Righteousness—by working or through faith?

An insight from tonight’s Bible study on Romans 4:

It’s not just that we can’t work our way to righteousness by perfect law-keeping. Moreover, the sort of relationship that comes by working is of a different kind from a relationship based on faith.

A servant works for wages, and the relationship depends on the work of the servant. A child is in a relationship prior to any behaviour on its part.

So although God does demand perfect law-keeping, He wants something even better than perfectly obedient servants: children who will allow Him to be their Father.

First chicken, then egg

You are not rightly distinguishing Law and Gospel in the Word of God if you first preach … sanctification and then justification, … or first good works and then grace.

C.F.W. Walther, Law and Gospel, Thesis VII

What do you do?

Sermon on Reformation Sunday, preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on 30 October 2011

Text: Romans 3:19–28
To listen to the sermon, click here.

We live in a world that is obsessed with doing. When forced to talk to new people, most people in Britain will first talk about the weather and, if the conversation needs to take a more profound turn, the next question is bound to be:
“What do you do? ”
What do you do? We like to define ourselves and one another by what we do. I’m a banker, I’m a teacher, I’m a soldier, I’m an accountant. That’s what I am, and that’s who I am.
For some, that can cause a problem. What do you say if you are unemployed and all you “do” is fill in job applications? What do you say if you are a pensioner and don’t officially “do” anything anymore (even though you are just as busy as ever)? What do you say if you are a housewife, a mother at home, and society doesn’t recognise your very busy life as official “doing”, since you are only at home?
But really, it’s a problem for us all. Because the moment we start defining ourselves by what we do, rather than who we are, we cast ourselves at the mercy of our capabilities and our opportunities—at the mercy of the varying circumstances of our life.
In fact, this whole way of thinking is an invention of the devil. He invented it to draw us away from the Triune God, away from dependence on Him, life as His image and in His service, to defining ourselves. “Just do this, and you will be like gods.”
And so all human religion, like much human culture, defines itself by it own activity, by its doing. And from the very beginning, this devilish doing has been creeping into the Christian church, to replace the Gospel. It’s there at the Fall, and throughout the history of God’s Old Covenant people, who are determined to do stuff. It’s in the New Testament, where false apostles are working hard to add things to do to the good news of Jesus Christ. And the history of the church is really the history of a battle against doing trying to take the place of the Gospel. Every heresy, every false doctrine, every false practice, really stems from this intrusion of doing into the body of Christ.
Of course, there is an awful lot of doing in the Gospel. But the question is, who is doing what. And so it is that true Christianity is all about grammar. More specifically, if you want to know what the Gospel is, look at the verbs: who is doing what.
So, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, let’s do just that. Our Epistle reading on this Reformation Festival is that great clarion call of the Gospel from Romans 3: the justification of the sinner.
Up to this point in Romans, Paul has painstakingly demonstrated that all people, whether Gentiles or Jews, are sinners under the wrath of God, whether through ignorance, weakness or just plain rebellion. And then come those two little words that changed the history of the world, and the destiny of everyone who hears them: “But now.”
You were dead in your trespasses and sins. You were labouring to ward off death, to appease the gods, awaiting the crushing judgement of the one God.
But now. Everything has been changed. You are no longer unholy but holy. You are no longer under God’s wrath as an unrighteous sinner but a righteous, justified child of God.
And how has the change come about? Who does what.
Look at the verbs:
“God’s righteousness has been manifested … through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” That’s right; our Bible translation is almost certainly mistaken at this point. God’s righteousness—his holy, unimpeachable character and His holy, unimpeachable conduct towards His creation, has been manifested through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.
“All … are justified by His grace as a gift.” All are made righteous, as a gift—not a reward, not as part of a deal. A gift, His gift.
“Through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood.” Christ Jesus is our ransom and the mercy seat whom God put forward to deal with our sin.
And why did God do this? “To show His righteousness at the present time, so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
Do you see what’s going on here? God is the one who is doing all the doing: the Father sending Jesus, Jesus remaining faithful as the ransom for us. God, God, God. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Doing all the doing.
So what’s left for us to do? What are our verbs?
For starters, there are the verbs with a no attached: “righteousness … apart from the Law.” “What becomes of our boasting? It is excluded.” “By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith.” “One is justified … apart from the works of the Law”.
What then? What are we to do?
Well, we have done more than enough already. There is just one pair of verbs in the whole passage in which we are the doers: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
That is your contribution to your own salvation: you, by your actions, make it necessary for God to send a Saviour. He does the rest.
This is the great doctrine of justification, which the Reformation re-published to a world where it was in danger of being drowned out: that we are set free from our slavery to sin by the Son, and by Him alone. God presented His Son to be the Saviour of all, who by His perfect faithfulness and innocent death ransomed us who were slaves to sin and now presents us to the Father as His innocent, righteous brothers and sisters: righteous because we have been justified, declared righteous and gifted with Christ’s perfect righteousness.
A pure gift. A gift to be received through faith, that is by simple trust in the work of Christ. When you had done your worst, Christ came and did His best. And He asks that you do no more, but simply sit back and receive what He is giving you.
He did this once for all for the whole world on the cross of Calvary, before you were born. He did it for you in the waters of baptism, which was poured on you by another. He does it for you in the word of the Gospel through the voice of another. And He comes to you in the Sacrament, to offer you again fruit of all that He has done for you on the cross.
So when you come to the pearly gates and you are asked, “What did you do? ”, please answer: “Me? Oh, nothing at all. Christ did it all.”