Reformation Day • Romans 3:19–28 • October 27, 2013
By Bruce Schuchard
The church’s celebration, its regular remembrance, of seminal events––like the Reformation––happens so that the faithful might be encouraged to remember and never to forget what the faithful must never forget. Thus, the chief, the simplest, the most fundamental, articles of the faith are the focus, so that the faithful might remain grounded, so that, young or old, they might remember, as St. Paul expresses it, that “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands (as one should); no one seeks for God (as all, with every fiber of one’s being, should). All have turned aside (in so many and various ways); together they have become worthless (even as regards their very best efforts); no one does good, not even one,” for “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Is 64:6). Thus, the focus may be said to be simple. But “simple” should not be confused with “easy.” For such simple words as these are, in fact, simultaneously also nothing less than genuinely hard words for this world’s prideful human person to hear, which is by nature so given to resist the purpose of the words, their intention, “so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.”
For, despite what the citizens of this world too easily imagine and expect, by our efforts, asserts the apostle, by our small, too-often feeble, “works of the law,” none may hope to be “justified in [God’s] sight.” Instead, easy or not, what first must come for the one who desires to be right with God, what therefore God’s law, what his informing word, of necessity first must provide, is the “knowledge of sin,” of the deadly consequence both of one’s nature and of the innumerable thoughts, words, and deeds that concomitantly have been committed by us that cut us off from our righteous God with whom only the equally righteous ever may hope to live. “Wretched man that I am,” laments Paul (Rom 7:24). Wretched therefore also are we, whether our ears are willing to hear this or not. Wretched, worthy of the desolation, the destiny, of the derelict are we. Who then, what then, shall save us from what we deserve, from the bed, from the dwelling place of the dead that we have created, that we have made, for ourselves? Who then, what then, shall save us “from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24).
Thanks be to God for his servant Martin. Thanks be to God for the event of the Reformation and for its profound rediscovery of that which we forget only at our great peril. Thanks be to God for his answer to Paul’s question, to its agonizing urgency above all other urgencies that none may spurn, none, that is, who wish to live. Thanks be to God for the rediscovery of both the decidedly simple and the majestic, the profound, truth of the gospel. For God’s answer to Paul’s question is Paul’s answer to Paul’s question. Thus, the apostle writes that, because, when left to our own devices, the answer to the question “Who then?” (shall save us) is “no one,” because, when left to ourselves, we are most to be pitied, God lovingly takes the upper hand. God graciously intervenes. God acts, so that “now the righteousness of God,” now God’s gift of righteousness through Jesus who is our righteousness, “has been manifested apart from the [law’s demands],” although the same law, the same word of God in the form of “the Law and the Prophets” (the entirety, then, of the Old Testament scriptures) “bear witness to it,” to the opportunity, then, for a righteousness not our own. For the righteousness of which Paul speaks is accomplished not by us so as to secure it by ourselves for ourselves. No, the righteousness of which Paul speaks is instead a righteousness that is gifted to us, that is delivered to us even as it is declared to us “through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”
Thanks be to God. “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and yet are deemed no longer guilty of any trespass, no longer in debt for any reason “by his grace as a gift” to those whom God loves “through the redemption,” through the salvation, that is ours in our Lord Jesus Christ, “whom God put forward” so that he, the Son, might be the ransom, the price, the one to turn away God’s all-too-deserved wrath “by his blood,” God’s gift “to be received by faith.” By this God shows us in his righteousness, not that he is one who, for our sake, ignores sin, but that he is one who instead knows what must be done, knows the price to be paid, and is himself prepared to pay that price in the giving of his Son in sacrifice, “so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
“What then becomes of our boasting?” What then becomes of every misguided inclination to credit ourselves for anything? All such foolishness is “excluded,” not “by a law of (self-justifying) works,” but “by the law (by the informing and empowering word of God whose gift is the gift) of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law,” which does not mean that we “overthrow the law.” On the contrary, we thus uphold the law,” as we uphold all that God gives and all that God does to turn us to Christ and to remind us still that “the just shall live by faith” (Rom 1:17; see also Hab 2:4; Gal 3:11; Heb 10:38). This we uphold, this we celebrate, not only when we celebrate the Reformation but always, so that the faithful might remember and never forget what the faithful must never forget.