Pastor O.M. Gullerud
Translated by Paul Madson, 2016
1919 Synod Convention Essay
When I in the following exhortation shall introduce the theme, “A Poor Sinner’s Righteousness Before God,” I will first call attention to this—that I will not make any attempt to give a detailed or complete dissertation on Justification. But I will attempt, in all simplicity, to point out the essentials of what God in the Holy Scriptures teaches us about this important matter.
God’s word teaches that a poor sinner’s justification before God is extremely important, indeed the most important of all Christian teaching. It is the kernel and star of all doctrine. The church either stands or falls with this teaching. This is no empty word. It is not a platitude we employ just because others have used it. It gives expression to an important, solemn, yes—a glorious truth, a truth which we must steadfastly maintain and hold fast. What is the great reason that the good God has given his only begotten Son? For what purpose has he given us his precious word? For what purpose has he established his church here on earth and instituted the preaching office? It is in order that we poor sinners can be saved eternally. And what is it that compels us to do our church work, that we strive and persevere to keep purity and unity of doctrine? What is the reason that we gather in these days around God’s word? The reason is—and should be for us all—that God can be honored and poor immortal souls be saved. This is the chief reason for all our church work, for all the struggle and strife to preserve the truth—this we must not forget. If we forget that this is the purpose, if we lose sight of this purpose and begin to seek our own honor, or in some other manner to work for a reward, then we are on a dangerous, slippery slope. May God by his grace keep us from that.
Also, the chief reason is that God can be honored and poor sinners be saved. But God is rightly honored only when the teaching that a poor sinner is made righteous by grace alone for Christ’s sake is held forth pure and true according to God’s own word, and when we believe this and do not doubt. And only when a poor sinner believes this glorious truth, that he is justified by grace alone for Christ’s sake, can he be saved. God’s word shows us no other way to salvation. “For there is no other name given among men by which we must be saved,” says the apostle Peter (Acts 4,12). Never has man been saved in some other way, and never will any man be saved in some other manner. “I am the way, the truth and the life,” says Jesus, “no one comes to the Father but by me.”
Is it therefore not true that the teaching of a poor sinner being made righteous before God is the central, the most essential, chief point in the Christian faith? Is it then not true—and not just an empty word—that with this teaching the church either stands or falls? We will by God’s grace keep this teaching’s purity and unity. For this we will fight, strive and suffer. But if we are to preserve pure teaching, then we must above all stand guard over this chief article so that the least leaven cannot come in. Because, as Luther says, “Concerning this article Paul says (1 Cor. 5,6; Gal. 5,9) that a little leaven makes the whole dough sour.” And in the same connection Luther says: “Where this one article is kept pure, there also the church remains pure, in harmony and without divisions, but where it is corrupted it is not possible to correctly answer a single erring or enthusiastic spirit.”
We must not only keep this teaching pure, but also continually emphasize it. For the great goal of preaching is the immortal soul’s salvation, and, as we have heard, there is no other way that men can be saved than by faith in this article. Furthermore, it is so very difficult for us to correctly believe and hold fast to this teaching that it is all by grace. Our reason makes constant opposition. We will so readily depend in part upon ourselves, what we ourselves do. We know this teaching, we believe it; still we continually catch ourselves relying on our own works. Let us therefore always continually remind each other of this truth, let it be the chief content of our preaching. And just as we also now remind each other of this truth, so let us from the heart pray that God will richly bless us.
We will gather our thoughts about the following points: 1. No one by the works o f the law can become righteous before God. 2. Christ, as our substitute, has purchased for us a perfect righteousness. 3. This righteousness which Christ has purchased is that which God offers and gives the poor sinner. Therefore we are justified by grace for Christ’s sake. 4. God offers and gives this righteousness through the means of grace, the Word and Sacraments. 5. This righteousness is received and appropriated by faith alone. 6. Thus it follows that man by faith is made righteous before God.
I. No One Can by the Deeds of the Law Become Righteous Before God.
God has given us his holy law. At creation he wrote it in man’s heart, and later he gave it on Mt. Sinai, written on two tablets of stone. Concerning this law the Lord says in the third book of Moses (Leviticus) 18,5: “Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments: which if a man do, he shall live in them: I am the Lord.” And in Romans 10,5 we read: “For Moses describes the righteousness which is of the law, That the man which doeth those things shall live by them.” So those who keep the law perfectly obtain righteousness before God and thus are saved. Jesus therefore could also say to one who asked him what good thing he should do to have eternal life: “If you will enter into life, keep the commandments!” (Matt.19,17).
But what is it that God demands of us in this, his law? What God above all demands of us in this his law, Jesus himself has instructed us. To the lawyer’s question, “Teacher, what is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22,36–39). Consequently, the great commandment in the law, that which above all God demands of us in the commandments, is love—love to God and our neighbor. Love, and that alone, shall move us people to keep the various commandments. And the person who lacks this love has transgressed the whole law, even though he in an outward way has kept every single commandment. “Therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 3,10). “In these two commandments,” love to God and our neighbor, “hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22,40).
