater the sacrifice, and fails to see that that is not the way it works at all. He thinks he understands turn the other cheek, even as he understands a tooth for a tooth. Be ye perfect as your father in heaven is perfect? Our Old Adam reads this and knows, knows! He knows that he should be perfect and thinks perfection is perhaps something that can be obtained if he tries hard enough. But this he does not understand, this he does not want to understand, and this is what the whole Bible is about because the whole Bible is about Christ “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me,” (John 5:39 (ESV) That is one of those clear verses that illuminates the rest of scripture. And if the whole Bible is about Christ, and not an eye for an eye, than the whole Bible is about justification by faith alone because Christ is He, “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, TO BE RECEIVED BY FAITH.” And if by faith then not by works. There is no other way to receive this propitiation. The Old Adam doesn’t know what to do. He fights against this, he does all he can to bring works back into it if not before justification than after justification. One way or another, he believes we have to make up for our sins, despite Christ’s atonement. Yet the Biblical picture says differently. There is no making up for our sins, there is only Christ’s atonement.
In fact in light of Christ’s propitiation, Which gives God a good and Fatherly disposition towards those who believe, a forgiving disposition, even to try make up for our sin is an abomination. That is what Isaiah means to say even in the Old Testament as he closes his book:
 All these things my hand has made,
and so all these things came to be,
declares the Lord.
But this is the one to whom I will look:
he who is humble and contrite in spirit
and trembles at my word.
 "He who slaughters an ox is like one who kills a man;
he who sacrifices a lamb, like one who breaks a dog's neck;
he who presents a grain offering, like one who offers pig's blood;
he who makes a memorial offering of frankincense, like one who blesses an idol.
These have chosen their own ways,
and their soul delights in their abominations; Isaiah 66:2-3 (ESV)
“These have chosen their own ways, and their soul delights in their abominations.” Yet every thing they are doing is something that God, that the law of God has demanded! But God says they have chosen their own ways! Who was it who told them to slaughter the ox, and sacrifice the lamb, to present grain offerings, and frankincense? Read Leviticus, it was God. These people imagine they are doing what God has told them to do when they go through the motions of the sacrifice. And by going through the motions I don’t mean they are being half hearted about it. But they think that it is them doing these sacrifices that saves them. They believe that by doing these things they are saving themselves. We imagine that their heart was not in the right place, and this is true it was not in the right place. But we imagine that this is because they thought as long as they did these things they could go back to their sins and enjoy them. We read about the decadence of Isaiah’s time, the drunkenness, the illicit sex, the worshiping of other Gods, and it makes our self-righteous sinful nature blush. We are such hypocrites! Yes you, you are a hypocrite if you blush at that, at another man’s sin, another woman’s sin and think you are any better then the people that Jeremiah speaks about saying: “Were they ashamed when they committed abomination?
No, they were not at all ashamed;
they did not know how to blush.
Therefore they shall fall among those who fall;
at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown,"
says the Lord. (Jeremiah 6:15 (ESV)
Oh sure your little pious heart, your self-righteous sinful nature will blush with indignation for another man’s sin, for the sin of another women, when you read of this period in history about the great wealth of Israel and Judah, and the women who whored themselves out on ivory couches, and the men who chased after them. We’re even embarrassed to talk about such things in church. To use such biblical language. Oh the Bible knows no such Victorian sensibilities, read it sometime. But we are just as guilty in our day. In fact we inhabiting this building right now are as guilty of this as they were. But we don’t blush at our sins. Our Old Adam, our sinful nature won’t let us. We excuse them. Or we try to make up for them. We use the law of God the same way the Israelites did. Oh we don’t sacrifice the way they did. We wouldn’t know where to begin. But we use the law of God to make up for our sins. That is our temptation. We see the law as some sort of life line that will keep our pride intact. A humble and contrite spirit we will not have.
I mean this is the antitheses to the zeitgeist, the spirit of our day. Be humble? Be contrite? Are you kidding? Today’s world looks at these as mental disabilities! Humility is not considered a virtue today. No we are told to be assertive, confident, take charge of our lives. And there might even be a place for that sort of thing in the world, as we live in the world, and before other men. But there is no place for that sort of thinking in the church, and before God. No, before God we dare not have anything but a humble and contrite spirit, that acknowledges his sin, and sees God’s Law for what it is, a death sentence for our souls. Because this spirit grabs hold of grace, forgiveness, and the love of God who gave his only begotten son as a propitiation for our sins. This spirit realizes that it can not appease God with anything it does, but that Jesus has appeased the Father with his blood, and has justified the ungodly, that is declared you, sinful as you are, innocent, and pardoned your sins. That is what it means to be justified, declared innocent,and you are.