“Justified!” – Romans 3:19-28
Reformation Sunday – October 29, 2017
- Justifying one’s self:
- You, and me
Have you ever received a traffic ticket – maybe a parking violation like parking in a handicapped spot or overstaying your parking meter, or maybe a speeding ticket, or perhaps you were cited for failing to stop at a Stop sign or going through a red light? If you actually got pulled over or ticketed by an officer, did you try to justify your parking or poor driving to the officer writing the ticket? Hopefully you didn’t argue and just had the grace and good sense to simply accept the ticket and go on your way. But in your mind you were very likely trying to justify yourself. Yes, I saw that No Parking sign, yes, I knew I parked at a meter, but I only rushed inside to – fill in the blank here – mail a letter, grab a quick cup of coffee, drop off a rent cheque, make an ATM deposit. OK, I was speeding, but really… the change in speed limit sign was tucked in behind a tree, I was going just 17 km./hr. above the speed limit. And my son was going to be late for baseball practice and I was already late for a meeting at work. That Stop sign? That red light? The sun was setting and it was right in my eyes; I couldn’t see a thing. What Stop sign?
I received my first speeding ticket on November 15, 1981. I remember it very clearly because I had chosen Remembrance Day that year to propose to Deanna… Remembrance Day so that I would remember it. That was a Wednesday, but we had decided to drive from Saskatoon to Regina and Lemberg on the Sunday morning to tell our parents in person, for me to ask her parents. Now, I had a ten-year old Plymouth Scamp, and the speedometer was incorrect. You had to go 72 miles an hour on the speedometer (instead of 62) to be travelling the 100 km./hr. speed limit. I knew that, and when I drove on the highway I adjusted my speed appropriately. The trouble was, we didn’t take my ten-year old Scamp, we took Deanna’s 15-year old Ford Fairlane. So, as I was driving I drove a little bit over the speed limit – I think I was going about 67 miles an hour, thinking that was safe enough not to get a ticket. But just 40 km. northwest of Regina, I got pulled over for speeding. The officer said I was clocked at 122 km. / hr. when I thought the most I could be going was 110. I wish I could have said that we were in a hurry to tell our parents that we had just gotten engaged, but the truth was discovered a few days later when we found that, while my car’s speedometer was wrong one way, Deanna’s was wrong the other way. In order to go 100 km./hr. in her car, I had to drive 55 miles an hour instead of 62. I had a good reason for the speeding infraction, but I couldn’t justify myself before the officer.
What about you, when you’ve done something wrong? Can you justify yourself and your behavior? Can you put yourself in the right with your excuses and reasonable explanations? We are very good at attempting to do just that. We have been practicing for a very long time; you might say it’s in our human DNA. In the Garden of Eden, God asked our first parents, “Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” Adam justified his behavior by blaming Eve and God: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me the fruit of the tree, and I ate. It’s not my fault, it’s the woman’s fault, she gave me the fruit. Or maybe it’s your fault, God, You gave me the woman.” Eve used an excuse we often try – the devil made me do it. She said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate. I can’t be held responsible… it was trickery.”
What about Moses? God was ready to lead the people of Israel out of their 400 year long slavery in Egypt, and He met Moses at a burning bush to tell him he was the guy to lead the Israelites against the Pharaoh and to the Promised Land. Moses came up with all kinds of excuses for not leading the people of Israel. He justified himself saying, “I don’t have any credentials,” and then “Who am I supposed to tell them has sent me?” and then “What if they don’t believe me?” and then “I’m not a good public speaker,” and finally “Lord, just send someone else.” At every turn Moses tried to get out of this call of God, tried to justify himself for not accepting that call.
- Justifying ourselves with God?
As a whole, we humans have been trying for a very long time to excuse ourselves, to justify ourselves, to get (back) into God’s good graces or, at the very least, to put our own minds at ease. Our gossip, just a little here and there? Everyone else is doing it, and I am not really sharing anything that everyone doesn’t already know. Jealousy or hatred toward an annoying co-worker? Well, at least I just think bad thoughts; I’ve never really hurt anyone, not yet anyway. Greed, dishonesty in business dealings or taxes? Well, it’s not like I’m robbing a bank or anything serious like that, and besides it’s really my money, not the government’s.
Just in case, just to cover all the bases – and especially in times of trouble or illness – we may try to put ourselves right with God, to make sure that we are in a good relationship with him, to get on his good side, as it were. We bargain with God. “God, if you see to it that my parents don’t find out what I did, I’ll pray every day. God, if you prevent this investment from going wrong, I’ll make an effort to go to church more often. God, if you heal my mom, I’ll go to a Bible class AND set aside more time for personal devotions.” It’s not exactly making a deal with God, but maybe he will be impressed, at least a little bit. Maybe life will be easier.
- But it doesn’t work!
God is not impressed. None of it, nothing we can do, can restore the relationship that our sin and rebellion against God has destroyed. No bargains we make can justify us and make us right with God. Scripture tells us, “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” Think of a windshield that has a stone chip… just one little chip, but with the alternation of heat and cold, that stone chip turns into a crack that eventually spreads through the entire windshield. Still, we try to get ourselves right with God, but how much effort is good enough? Is 50% good? Will God meet us halfway? How about being good 85% of the time, or even 99.9% good? That’s kind of like Ivory Soap – it’s advertised to be 99.44% pure. What about the other 0.56%? That means it’s still NOT pure! Oh, and by the way, the name “Ivory” was created by Harley Procter, of Proctor and Gamble, who was inspired by Psalm 45:8 which reads: “All your robes are fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia; from palaces adorned with IVORY the music of the strings makes you glad.” Even 99.9% is not enough, as Jesus said, “You therefore must be perfect (or maybe pure-fect), as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We cannot measure up, ever. We are, as Scripture tells us, “dead in sin.”
