Grace: God's Gift for Clean Consciences and Godly Living

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“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” (Romans 3:22b-25a).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Five people are on the roof of a tall, burning building. Their only way out is to jump across a 25-feet wide alley to a nearby building. One person jumps ten feet. Another jumps four, another 12, another eight. One real athlete even jumps 22 feet. But in the end, there is no difference. All fall short of their goal and die.
That, my friends, is a picture of our spiritual life. By nature, we’re all trapped in the dangerous hold of sin, which threatens to take away our life and destroy our soul. None of us can make the great leap from sin to righteousness. Oh, by human standards some may look better than others. But in the end, it makes no difference. We’ve all fallen short of the perfection that the Law requires of us. We’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. So what do we do? Give up? Try even harder? Or just hope for the best? Not the greatest choices, huh?
The year was 1515. A young German monk named Martin Luther was studying the first chapter of Romans in his private office on the second floor of a tower attached to the monastery. He came to verses 16-17:
“For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes: to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness from God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written: ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” 
Imagine the scene. Luther pauses and asks himself: “Now, what does Paul mean when he talks about the ‘righteousness from God?’ And how does man become righteous before God?
“Oh, I know. God shows His righteousness by punishing sinners every time they do wrong. And the only way a man can become righteous is to do all that God wants him to do.
“But, no, that can’t be right. Paul says that man is made righteous by faith, by believing in something God has done for him. Well, what has God done for man to make him righteous or holy?
“Let me see now. Paul says the Gospel is the power that saves. The Gospel tells about Jesus. Jesus kept the Law perfectly, yet He was punished on the cross, not because He had done something wrong? No, because I had. By punishing His Son, God carried out His threat that sin will be punished by death. I need not fear that God will punish me with eternal death. I am holy in God’s sight because Jesus’ holiness is credited to me and He has taken all my punishment on the cross.”
Luther had found the answer to the question that had tortured him for many years: “How can I be sure that God has forgiven my sin and that He loves me?”
The light Luther found in the tower grew from a flickering spark to a roaring flame as the years passed. The first thing it burned was a man named John Tetzel, a Dominican monk who had been sent throughout Germany by Pope Leo X to raise money for the building of St. Peter’s Cathedral by selling indulgences.
Indulgences were supposed to spare people from the punishment after death in an imaginary place called purgatory. Many people bought these indulgences believing they were buying forgiveness of sins; even the sins of those already dead.
John Tetzel was an expert at selling indulgences. Two or three weeks before visiting a town, he would send a helper to announce his coming and to find out who had money. A large crowd would be at the town gate on the day Tetzel arrived. Then he would hold his first service, where he would preach on hell, describing in frightening language the terrors to be suffered by the unbeliever.
Then Tetzel would move to the largest church in town, where he held a second service, this time preaching on purgatory. “You children,” he would say, “do you not hear the terrible cries of your dead fathers and mothers? Husbands, have you no pity for your wives who are being tortured in purgatory? Can’t you hear them calling, ‘Rescue us! Help us out of here! Help us reach heaven!”
Next, he would preach a service on heaven, showing how happy, peaceful, and blessed were those who lived there. By this time the people were ready to buy indulgences, both for themselves and for the dead. Some would pay up to $2,000. Those who had no money could get an indulgence by praying and fasting.
Members of Luther’s congregation bought these indulgences. As they did, they were buying into the idea that you can earn the forgiveness of sins. They fell into the trap that you can make the spiritual leap to God by your own efforts. As a good pastor, Luther was concerned. He wrote ninety-five theses on the question of forgiveness through indulgences, and nailed them to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. Printers reproduced them, and copies spread from person to person, village to village. The Reformation had begun!
The principle rediscovered by Luther? Salvation by faith alone, a free gift of God’s grace. That is a message that still needs to be heard in our day as well. For it is the only Word that frees us from our sin and guilty consciences.
Pastor Scott Sailer tells this story. Bill and his wife, Susan, belonged to another denomination, but they thought highly of the Lutheran school, so they decided to send their two children there.
When the couple had marital problems, Bill went to his pastor. The pastor told Bill that if his faith were stronger, he’d not be having these problems. Bill already felt guilty for not spending enough time with his wife and children. And now he felt even guiltier because he didn’t have enough faith.
