Taking Your Religion Seriously

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“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Romans 3:28).
Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ!
It is arguably the most important verse in the Bible. The heart of the Christian faith. In fact, this is what sets Christianity apart from every other religion in the world. A sinner, sentenced to death and damnation by God’s own Law, is justified (declared to be righteous) by faith (that is, trust in Jesus Christ and His atoning blood shed on the cross) apart from works of the Law. Many call John 3:16 “the Gospel in a nutshell,” but for my money there is no other single verse that summarizes and encapsulates the Gospel, the good news of Christianity, as this verse from Romans. And yet, it’s overlooked, or marginalized, or made into one of many truths, or it gets buried under a long list of things you must do or not do in order to stand before God justified. With a single sentence, the apostle Paul turns the vast majority of religious teaching over the centuries upside down: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Romans 3:28).
And yet it took a simple German monk and the Reformation he ignited to bring this sentence to light. But that’s the way it is, isn’t it? It is often the most basic things that we forget first or overlook in view of everything else. It’s the same thing you’ll hear losing coaches or newly hired sales managers say: “We have to get back to the basics. We need to work more on the fundamentals.” If you don’t get the basic fundamentals right, you’re going to have a difficult time getting anything right. That is why we have a Reformation Day in the church. Reformation Day is a day for the church to remember what is most basic and essential in the teaching of our faith, to hold onto what we have received from our father in the faith, and to seek to reclaim what we may have lost.
 When Martin Luther discovered this verse, he was searching for clarity and comfort. He was looking for confidence that he, a poor miserable sinner, could stand before a righteous God. He knew the way of his teachers, the one who had trained him, who said that that one did the best one could and then God would reward those efforts with grace so that one could do even more and better. But Luther learned the awful truth—there was no more and better.
Here is a man who took his religion seriously—so seriously it almost killed him! He lived in the monastery to isolate himself from the temptations of the world. He devoted himself to the study of religion and to the disciplines of prayer and fasting. He went to confession so often and gave such a detailed report of his sins that his father confessor reportedly told him, “Martin, come back to me when you have some real sins to confess.” And still there was nothing to quiet his conscience. Luther describes that experience in one of his hymns:
Fast bound in Satan’s chains I lay;
Death brooded darkly over me.
Sin was my torment night and day;
In sin my mother bore me.
But daily deeper still I fell;
My life became a living hell,
So firmly sin possessed me.

My own good works all came to naught,
No grace or merit gaining;
Free will against God’s judgment fought,
Dead to all good remaining.
My fears increased till sheer despair
Left only death to be my share;
The pangs of hell I suffered (LSB 556, vv. 2, 3).

