October 26, 2014 A+D
Romans 3:19-28 & St. John 8:31-36
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, that is, apart from the commandments and moral standards which God demands. There are, however, commandments and moral standards which God demands. They have not been abrogated and they also show God’s righteousness. They show His justice and morality. What they do not show is any way that enables us to be righteous or please God. All have sinned and fallen short of God’s righteousness. The righteousness of God shown in the law threatens and accuses those who are unrighteous.
Fortunately for us, the righteousness of God has also been manifested apart from the law. God put Christ Jesus forward as a propitiation. Propitiation means to turn away wrath. It is an atoning sacrifice. The Greek word that St. Paul uses for propitiation is ἱλαστήριον (hilastarion). That is the word for the mercy seat in the Temple. It is what gave the tax-collector boldness and hope to pray and that which sent him home justified. The Father put Christ Jesus forward as that which stands between us and His wrath, that which enables us to come before Him with our prayers and petitions and not be destroyed by His holiness and to return home justified. St. Paul says that this is done by Christ’s Blood, that means that it is done by His Sacrifice, and we receive the benefit of this propitiation, this atonement, by faith. The propitiation by blood is true whether we believe it or not, but believing it causes us to pray and to trust that God is pleased with us for Christ’s sake and to not try to pretend that we aren’t sinners or that our works are good enough.
In this way, by propitiation, through faith, God shows His righteousness apart from the law. It is not a righteousness that demands or accuses anything of us. Instead, it demands and accuses everything of Christ. It is the righteousness that God gives away as a gift. It is called the righteousness of God because it belongs to God and He gives it.
Righteousness shown apart from the law is not a new thing. It was shown apart from the law when God passed over sins, when He spared those who were shielded by the blood of lamb. It was shown when He blamed the scape goat for the sins of the people and banished the goat to die in the wilderness. It was shown when He graciously provided manna in the desert, when He caused the walls of Jericho to collapse, and when He sent down fire on the prophets of Baal. It is not arbitrary or accidental that Samson found honey in a lion’s carcass. That is a figure of the righteousness of God coming out of death apart from the law. The righteousness that God gives to men by grace, through faith, was shown every time that God was gracious, kind, and merciful to sinners, when they drew honey out of dead lions, when the householders brought out new treasures from the storeroom, in either the Old Testament or the New. Sometimes we Lutherans, and St. Paul also, call this righteousness of God, revealed apart from the law, the Gospel. It is the power of God for salvation.
God is just. He is good, moral, and upright. That is the righteousness of the law. It convicts and accuses those who are not good, moral, or upright even if they wish they were. For the righteousness of God in the law is absolute and it cannot tolerate any weakness or failure. God is holy and He hates sin. Yet its purpose was never to improve our behavior or to give us a way to find God. That was what was wrong with the Pharisees. And that is what is wrong with us. Jesus offered them truth and freedom in His Word and they said, “Thank you very much but we are Lutherans. We already have the pure doctrine and the Gospel. And we are Americans. We are already free.”
And Jesus says: “Not if you sin! Not if you stand for the reading of the Gospel and fold your hands but while it is read your mind wanders to lustful daydreams and fantasies of gluttony and greed! Not if you can’t even pray the Lord’s prayer without thinking about other things or tell the truth when you’re asked a simple question but must exaggerate and spin it at every turn! For if you do those things, if you sin, if you love yourself more than your neighbor, then you are a slave to sin – whether you are an American and a Lutheran or not – as surely as the Pharisees were before you and you will not remain in the house forever. You do not meet the demands of God’s righteousness.”
If you are to stop being a slave, you must be set free from your Abrahamic patrimony and Lutheran heritage. You must be liberated from the inheritance of George Washington. You must reduced to this: “On my own, I am slave to sin and a beggar. I cannot save myself. I am corrupt with sin, inside and out, a man of unclean lips of a people of unclean lips. I am not holy. Lord, have mercy.”
And if the Lord has mercy, if the Son takes your place, if He accepts your bondage and punishment on your behalf, if He dies among thieves, if He is condemned and forsaken by the Father, that is, if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed and you will remain in the house forever. Do you believe this? This freedom is received by faith and revealed apart from the law.
Do you believe Jesus when He says: “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin?” Do you believe Him when He says: “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed?” Jesus bestows freedom upon those who believe Him – not upon those who think He is a good person or a role model, not those who believe in Him, but those who believe Him. He bestows freedom upon those who trust Him and His Word. For whoever abides in His Word is truly His disciple. That person will know the truth – not just of God’s holiness revealed through the law but also of His grace revealed apart from the law – and the truth will set him free.
This is the righteousness shown apart the law, the good news that God has propitiated His wrath by the Blood of His Son. God is the justifier, says St. Paul. He is not only just in Himself, but He also justifies sinners. He is the forgiver, the passer-over who visits death upon His first and only-begotten Son instead of us, and He is the way, the truth, and the life. He says you are free. Do you believe Him? He says you are clean. He says you are His beloved. He says no one can snatch you from His hand. Do you believe Him? That is the truth He tells, into which you have been baptized, and which, by grace, you do believe. Through that belief, by faith, you receive the Truth He tells.
There is one other thing about this propitiating Blood which shows the righteousness of God apart from the Law. The Blood of the cross is the Blood of the New Testament, of Holy Communion. It is poured into you to cover and protect your heart and soul from the wrath of God now and forever. Propitiation is not a one-time, past event, accomplished long ago and finished. But it is the on-going love of God for and in His people. He is still protecting and shielding us by grace from His wrath. What the Son offered to the Father on the cross, the Father now offers to His children in the chalice: propitiation, salvation, righteousness by Blood through faith.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.