The first great commandment also demands of us that we love the Lord our God with our whole heart, soul and mind. That we, as Luther says, love God above all things. Note: Over all things, more than anything else. We shall love him more than money and goods. It means that we would rather lose all that we own, all our goods, than to grieve God with one single sin. We shall love him more than father and mother, brother and sister, friends and children; and it means that we would rather lose these our dear ones than to go against God (Matt. 10,37.38; 19,29; Luke 14,26). We should love Him more than ourself, more than our own life. And it means that we would rather die the most painful death than to commit one single sin against God, even if it was only one single sinful thought.
The second great commandment in the law demands of us that we should love our neighbor as ourself. Note: As ourself. Not in any manner should we love him less than ourself. And by our neighbor is indeed meant all our fellowmen, even our enemies. We should love all as our self. This means that their welfare, temporal and eternal, should lie as much upon our hearts as our own welfare. When it goes well with our neighbor—even our bitterest enemy—then we should be as glad over that as if it had gone well with us. When a sorrow or misfortune hits our neighbor, then it should make us feel just as bad as if we had been struck by misfortune.
So the law demands love to God and our neighbor. And this law shall drive us to comply with the ten commandments outwardly. We shall not, we must not sin against them so much as with a single sinful thought. If we do that, we have transgressed the law, then we are under the curse of the law. This law must also be kept perfectly. God demands it. Every single commandment we must keep perfectly. We must not have even so much as one sinful thought. Because we transgress one single commandment, even if it is only one time and only with one thought, we have thereby transgressed the whole law and are cursed. For thus it is written in James 2,10: “Whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.” Here James is saying that if it were possible for a person to keep the whole law completely perfect, with the exception of a single commandment, he thereby becomes a transgressor of each and every commandment. Yes, if it were possible for a person to keep the whole law perfectly all his life, but only in one instance came to sin against just one commandment, and that only with one sinful thought, he thereby has transgressed the law and has come under its condemnation. For thus it is written in Gal.3,10: “Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.” Also, if a person is to remain righteous before God by the law, then he must keep the whole law perfectly and remain doing so every moment of his life. If a person has in one instance transgressed a single commandment, he has forfeited his reason to obtain righteousness by the law.
What man is there now who will venture to insist that he has kept the law perfectly? Who dares to insist that he has always loved God above all things and his neighbor as himself? Indeed, who dares insist that he in every instance has done what the law demands, that he in every moment has loved God and his neighbor just as God demands? When we examine ourselves, our life, our deeds, our words, our thoughts, and thus mirror ourselves in God’s holy law which demands such perfect love, then we will begin to understand that there is nothing good in us—that everything, even our best works are infected with sin; then we will begin to see “the depths of corruption in me.”
And when we now view the law’s holy demand, view it outside of Christ, see what perfect and perpetual love the law demands, see how impossible it is for us to attain such love, hear God’s threat if we do not attain it, if we do not have such love that we are then condemned—then our heart begins to be filled with hate and bitterness towards God. The law demands love, but it works wrath toward us corrupt people. This is not because the law is evil but because we are evil. Therefore it stands written also in Rom. 4,15: “The law worketh wrath.” Therefore God also expressly says: “By the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3,20). Yes, this is what the law effects—the knowledge of sin. It shows us our sin, our lack of any power to attain righteousness before God, our lost and condemned condition. “Every mouth shall be stopped, and all the world become guilty before God’s judgment.” (Rom. 3,19)
II. Christ Has, As Our Substitute, Acquired for Us a Perfect Righteousness.
Consequently, by the works of the law can no person become justified before God. But “What the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8,3). Jesus, God’s own Son, became man, became one of us, so that as our substitute he could keep the law for us and suffer our punishment. The law which we, on account of our weak flesh, could not keep—but which must be kept if we should be saved—that Christ kept in our place. He was “made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Gal. 4,4.5). Because he was born into the world as our representative, our substitute, he therefore was born under the law—in other words, duty bound to keep the law. Just as we were obligated to keep the law, so was now Jesus obligated to keep it, because he stood as mankind’s substitute.
And he kept the law perfectly. He could say, “Who can convict me of any sin?” He loved God above all things, and he remained that way every moment of his life until death, even the death of the cross. Finally, the Father let the last great suffering come upon him, to have hell’s anguish of soul in Gethsemane, which was so great, so terrible, that his sweat became as drops of blood falling to the ground. The Father permitted him to be scourged, crowned with thorns and nailed to the tree of the cross. Even though he loved God above all things, he knew that this was the cup the Father had poured out for him. He now turned to God in prayer and used the aching, trusting, full of love address: “Father”—“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
He loved mankind as himself, yea, more than himself, because he gave his life unto death for them. He loved even his bitterest enemies, those who inflicted on him this terrible suffering, who blasphemed him and spit in his face, who scourged him and crowned him with thorns, who nailed him to the tree of the cross—he loved these enemies. Not once did a single bitter, hateful thought arise in his pure heart over against these his enemies. No, on the contrary, he loved them also now, thought about them and their eternal welfare, prayed for them.—Truly he kept the law perfectly. He was obedient unto death, yes, the death of the cross! He was pure, sinless, holy and righteous! Why then did he keep the law, the law which he himself had given? It was for mankind whose substitute he was.
