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October 27, 2019
By Rev. Peter Heckert

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation for this Reformation weekend is from our Epistle text, where Paul tells the Romans, “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.” Here ends our text; dear Christian friends …

Have you ever been inside an escape room before? I got to experience one for the first time with our middle-schoolers up at Camp Lutherhaven a few weeks ago, and let me tell you, it’s an interesting ordeal. You and a group of other people are locked in a room with a time limit and an adventurous scenario – think stopping a nuclear launch, bank heist, zombie apocalypse, that sort of thing. Clues are hidden throughout the room, and you and your group have to use them to solve complex, interlocking puzzles to accomplish the task and escape the room. It’s all in good fun, but I will say that there are moments, when the clock is ticking down and your team has hit a wall unable to solve one of the puzzles, that the situation begins to feel … desperate.

Now, it’s easy enough to walk out of an escape room – there aren’t any real consequences if you should fail – but the same cannot be said of situations that often befall us in real life. You can’t walk away from cancer or dementia. You can’t walk away from mounting financial debt. You can’t walk away from the fallout of a house fire. I’m sure we all know people who have been in desperate situations like these – perhaps we’ve been in them ourselves, and know how desperate those times can be – but there is a desperate trait that is absolutely universal to all of humanity: I speak, of course, of sin, and its fruit, death. Our state as fallen, sinful, broken human beings is truly desperate.

Martin Luther knew this intimately. Like many people of his time, Luther agonized over his sins and fretted about his eternal standing before God. Had he remembered to enumerate and confess every single sin in the confessional booth? Had he prayed the “Hail Mary” and the “Our Father” enough times? Had he done all that he could to earn the lily of Christ’s mercy and avoid the sword of His wrath? He didn’t know! And like many people who were thusly vexed at that time, Luther concluded that, by entering a monastery, he would find a place of refuge and reprieve, a place where he could rest assured that salvation was his … boy, was he wrong! The more he prayed, the harder he worked, the more earnestly he mortified his flesh … the more keenly aware he became of his own sinfulness, the more he realized he was falling short in spectacular fashion, and the more he recognized the truly, truly desperate state that he was in.

But things started to change as he began his study of the Scriptures - an opportunity that was not afforded to everyone at that time, by the way. While there was no singular “A-ha” moment for him, Paul’s letter to the Romans proved to be foundational for Luther’s Reformation break-through, and I’d imagine our Epistle text from Romans 3 contributed heavily to that understanding. In the immediate context of our reading, Paul has just finished writing, What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Then we get to today’s reading: 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. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

That’s the truth of God’s Law. Before its perfect requirements and demands, every human mouth is rightly shut and silenced. We are without any excuse for our sinful thoughts, words, and deeds, what we have done and what we have left undone. This is descriptive of every fallen human being that has ever walked this planet or ever will – we are, at our core, unrighteous, and accountable to God for our sin according to His perfect Law. There is literally nothing that we can do, no action or inaction that we can take that is not inherently tainted with the pure evil of sin. When you understand that as Paul did, as Luther did, you start to see rightly how very desperate our situation is, how truly hopeless we are on our own. You can try and try, but it will NEVER be enough. Like Luther, you can join a monastery or a nunnery, pray day and night, whip yourself to within an inch of your life whenever you sin, and you will be no closer to God than you were before. In fact, the harder you try to justify yourself, to save yourself, the further from God you become. “[B]y works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight.” Ours is a desperate, hopeless situation; this is most certainly true!

Thanks be to God for the but (with one “T”) that follows in Paul’s letter! See, the Church was right about this at Luther’s time – sin is deadly serious (probably something we need to reemphasize in our day and age) – but they emphasized what we must do to right the ship instead of what God has already done! Hear how Paul continues in his letter, “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. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and 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. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.”

Do you get how radical this was for Luther to read? He had been indoctrinated in this incredibly vast, complicated, and efficient “salvation machine” that operated out of Rome! He had been sold on the idea that the right prayers, the right pilgrimages, the right relics would result in 1,782,394 years less in purgatory! He’d been taught that the grace of God is the fuel you need to do the good works needed for salvation! That is NOT what Paul speaks of here! We are all sinners, this is true! We are all meritorious of damnation and death and hell, this is true! But it is ALSO true, that we are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation, atonement, satisfaction, by his blood, to be received by faith.

Our situation as sinful humans is, indeed, desperate, but we have a God of love Who was so desperate to be with His creatures once more, that He sent His only-begotten Son to die for our sins– once, for ALL! It is finished, my friends! Your sins are forgiven in Christ Jesus, and no number of prayers or Hail Mary’s can improve your standing! It was declared over you as you were baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus in your baptism! There is no need to work for salvation, and indeed, it is counterproductive to try, as Paul continues by asking, “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.” This is the ultimate legacy of Luther’s Reformation: we are saved from the just consequence of our sins, not by works, but by the grace of God alone, through the faith that He gives us in Christ, and we trust His promise that this is true. This is why we sing that our God is a mighty fortress, a trusty shield and weapon! This is why we proclaim loud and long Verbum Domini Manet in Aeternum, The Word of God Remains Forever! This is our heritage, my friends, a blessed gift from our loving Father in heaven, and a gift to share with all those around us! We are no longer desperate and hopeless; we know the Truth in Christ, and the Truth has set us free!

+ In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.