Maybe it was a teacher or a coach.
Or the relative you disappointed, the woman you were trying to woo, or the man you loved.
Maybe it was an old boss or the person you wanted to be your new boss.
When you want to prove yourself to someone, you work hard at it. You put in more effort, extra hours, all for the sake of winning over a person whose approval or disapproval stands between who you are and who you want to become.
In fact, it seems like much of our lives can be spent, in one way or another, doing things to justify our existences, doing things to prove our value. That fact about our lives is either going to make the message of today’s sermon deeply upsetting or the most freeing word you’ve ever heard! Here's a preview of what's to follow: You don't have a thing to prove!
In the sermon series in which we're involved now we’re considering the question, “What is a Lutheran Christian?” To find the answer, we’re looking at one of the basic statements of faith produced by the Lutheran movement, The Augsburg Confession, written by Martin Luther’s colleague, Philipp Melanchthon back in 1530.
Today, we look at what both the New Testament and Article 4 of the Confession call, “justification.” Luther said that on this article, the Church “stands or falls.” Lutherans have always believed that justification is “the chief article of our faith.” Justification is at the center of Biblical Christianity.
So, what is justification? Two weeks ago, we talked about Article 2 of the Confession, the one dealing with original sin. We said that original sin is the lack of trust in God and love for others with which we are born. Like David in Psalm 51:5, we all, if we’re honest, can say, “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.”
The Greek New Testament words for guilty, justify, justification, and even righteousness are borrowed from the language used about criminal justice. Think about how a legal system works: A person is accused of a crime. A judge or a jury will either find him or her innocent or guilty. Justice, a word that sounds like justify, is done. A person convicted of a crime is guilty. A person found not guilty is acquitted; they’re justified in the eyes of the court; they’re innocent, right in the eyes of law, just as being righteous is to be right in the eyes of God.
But what hope do we have if we’re born guilty? If we come into this world alienated from God and have an irresistible orientation to violating the will of God for human beings as revealed in the Ten Commandments, what hope do we possibly have as we stand before God, the righteous judge?
The world, including most of its religions, answers those questions by saying that we need to get busy to win over God in the same ways we try to win over the people of this world: work, work, work.
But the problem with that answer is that from the moment you were conceived, you inherited a debt for sin to God so big that it makes the national debt look like chump change. Even if you had a million lifetimes to make things right by being a nice person, you still couldn’t pay off the debt you owe to God for your sin.
Our position is stated well in Isaiah 64:6: “...we are all like an unclean thing. And all our righteousnesses [all our violations of God’s holiness] are like filthy rags. We all fade as a leaf and our iniquities [our sins], like the wind, have taken us away.”
To the charge of sin, it must be said, each one of us is guilty. And the Bible makes it clear that there is nothing we can do to expunge sin from our souls and that God will not tolerate any particle of sin in His presence. There’s nothing we can do to prove ourselves worthy of salvation.
That’s just the way things would stay in all of our lives were it not for something that God does for us because He loves us. That something is called justification. So, what is justification? Please pull out the buff and brown editions of The Augsburg Confession you’ll find in the pew racks and turn to Article IV, Justification. It says:
Our churches teach that people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works. People are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. By His death, Christ made satisfaction for our sins. God counts this faith for righteousness in His sight...Think of what that means: The Judge cast aside His robes, then volunteered to take our sentence--the eternity of separation from God we deserve--on Himself. The Bible says that the wages of sin is death, but Jesus, totally innocent God and man, took those wages and paid for our sins in full on the cross. The guilty can do nothing to make themselves acceptable to God. But God does all that for us through Christ. The apostle Paul explains it this way in Romans 3:22-26 (I’m starting at the end of verse 22):
For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus Whom God set forth as a propitiation [Propitiation is an act designed to gain favor.] by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance [in God’s patience] God has passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time [pay attention here, please] that He might be [both] just [that means, just in condemning us for sin] AND the justifier [the one who renders the verdict of innocent] of the [person] who has faith” [in Jesus Christ!]We are born slaves to sin, inheritors of death without hope of protection from our rightful condemnation and hell. But through His shed blood on the cross, Jesus redeemed or bought out of slavery to sin and death everyone who believes in Jesus. This is the greatest miracle God has ever done: The very Judge Who convicts us, justifies us by dying on the cross for us!
So, here’s a little test for you, just five questions, each with a single one-word answer. Feel free, Lutherans, to say the answers out loud. Ready?
What must you to become worthy of being in God's presence?
What must you do to prove yourself worthy of heaven?
What can you do to get the forgiveness of sin?
What can you to earn everlasting life with God?
What can you do to get God’s presence and help with you through the uncertainties of this life?
You can do nothing to gain all these blessings because, in Jesus Christ, God has already done everything you need to receive them!
“Now wait a minute!” I can imagine someone saying. “It says we have to believe in Jesus. Isn’t faith something we have to do in order to be saved?”
We ask this because it violates our arrogant pride to take something for nothing, even from God.
It sticks in our craws to have to admit that, like every other ordinary human being in history, we’re garden variety sinners, in need of God’s forgiveness.
It gives our sense of self-sufficiency--the idea that we can be good enough and strong enough on our own steam--a firm smackdown from the God Who made us and has the final say over our lives!
But the fact is that even the faith to believe that Jesus Christ gives me forgiveness and eternal life is a gift I can do nothing to receive, or earn, or deserve. Turn please, to Ephesians 2:8. It says: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God...”
Even the faith we need to receive the justification that God gives through Christ is a gift.
You can not manufacure faith.
You can’t earn faith.
You can’t steal faith.
You can’t even inherit faith from your parents by being a dutiful pew-occupying Lutheran.
Faith in Jesus Christ is a personal gift God gives to us one person at a time.
Faith can only come to you when you stop “doing,” put down your dukes, and let God give you the faith that in Jesus Christ, God declares you justified, righteous, right with God. Innocent despite all the evidence to the contrary.
So, what about good works?
What about giving food to the CHAP food bank; money for the world hunger efforts of Lutheran World Relief, funneled through the ELCA; health kits for the ministry of Lutheran World Federation; the prayers we offer for the missionaries of the World Missionary Prayer League; our sponsorship the little Ethiopian girl, Toiba Seid, through World Vision; and the things we do for southern Ohio through Lutheran Social Services?
Don’t our good works count for something?
Good works have a place in the life of a Christian. They’re a way of telling God, “Thank You” for the free gifts of faith, justification, and new life we receive through Jesus.
But our good works won't make us any more loved by God than we were when stubbornly refused to repent for our sins. Our good works won't make us any more redeemed than we were the hour we first believed. We’ll talk about the place of good works in Christians’ lives later in this series.
But for now, this morning, this week, let this simple truth soak into your hearts again:
There’s nothing you must do to be justified by God.
There’s nothing you can do to be justified by God.
It is Jesus Christ Who has proven your value and your worth for all eternity. You were worth His death on the cross.
It is Jesus Christ Who justifies sinners.
Not our works.
Not being nice.
Christ has done it all.
Thanks be to God! Amen
[This was prepared to be shared during both worship celebrations with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, where God has granted me the undeserved privilege of being pastor.]
[Although anything cringe-worthy, misinformed, or otherwise embarrassing to the cause of Christ in this sermon is solely attributable to moments when I wasn't paying attention to God's guiding, I did find D.J Lura's approach Article 4 of the Confession extremely helpful!]