In a little village in Germany in 1483 Martin Luther was born. Martin Luther was, under God, the instigator and one of the biggest drivers of the protestant reformation in Europe – with its subsequent break from the Roman Catholic Church. By the 15th Century Roman Catholicism was dominant religion in Europe. After school Luther went on to university and studied law. He decided to become a monk in one of the strictest orders in the Catholic Church. Priests taught Luther and the general public that one could save yourself by prayer, fasting and penance. The result being that Luther’s teachers were wearied by constant prayers, fasting and penance! Luther later wrote: “If ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery, it was I”. Yet he faced a long spiritual crisis, anxiously anguishing over how sinful man can come to a holy God. Luther finally experienced great joy and his eyes were opened to understand a radical, biblical truth. He wrote later, “I felt myself to be reborn, and to have gone through open doors to paradise.” What happened? What truth did he grasp?
He rediscovered the truth of Romans 1:16-17
I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
He for the first time understood the teaching of Justification by Faith. How will the righteous live? By doing penance, attending mass, being baptized, doing religious works or by their good deeds? No. The righteous will live by faith.
The Roman letter
The letter to the Romans in the New Testament explains what this means. In the first three chapters in the letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul shows that the whole world is guilty before God.
Romans chapter 1 deals with “irreligious” people. In others words, people who don’t follow God, nor obey the Bible and couldn’t care less about church. Here is the summary:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse…(Romans 1:18-20)
Although they know God’s righteous decree (by their own consciences) that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. (Romans 1:32)
The bottom-line is that irreligious people who don’t know or care about God, stand accountable before him.
Romans chapter 2 speaks to “religious” people. Religious people are people who do religious things, read the bible, are normally quite moral and may attend church services. Here is the summary:
All who sin apart from the law (irreligious people) will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law (religious people) will be judged by the law (Romans 2:12)
In other words, just as the irreligious, are guilty before God. People knowing the Bible just increases their guilt by pointing out their wrongdoing. You see it does not matter that you know the Bible, or that you know what’s right and wrong. The question is, do you obey it? The sad truth is that none of us obey God’s word perfectly; we are all guilty of sin and transgression. What’s the result of all this?
The world silenced
Chapter 3:19 puts it in a nutshell:
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.
What the Bible says, it says to everyone. The Bible is true for the whole world, whether you are Christian or not. And the universal truth is that we all stand guilty before God in stunned silence.
Guilty your Honour!
It’s as if we are a defendant in the great courtroom of God and the overwhelming weight of evidence has been bought against us. We are left speechless and silenced. We can only wait for the judge’s sentence – which is eternal separation from the good God in a place of torment.
But there is a but
Romans 3:21 starts with one of my favourite words in the Bible, “But”.
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.
Dr Leon Morris says of Romans 3:21-26, “It’s possibly the most important single paragraph ever written.” You see, many people were crucified in the 1st Century in the Roman Empire. But at the crucifixion of the man Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the world changed, God was at work in an awesome, unprecedented, never-to-be-repeated way. These verses tell us what happened.
A Righteousness from God
What we see here is that a righteousness (right standing) of God or from God has been made known. This righteousness is apart from the law. That is, it does not come from obeying the law or being good, which is good news as none of us is good enough for God. It comes through faith in Jesus. This truth transformed Martin Luther and should do the same for us.
Christ and his Cross
How is it possible that the righteous God can declare the unrighteous righteous?
In this passage there a 3 keywords that help us understand what happened on that Friday outside Jerusalem when Jesus and Nazareth was crucified.
…all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:24)
Redemption was a word that came from the market place and means to purchase at a price. A slave could purchase his freedom – he was then said to have been redeemed. It’s the same concept as the word ransom: If your ransom is paid, you will be set free. The Bible tells us that on Good Friday, when Jesus died, he died “for us” to pay our ransom or redemption price, so we can be freed and forgiven.
God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood (Romans 3:25, NIV)
The NIV Bible translates the word for propitiation as “sacrifice of atonement”. The word is propitiation, means to placate someone’s anger . Many people don’t like to think in these terms; they don’t like to think that God gets angry. We have to say that God does not lose his temper, fly off the handle, get road-rage or go berserk like an abusive husband. But God does get angry, just as Jesus got angry. But God’s anger is measured, reasoned and the appropriate response of a holy God to sin and evil. We might ask, if God did not get angry at evil and sin, what kind of a God would he be? The problem is, of course, that God is angry at my rebellion, sin and unrighteousness.
Should God kill all the evil people?
Sometimes people think, as I am tempted to think too, “Why doesn’t God just kill all the evil people in the world?” All the rapists, murderers and child abusers? The predicament is that we are evil too. Where does God stop the killing? The problem we have is that we have no inkling of God’s hatred of all sin. Jesus said to hate a brother is to murder him in your heart. God is angry at sin. Sin must be punished. God’s wrath needs to be placated. God presents Jesus as a sacrifice of atonement, a propitiation. Jesus bears God’s anger and just judgment on our behalf
Jesus’ death on that cross outside Jerusalem all those years ago was a demonstration.
…He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:25-26)
The cross is a demonstration of God’s righteousness and justice. We may ask, What about all the sins of all God’s people during the Old Testament period? How were their sins forgiven? Did God just wipe their sins under the carpet? God says that in his “forbearance/ patience” he left the previous sins unpunished in expectation of Jesus’ death. At the cross, Jesus paid the full price and bore God’s full wrath at all the sins of all God’s people: past, present and future.
The cross was a demonstration of God’s justice, that no sin is ever brushed under the carpet.
By faith alone
How do we gain all that Christ has done for us? How are we made righteous and justified in God’s sight? Is it through a secret initiation, a magic formula, a lengthy religious process or maybe a clandestine handshake? Luckily not. We simply rediscover the truth that transformed Martin Luther and set in motion the protestant reformation.
This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. (Romans 3:22)
….so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:26)
All these benefits are ours simply through faith in Jesus. We are saved from God’s wrath by faith in Jesus and we continue our Christian lives by faith in Jesus. The gospel saves us, and the gospel keeps us. Everyday I must wake up and believe the gospel. We cannot graduate from the gospel; we cannot move beyond the truth of Good Friday.
(I recommend John Stott’s commentary on Romans in The Bible Speaks Today series.)