The Sixth Sunday After Easter May 4, 2008
Romans 3:21-25a 27-28
216, 223, 217, 215
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
May God the Holy Spirit ever remain living and active in your heart, continually reminding you that you are a holy, sinless, child of God through faith in Jesus Christ and therefore an ambassador of that same Lord Jesus representing him to the world. Amen.
Fellow sinners—you who have been declared holy in Jesus Christ:
Have you ever had more or less the same supper two or three nights in a row? How did you react? In this I know that most of us are more than a little spoiled. Most citizens of third world countries would probably consider us to be rotten ingrates for even suggesting that eating leftovers for several nights in a row might be grounds for complaint. The point here is not that we are spoiled (which we probably all are), but that no matter how much we like any particular food our opinion of that food begins to wane rather quickly. Two nights in a row won’t usually do it, but after a week or two of eating nothing but one particular food—morning, noon, and night—most of us would probably not only start to grumble a bit, but that particular food would probably be stricken from the list of the top ten.
Now take this general idea one step further and imagine yourself eating nothing but manna and quail for 40 years. That means that anyone here who was born after 1968 would have eaten nothing other than manna and quail at every single meal over his entire lifetime—morning, noon, and night. Sound good to you?
In nearly every aspect of life, “always the same” is generally regarded as undesirable. How would you feel about every article of clothing exactly the same and exactly the same color? Every car…the same. Every house…identical. Every appliance, every day, every human personality, everything always and only exactly alike? Probably sounds horrible to you, doesn’t it? “Variety is the spice of life” and all that. Yet, today we are going to hear from God's Word about things that were and are all the same and how and why that sameness is good and desirable. The text in which we will find such truth is found in Paul’s great epistle to the Romans, the third chapter:
But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. 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 by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness…Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.
These are the words of our God, given to us through verbal inspiration by the Holy Spirit speaking through the apostles and prophets of old. Because these are God’s words we can and do have great confidence in them and in their ability to guide and direct us along holy paths. That our God would so fill and direct us we study these words with this prayer in our hearts: “Sanctify us through your truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth.” Amen.
Our text is one of those Bible jewels that stands out even in the midst of sublime perfection. If you can remember only one Bible reference to share on a moment’s notice with someone caught up in the mythology of work righteousness, this would be as good of a choice as any. It is one of those “Gospel in a paragraph” sections of Holy Scripture that not only lays out the truth of the Gospel with perfect clarity, it also reduces the error of work righteousness to a rather pathetic bit of fluff to which none but the diehard unbeliever would dare cling. With this introduction we take a closer look at these great words from the Holy Spirit through His servant Paul.
Since our text begins “But now…” there is obviously an implication or reference to something that came before. But now…what? What came before? What stands in opposition to that which exists now? The verses before our text tell us: “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:19-20).
You will recall that the general theme this morning has to do with sameness. These words begin to establish our theme. We are told that the “thing that came before” was the sameness of the Law. What does that mean? It means that when human beings are judged according to their keeping of the Law the exact same verdict is rendered in every single case. That verdict is, obviously, “Guilty.” The verse we just read could not speak more plainly: “Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight.”
Note well that the Bible always speaks in universal terms when it comes to the Law and the breaking of the Law which is sin. So also here Paul lumps every single one of us together in one big mass of condemnation. When it comes to keeping the Law, or being judged by our keeping of the Law, every single one of us has failed miserably. No one could survive Judgment Day. In this we are all the same.
Here we obviously run into a bit of a problem in connection with our theme. Our theme asks the question: “What’s so good about all the same?” This verse tends to reinforce the position that there is little or nothing that’s good about all the same. We are all the same in that we have all broken God’s holy law. We are all the same in that not one human being will ever be able to earn heaven by doing good. We are all the same in that God would render the exact same verdict at every one of our trials: “Guilty!” So how or why could that sameness possibly be a good thing? How could there be any good at all in the fact that we are all equally and totally guilty before God?
Before we answer that, our text apparently wants to make absolutely certain that no one misses this point. This “mutually assured destruction” should not escape the notice of even the dullest or sleepiest among us. So Paul repeats this message of sameness in the bluntest of terms: “For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” [v.22b-23]
Are we getting the message yet? God looked down at sinful mankind—seeing every single human being as only God could—and He looked for some difference, anything at all really. He looked for something white and saw only blackness. He looked for something pure and saw only filth, something beautiful and saw only ugliness, something grand or noble and saw only depravity. Look carefully at that crowd and see it as God sees it. Examine the faces carefully until you come across one that is familiar for there you will find yourself. I am there. Your parents are there. Your spouse, children, and friends are all the same. God looked and everything He saw was the same and it was all bad, all sinful.
