A Gift for Sinners
Romans 3:19–28 – Pastor Mark Ryman
My great-grandmother was the Sunday School Superintendent of Calvary Baptist Church in Springfield, Ohio, for 50 years. Then the whole Ryman clan left for, half going to a Methodist Church and the rest, the ones from whom I am descended, to Calvary Lutheran Church. All of this happened because, for whatever reason, the Baptist Church no longer allowed a Boy Scout troupe to meet in their church. My grandfather and great-uncle were Scout leaders so they had to go somewhere else. That is why I was raised Lutheran.
Let us pray. Sovereign God, we pray for the Holy Spirit to continue to reform the church of Christ. Keep it in the true faith; restore, correct, and inspire its teachings; and embolden it to bear witness to the life-giving message of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection; through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
God does not look at a person and say, “Zounds! You were a Boy Scout leader? Seriously? Come on in!” He doesn’t look at a woman who has been a church leader for 50 years and decide, “She’s a keeper.” He doesn’t look for confirmed Lutherans to fill the pews of heaven. We are not saved in these ways: through our good works and religion. The fact is, we are so incapable of saving ourselves, or of being good enough, that we are condemned. “He will render to each one according to his works” (Rm 2:6).
“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Rm 3:10-12). So, if we are rewarded according to our works, and no one does good, what reward can you expect? “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rm 6:23).
Like Peter’s audience on that ancient Pentecost, who on hearing his sermon were cut to the heart, we too should cry aloud in despair, “What shall we do?” (Ac 2:37). The answer echos down through the ages: there is nothing we can do. People have tried, and we may try to comfort ourselves that we have even succeeded. One hears it at every visit to a funeral home. Perhaps you have even said it yourself: “He was such a good man. He’s in a better place now.” Well, if we are judged by our goodness, we will all burn in the fires of hell. Our goodness is not good enough. We are not good enough. Indeed, we are not good at all. The sooner we admit that we are just sinners like all sinners, the closer we will be to the only solution to our predicament.
I mean, you may be a better sinner than someone else—or a worse sinner. But there’s no difference. You’re a sinner. Don’t think you’re not. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rm 3:23). But that’s a good place to be. Yes, it’s good to admit who you are and what you are. That is the first step in getting better. That is the purpose of the Law: it makes you aware of your sin. And that you cannot satisfy its demands of you. And its demand is that you be holy, as holy God is. Impossible, you say. Remember, this is impossible to do on your own, but with God all things are possible (Mt 19:26).
That was Martin Luther’s problem: all he could see were two things: (1) an angry God and (2) a man who could not appease that angry God. So, he confessed and did penance, and confessed more and did more penance. But nothing changed. God was still God and Martin was still Martin. He knew that he was a sinner but thought, as his church taught and the Jewish faith before had instructed, that he must appease God through works. It was a no-win situation.
Then, in reading the Bible, Luther didn’t have to get far into Romans when he read a verse that changed everything. “The just shall live by faith” (Rm 1:17). “The righteous shall live by faith.” We must have the faith that declares we are saved in only one way: by the grace of God alone. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ep 2:8-9).
The righteousness of God cannot be obtained by human effort. It always comes back to God’s work, his righteousness—on our behalf. This is a gift that no one deserves since all have forfeited any personal righteousness due to their sin. Therefore, righteousness can never be left to our own exertions. Rather, we rely through faith on the work of God in Christ. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Ep 2:4-5).
Consequently, in the great love with which he loves us (Ep 2:4). God offers his own righteousness to us and does so freely. It is available to all who believe. The righteousness of God justly makes us just through the redemptive work of Christ on the cross. This free gift of God, his righteousness, becomes ours through faith alone.
A nationwide poll was taken in the United States on religious questions. When asked whether they believed in God, 95 percent of those polled answered “yes.” When asked whether religion in any way affected their politics and their business, 54 percent said “no.” They had a belief, but they did not have faith. If these half of all Americans who believe in God do not have faith that God affects simple things like politics and business, how many believe in their hearts that God can make them righteous, so righteous that they may stand before the holy God with complete confidence that they are as righteous as Jesus Christ himself? If they do not have such faith, faith in the cross of Christ, then they only believe in half of what that cross means.
The cross is two things—and should be two things at once. It is the wrath of God visited upon sinners. Sinners must die. And those who do not have faith in Christ will remain conscious of their sin, but terrorized by the wrath of God upon sinners. But the cross is not just God’s judgment of sinners, it is his acquittal of those sinners who have faith in the Savior who died there for them. This is what that great old word “propitiation” means. The cross is that which makes God favorable toward sinners like you and me. The cross is not sacrifice, but as William Tyndale that great English Reformer put it, the “atonement.” That which ones us with God, or justifies us with him—the only at-one-ment of sinful humanity with the holy God.
That is Luther’s great gift to the world, as its is the Apostle Paul’s. They have made clear to us how to do the impossible. They have shown us how to be righteous before God.
So, as you come to his Table in a few minutes, remember your baptism: that you have already died for your sins, but died in Christ’s death so that you may live. Remember that there is nothing you can do, no law-keeping, no good-working, no Sunday School superintending, no scout leadership, no graduation from a class, no denomination that will save you from the wrath of God. Only Christ, received by faith, saves sinners. Come to the Holy Meal, and commune with the God who has given this great gift of his grace to sinners who have faith in Jesus.