Epistle: Romans 3:19-28 (Reformation Observed)
The Feast of the Reformation affords preachers a special opportunity to catechize on the doctrine of justification by faith. It is also a perfect week for us to read through Romans in full for our devotions. It is an opportunity to hear again those marvelous words of absolution and sins forgiven and to recognize a righteousness which is revealed apart from the Law (Rom. 3:21); our need for absolution must be very great. Therefore, the full force of God’s Law and the vanity of seeking a righteousness according to the Law should fill our ears. To use St. Paul’s words, God’s wrath ought to be revealed from heaven against our own ungodliness (Rom. 1:18) to increase sin (Rom. 5:20).
One way to get at that is to seek the Holy Spirit’s aid and meditate on Romans 2:13: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. [οὐ γὰρ οἱ ἀκροαταὶ νόμου δίκαιοι παρὰ [τῷ] θεῷ, ἀλλ᾽ οἱ ποιηταὶ νόμου δικαιωθήσονται]” The Law’s most potent attack is its real demand for a righteousness so perfect that by it we are justified. When we preach the Law, we must not give lower standards than God gives nor give people pseudo-knowledge that God does not expect them to be able to do the Law anyway, such that you do not have to try or think maybe it is okay to be a sinner. The Law’s demands are not just for hearing. They do not require intellectual assent about our sin, but require just actions that flow from a just heart.
Romans 2:13 must then be weighed against 3:20 in our text this week: “διότι ἐξ ἔργων νόμου οὐ δικαιωθήσεται πᾶσα σὰρξ ἐνώπιον αὐτοῦ, διὰ γὰρ νόμου ἐπίγνωσις ἁμαρτίας.” To get to Paul’s conclusion in 3:20--that the Law’s only power is to reveal sin--one must follow his preaching in 2:13. The righteousness of the Law is the unrelenting demand that we be changed from wicked and disobedient people to righteous ones. When we preach the Law like Paul does, we will not be tempted to tuck in the third use of the Law to bring our Gospel proclamation to some practical conclusions. The third use is there wherever and whenever the Law is preached as the only means to justification (2:13). In other words, we preach the Law to show that only those who follow its holy, good, and right demands will be justified in God’s sight. When we have come to think of the Law in this way, then is, “every mouth stopped, and the whole world held accountable to God” (3:19). First, the Law in its full force.
But we should also talk about Reformation preaching as a genre, because the occasion particularly lends itself to preaching about history and about the church’s errors, rather than preaching God’s word to reform our hearts and the church today. I have heard some Reformation sermons that had the unintended effect of instilling in people pride, rather than faith. Dr. Pless’s piece on Sasse and Reformation preaching on this website (www.craftofpreaching.com) should be of some help in approaching the Reformation sermon. The basic (exaggerated) outline of a misguided Romans 3, Reformation sermon may go something like this:
WE KNOW THAT WE’RE SAVED BY FAITH ALONE, UNLIKE THOSE OTHER PEOPLE WHO DON’T UNDERSTAND THE GOSPEL!
We know that we are all sinners who have fallen short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:19)
Church History teaches us that the Roman Catholic Church was in great error about the seriousness of sin.
Luther was so great because he realized that he is a sinner, unlike the Roman Catholic Church (add something about lex semper accusat)
We know now that we are justified by grace through faith for Christ’s sake as a gift (Rom. 3:23-24)
That’s why the practice of indulgences in the Roman Catholic Church was so bad (church history lesson continued).
We now know better (repeat that we’re saved as a gift) that Christ’s righteousness alone saves.
Now that we know the pure doctrine, we obviously know better than other people, as the Reformation clearly demonstrates.
Luther knew better than the Roman Catholics
We know better than the Roman Catholics and perhaps all the other confessions of Christianity about salvation!
Conclusion: Remain steadfast in the Word, because then you’ll be right, which is what the Reformation is all about.
The outline is, of course, ridiculous, but it is true that this type of triumphalism is an easy pitfall in Reformation preaching. The other subtler error in the above is the heavy emphasis on right thinking compared to all the wrong thinking that goes around. One way to over-bake a sermon is to have the whole thing hinge on an intellectual conversion. I believe it was Werner Elert, in his classical treatment of Lutheran theology, The Structure of Lutheranism, who argues that Christ did not come to redeem your mind, that is, to convert your thinking about yourself as once sinner, but now saint. Christ came rather to redeem you and take you whole, body and soul, to Himself. He wants all of you. But if our preaching is of the noetic or intellectual sort, we may simply be preaching to redeem the sinful mind rather than the sinner.
The danger here is our people may easily walk away from a Reformation sermon of this kind thinking that those people back then had a bunch of wrong ideas, but now we have got it sorted out. Thank God! The relationship to Paul’s Jews and sixteenth-century Roman Catholics becomes an us/them relationship. Paul, Luther, and we have it right, but Paul’s Jewish audience, the Roman Catholics in Luther’s day, and so many more have had it all wrong.
As a result, what we might miss is the reality that this is God’s Reformation of His Church. The Jews who trusted in their works are us and the Roman Catholics who made light of sin are us and the false churches today who make light of the doctrine of Christ is still in our flesh. Christ is not only the Apostle and High Priest of our confession (Heb. 3:1), but He, and not Luther, is the real Reformer. He is the one who is reforming His church now through His Word and Spirit. In fact, He is doing it by means of you faithfully preaching His word of forgiveness in real time.
That is what St. Paul is getting at here. I highly recommend Dr. Steven Paulson’s treatment of this passage in Lutheran Theology (T&T Clark International, 2011), who argues persuasively that the “Νυνὶ” in 3:21 is just about everything in this text. “NOW the righteousness of God is revealed.” The old has gone and the new has come—apart from the Law! The legal scheme of justification by the Law has come to an end in Christ. He is doing something new, with Adam and Eve, with Abraham and the patriarchs, and NOW with you and me. This is salvation as pure gift, present tense. Preach that!
Concordia Theology—Multiple sermons and resources on Romans 3:19-28 and the Reformation.
Additional Resources on Proper 25:
Concordia Theology-Multiple sermons and resources on Hebrews 7:23-38