This passage was strategic for the concerns of the reformers over 450 years ago. How does their understanding of this text speak to us in the latter part of the 20th century?
We all would agree that our generation brings different questions to the Bible today than those brought by Luther and Calvin. There is a need always to contextualize the biblical text, but we must never allow our concern to be relevant to drown the voice of the apostles. Contemporary concerns have shifted the focus of the gospel toward the needs of women and men which is appropriate. But on this Reformation Day, let us be reminded of the theo-centric gospel of the apostle Paul and his grandchildren, that courageous and godly generation of believers in the 16th century.
The gospel message of justification by faith is uniquely set here in these verses in a manner that was thought by the Reformers to be its most clear presentation anywhere in Scripture. Luther said that if Romans is a little New Testament, then Romans 3:21-26 is a little Romans. He maintained that one had to understand these verses correctly in order to comprehend the gospel. These verses present us with words like righteousness, justification, sacrifice, atonement and redemption — all filled with theological content.
Because of the quantity and quality of these thought-filled terms, our tendencies and those of our congregation are to ignore them. But on this day when we celebrate our heritage, it is good to focus on the reformational understanding of this package.
First of all, the Reformers, with Paul, maintained that the gospel is apart from the law. With them, we must recognize that this righteousness revealed in the gospel which God gives to us is apart from law, but nevertheless it has been testified in the law. In the law and the prophets we see over and over the picture of men and women sinning and God pronouncing judgment. This is followed by a sacrifice for sins and a granting of pardon or release. Constantly this picture is presented: sin, judgment, sacrifice, release.
I remember very little about my freshman year at the University of Alabama except that in my first class, Introduction to Psychology, we were introduced to Pavlov’s dog. Through the experiment involving the dog and his eating habits, Pavlov discovered the theory of conditioned response. In a similar way, God, in the Old Testament, by conditioned response was teaching us that sin brings judgment and demands sacrifice; likewise, sacrifice, offered in faith, brings release.
The Reformers constantly stressed the second point of the text: this righteousness comes from God; it is a God-type of righteousness. Our problem is not only that we don’t have enough righteousness but that we have the wrong kind. It is a divine righteousness, that can only be given by God, which is needed.
Recently, it was reported on our TV news that the world Monopoly championship was won by an eleven-year-old boy. He collected all sorts of money, bought real estate, houses and hotels, and owned the significant places on the playing board like Boardwalk and Park Place.
Imagine if that young man took those winnings and attempted to trade them for “real” real estate. He would not have been able to do so; not because he did not have enough money and real estate, but because he had the wrong kind.
So it is with us. We have the wrong quality of righteousness. We have a human righteousness that falls short of the quality of a God-type righteousness. So we have learned that the Reformation understanding of the gospel included these truths: 1) the gospel is apart from law; 2) it is a God-type righteousness given by God to believers.
The strategic third affirmation of the Reformers was that the gospel is for sinners. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. In the previous chapters Paul has maintained that the unbelievers who have rejected natural revelation are sinners. As a result of rejecting natural revelation they stand under the judgment of God.
Then he stressed that moral persons — even those who do moral deeds in the sight of society — are sinners because they have rejected the revelation of conscience. Paul contends that even the most religious person, the one who teaches the oracles of God but does not practice them, stands under the judgment of God.
So the Reformation proclamation, following Paul, is that all (pagan, moral or religious) fall short of the glory of God; everyone is in desperate need of the gospel. The Reformers maintained that we must understand the bad news before we see the need for the good news. And the bad news is that all fall short of the glory of God.
The good news in the Reformation proclamation is that this justifying gospel, which is for sinners, is given freely by God’s grace. What does it mean to be justified? The Reformers rejected the idea of justification as an inner transformation of the person that brings about a new life. Instead they contended that justification is even more than being pardoned; it means that we are clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ and that justification comes to us freely. It is nothing that we can do, but is a declaration from God that we stand righteous and acceptable before Him.
How does this come about? It comes freely to us, but it is costly to God. That is what grace is — God’s unmerited riches at Christ’s great expense. It cost Jesus Christ His life and it says that we are redeemed through the cross.
The Reformation message is that we are separated from God because of our sin; thus we need to be redeemed, reclaimed. Christ purchased us out from our sin with his own life, a price so high that we can never be reclaimed by sin again. Christ has provided redemption so that we might come to God.
The Reformers also, consistent with their God-centered gospel, stressed that Jesus’ death satisfied all the righteous and holy demands of God. God the Father gave God the Son as a sacrifice of atonement, a satisfaction for the holiness of God.
While Luther stressed the idea of redemption, Calvin emphasized the concept of atonement, yet each agreed on the importance of both themes. Their point, commonly misunderstood today, was that only God could provide that sacrifice. It is not some idea of satisfying an angry pagan deity; rather, this sacrifice is motivated from the infinite love of God who sends Himself to take the penalty for the sins of humankind. By this means justice has been done; all that will ever be pardoned were judged and punished in the person of God the Son, and it is on this basis that pardon is now offered to us offenders.
The final point in the Reformation message is that in providing this free gift of salvation, God purposefully demonstrated His justice as well as His grace. In this way God can accept sinners and declare them to be righteous. Thus He can be both just and the justifier.
He can be just in Himself because of the satisfaction of His holiness. He can be the justifier because of what the Lord Jesus has done for us. At the cross of Jesus, God’s love and justice come together and are purposefully demonstrated. God is a just God who must punish sin; He is a gracious God who wants to forgive our sin. At the cross God’s righteousness and His mercy kissed; His retributive justice and His redeeming grace are manifested.
What is the Reformation understanding of justification by faith? It is that all are sinners and must trust in what Jesus has done on the cross of Calvary. By trusting in His death, burial, resurrection and exultation, we come to know that God accepts us. This need of acceptance and belonging is as pressing today as it was in the 1st century or the 16th. This reminder of the Reformers’ proclamation can be a relevant yet God-centered word to our hurting world in need of divine forgiveness, divine righteousness and divine acceptance.
Our hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness
We dare not trust
The sweetest frame
But wholly lean on Jesus name.
On Christ the Solid Rock we stand
All other ground is sinking sand
All other ground is sinking sand.
Soli deo Gloria.

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