We are Free to be the Right in a World of Wrongs

Oct 29, 2023

Reformation Sunday
Text: Romans 3:19-28, John 8:31-36
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
     Most of us would be quick to stay that there is a lot wrong in the world – wars in Israel and Ukraine, gun violence in the United States and our own community, costly health care, ineffective government, the impact of climate change … the list could go on and on.
     So, I noted with interest what a British newspaper asked its readers in the early 1900’s. The question was, “What’s wrong wit the world?” Readers sent in their responses and among them was one from a Catholic theologian. He wrote: Dear Sirs: I am.” (1)
     We seldom think of it this way, but the biggest problem in my life is my sin, that is, my having fallen short of the glory of God and my not being able to fix it. At least that would have been the biggest problem in my life had it not been for Jesus.
     Both today’s readings from Romans and from John have vital messages in complicated texts and contexts. So, instead of a detailed analysis, I’m going to attempt a meaningful overview of what has been called the “chief article in all Christian doctrine,” justification by grace through faith.
     Justify may not be a word that is a part of your day-to-day vocabulary. Think of it this way. On your word processor, on the tool bar where it says “paragraph” (at least that’s the case on mine”) there are options to place your text to the left, to the right, to the center or to have it justified. If I click on “justified” it says, “Justified text distributes your text evenly between the margins … it gives your document clean, crisp edges.” In other words, it’s put right, nothing is out of place. So, for a person to be justified means that they too are put right with God; nothing in that person’s life is out of place.
     Remember that Paul is Jewish and is writing to his own people who were all too aware of the need to be justified before God, that their lives were no right in the eyes of an all-seeing and holy God; they did everything to justify themselves. As Pastor John Bombaro noted: “No effort would be spared in trying to get there by keeping the Law. This is the point, they could try but would not get there; never did, never could, never would. It was precisely on this point that Paul made the most profoundly relevant disclosure: “A person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (2)
     Another way to describe justify is as a courtroom term meaning to declare not guilty. It’s when the judge says “not guilty” and slams down the gavel and the handcuffs are released and the door is opened and the prisoner is free…justified. We are declared “not guilty” not because we are not guilty, but because through Jesus, by God’s grace, we are God’s loved and forgiven children. It is not about what we have done or failed to do, but what God has done.
     This is a concept that is difficult for us to grasp. I like the way Pastor Nathan Nass describes it in his Reformation Day sermon. “No one has done enough good to be saved,” he writes. If we disagree with that, he says to imagine that a drunk driver killed your best friend. You go to the courtroom for the trial. Imagine that the defendant stood up to seek justification saying, “Come on; 99 percent of the time I drive sober. I only drive drunk 1 percent of the time. What’s the big deal?” What would you be saying? “Still guilty; 99 percent of the time isn’t good enough!” (3)
     Well, none of us can begin to do God’s will 99 percent of the time, and if we are still guilty at that percentage of doing things right, just think of the level of our guilt at 89 percent, or 69 percent or even 49 percent. We all need God’s grace.
     This Biblical message was Martin Luther’s message, the Reformation message. Because of his awareness of his “sin percentage”, which he deemed to be high, Martin Luther struggled with his belief that he could never be faithful enough to earn or deserve God’s forgiveness. And if he couldn’t, who could? It was his study of scripture, particularly the book of Romans, including today’s text, that stirred a new understanding in him which led him to protest the practices of the church of his day that promoted earning – or even buying - forgiveness. His actions, intended to reform the church, led to the formation of a new church – the Lutherans.
     At the start of the Reformation he wrote a book titled, “The Freedom of the Christian,” with a radical message. In it he proclaimed to his amazed readers, “you are right with God, by faith. You are forgiven of every sin, by faith. You have eternal life, by faith. That means that you are free. Free from sin. Free from guilt. Free from fear. Free from the expectations of others. This is the freedom of the Christian.” (4) And, by the way, Luther later wrote that even faith is a gift of God; it’s not something created by our own efforts, but is given to us, a result of God’s grace.
     Today we are presented with both good news and bad news. The bad news is that we are all captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. We disappoint ourselves. We disappoint each other. We disappoint God. We are captive to greed, pride, fear, apathy, hatred, envy and many other characteristics that rule our lives and negatively impact the world. This is the simple truth and unless we acknowledge it, we will never be truly free.
     But the truth also is that through Jesus we are set free, and as the Gospel of John proclaims, “if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” He died to reconcile us to God, to make us right with God, to justify us by grace as a gift. We are freed from having to get it right, which only overwhelms and discourages us.
     The truth also is that having been set free we can live graciously in a way that transforms us and the world around us. As commentator Judith Jones so eloquently writes, “Believers become disciples by remaining with Jesus, staying in relationship with him, and letting his words and his presence challenge and change us. Jesus is God’s truth incarnate, and he exposes the hatred, the selfishness and the lies that enslave us. He does not merely forgive our sins; he promises to liberate us from them and make us free to follow him instead. …his truth sinks into our very being. He calls us to embody his truth in our lives, so that we walk his way of love in the world.” (5) 
     So it is that what is wrong with the world also is what is right with the world – us. We are free to be what is right in a world of wrongs.   
  1. “Refomation Day Sermon: By Faith” by Nathan Nass, October 25, 2020, www.upsidedownsavior.org
  1. “Epistle: Romans 3:19-28” by John Bombaro, www.1517.org
  2. Same as #2
  3. Same as #2
  4. “Reformation Sunday: Commentary of John 8:31-36” by Judith Jones, www.workingpreacher.org