Romans 3: 21-28


Last week I said that the Reformer most tied to the first Sola—Sola Scriptura—was Ulrich Zwingli. His gifts of reading and interpreting Scripture made him assign the Bible readings and the sermon to the very end of each service, believing everything else pointed to the highlight of God’s Word. You may have visited churches where the sermon was the final event before a hymn and benediction- those are Zwinglian liturgies! But there was another Reformer—a major one—who found the books of the Bible that we are saved by faith alone. His name was Martin Luther. After a frightening time in a lightening storm, Luther became a monk, and later a Catholic priest. “When Luther entered the monastery, he thought it would please God and contribute to his salvation.”

[The Reformation for Armchair Theologians, Glenn S. Sunshine, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2005, p.20] How many of us do things to please God, or to try to bargain with our salvation or to save us from hell? Luther did. Listen to these words: “

Soon he began having severe problems with guilt that bordered on psychosis. According to theologian R. C. Sproul, the issue that faced Luther came from legal reasoning on Jesus’ words in the Gospel.  When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus replied, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength,’ in short, with every fiber of your being. So Luther asked himself, ‘What is the greatest sin?’ The only possible answer was, ‘Not loving the Lord with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength.’ When Luther examined himself by this standard, he realized that his emotions, his will, and his thoughts were not controlled by love for God; thus they were all violations of the greatest commandment, and mortal sins.  The net result was that Luther became extremely frantic about his guilt, spending hours every day in confession to his spiritual director….  He engaged in more and more extreme penitential practices to punish himself for his sins. He still felt unforgiven….Then something happened. While in a tower room in the monastery meditating on the Letter to the Romans, Luther was struck by a new interpretation of the phrase ‘righteousness of God.’ Martin had always thought this phrase referred to God’s absolute standards of righteousness the he expected us to live up to. Suddenly it dawned on Martin that the phrase actually referred to righteousness that comes from God to us by faith. Forgiveness of sins and salvation are thus freely available regardless of personal merit or lack thereof; it is all grace operating through faith. This doctrine, known as justification by faith, became one of the hallmarks of Protestantism …. [Sunshine, p. 21-22]


So our first Sola was the primary importance of reading and knowing scripture. Our second Sola was discovered right in the pages of the Bible! Yes, the prophet Habakkuk had said the words much earlier, between 608 and 598 B.C.E. But it was Paul’s masterpiece letter—the Letter to the Romans— studied by Luther and countless others, that made an impact. In the first chapter, the 17th verse, Paul offered his life-changing belief for the first time. Here is it: “As it is written, the …righteous shall live by faith.” And where had Paul read that before he wrote it? You know: Habakkuk 2: 2-4! But the second time Luther read it was Romans 3: 28. “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” That was the new understanding that warmed and changed Luther’s heart. You might ask: “How was it taught before?” Let’s break down the verse. Justification. That’s a doctrine that says we will be “presented faultless before God just as if we had not sinned.” That’s good! But how are we justified? Some, like Luther before, believe that we are justified by our good works, meaning that we need to earn that condition of standing faultless before God; and if we have not earned it satisfactorily, we need to do penance—good deeds—to atone for (make up for) our own indiscretions. So people like Luther, who never feel worthy, either work hard to punish themselves, or they do the penance prescribed to them by a priest to “make up” for their sinfulness. But  Luther discovered that the New Testament says standing before God as if we have not sinned, does not occur because of what we do, or what priests do, or what the church does.  We can only be justified because of what God did.  It was, and is, a gift. It happened because the sins of the world were nailed to the cross of Calvary on which Jesus died. Jesus took the nails for our sakes; Jesus died through no sins of his own. That action—said Luther, and the Protestants, and the book of Romans—justifies us in the eyes of God if we fully believe in and put our trust in God. Simple yet powerful, right? But the other path of justification that the Church of Rome decreed that faithful Christians were partly justified by our faith; then they had to complete the process by participating in the church’s sacraments administered by a priest. That meant that those in that church had to participate in appropriate sacraments out of the seven: Baptism Confirmation, the Eucharist, Healing, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony—if they wanted to complete their salvation. Luther read Romans, and he knew his church’s stand. They were at odds with each other. Which would he choose? He chose Scripture, but then chose to debate the parts with which he had disagreements. He just wanted a discussion! That’s when zealous college students disseminated his 95 theses. With the recent invention of the printing press, that was easy! And the sixteenth century social media wheels started turning!


Can you imagine people sitting around contemplating if, or how, they are saved? They did; and they do! Many people of many faiths find it vital to consider what will give them eternal life. Many in our day hope that God grades on a curve and that their good deeds will get them through the Pearly Gates. Others believe the way the Church of Rome did in Luther’s day. Protestants believe that to be presented faultless before the throne of God happens just through our complete and unwavering belief in Jesus as Lord, who died on the cross for the sins of the world. That does it; but to believe that takes a leap of faith. The writer of Hebrews says that “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  We like to believe what we have seen; but even our eyes can deceive us. In 1956, the captain of the beautiful Italian liner Andrea Doria was certain that an oncoming ship, the Stockholm, was passing on her port side. In the fog, eyes failed them and instruments did not support what they believed to be true. Instead the Stockholm tried to pass on the starboard side and ended up plowing her bow into the hull of the Andrea Doria. The luxury liner was doomed and sunk to the bottom of the sea. Eyes don’t always have it!


Others have been sure they heard strange noises. Such possibilities always get stoked about Halloween with the things that go bump in the night.  Sometimes our ears deceive us too! Faith is leaning on what we cannot see. There is no way (apart from science fiction of our day) to go back to the first century and see the events about which we believe. The spiritual hymn asks us, in a metaphorical way “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” The literal answer is no. But do we believe that it happened, and that the crucifixion of Christ changed the world? “Yes” says the faith-filled Christian. We believe it happened and that it has changed our life, and it will change our life beyond death.


So what are we to do? Perhaps we can join the man described in Mark 9:24 who said to Jesus: “I believe! Help my unbelief.” Perhaps a comforting word comes from author Kathleen Norris in her book called Amazing Grace; A Vocabulary of Faith. She says:

          Faith is a surprise to me, as I lived without it for so long. Now I believe that it was merely dormant in the years I was not conscious of its presence. And I have become better at trusting that it is there, even when I can’t feel it, or when God seems absent from the world. No small part of my religious conversion has been coming to know that faith is best thought of as a verb, not a “thing” that we either have or don’t. Faith is not discussed as an abstraction in the gospels….I appreciate much more the wisdom of novelist Doris Betts’s assertion that faith is “not synonymous with certainty…[but] is the decision to keep your eyes open.”  [Riverhead Books, 1998, p. 169]


So I tell you, if you chose to believe it, that the first century apostle named Paul said this: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to five hundred more….” 1 Corinthians 15:3-6


How will you be presented faultless before the Throne of Grace, just as if you had not sinned?


Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 October 8, 2017