The Righteousness of God

On All Hallows Eve, October 31st, in the year 1517, Martin Luther nailed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg Germany the famous 95 Theses. This moment in time has regularly been regarded as the beginning of the great Reformation of the Church. It is difficult to pick a single point in time, but if you are looking for a date to remember it is hard to look past this one. After all, the Reformation is more than a moment in time. It is a movement, and it seems to be propelled not by the whims of man but by the hand of God. We may characterize the Reformation as the triumph of the Word of God over the false teaching of man, or we may see it as restoration of the centrality of Christ to the life and work of the Church which had simply lost its focus over time. But in a very real way, the Reformation of the Church is about the work of God, it is about a God who desires all men to be saved and will strike down whatever stands in the way of that, even if it is His own Church. That is right. God will kill the very things we love, even if they appear to be good and holy things, in order that we might love Him and the coming of His salvation instead.

While there are many facets to the Reformation, there are political, cultural, and theological tenets which all had their role to play. At its core, the heart of the Reformation, if you will, is the teaching that we are justified before God by faith alone. Or as Saint Paul puts it, “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.” You are justified by grace as a gift, justified by faith, justified not by your works, not by your devotion, and not by your well-intentioned desires. No, it is justification by faith alone. This is the teaching that explodes during the Reformation. This is the Gospel, the heart of our faith and hope and confidence as the people of God.

Now, the language of an explosion is fitting for the Gospel, I think. Remember when Paul says, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes?” The Gospel is the power of God. The word “power” is the Greek word “dunamis” where we get the term dynamite. The Gospel is the dynamite of salvation. It is the explosion that changes the landscape. It was this eruption of the Good News which turned Paul from a fierce persecutor of the Church to a dedicated apostle. This blast empties him of all the claims he might have made. He himself will say, “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: Circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the Church; as to righteousness under the Law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Boom! It is an explosion that changes everything.

This explosion is ignited in the days of Luther a well. There were systems in place, well established through the centuries for the measure of faithfulness. The visible Church was in its heyday. It was a monolith, beautiful and powerful. The faithful got in line, made their contributions, enacted the rituals, and were promised they were on the right path, they could be good enough, be faithful enough, devout enough to achieve the salvation earned by Christ. The righteousness of God was achievable through the direction of the Church and through their hard work they might one day find the assurance that their plagued consciences longed for. But the whole time, under the surface the fuse was lit. A blast was about to go off which would shatter this well-rehearsed system of the Church. It was an explosion to destroy everything that stood in the way of the promises and assurance which comes by faith in Christ alone. And it just so happened that our man Luther was there to help fan the flame.

So, on a festival like today, on Reformation Day, we find ourselves standing around and exploring the crater left by that impact. We poke and prod at the remnants of the once powerful force of the Church and try to discern what happened. We set up our camp on the outskirts of the explosion and we hope to embrace the lessons we should mark to avoid such destruction in our day. So, we learn there is danger in supplanting the Word of God with the desires and reason of man. We discover how the Word alone is the only normative source of our confession and hope. But perhaps the greatest lesson we realize is what it looks like to faithfully read the Word of God. There are crucial things which go awry in the reading and application of the Word that leads us down a dangerous road. We examine the remnants of the eruption, and we find there was a failure to discern between God’s Law and His Gospel. Over and again the threats and the promises, the commands and the gifts have been mixed up and comingled with each other. And when that happens, the righteousness of God gets twisted, and hope is replaced with despair. Assurance is usurped by a constant longing for what we cannot possess.

The Law of God, His commands and decrees regarding how you ought to live, from “You shall have no other gods before me” to “take up your cross and follow me,” are often held before the faithful as a means for obtaining the righteousness of God. They are commands, commands spoken to you so you set about doing them, hoping if you do them well enough you just might earn a place in the eternal banquet of your Lord. The trouble is, you do not do them, not perfectly. Oh, you try. You know what is required. You know how you ought to live. It is just that you do not see it through. Therefore, if the Law is held out as the way to eternal life, if it is presented as the means of obtaining salvation, you are forever left without assurance, your conscience will never find rest, you will not know if you have done enough, been faithful enough, or good enough.

This is what Paul hammers home when he says, “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. For by works of the Law no human being will be justified in His sight, since through the Law comes knowledge of sin.” There is no justification in the works of the Law. All the Law does is magnify your sin. It shows you how far you have fallen. It robs you of any attempt to think you can climb your way up toward Heaven by your own ability. The Law is not your salvation. Rather, it holds the entire world accountable to God. As Paul says later in Romans, “God has consigned all to disobedience, that He may have mercy on all.” The Law is not your beginning, but your end.

So, what does he say in our text today? What promise, what hope, what gift does Paul give you? He says, “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.” It is a righteousness of God manifested apart from the Law, apart from the commands, something then which has nothing to do with your ability, your work, your faithfulness, or your devotion. This righteousness is given to you freely apart from your own merit. That is the Gospel. It is the work of Christ alone and is assurance and hope for all eternity.

This is the explosion of salvation which changed the landscape in Paul’s day and the blast that shattered the Church in Luther’s day. It is a righteousness of God not achieved by your work but freely given to you by the blood of Christ. As we examine the crater, as we look at the lessons learned, perhaps one of the best things we can take away on this Reformation Day, is how the application of Law and Gospel continues to detonate here and now. We do not just examine the aftermath, we experience it. Salvation is yours my friends. You are saved. You are redeemed. You are forgiven of all your sins. You are covered in the blood of the Lamb, for I declare to you this day, that in Christ our Lord you are the righteousness of God.