- God meets us… not half-way… ALL the way!!
The good news is that God just doesn’t meet us halfway. He came all the way, from heaven to earth, a way of sacrifice, and gave his only Son to save us. It is a gift. There is no need to try to justify ourselves, no need to attempt to put ourselves back into a right relationship with God. It has already been done. As the apostle Paul writes, “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” Instead of you reconciling yourself to God, God reconciled you to Himself. By God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ, we are justified. We have been placed into a right relationship with God, as his precious sons and daughters, as those who will inherit the gift of eternal life. “You must be perfect”? We could never achieve that by our own efforts. But it has been achieved for us. Jesus took the filthy rags of our sin onto himself and carried those sins to the cross. He died the death that we earned for ourselves. He makes us pure and holy, whiter than 99.44% Ivory Soap could make us. In exchange he dresses us in his righteousness, in his own perfect relationship with his heavenly Father. As Paul continues, “God made [Christ] who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” God’s own righteousness, God’s own holiness, clothes us as a gift. When God looks at you, he does not see your sin; he sees only the righteousness of his holy Son. That’s why a pastor wears a white robe. You are not supposed to see and notice and be distracted by my own human sinfulness. Jesus’ righteousness covers me and clothes me. You are to recognize in me, for these precious moments on a Sunday morning, the person and the words and the saving work of Jesus, all for YOU!
All of this is received – not earned, not deserved, not bought – but RECEIVED by faith, faith which is itself a gift created by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel Word. That Gospel, that word of the cross, is the power of God to save. The Gospel gives, it creates what it offers. When God speaks, things happen, and he has spoken – the saving Word of the Gospel.
- Justified / righteous…
- by faith
Long ago, the prophet Habakkuk was moved by the Spirit of God to speak the words of God: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it. For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end – it will not lie … the righteous shall live by his faith.” Those are words that St. Paul quoted and explained in Romans 1:17, and again in Galatians 3:11, and even Hebrews 10:38 lands on that verse and that theme.
“The righteous shall live by faith.” Those words seem plain enough to us; we may have heard them often. But those words were not plain to Martin Luther, who more than 500 hundred years ago struggled with those words. Luther searched for a merciful God. He knew that Jesus was his Lord and Savior, but he also feared his Lord as a righteous Judge who would punish him, a very unrighteous sinner. That is how Luther understood the words, “the righteousness of God.” It was to Luther an awesome, all-powerful righteousness that would send unrighteous sinners to hell. And God was justified in doing that. It’s like sending a convicted criminal to his/her time in jail. And when that happens, people are content because “justice is served.” The justice system is justified in punishing people appropriately for their crimes. And that’s what Luther thought about God. He’s like a righteous judge doling out appropriate spiritual punishment and sentences for the failures of unrighteous sinners. Yet as he studied Scripture to prepare his university lectures, Luther wrestled with those words. “The righteous shall live by faith.” What did Paul mean when he quoted that in Romans 1? It is God’s own Word, inspired by the Holy Spirit, but it is God’s own Word written in very ordinary human language, with all of the accompanying rules of grammar and word order.
- as a gift (a ticket to heaven)
As Luther worked to undo the puzzle of those words, the Holy Spirit shed his light through the Word. Luther came to see that the righteousness of God is a gift, not a threat, not a penalty, but a gift, given out of God’s grace, his undeserved favor to and for sinners. The righteousness of God, a right relationship with God, is a gift given to an undeserving sinner out of pure grace, 100% grace, and it is received by faith, by trust in the promise of the One who gives it. Upon understanding those words and that gift, Luther felt as if the gates of paradise had been opened for him. It’s like he got a ticket to heaven. (**handout) And that’s what started the Reformation 500 years ago!
Paradise has been opened for us, as it was for Luther, through the blood of Jesus. By faith in his name, and in his sacrifice on the cross of Calvary, we have been put back into a right relationship with God, the relationship that our first parents once enjoyed in Eden, in paradise. Our sins are forgiven for the sake of Jesus Christ, and the gift of eternal life is ours, free and clear. We live now as God’s children, his sons and daughters. We live now “like Father, like Son,” living in love and service toward others, just as our Lord Jesus lived, with love and compassion for the people he met. Those works of love and service do not earn salvation for us; we don’t need to work for that – it is a gift and it is already ours! Not deserved, not earned, but given, by grace through faith.
After Luther’s death, a note was found in his coat pocket. In that note Luther had written about the need to be humble in the presence of words, especially in the presence of the Word of God. Luther closed his note with a few words, “We are beggars. This is true.” We are all beggars in the presence of God. We have nothing to offer in exchange for the gifts of forgiveness and eternal life. Those gifts are ours, a gift of God’s grace, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are justified, put right with God – no excuses needed! We are beggars, but more than beggars. We are God’s baptized children, his precious sons and daughters. We are justified! Amen.