St. Paul, in our text notes that this is the way it is when we rely on our own good works or righteousness, or for that matter, turn faith into a work that we must do. “For by works of the Law no human being will be justified in His sight, since through the Law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).   
The Law cannot save us. No matter how hard we try to follow it, we’ll only fail and fall short. The Law can only show us our sin. And, if we hear only the Law, we’ll only end up feeling guilty. So, what do we do? Where do we find righteousness? Where do we find peace and the power for living in righteousness?
In our Epistle, St. Paul answers this question with two of the mightiest little words in the entire Bible: “but now.”
“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” (Romans 3:21-25a).
This is the Gospel! God, in His love and grace, sent His only Son for our complete forgiveness. Christ’s perfect life and sacrificial death paid for all of our sins. His righteousness has been exchanged for our sinfulness.
We return to Bill’s story. Left to wallow in his own guilt and despair by his own pastor, Bill decided to visit the pastor at the Lutheran church at his children’s school. Maybe this pastor would have some answers for him, some hope.
Bill recounted his struggles in marriage and family life, with his finances, and with his faith. “Pastor, I try, but I can’t seem to get rid of this load of guilt. And my family life is getting no better, even though I’m trying to do the right things. What’s God doing? Where is He in my life? Where is His love?”
The pastor led Bill to this passage in Romans and to the central teaching of God’s Word. This Good News, that became central in the teaching of Martin Luther and of the entire Reformation, brought reformation also to Bill’s faith and life. As we hear it, it brings reformation and renewal to our lives again and again.
The Lutheran pastor explained to Bill that we are commanded to be good, but we cannot because of the sin in us. We need help, God’s help. His help is this: we are justified by grace through faith. This means that Christ, who was without sin, set things right between us and God by His good and sufficient sacrifice on the cross. It’s not about our righteousness, but Christ’s righteousness for us.
Bill felt as though a tremendous weight had been lifted. He responded, “So, it’s not about me, but about what Jesus has done for me? It’s not about my faith or my righteousness but the sacrificial body and blood of Christ?”
“It’s not about you; it’s about Jesus for you,” the pastor said.
“I’ve never heard it explained like that before.” Bill said. “But, I believe it!”
The Reformation continues as you, like Bill, trust that you are righteous in God’s sight because of the saving work of Jesus Christ. On the cross was the great exchange. God counts Christ’s perfect life as though you’ve done it. What He suffered on the cross, God counts as though you’ve suffered it. And He even gives you the faith to accept this Good News. This is grace, undeserved love! There is no room for boasting. God gets all the credit and thanks.
Bill left the pastor’s office free from guilt. The burden was lifted. Christ had borne his burden of sin on the cross. He was forgiven. Because of Christ’s death and resurrection, Bill knew where he stood with God. God still loved him. This gave him peace and hope, even boldness.
Bill knew that this renewed relationship with God did not remove the difficulties of his life. There was much work left to do. He left the pastor’s office knowing that he would need God’s strength, given through His powerful Word and Sacraments, to help him work things out in his family. This, too, gave him peace and hope and boldness. He was not left to his own devices. He had God’s help.
And that’s the way it is for you. You have God’s help. Forget trying to help yourself. Forget relying on your own power and strength. Trust in God’s grace and the forgiveness won by Jesus Christ on the cross. Lean on Him and His life-giving Word and Sacraments to sustain you and grow your faith.
The same Savior who declared you righteous is now at work in your life. Live in your Baptism. Through daily contrition and repentance, put to death your old Adam so that your new man may arise to live before God in righteous, innocence, and blessedness. Come to the Lord’s Supper and receive His body and blood, not only for the forgiveness of your sins, but for the strengthening of your faith unto life everlasting. Hear God’s Word—the Law that not only shows you your sins and how God would have you live, and the Gospel that forgives those sins and gives you the power and motivation for godly living. For in those means of grace you have forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.
So go in the strength of the Lord. You are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Based on a sermon by Scott Sailer in Concordia Pulpit Resources, Volume 13, Part 4, p. 23-25.

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