I was reading a couple of articles earlier this week that were sort of poo-poo-ing the economic confidence some have been proclaiming lately – like prophets of old they pointed ahead to coming doom. I don’t need prophets for this though. Seems like doom has settled on Seattle and other places across the nation. And, likewise, when I think ahead to school in the fall and hopes for opening and getting on with life – and then there’ll be another dramatic proclamation about more coronavirus cases. I’m kind of waiting to flip on my phone some morning soon and find that six-eyed aliens have landed on the White House lawn and that things will never be normal again. Some days I don’t feel like there’ll be reason for confidence ever again.
I tend to the dramatic though, so it’s good to hear the words of our dear Savior in the gospel. He reminded that true confidence comes from one scenario only: “everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice”, he or she has a solid foundation. “Hear God’s Word/My Word and keep it…” What does he mean? God’s Word is plain – it’s understandable. Jesus is pointing to himself as the Savior who finally arrived and he was calling out those who put their trust elsewhere and he was saying that you could see it in what they did – their fruit would reveal who they were. But God also expands on Jesus’ words and specifies what it means to hold to his Word and put it into practice. In fact, that discovery will be our joy this summer as we listen to the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans. He’s sharing with us the basics of the Christian faith, and we’re going to take it one word at a time.
Just like Jesus, St. Paul is talking about finding rock-solid confidence and basic to the Christian faith is this idea: the confidence is not found in you or me. Paul says in v.23 today, “There is no difference, for all have sinned…” It doesn’t matter if they’re Jews or Gentiles, black or white, young or old – “all have sinned”. It’s easily seen. Look at God’s own people – read Psalm 78 this week sometime. “They did not keep God’s covenant and refused to live by his law.” Even though, in our first lesson, they had God speak that law straight to them and give it to them by his own hand from atop a fiery mountain…no matter. King Solomon later would acknowledge it, “There is no man who does not sin.” (1 Kings 8:46) And St. John, centuries later said just the same: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8-9). Look at yourself and the measure of your week – the thought-sins, the frustrations, the untrusting fears, the spiteful actions, the disregard for others…
But then Paul adds the weight of the thing, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” Because there is a measure to live by. You couldn’t be faulted for being confused about the measure to live by right now: Whose lives matter and what are you required to say or post about lives? Don’t be a racist and unfriend those who won’t be activists? Not only is police brutality wrong but we need to defund the police? People must be allowed to kneel for the anthem but also no one may like it. It’s like you’re always falling short of the measure of what’s really virtuous, because what the world approves is always shifting. Which is probably just fine, because it pays heed to the fact that human measures are terrible. And there is an actual measure. It’s the one in the Word of God. It’s outside of ourselves – given by God. He said, “Be holy; be perfect; be righteous.” But when we stand in the courtroom of God – and we will, as Jesus pointed out in the gospel – there is not a person who can bring a record of right-doing and right-being. Our records are “guilty” and our deeds prove it. We fall short of the measure of God’s glory – his perfect holiness, his righteousness. Or, to think of it in reverse, we fall short of receiving from God his glorious approval: “Well done, good and faithful servant! … Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matthew 25:23) The judgment from God against us is this: Confidence before God does not come from us – each of us, by nature and by deed, is mired in sin and set for hell.
Instead, if we’re looking for rock-solid confidence, this morning Paul reminds us that it comes from God himself. V.21 – “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law & the Prophets testify.” The world by its own doing could not keep God’s law. So God provides a righteousness from himself. And his Word – those prophets of old, the kings, the psalmists – they’d been testifying about it for ages it turns out. If people would simply hear it, his Word has been proclaiming the coming of this: that people “are justified freely by [God’s] grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” To summarize it – wholly apart from human rule-keeping or goodness or badness, God provides a verdict of “not guilty”. There is no distinction – some good, some okay, some terrible – “all have sinned”; and there is no distinction – God lays this “not guilty” verdict over the whole world – all are justified. It’s God’s gracious decree; his action of love undeserved that comes in the work of Jesus Christ alone…
This week’s word expresses that work. It’s in v.25: “God presented [Jesus] as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.” In catechism class, we’ll sometimes shorthand this big word and refer to it as “at-one-ment” — the work of Jesus Christ makes sinners “at one with God” – no sinful distance at all. That’s good, but there’s so much more to it. It’s the most brilliant picture… You just have to go back to the place of holiness to see how it works.
Go back in your minds to Old Testament times – to that tent that was Israel’s temple for a long time – the tabernacle. Do you remember? It had two rooms – the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place? That Most Holy Place was where God’s presence came down among his people. Only the high priest on one day of the year could enter that room – on the Great Day of Atonement. The high priest would bring blood from the bull sacrificed for the sins of the people. He would walk it through the heavy curtain that separated the Most Holy Place from everything else. And there, in that small but holy room, the Ark of the Covenant would be sitting. That golden box with the long handles for carrying and the angels atop the cover. The priest would walk in and sprinkle the blood on that cover, beneath the angels, and it was to cover over the sins of the people in the presence of God. That spot for the blood, it was called the “mercy seat”.
Our reading this morning says “atoning sacrifice”, but literally Paul’s using that word – Jesus is our “mercy seat” when he makes atonement for the world’s sins. He’s the place where blood shed covers over the guilt of people’s sins. Because Jesus’ perfect life is in that blood. And his death on the cross is the sacrifice payment, the just punishment for sins. And his resurrection from death was God’s stamp of approval, his mark of acquittal that Jesus had conquered sin and death and that the declaration “not guilty” could be laid over all. Jesus Christ – in his perfection, in his payment, in his power – covers over sinners with his atoning sacrifice. He is the place where God’s mercy meets them – all of them, indiscriminately – with righteousness they need.
As Paul says: “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” He means that it comes by trusting as opposed to working. Check v.27-28 – Where’s the boasting about us? Nowhere to be found – because God doesn’t operate on this kind of principle where you do and then you can boast. God operates on this principle alone – where he does everything and you simply trust that what he has done is true. As Paul said, “We maintain that a [person] is justified by faith apart from observing the law.”
Where then is your confidence for this life? for the next one? You have it. It’s yours; received by faith alone. By his Spirit’s power, God works faith in hearts like yours and mine to receive what he has done. Faith is not our own strength or our own good working; it is attachment to something outside of us. Christian faith is the attachment of trusting hearts to this: Jesus Christ, in his perfect life and innocent death, has covered over human sins completely regardless of whose they are or how bad they look, and has laid out the status of “not guilty” and “righteous” for all without distinction – you included. Faith looks, not to America or to social media or to social justice or to people or to power or to money for confidence… Faith receives the forgiveness of sins God gives in his Word and keeps it near and dear every day – as life itself before God and for life before God.
Despair of everything else, my friends. Turn away from sins. Repent and believe. Find confidence here with God because the rain’s coming and the floods are rising. But, as in every age, though storms may gather the church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord. For, in his saving Word, he has spoken a word about you that the world, your fear, my sin, cannot change – it’s rock-solid – it’s Atonement that brings you a record of holiness and the declaration that you are guilt-free. Amen.
21 But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.
27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith.
28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.