It’s about eight days until Election Day – that day in American politics where America’s people express their right to choose their next leader. To help them do it well, the pre-election campaign time is driven (to varying degrees every election cycle) by a key question. Many ask, “Where do you stand”…on the Keystone Pipeline? …on entitlement reform? …on TPP? …on abortion rights? …on gun control? …on a national minimum wage? …and on…and on…and on… As candidates answer those questions, they’re really making statements about how they think things are, how they want them to be, and what they’ll do to get things there. And their answers give us opportunity to do the same: to say how we think things are, how we want them to be, and who we’re going to vote for to help us get there. We too say, “Here I stand…”
Romans chapter 3 is one of the most important sections of God’s Word. And it brings us some of the clearest statements from God about how things are and how God wants them to be. It’s almost as though a reporter has pushed her microphone through the crowd to ask, “God, God…where do you stand on how people can have a relationship with you?” So clear and bold is his answer in the verses we have this morning, that you and I can mark what’s true about life, how things are. We can say, “Here I stand…”
Now human beings have some natural opinions about how things are and ought to be, and God makes some contrary claims to start. St. Paul’s argument throughout Roman up to this point has been that God’s wrath is coming for all the natural and willful sinfulness of people; and that the testament from of old in God’s Word is this: “There is no one righteous, not even one.” Nobody is what God wants. That Paul continues this morning in vv.19-20. Here’s how things are: the Law of God, his expectation of what people ought to be and do, it bids us, “Be quiet…because you’re accountable to God and yet when you look at this law the only honest conclusion is that you have only broken it.” To put it into our political language this morning, on the issue of how relationships with God work, Paul says if you take your stand in the “by doing what’s right” camp, then you’ve missed what God’s saying. Clearly, “no one will be declared righteous [right] in his sight by observing the law [by doing what’s right],” because they can’t / they don’t.
Which is a hard position to take. Who likes to hear that mankind is entirely worthless? Our world loves to picture itself as ingenious and worthy to a man/woman – every child a prodigy, every choice an exercise of poetical beauty. And there is in each of us too that same feeling: of wanting to be approved for what we do, what we choose, who we are. There’s this temptation to think things are this way – that God loves me more today than yesterday because today I’ve sinned less so far; that God loves me more than the Kazakh king who kills people; that in the end, he’ll actually find that I’ve been pretty good. Even in elections, there is some validity to how you feel, but finally everyone must deal with what’s real…even more so in spiritual things…
You may remember the story of Martin Luther, whose work in part we celebrate today. He struggled with this work – to keep God’s law – was very aware of his stinging conscience, never felt like he could do enough. Many told him, “Luther, you’re too serious…” But who can read how straightforwardly God speaks about how he judges human actions, how unfitting they finally are – and still think one could be too serious about guilt or failure, about hellfire? Luther couldn’t… We shouldn’t either…
Yet there is also this that Luther enjoyed: if we take God seriously, we find that already God graciously supplies something better – a change of status. Follow with me, if you will, at v.21.
- “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.” Like with Israel in our first lesson – who had God’s law like nobody had it ever since, and they “broke [God’s] covenant.” So instead he simply planted in them who he wanted them to be – right in their minds and hearts – God declared they would be the people they could not be…and this kind of thing he has been making known in his Word for ages and ages – not hidden, just decidedly overlooked.
- “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” To continue that thought: exactly what God wants is received by those who do not work, but simply trust in Jesus Christ – God’s chosen Savior.
- “There is no difference, [because] all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and [all] are justified freely by his grace…”And it’s an inescapable thing – bad and good status. Without distinction, the entire world of people who ever have lived or will, have not reached what God intended for them – and yet still, declared not guilty of all of it they all are. An unexpected gift, neatly wrapped, ready to open.
- “[all] are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” Of course, God didn’t just magic this gift into existence. No, you see, we were lost, captives, “slaves to sin” as Jesus said in the gospel. Bought back from that slavery we are – a redemption that came by Christ Jesus As he said it in the gospel – “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” And “free” with God doesn’t mean “cheap” – our ransom price was high. “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.” When God set up his Son for all to see as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” the lamb sacrificed at the altar of the cross, whose lifeblood freely given covers over all sins and red wrath becomes the bleeding heart of God’s love – what he would have done to sinners, he does to his Son and what he would have shown his own Son, he freely applies to you by faith.
- And, not to say that vv.25-26 are less important, but you can be sure that God, in doing all this, was true to himself – did not cheat, did not cut corners – he meted out justice (punishment for sin) in his Son and justly declares sinners to be just – what he loves to see.
Which all rightly brings the conclusion that you know where you stand when you read Romans 3. Declared to be everything God wants to see not on the basis of what you can do or how things are going… Declared not guilty and forgiven of every sin, considered holy by the free gift of God in Jesus Christ’s work. And this received by faith alone – to trust that it’s true and yours. As Paul said, “a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.”
Of course, every election cycle we can gather up where the candidates stand on all sorts of things, but after that there is for each of us to stand somewhere. Listening to the radio the other day, the conversation was about the impending election of course. And the host was saying that anecdotally many people had told him that when pollsters poll people lie about who they will choose or about how they actually voted. Maybe it always has been, but increasingly it seems a difficult thing, for people to say where they stand in politics.
On the basis of Romans 3, it’s not difficult to see where we stand before God. Sometimes life can make it difficult to say. 499 years ago, a young monk nailed 95 statements of belief to the church door in Wittenberg. He wanted to say where he stood on the things God had said in his Word. Some time later, that same Luther stood before a church council and was asked to move from where he stood. Finally he declared, “Unless I can be instructed and convinced with evidence from the Holy Scriptures or with open, clear and distinct grounds and reasoning—and my conscience is captive to the Word of God—then I cannot and will not recant, because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me God.”
I always picture that paragraph of words in my mind as a shouted thing – fist raised or something. But the more I read it, the less it seems like a boast. You know, sort of like Paul said it this morning – there’s no boasting here because all this that we know from God we have simply by faith – not of our own ingenuity or doing, just to receive. But if there’s not boasting there is firmly grasping. Paul said it, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith…”
This Reformation see where God says you stand with him – justified by faith alone – and then like Martin Luther and many others maintain that confession of faith. Say with every bit of pride but no boasting about yourself, “Not by my work, but by Christ’s alone; not by my genius, but in God’s wisdom; not by my payment, but by free gift – I am declared not guilty, considered holy – here…I stand.” And by his grace may we find ourselves never elsewhere.
May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.