19 Now 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. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Romans 3:19-28 ESV)
The Festival of The Reformation – the events of All Hallows’ Eve (known today as Halloween) back in 1517 has achieved an iconic status as the beginning of The Reformation for Lutherans and historians in particular. However in the way that dates and events can superimpose themselves on trajectories or movements as when wars may formally begin and end with declarations yet we all know tensions and fighting leads up to the declaration and there are lots of warring or skirmishes happening after the peace document is signed so to say that The Reformation started today 504 years ago is to miss the big picture which isn’t so much what Martin Luther or Pope Leo X were doing but what God did in the person of Jesus on the cross.
Judaism first and then Christianity make, what to the world are, absurd claims in that they did not invent, create, compose their religion but received it. They are not humanly inspired concepts of social control but divine revelations from God to this world and to creatures made in relation to God – or in his image. Christianity goes a step further and declares that Jesus is the fulfilment of Judaism whereby in the incarnation God is with us in the person of Jesus to reconcile the world to himself, through himself as one of us, because humanity can’t do it for ourselves.
If salvation was a table and God gave us the tools, the wood, and the instructions then we’d make a cupboard – and badly – because who wants to make a table if we’re told to do it?! If salvation is a sponge cake and God gave us the ingredients, kitchen, appliances, and instructions, then we’d make poor tasting porridge and yet claim it was delicious, because we want to do things our way. That is our human nature seen most destructively in tribalism, violence, cruelty, war. I mention these analogies to suggest that we, by nature, don’t take it well when God comes walking in the garden, when God comes among us – our nature is to hide and when we can’t do that, we blame, and when that doesn’t get us off the hook, we lash out and kill the one who has come looking for us! But when God does get through to us that he is gracious and merciful and that we shouldn’t fear him but follow him, our human nature can also take this relationship with God and wreck it – personally, we still struggle with sins and fears and trusting God – and also corporately because God’s people together – the Christian Church whether in a congregation or a Synod or around the world – can want to do things their own way to perpetuate power, self righteousness, or a particular agenda.
When people know that they are accountable to God – and that’s a big ‘if’ or ‘when’ – then the Law of God condemns us – we’ve heard what we need to hear but don’t want to hear, like the doctor’s diagnosis that we are stuck, trapped, imprisoned and the Gospel is the medicine that God has done something about our situation. That something centres on Jesus and the cross. What Paul talks about when he talks about the ‘righteousness of God’ and ‘propitiation’ and ‘faith’ and ‘justified by faith apart from works of the law’ is a truth that God is merciful and has rescued us through Jesus and given this salvation, this mercy, this new identity through faith.
We don’t need to know how medicine or a vaccine works to get better when we take it. We might know the big picture issues but not the details. We use the medicine because we trust someone or something. However if we want to make more medicines, teach about it, then yes, knowing more is important. And that is what the Church faced as the first generation of Christians knew that Jesus is Lord, knew the scandal of his cross was God being merciful, and when they wanted to teach their children or their neighbours, then they had to say more than just ‘Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so’(!) or similar.
Why did Jesus have to die on a cross, Mummy?
How can God die on the cross, Daddy?
It is when the questions come that we have to be clear about the answers – and the boundaries of what we can say and can’t say – where Jesus was clear and what about. We can’t play 1st century Christians as 21st century Christians because that is dishonest as if we can ignore 20 centuries of history, ignore the work of the Holy Spirit, and the struggles, errors, and sins our Christian forebears went through as we all read Scripture. And now we can look at the 16th century – briefly – not with smug pride – but with the desire to make the mystery of God in Christ, the mystery of the Trinity, the mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of what is going on at the cross, the mystery of God’s grace and mercy and his rescue, and the mystery of why humanity keeps doing what it can to be self righteous, to self justify, and to struggle with grace and faith – to make all these mysteries clear – but not remove the mystery! – so that people can be relieved, free, and confident of God’s love and not anxious, terrorised, fearful of any future – especially one before God.
Over the centuries Christians have talked about Jesus as the Victor over the Devil and his hordes either by tricking him with Jesus’ perfect life that shouldn’t have been killed or by paying some sort of ransom for us. Or that Jesus was a Second Adam who got it right for humanity and those linked to him now have life with God. Or God came in the person of Jesus to pay our debts, or to make satisfaction, or to take our punishment. (People often struggle with the why is this necessary – but that’s because we all struggle with the cross.) Or that in Jesus and his cross we find sacrificial love and that influences us to love others in the same way. Or a more recent 20th century view is that Jesus is the scapegoat, the victim of violence which is how societies survive by blaming someone for their problems but with Jesus, people no longer need to blame and sacrifice someone else – there is no longer the need to do so because instead of violence against others, we seek to serve others. Like aspects of a diamond these views give an explanation about what is going on at the cross.
What Luther did, in his time and place, where religion was transactional, God a tough task master, the Church a bank, and life with Jesus one of working for the bank’s treasures was essentially to stand under the cross again, hear God’s Word, and see God’s mercy – this propitiation – another word for the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies – where God is gracious to us, where God is merciful, where God forgives, where God declares people righteous before him – all gifts from God. That is Good News surely! That is the Gospel! That is the teaching upon which the Church stands or falls.
Martin Luther wanted his church to teach clearly and history reveals the breaks that occurred and continue to occur because of our human nature – and the increasing interpretations of God’s Word. Today we want the same thing – that the Church teach clearly who Jesus is and what the cross is all about as the foundation, the centre, upon which everything else is built. You can start a theological discussion from many places and the desire to get away from the cross is our human desire not to face the reality of who people are in relation to God. That is what the Reformation was about – seeing the cross again clearly as God’s salvation and the works of the cross as conveyed through words, water, bread and wine coming to us now – while we keep our thoughts, views, imaginations always on Jesus. And then we want to follow Jesus into our life this week – in 2021 not the 16th century – into this pandemic world with all its fears and troubles – with a confidence that God loves us, that Jesus is with us, that life isn’t easy street but it is better than easy street because it is walking with Jesus forgiven.
And people still need to hear this unbelievable believable message!
- Romans 3:19 - 28