The center point of the Christian faith is the answer to this question: “How am I good enough for God?” Put another way, “How can I stand before God in life and death, in time and eternity?” The opposite question that concerns most people, including Christians, is “How do I get through life and make the most out of it, especially among family and friends?” Often we mix both questions together and let the second question answer the first question. It sounds like this: “I am good enough for God when I am kind to everyone, always do the right thing, and am financially secure.”
Holy Scripture has another answer to that question that doesn’t involve being kind, doing the right thing, and financial security. You stand before God justified, declared not guilty of sin, by God’s grace alone, for Christ’s sake, through faith. This one sentence summarizes the Law, the prophets, and the New Testament.
You might know that statement because you’ve heard it countless times. You might even understand it. But do you live it? Does the confidence that sentence gives comfort your soul? You must admit that self-justification still echoes in your conscience. You still think that you have to do something on your own to appease an angry God. That is why you hear, week after week, that Jesus has done everything and you have done nothing for your eternal welfare. That is the message of the Reformation. You are justified before God by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith.
Saint Paul says in Romans chapter three that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. All means you. All means every Jew and Gentile, regardless of whether or not they believe it. You think you don’t sin by deed, but your heart is full of grumbling about your neighbor’s sins. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is still weak, frustrating every good intention and harboring many evil fruits.
You can’t get around the fact that the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law. There is nothing you can do, think, or say that will change God’s mind about how you stand before God. There is no gift you can bring to Him that will make His countenance change. Jesus Christ has already done it on your behalf. Your merit does nothing. Your works do nothing. Jesus’ merit, Jesus saving work, does everything for you.
Grace is often misunderstood by Christians. Grace is not something God gives you so you can do a better job obeying the Ten Commandments. Grace is when a king gives life to a murderer who is condemned to death. Grace is when God, the heavenly King, forgives all guilt and opens Paradise instead of hell to a transgressor who has defied Him all his life, trampled down His Word, and has done only evil to his neighbor and yet comes to the knowledge of his sacrilege in the last hour. If you aren’t pardoned like a criminal, like a poor offender, you will certainly not be justified and saved.
You are justified by grace – for Christ’s sake. Saint Paul says you are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…. It was 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. You know God is just. Often you might think God is just in that He chastises wrongdoers. He tells the Israelites, you shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy. Yet God is just in that He chastises His only-begotten Son on your behalf. God acts in His creation, in the fullness of time, to spare His people from everlasting death.
All of Christ’s life, suffering, and dying was a reflection and image of divine holiness. The Law is fulfilled by Him, just as God wills it. God’s righteousness threatens to punish us for our sin. Instead of punishing us, God punishes His sinless Son, the scapegoat, the sacrificial Lamb. All the horrors, tortures, and torments of this world and the next have joined together on Jesus. The Lord has cast all our sins on Him. This is why Jesus cries out on the cross, it is finished. The chastising righteousness of God is thus satisfied in Jesus.
God has, according to His grace, put forward Christ and His blood, as our text says, to a mercy seat. The mercy seat in the Old Testament temple covered the Ark of the Covenant, covered the tables of the Law that were kept in the ark, covered all sins and transgressions of Israel, in which the Law recalled, before God’s eyes. The mercy seat with the blood of reconciliation, which was sprinkled every year by the high priest, stood in the middle between sinful Israel, who were guilty of the Law, and the holy God, Who sat enthroned on the cherubim.
But all this was prophecy that is fulfilled by Christ. Christ is the true mercy seat. Christ and the precious blood of reconciliation that is shed on the cross stands in the midst of sinners on earth and the holy, righteous God. God regards us through Christ. Now He no longer regards us our own way, our sins, our shame and nakedness, but regards us in Christ’s blood and righteousness. We are now before God’s eyes so pure, beautiful, and innocent, as if we would be Christ. The grace of God has a firm, secure foundation: the blood and merit of the Son of God. We can build and trust on it in life and death.
We are justified by God’s grace, for Christ’s sake – through faith. Saint Paul says the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe, both Jew and Gentile. St. Paul shows in Romans chapter four that even Abraham and David in this way have become righteous and saved before God. The entire New Testament witnesses the righteousness of Christ, the grace of God in Christ. Christ says: This is righteousness, that I go to the Father. Through His going to the Father, through His death, through His blood He has obtained and acquired for sinners true, divine righteousness.
The redemption that happened through Christ Jesus is not simply told or described in the Word of God. Through the Word, through the Gospel, the righteousness that avails before God is also presented to you. In the Gospel, God has presented Christ to sinners as the mercy seat. As often as the Gospel is preached to you, God is present and offers you all grace without distinction, Christ is present and offers you all righteousness without distinction. In the Word, in the Gospel, everything that you need is resolved: grace, righteousness, life, salvation. Every sinner can at any time extract these treasures from the Bible, from preaching.
True faith is hearing the Good News of Jesus Christ and believing that you are pure and free from all sin, guilt, and iniquity through Christ, your Redeemer. You have a gracious God through Christ. When you cling to those words, you have what they say. You have eternal life. You have sonship with God. True faith takes God’s gift and grace, and thanks and prays that gratitude in all sorts of good works. But faith itself and every good thing that comes from faith is a work of the grace of God, the grace of the Holy Spirit.
This is the message you hear every week from this pulpit. It’s a message that is not merely for Reformation Day, for Easter, for Good Friday, or for Christmas. It’s the message that permeates everything a Christian believes: I am saved by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith. Believe it, and as sure as God’s Word is true, you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.