“Doctrine is Life”. It’s a collection of writings by one of the great Lutheran theologians of the 20th century—Robert Preus. And when I saw the title, “Doctrine is Life”, I kind of chuckled to myself and thought: only in the Missouri Synod could a book with that title have a chance of selling copies to anyone but the author’s family.
All kinds of things may be central to the lives of people today, but very few people—even Christians—would identify doctrine with life. And yet the truth of the matter is that the book is appropriately titled—doctrine is life. Now…
What Dr. Preus mean by “doctrine” is not some theologian’s speculations or some academic exercise. Instead, the doctrine that is life is found in the basic teachings of the Bible that tell us: who we are- and who God is- and how we can have a life with him.
To live a life that is fully human, it is necessary to know the truth about these things—truth that is found: not in a man—not in a group of men—not in a church council or convention—but in the Bible which is the word of life.
And the heart of biblical doctrine is the teaching that we have before us today: the doctrine of justification—that we are declared right in God’s sight by his grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
Such is its importance of justification that the reformers called it “the article upon which the church stands or falls”--the belief that the very life, and continued existence of Christianity, depends upon teaching and confessing and believing this doctrine correctly.
Why is that? Why do we place such importance on correctly teaching justification? It is because this doctrine answers the most important question of our human existence: How can a sinner like me have a life with a holy God?
To know and believe the Bible’s answer to that question is to have eternal life—and to be deceived or ignorant of the Bible’s answer is to be separated from god for time and eternity. The bible says that:
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.
Every single person is born under the righteous demands of God’s holy will. No one is excluded—not those who are too young to realize that they are under the law—not those who have never heard of the Ten Commandments. Every human being is subject to keeping God’s law perfectly so that we are holy as he is holy.
And it does not count in our favor one little bit that we have not done this sin or that sin when it comes to our being right in God’s sight. To have sinned just once-- is to fall under God’s wrath-- and all of the rationalizations and excuses and justifications that we offer for our sins--falls on deaf ears.
Every mouth is stopped and the whole world is held accountable to God by the law and “the wages of sin is death”.
One man who knew the demands of God and the depths of his own sinfulness was Martin Luther, a Roman Catholic monk who lived in the first half of the 1500’s. He was far ahead of most people today when it comes to the things of God because at least the church of his day had not lost sight of the holiness of God.
Luther knew that the Lord was a God of justice and wrath. He knew that he was a sinner. And he knew that a death sentence hung over his head because of it.
Where the Church of his day did go wrong was in telling him that his own works and sacrifices and efforts could appease the wrath of God over his sin and earn him eternal life.
But Luther gave it his best shot as none of us ever have. He joined a monastery and became a priest and gave up his earthly goods and fasted and whipped himself and made a pilgrimage to
and prayed to the saints for help. Rome
And yet, at the end of the day, WHAT Luther discovered about his relationship with God is what Paul tells us plainly in our lesson today—the impossibility of being right in God’s sight by our own efforts. The Bible says that:
By works of the law no human being will be justified in God’s sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
As Luther gave it his very best to live a life that would atone for his sin through good works, what he discovered about himself was that he was not drawing nearer to God at all-- but was seeing ever more clearly the great gulf that separated him from God.
Luther knew the truth about himself that he was sinner deserving God’s wrath. He knew that the answer his church gave to this great human dilemma provided absolutely no hope of satisfying the righteous requirements of God.
And he was led almost to the point of despair until he re-discovered the Good News that changed his life, and reformed the Church, and restored the Gospel to the central place it must have in the church’s teaching and in our lives.
He discovered that what we cannot do for ourselves through the works of the law, God has done for us in his Son. The Bible says that:
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.
As he reflected on his life and as he tried to work his way to heaven, Luther was tormented by the phrase “the righteousness of God” because he knew how far his own life was removed from anything resembling God’s righteousness.
But what Luther re-discovered was that the righteousness of God was not just something that God required of us in the law-- but something he provided for us through faith in his Son Jesus Christ.
And “re-discovered” is the right word because the Good News of salvation through faith in God’s Messiah was not a new doctrine. It’s what the church had always believed, and what the Bible had always taught about the sinful condition of all people revealed in the law-- and the hope of all people found in Christ. The Bible says that:
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,
Paul spends the first three chapters of Romans very carefully proving what he says so simply right here: ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. There are no exclusions and no exceptions.
But that word “all” also means what it says about those who have been justified in God’s sight: “ALL have been justified by his grace as a gift…” What we could never earn for ourselves—a right relationship with God—God gives to us a gift. So how did God accomplish that? Paul tells us the justification of all people came:
through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.
What we could not do for ourselves in gaining a right relationship with God, God has done for us. Jesus Christ was sent into this world by his heavenly Father to offer up the atoning sacrifice which would take away God’s wrath over our sins.
Jesus suffered his Father’s wrath—the wrath that we by our sins have deserved-- and he shed his life’s blood to set us free from sin and death and the power of the devil—and God showed his acceptance of that sacrifice by raising his Son from the dead for our justification.
Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection have once again made things right between God and man but for us to benefit from his atoning work we must believe in him.
This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 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.
What is the “this” that shows God’s righteousness? It is the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross for every sin and every sinner. It is there alone that we can truly come to know God and have a life with God. It is there at the cross that we see just exactly how God regards human sin—as an abomination which deserves his wrath.
But it is also there at the cross that we see the truth about God’s love for us—a love that withholds absolutely nothing from us—not even his own Son.
We see in Jesus Christ crucified for the sins of the world that God is just—that he is holy—that he will not abide with sin—but it is also there at the cross that we see his love for us and the one and only one way for sinful people to have a life with him—and that is through faith in his Son. Paul writes in conclusion:
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.
Faithful Lutherans around the world celebrate this day as Reformation Day—not as a thumb in the eye for the rest of Christendom and not as a day to re-open old wounds between us and other Christians.
We observe this day with a deep humility at the goodness of God that he has still preserved in our midst his saving doctrine that gives life: the Good News that we are justified by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone! Amen.