the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to
creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the
state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called ‘the
temporal punishment’ of sins.”
words say that every sin – no matter how small – involves a temporal punishment
for sin. This is a separate matter from
forgiveness. The sin may be forgiven by God, but that doesn’t change the fact
that as a sinner, you have offended God. Therefore each person owes God, and
the full experience of eternal life is not possible until this penalty has been
there are two ways that this can be accomplished. The first is a conversion which proceeds from
fervent charity. If the love in your
conversion is genuine and fervent enough then all is well. Of course, how can one ever know if this is
so? And more to the point, given the sin
that is present in our life, do we really want to trust the quality of our
other way is to participate in the Sacrament of Penance. Here one confesses sins and receives
absolution that forgives the sin. Then
the priest assigns a penance that a person must do. In this way a person makes satisfaction for
sin and removes the penalty. Your work
gives you full fellowship with God. But
what if you die without doing penance for all your sin? And of course, we aren’t even aware of all
the ways we sin, so what about the temporal penalty owed for those?
the most optimistic person would expect to avoid the final purification of
Purgatory. And of course, there is no way to know for sure. This matters
because the tradition of the Church describes purgatory as a “cleansing
fire.” That doesn’t sound fun, and it’s
not. Of course, there is always the hope
that the living will offer the Sacrifice of the Mass for you, or offer prayers,
or obtain indulgences, or do works of penance on your behalf.
words that I have quoted, and the teaching I have described do not come from
the sixteenth century when Martin Luther started the Reformation. Instead, they are from the current Catechism
of the Catholic Church. In its basic
form, the theology has not changed in five hundred years. Purgatory may not be emphasized as much as it
was in Luther’s day, but the theology of penance remains the same. It says that in order to have eternal life
with God you must do something.
St. Paul begins our text by saying, “Now we know that
whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so
that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held
accountable to God.” Paul says that
God’s law stops every mouth and holds all people accountable to him. It does so because of sin.
He adds, “For by works of the law
no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law
comes knowledge of sin.” The apostle
states that works of the law – doing of the law – cannot bring about
justification. Now justification is
based on the fact that all people will appear before the judgment seat of
God. Paul said in the previous chapter, “For it is not the hearers of the
law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be
To be justified is to be declared
righteous by God. The holy God doesn’t
just hand that declaration out. Instead,
is it only true of those who have done the law in thought, word, and deed. He declares it of those who have done the law
This is how justification works. Yet
Paul tells us that no one will be justified by doing the law. He has just set forth the reason for this
earlier in this chapter. The apostle
said, “For we have
already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.” All people are ruled by sin. And so he goes
on to quote Old Testament passages that say, “None is righteous, no, not one; All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good, not even one.”
Rather than bringing justification,
the law brings knowledge of sin. We
often describe the law as a mirror. We look at God’s description of what life
is supposed to be, and it reveals who we really are. It shows our failure to trust in God. It
shows how we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves. It shows all the ways
that jealousy and selfishness have been present in our lives. The law shows us that we are sinners. Paul says in our text, “For all have sinned
and fall short of the glory of God.”
Martin Luther knew this. He had a profound sense of his sin. He knew the holy God who had revealed himself
in Scripture. When he looked at his
life, he saw all the ways that sin was present.
Yet the theology of the Church that he had learned constantly turned him
back to his own actions for a righteous standing before God. God’s grace was the thing that equipped man
to do in ways that counted before God.
Luther embraced this theology and
lived it all the way as an Augustinian monk.
He found that a life of doing could not bring peace. Instead, it only revealed his own sin and the
ways he failed to live according to God’s will.
Try as he might, the way of doing could never provide a righteous
standing before God.
While Luther was spiritually troubled,
he was also clearly a gifted monk. He
was sent to undertake doctoral work in theology, and then to teach on Scripture
at the University of Wittenberg. There Luther
worked with Paul’s letter to the Romans and he began to realize that “the
righteousness of God” was not something God demanded of sinners. It was instead the gift God gave. It was God’s saving action.
Paul says in our text, “But now the
righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law,
although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it-- the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus
Christ for all who believe.” The law and
the way of doing can’t give a righteous standing before God. Instead, now God’s saving action to put all
things right has been revealed. It is
not about the law and doing. It is,
however, something to which all the Old Testament bears witness.
True, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But Paul adds that they “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” Justification does not occur by works. Instead, it is given as a gift by means of God’s grace – his undeserved loving favor. There are no works or doing involved because God did everything for us in Christ.
God has redeemed us. He has freed us from sin, and he did so by
the atoning sacrifice that was offered by the shedding of Jesus’ blood on the
cross. God gave Christ as the sacrifice for our sins. God condemned sin in Christ as he died on
Good Friday. Jesus died, but then God
raised him from the dead as he defeated death.
Paul says that
this righteousness is now received by faith.
For the apostle, faith is the opposite of doing. In the next chapter Paul comments on Abraham’s
faith and says, “Now to the
one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the
one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly,
his faith is counted as righteousness.”
Faith does nothing. It
contributes nothing. It simply receives
what God offers. It is the open hand
that receives God’s gift.
Paul says in our text that through his action in Christ God
is just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. God will never cease to be the holy God who
condemns sin. He shows himself to be
just by judging sin. That’s exactly what
he did as Jesus died on the cross. God
showed himself to be just as he judged our sin by Jesus’ death for us.
But God was not only just in this action. He also showed that he was acting to
justify us – to give us the verdict of not guilty. Those who have faith in
Jesus Christ the crucified and risen Lord now stand justified before God. We are righteous in God’s eyes because of
what Jesus did for us.
Paul concludes our text by saying, “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is
excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For
we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Boasting is excluded from salvation because
we can’t do anything. Our doing is completely
excluded. Instead everything is based on
what God has done in Christ. It is the
gift which is received by faith – by trust in God’s gracious work in Christ.
Paul, Luther learned that justification is by grace, through faith, and account
of Christ. It is the gift we did not
deserve and could never earn. As
sinners, our doing can never contribute to our salvation. It can’t begin or finish, or have any role
whatsoever. On this the medieval Church,
and the Roman Catholic church today, are gravely in error. Instead, forgiveness and salvation are purely
a matter of God’s grace – his undeserved gift.
This gift is received by faith – faith in the crucified and
risen Lord. For Paul – and Luther –
faith is the opposite of doing. It
simply trusts in God’s word that because of Christ we are declared to be
righteous. What God declares is so, and
faith receives this blessing.
Justification occurs on account of Christ. The sacrifice of
Jesus on the cross was the means by which God justly judged our sin. In this way God redeemed us – he freed us
from sin. Because of Christ we are forgiven and can be declared righteous by
This is the
standing that we have now. You are
justified. It is the standing that you
will have on the Last Day when you will appear before the judgment seat of God
and he will declare you righteous because of Christ. We do not live in the uncertainty of doing –
wondering if we have done enough or done it well enough. Instead, by grace through faith and on account
of Christ we have justification before God.