About 1500 years earlier, a man named Saul had gone through a similar struggle. Saul definitely took his religion as a Pharisee seriously. Trained under Gamaliel, the greatest rabbi of his day, Saul was considered to be second to none as regarding works of the Law and zeal for his religion. Still, he could find no peace or rest from the Law. His fanaticism led him to go from town to town rounding up Christians up to the day the Lord struck him down on the road to Emmaus. Called to repentance and faith, the chief persecutor of the Church became the apostle to the Gentiles. The one who had prided himself as blameless under the Law now humbly confessed himself the chief of sinners.
Before his conversion, Paul had been trained to believe the Law, the teaching of God handed down from Moses, was a Law of works, a way to do the righteousness of God in order to become righteous before God. This is very similar to the scholastic tradition that Luther encountered in his day. No wonder the Reformer found his greatest understanding and comfort in the apostle’s epistles!
It is a natural mistake for anyone who takes his religion seriously to think that God-given rules and regulations are intended to make us better. We are by nature do-it-yourselfers. We cannot resist the idea that we can improve ourselves through self-discipline and self-motivation. And our natural religion feeds this notion that the answer to all of our problems lies inside of us rather than outside and that the way to God is like climbing a ladder, working our way higher and higher until we achieve the goal of being “righteous” before God.
It is a natural mistake for anyone who takes his religion seriously to look at the Law as a means to an end. It just makes sense to Old Adam. Why would God give us a Law if He didn’t intend for us to keep it? Why would He give us commandments if He didn’t think we could keep them? Isn’t the Law the way out of our dilemma? We’re sinners, right? And what better way to get sinners back into shape than to give us some biblical principles to practice, right?
That was the way of the Pharisees, who took their religion so seriously they came up with 613 of their own laws to make sure they could keep God’s Law. The scholastics of Luther’s day took their religion so seriously they added the sale of indulgences, invocation of the saints, and other man-made traditions to the clear Word of God. Then there are us modern Christians who have bookstore upon bookstore full of shelves and more shelves filled with book after book of practical principles gleaned from the Bible. Those books must be biblical because they quote the Bible, right? Things for you to do. Disciplines for you to undertake. Programs for you to follow. All with the purpose of doing the righteousness of God. All purportedly to teach us how to keep God’s Law, the very Law we’ve already failed to keep time and again in its simplest form. Suddenly, it no longer seems like we’re climbing the ladder to success, but stuck on a treadmill going nowhere except for the times we really stumble and fall backward.
And finally comes the big insight that changes everything. First, the true nature of the Law: the Law can’t make you better. The Law can’t save you. The Law can’t justify you. The Law can’t make you righteous before God. God’s Law is a mirror. Just as a mirror won’t make you skinnier, or take away your acne or wrinkles, neither is God’s Law intended to make you better, but to reveal how bad things actually are. Its purpose is to amplify sin and to make sin utterly sinful.
You see, that’s what happens when you take the commandment and you mix it with sin: sins multiply. Paul says he didn’t even know what coveting was until he read the Law and then began to covet like crazy. Tell a child don’t do something, and that something, whatever it is, becomes an obsession. And we wonder why rules don’t work. Oh, they can hold things in check and keep them from getting too crazy with the promise of reward or threat of punishment, but rules don’t make better people, any more than a commandment that reads “Thou shalt produce puppies” will bring forth puppies from an old tomcat. It’s just not going to happen.
The Law exists so that every mouth would be silenced before God and the whole world held accountable to God. That’s the purpose of the Law. To shut us up before God. To silence all the wrong ways we take our religion seriously, our excuses and self-justification. To bring to light what we would rather not talk about, the true nature of ourselves as sinners. Through the Law comes knowledge of sin. Notice, I said knowledge of sin (singular), not sins (plural). Not simply “sins,” the outward manifestation, but “sin,” the condition that causes sin. That’s the real problem. It’s not just that you sin (in thought, word, and deed), you have sin—a deep systemic condition that can only be cured by Jesus’ death and resurrection and your baptismal dying and rising in Jesus.
The second great insight is that there are two ways of God’s righteousness. The first is the one you do—the righteousness of works. But, as we’ve already mentioned, this way of righteousness is not really an option for you. It is precisely what the sinner because of sin cannot do. But the second way, that’s an entirely different matter. Not your righteousness of works but Christ’s righteousness. Not what you do but what Christ does. Not your sacrifices but His perfect sacrifice, His obedience to death under the Law in your place. Not by your works but by faith in Christ’s work, trust that what Jesus did justifies you before God.
The Lutheran Reformers called this teaching of justification the “chief article” of the Christian faith. They insisted that Christ’s saving work can never be given up, or compromised, for the sake of peace and unity in the Church. They said: “Upon this article everything that we teach and practice depends, in opposition to the pope, the devil, and the whole world. Therefore, we must be certain and not doubt this doctrine. Otherwise, all is lost, and the pope, the devil, and all adversaries win the victory and the right over us.”[i] So strongly did they believe these words, the Reformers literally laid their head on the line to hold to them. Talk about taking your religion seriously!
But not as seriously as Jesus! Not as seriously as Jesus takes your salvation! Jesus came as the Lamb of God to bear the sins of the whole world. The sacrificial death of Jesus has paid the debt, satisfied God’s justice, which includes the punishment required on account of our sin. Without the blood of Jesus, our sins have not been answered for and we must still bear then and pay their price. Left with our own sins, we are also left with the death that we chose by our sin, cutting ourselves off from God. In Christ, God reconciled the world to Himself. This is the fact of Calvary. To be justified is to be bought back, to have the account settled, to have the transaction closed.
Justification is all about Jesus, who bears our sin. It is a joyous proclamation that our sins are now located on our Savior, Jesus Christ—not only some of our sins but all of our sins and sinfulness; not only our small sins but also sins of any size and magnitude. All that Christ did as our Savior counts for us; all the benefits Christ earned are given to us in faith. This does not mean that God overlooks our sins or ignores them as if they did not exist. This does not mean that Jesus merely performed what we were unable to do. Our sins are as real as Jesus, who suffered and shed His blood on the cross. Justification means that Jesus acted as our substitute both in His life and in His death. Jesus fulfilled the Law with His perfect obedience to God’s will—His active obedience. Jesus fulfilled the penalty for our sins under the Law with His holy and precious blood, His innocent suffering and death—His passive obedience. This means that in faith you and I are declared righteous because Jesus is righteous.
That we are justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ is at the center of the Church’s life and confession. When it is lost, the whole of Christian doctrine is undermined, and when it is not preserved, Jesus is diminished, and the comfort for sinners is taken away.
Justification is essentially Jesus answering for God’s wrath over all your sins. Then, with His Spirit, He continues to deliver the forgiveness of sins through His means of grace. In Holy Baptism, Christ cleanses you of your sins and covers you with His perfect righteousness. In Holy Absolution, Christ declares you righteous through the mouth of His called and ordained servant. In Holy Communion, Christ feeds you His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and strengthening of your faith.
Here is religion worth taking seriously! You are justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Romans 3:28). “You are justified by God’s 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” (Romans 3:24-25). You are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i]Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. 2005 (Edited by Paul Timothy McCain) (263). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.


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