Romans 3:19-28 (ESV)
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.
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.
This is what the Reformation is about. God’s righteousness not shown in condemnation, but in salvation, God’s shown in the death of his son as the propitiation of sins for the whole world, to be received by faith, not earned by works. In short, Justification by grace alone, through faith alone, This is what the Reformation turned upon, this is what breathed life into the people of the 16th century. God manifesting his righteousness apart from the law.
The law is where we expect to see God’s righteousness manifested. And yes, God’s will is manifested in the Law. When God says he wants us to have no other gods, he means it. When God tells us he wants us to honor the Sabbath day he means it. When he tells us he doesn’t want us murdering, committing adultery, stealing, gossiping or coveting, well he means it. And we can hardly fathom that. Can you imagine a world where none of this occurred? Where people did not have other gods? Where we all honored our mothers and fathers, obeyed them and mothers and fathers were not known to abuse their children, or their trust? Can you imagine a world where husband and wife loved, honored and cherished each other so that temptations to adultery were unknown? Can you imagine a world where no one stole anything? Where people never gossiped? Where you never felt the need to say anything bad about your neighbor, dish in their secrets? Where you never heard second and third hand another person’s poor opinion of you?
I try. I try but honestly I cannot. I can only think that this would be heaven, but I cannot comprehend to the fullness what life in such a world would be like. Sin so encompasses my heart, that I cannot comprehend this world. I bet you find yourself thinking the same. Oh we know it is sin, but how often does that stop us? How many of us find we are slaves to sin? We sin when we aren’t looking, and we sin when we are. And it exposes us for who we are. We are sinners, doomed to die, doomed to pay the price. Men of every generation have tried to come up with ways of dealing with this, of coping with this. Coping with sin, coping with death, coping with the righteous and holy judgment of God that we know is coming.
Today, people try to convince themselves there is no God and hence no sin. This is, as far as I can see, the great draw to evolution, which hardly merits the worship it receives as a scientific theory. I read one a few evolutionists last year, who after debunking Darwin, and showing why it is that Darwin’s theory just could not work, would punt to say, “We don’t know how evolution has occurred, we just know it did.” Yes, that is a scientific theory if I ever heard one. But evolution allows one to believe that there is no God involved in their being, in the world. And hence no one to answer too on the last day. Perhaps there are a few they have to answer to today in this world, but even that is dubious, as most would probably think the other person had it coming.
The other way to deal with this is to convince yourself you are a good person despite your sin. That you really do in fact mean well. How many of us fall in this category. My ears get plugged to this thing, I don’t know what it is. But “good person” is almost a mantra today. People constantly telling themselves and others that they are good. We have this preoccupation with self esteem. We want so badly to convince ourselves, but I doubt we would be so occupied with the idea if we really thought we were all that good. Read an article the other day contemplating how it is someone who cheated as bad as Lance Armstrong did, could also be known for doing so much good. And I’m left thinking, he is everyone of us, just on a larger scale. We all hide sins that embarrass us, and offering good works, works of the law to the world as an offering, a sacrifice, trying to propitiate our own sins. Oh, we can’t hide all our sins. But we are thankful people can’t read thoughts. We are thankful people can’t see everything the way God does. Perhaps God is the one we try to pacify. Perhaps.
I say this to show that we aren’t that different today, then the people back then during the reformation. They bought indulgences, tried to buy the forgiveness of sins. I think most people were actually quite happy with that arrangement. Some might have been jealous of those who could buy more forgiveness. But the society had come up with many different ways to earn this forgiveness. It was one of the reasons Martin Luther posted when he did and where he did. He knew there would be many people passing through those days in the morning to kiss the relics of dead saints which the Elector Fredrick the Wise had collected at great cost as an act of charity for his people. He would put them all on display on All saints day for his subjects to venerate. He thought he was doing a good thing. Oh what we can convince ourselves to do in the name of salvation. And yet here is the problem. When we do good works for such reasons, we do evil, we form other gods. It isn’t that the works are bad. It is that we are bad, and our reason for doing them is bad. And the works finally offer no forgiveness. We cannot satisfy our guilt with such paltry attempts at convincing ourselves we are good.
This is what bothered Luther. He could never believe he had done enough. He could not convince himself that he was justified, that he was saved. Honestly, the 95 theses show this. They themselves started the reformation, they sent Luther himself on the trail. They touched a nerve. But there is hardly anything you could call reformation theology in them. At best they say, something stinks, I’m not quite sure what it is, but something. In the midst of writing them he was still trying to satisfy his conscience. It wasn’t until later, in his search for that what stinks, he would come across this passage of scripture and make history.
We can try to justify ourselves. Or we can let God justify us. We can try to be our own god’s and make up our own rules, try to satisfy our own guilt, or we can let God be God and take refuge in him. Let God be God. It is the title of a now famous book on the theology of Luther. In the end it is a summary of his theology. Let God be God. Trust him, believe him. He has made propitiation for our sins, as only God can. He is the judge. Finally only he can declare us innocent. And this is what he does on account of his son’s death and resurrection, nothing we do can improve upon that. Let God be God. Let him decide what it is that will save us. Let him decide what it is that will work forgiveness. If he says baptism saves us, who are we to say it is only water? If he says his body and blood give us the forgiveness of sins, and sustain our faith, who are we to say it is mere bread and wine? Let God be God. Take refuge in him. Let God be God, because God is love, and his righteousness is manifested apart from the law, which can only bring despair and death to us sinners, no his righteousness, his glory is manifested in the forgiveness of sins, through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ. Amen