Apart from the Law

Text: Romans 3:19-28

This year marks the 497th anniversary of the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses by Martin Luther on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Though it was early in his career, he wouldn’t die for another 29 years, Luther had already stumbled onto the fact that, contrary to the Church’s teaching of his day, we are saved by grace alone. Our sins are forgiven purely through the precious, innocent suffering and death of Jesus Christ, and not through any work or worthiness of our own. This played out in the 16th century as the controversy over indulgences. Indulgences were pardons that you could buy for yourself or a relative to get them out of purgatory, and thus into heaven, quicker. This situation would become the catalyst for what is now known as the Protestant Reformation.

The central idea, the spark that ignited the flame, is here in Romans 3. The text says that the righteousness of God is manifested apart from the law. One is justified by faith, apart from any works of the law. To be true, this idea is the central idea of all Scripture. It is all about the promise of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. This is what our Lutheran forefathers called, “The Article upon which the Church Stands or Falls,” meaning that if this teaching is lost, so then is the Church. Thus, this is our good confession this Reformation: The righteousness of God is manifested apart from the law; we are saved by grace.

I.

The Apostle Paul writes in our text, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in His sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”[1] We read that verse and, at least at first glance, it appears to be such a no-brainer. Earlier in chapter 3 we read, “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.”[2] We all have that and Ephesians 2, where it says we are saved by grace, in mind; but our flesh often tells us something different.

Paul’s writing here is a clean cut against our natural human inclination. It’s very, very, subtle – but our natural tendency is to search inside ourselves. We’re taught from childhood to look inside ourselves and others to find the good that is inside us all. We’re taught to look inside and do our best to be a good person, because good things happen to good people. That sentiment is what you’ll find in many of the best-sellers at the bookstore, but it’s not Gospel – it’s law. Law says: put good in, get good out. Some call it karma, but it’s still law, and it gets us nowhere.

Verse 19 says, “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.”[3] The purpose of God’s law is to stop every mouth. It’s to stop us from claiming to be a good person or to deserve heaven. The law shuts every mouth. Galatians 3 says that “the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin.”[4] Eternal life was not intended to come through following the law, because then there would be no promise. The purpose of the law, the 10 Commandments, is to show us that we fail to earn God’s favor. The idea of putting good in to get good out doesn’t work with God.

God shows us this in the law because we naturally try to do things. We want to do better than everything and everyone. We want things to do, we want to work and to contribute. There must always be something that we can add to the situation. But that is all false. There is nothing that we can do to earn our own salvation or contribute to it. God’s law shows us that we fail at everything, even at our attempts to be decent human beings. Try going even one day without being driven by your hunger for food or desire to not be bored. God’s Law says, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”[5] Often we wrestle with the temptation to skip church, or even in church we find ourselves thinking about whether the Vikings will win against Tampa Bay or how the Bison did yesterday. The purpose of the law is to catch us in our sin, to imprison us beneath it so that salvation might be totally through faith in Jesus. Over 400 years before the law was given on Mt. Sinai God promised to Abraham that in Christ all nations would be blessed.

II.

            Contrary to the Beatles, love is not all you need. Even if it were, we still wouldn’t have enough to even gaze upon the walls of the heavenly Jerusalem.

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.”[6]

Luther’s breakthrough was his rediscovery of the Biblical truth. Instead of through works of the law, the righteousness of God is manifested in Christ. Righteousness is not something that we earn or deserve or merit or even have in ourselves, but it is the free gift of God through faith in Christ Jesus.

This is not a new teaching, as Paul’s opponents were charging against him. They insisted that, in order to remain a Christian and in God’s grace, one had to follow the law. But instead, righteous is apart from the law, as the Law [capital “L”] and the prophets, the Old Testament, bear witness. Scripture says that God spoke of His Son through the prophets long ago. As St. Peter spoke to the centurion Cornelius, “To him [Jesus] all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name.”[7] Jesus also said that Moses wrote of Him and Isaiah spoke of Him. As He was speaking to disciples on the road to Emmaus after the resurrection, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.”[8]

When Paul writes that the Law and the Prophets bear witness to the fact that righteousness comes through faith, he means that the entire Old Testament is about Jesus – The Offspring that would crush the head of the serpent, the promised Offspring of Abraham, the Bronze Serpent on the pole to which the people looked and were healed of the poison within them, the New Prophet who would speak with the words of God; all of the Scriptures are about Jesus. It’s all about faith in Him. Because we are sinners, Jesus was put forward as the payment for our sin. He made propitiation by His own blood, though He Himself was without sin.

The Scripture says, “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”[9] Justification, being declared righteous in God’s sight and forgiven our sins, is not something that we can do ourselves. In Luther’s time, they had the idea that you could buy your way into heaven. You can’t. Today we often find ourselves clinging to morality or some sense that we are good people, and that good things happen to good people. But God’s law shows that we are not good people. We put ourselves before others, before God. We take the Lord’s name in vain. We refuse to hear and obey God’s Word. We do not honor our parents or those in authority. We harbor malice in our hearts. We lust. We could keep going down the list. Every single sin is punishable by death. On our own, we cannot get out of it.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”[10] Though our human inclination is to look for things to do, in the case of salvation, there is nothing left to do. Even though we try to be good and follow God’s law, we fail. But Jesus’ Word stands true, “It is finished.”[11] All the work is done. Jesus has won for you the forgiveness of sins by the shedding of His own blood and He gives you His righteousness freely. In His Word, He comes to you. He does all of the work. In His Holy Sacrament, which we are about to receive, He comes with His very body and blood to be received for the forgiveness of sins. In Him all things are ready and prepared; through faith in Him we have salvation. There is nothing left to do but receive the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus, apart from the law.

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Rom. 3:20.

[2] Rom. 3:10–12.

[3] Rom. 3:19.

[4] Gal. 3:22

[5] Ex. 20:8

[6] Rom. 3:21–25.

[7] Acts 10:43.

[8] Lk. 24:27.

[9] Rom. 3:28.

[10] Eph. 2:8.

[11] Jn. 19:30

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