So what is so good about all the same when everything that God saw was always and only evil? Our text was actually setting up the answer by pointing out the equality and universality of our evil. Paul wanted to make absolutely certain that every single human being who heard or read these words understood his own depravity and condemnation because that is what forms the very basis for our shared good fortune. What in the world does that mean? Our text tells us that the very same group that shares in a common failure to keep the Law is the very group that is now declared not guilty by God. Remember the verse we just read? “For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” That verse goes on to tell us that the exact same number of souls that shared in the failure to keep the Law also now shares in God’s pronouncement of sins forgiven. Our text says that all those who “sinned and fell short of the glory of God” are the very ones who are “justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” [v.24]
Now we begin to see what’s so good about all the same. The fact that we are all sinners means that every single one of us shares in the New Covenant that God has established with His Church. You and I can learn much from this simple truth. Ask yourself which individual is excluded from this promise? We here have been given God’s solemn declaration that as many as have sinned have now been justified in Jesus Christ. Are you a sinner? Then you are included.
Christianity is often condemned as exclusive and cold. What could possibly be more loving or more inviting and inclusive? Again, are you a sinner? Then know that God’s Word pronounces you justified in Jesus Christ. That means that your sins have all been forgiven.
Our text goes on to describe how such a thing could actually be possible: “Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness.” [v.24-25] The Devil would love to be able to point to something in this text that excludes you, something that would cause you to doubt that you too are included in God’s decree. That could well be why the Holy Spirit makes absolutely certain that the list is all-inclusive. No one is left out. No one is denied or rejected. In fact the only element to the whole equation that we human beings add is our own sinfulness. If you have sin then God’s plan includes you.
Contrast this certainty, this clarity, with the confusion, ambiguity, and contradiction that you see all around you. Here’s an example. About a year or so ago my wife and I received a tax refund check from the IRS. There was nothing unusual about that except that the return I submitted said that I owed taxes. There was no explanation, just a check. I held onto the check for several weeks assuming that I was not entitled to it. I waited for the notice telling me to return it. We finally deposited the check hoping that they had caught an error in our favor on the return we had submitted. Of course, the notice came the day after the deposit stating: A) We had made a mistake on our return and were entitled to the refund, B) The check that we got was a mistake, C) We had to return the un-cashed check immediately, D) We had to take no action as a result of the notice, and E) A clerical error had caused the problem and the delay in sending out the notice. Believe it or not I’m not making any of this up. If you can make heads or tails out of that official announcement I am still waiting for someone to explain it to me. I was entitled to the refund, but I had to return it, and I was to take no action!
By contrast, God’s plan, God’s official decision as outlined in our text leaves room for no doubt of any kind. That is what is so wonderful about “all the same.” It is precisely because we are all sinners that we are all included in God’s plan for forgiveness.
How is it then that not everyone is going to heaven? Our text also answers that question: “But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe.” [v.21-22]
Those who try to make their own payments for sin through their good works are, in effect, removing themselves from the pool of sinners. They reject Jesus Christ and the payment He made by attempting to make the payment themselves or by refusing to acknowledge that any payment is necessary. That is hardly what it means to be saved “through faith in Jesus Christ.” Faith in Jesus Christ means that you believe God’s promise concerning what Jesus did for us and that you trust his promise that Jesus paid also for your sins. Even this trust in Jesus is a gift given to us by God the Holy Spirit.
This brings us to yet another good thing about being “all the same”: There is not a single human being who has anything at all to boast about before God. If we had decided to believe in Jesus on our own, we could boast. If we had earned God’s love or forgiveness in any way, we could boast. If we were somehow better than anyone else, we could boast. Our text dismisses such nonsense in the clearest, simplest terms: “Where is boasting then? It is excluded.” [v.27] The salvation of any and every human being is from first to last a gift from our merciful God. We did not provide one single good thing to the plan.
What then is left to say? Just this: Look now with eyes of understanding and compassion to your fellow human beings. See every single one of them as your equal for God not only declared that we all shared a common, desperate need, He also said that His loving invitation extends to all equally. That is the simple message we are to carry to the world. We shared their condemnation, let us also share with them the message of forgiveness in Jesus Christ. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.