Vespers, the week of Epiphany 1
Romans 3:23-31 + Matthew 3:13-17
I know it’s been a few weeks since we last met to consider the first three articles of the Augsburg Confession. But the timing of the Church Year will help to refresh our memories. Two days ago, January 13th, was the day for observing the Baptism of Our Lord, which is why that Gospel was read this evening. There in Jesus’ baptism we see the first three articles of the Augsburg Confession combine.
The first article, on God, Father Son and Holy Spirit, is held before our eyes as Jesus steps into the Jordan River, the Holy Spirit descends on Him like a dove and God the Father spoke, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Three Persons. One God. That’s Article 1.
At the same time, we hear even the great prophet John the Baptist confess, “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?” John needed to be baptized by Jesus because John was a sinner, as are all people who are naturally born. We are born with original sin, not original righteousness, and therefore, as we confess in Article 2 or the Augsburg Confession, we cannot be justified or declared righteous before God by our own strength or reason, because we’re born already lost sinners.
But there He stood, the Son of God, the Righteous One who didn’t need to be baptized because He was not naturally born, but virgin-born. There He stood, the Son of God, true God and true Man, standing in the sinner’s place, taking up the sinner’s load of sin so that He might bear it and make atonement for it by His innocent death on the cross. The Son of God is the theme of the Augsburg Confession, Article 3.
Now we come tonight to the pinnacle of the Augsburg Confession, even though it’s fairly early among the 28 articles. Still, it’s the pinnacle, because all the others point to it as the goal and purpose. Article IV: On Justification.
Our churches teach that people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works. People are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. By His death, Christ made satisfaction for our sins. God counts this faith for righteousness in His sight (Romans 3 and 4).
It’s short, because the truth of the Gospel is really very simple. First, we have the problem of sin. As we’ve seen, as St. Paul demonstrates so definitively in Romans chapters 1, 2 and the first part of 3, no one can be justified before God by works of the Law. Rather, through the Law we become conscious of sin. As we saw in the article on original sin, all people already stand condemned under God’s holy Law. There is no question of guilty or not guilty. All are guilty.
Now, among us sinners, we have this concept of “making up for” things. You say something hurtful, you make up for it by saying you’re sorry and then something extra nice. You do something hurtful, you make up for it by saying you’re sorry and fixing what you broke or mending what you hurt. But with God, there is no such thing as you, the sinner, “making up for” what you did wrong. It never works with God. You can say you’re sorry a thousand times, or try to do a thousand good deeds to make up for every one bad deed. It doesn’t work. You can’t be sorry enough, you can’t pray hard enough to fix it, to be counted righteous before God, to be justified before God.
People cannot be justified before God by their own strength. No one is strong enough to keep God’s Law. People cannot be justified before God by their own merits. “Merits” are the worthy deeds you do that earn good things from God. But sinners are incapable of doing worthy deeds that earn God’s favor or forgiveness. People cannot be justified before God by their own works. There’s no climbing that ladder back up into God’s favor. We confess, according to Scripture, that it cannot be done. God’s Law demands that sinners be treated like sinners, and that righteous people be rewarded for being righteous people.
The only way for sinners to be treated like non-sinners, the only way for sinners to receive the rewards of righteous people, in God’s divine courtroom, is for our sins to be punished in Someone Else. And for Someone Else’s righteousness and obedience to be counted as our own.
There He stands, in Jordan’s streams. The Righteous One, standing in the dirty water of the Jordan, so that dirty sinners can be washed clean. Because He won’t stay there, standing in the water. He’ll go forth in righteousness, with His Father’s approval and the Holy Spirit’s power. He’ll go forth, in perfect love toward God and in perfect love toward His neighbor. He’ll go forth from the Jordan and He’ll take our sins with Him. He’ll take them to the cross and be punished for them.
By His death, Christ made satisfaction for our sins. “Made satisfaction.” “Did enough.” “Made up for.” He was strong enough to keep God’s Law for us. He had enough merits to earn God’s favor for all sinners. He did enough works to earn forgiveness for us, and every good thing God has to give—life, salvation, adoption as God’s children, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and an inheritance in heaven.
Christ and His earnings are the treasure. Now, His righteousness, His earnings must be applied to sinners if we are to be justified before God. How does that happen? By Faith.
People are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. God has promised to receive sinners into His favor for Christ’s sake. God has promised to forgive sins for Christ’s sake. When a sinner believes that promise of God, when a sinner believes in Jesus for righteousness and forgiveness and salvation, that’s when a sinner is justified, forgiven, and saved.
But how can a sinner be absolved and acquitted by God? Your faith doesn’t make up for your sins. Faith is not your strength twisting God’s arm to receive you into His favor. Faith is not your merit earning God’s favor or our salvation. Faith is not your work that you perform in obedience to God’s Law. No, Christ made up for your sins. Christ earned God’s favor. And faith lays hold of Christ
Faith is that gift of God with which a poor sinner, standing under the righteous condemnation of God’s law, flees to Christ for refuge, trusting that He will shelter us from wrath, He will save us from death, He will cover us with His righteousness, as He has promised to do. Faith clings to Christ.
And here is God’s gift of grace: God counts this faith for righteousness, as it says in Romans 3 and 4. We even read those words tonight from Romans 3. God has determined to cover the one who believes in Jesus with the righteousness of Jesus. That’s the only way a holy God can and does pronounces sinners righteous. And that is what we celebrate as Christians, that God, in His mercy, chose to send His Son for sinners, and that God has chosen to justify sinners by faith alone in Christ Jesus. That’s what we confess in the 4th Article of the Augsburg Confession. Amen.