Because he was mankind’s substitute he must consequently also suffer punishment for all their sins. And when he lived a life of poverty, contempt, persecution and toil; when he was mocked, blasphemed and spit upon; when he was scourged, crowned with thorns and in a gruesome manner nailed to the cross; yes, when he suffered the anguish of hell in Gethsemane and on Golgotha’s cross—which was his greatest suffering; when Jesus endured this dreadful, heartrending suffering in body and soul, he was suffering the punishment for the sins of mankind. “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed” (Is. 53,5). With this his suffering Jesus has made full atonement for every sin. He has thereby atoned for every sin from the first fall into sin and for every sin yet to be committed till the end of the world. That he thus has atoned for every sin and has kept the law perfectly for them all, Jesus bore witness to when on the cross he said, “It is finished.” It is of extraordinary great significance that we remember and hold fast to this truth, that Jesus has atoned for all sin; because if there was only one single sin for which he had not atoned, we could never be fully assured that all our sins were atoned for.
Hence, that he has atoned for every single sin and perfectly kept the law for all men, it follows that he has brought to completion a full atonement for the whole world, for all men, every single one. And this the Scriptures bear witness to in many places, for example Rom.5,18: “Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life” Rom.8,32: “He spared not his own Son but delivered him up for us all.” I Tim. 2,6: “Jesus Christ gave himself a ransom for all.” This truth, that he by his fulfillment of the law, suffering and death has redeemed all men, we must also remember and maintain as of the greatest significance. Because, if I should doubt this and think that perhaps there was one person he had not redeemed, then I could never be able to get full assurance that I am redeemed. I must then always fear that perhaps I was just the one whom Jesus had not redeemed. I must then always go with a terrible dread and doubt in my heart. But God be praised, Scripture says this so often and sets it forth so clearly that all men, every single one, is redeemed by Jesus’ substitutionary work.
That this substitutionary work of Jesus for all mankind rendered full satisfaction to the Father in heaven he thereby made known by the glorious resurrection of Jesus from the dead. This was the Father’s “yea and amen” to Jesus’ word on the cross, “It is finished.” He “was delivered for our offenses and raised again for out justification.” All the world’s sin was laid on Jesus. Then he was sorely unrighteous before God, because God then regarded him as the one who had committed all the sins in the world. But now he had risen righteous, entirely free from all sin and guilt. Who was it then who arose righteous? Who was it, then, who was declared entirely free from sin and guilt? It was the world—all mankind, because it was for all men that Jesus was the substitute. Therefore it stands that he was raised for our justification. When the Father so gloriously raised Jesus from the dead, he thereby declared that all the world’s sin was fully atoned for, that all the debt of sin was paid, that he had nothing more to demand. He declared that now a full righteousness had been procured for the whole world, for every single person.
III. This Righteousness Which Christ Has Procured Is What God Offers and Gives to the Poor Sinner. We Thus Are Justified by Grace, for Christ’s Sake.
In Rom. 5,18.19 we read: “Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation, even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.” And in Rom. 3,24: “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” In 2 Cor. 5,14: “Because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead, and that he died for all.”
From this and other places we learn that a poor sinner’s justification before God consists in this, that God offers and gives—imputes—to him the righteousness which Christ acquired by his fulfilling the law, suffering and death. God judges that when Christ was perfectly holy, kept the law perfectly, was obedient unto death, that this was as though we were perfectly holy, as though we had kept the law perfectly, as though we were obedient unto death. God judges that when Christ suffered and died for the world’s sin, that was as though we suffered and died for sin. Because, “If one died for all, then were all dead”(2 Cor. 5,15). God judges that when Christ arose righteous, free from all sin and guilt, so that he did not have anything more to demand, that was as though we were righteous, as though we were free from all sin.
Here we note first of all that justification is a judicial act of God. God judges that Christ’s righteousness is our righteousness. It is God who acts, not man. “God is the one who justifies.” And this act of God does not consist in this, that he instills righteousness in men’s hearts. Here no change takes place in men’s hearts as it does in regeneration. Even if justification and regeneration happen at the same time and stand in close connection with sanctification, it is nevertheless of the greatest significance that we do not confuse these as so many false teaching religious groups do. If we confuse justification, regeneration and sanctification, we hinder men from coming to the saving faith, to receive peace with God and certainty of their salvation.
According to God’s Word it is namely the righteous who have peace with God (Rom. 5,1). It is the righteous who get to come into heaven, because only the righteous are pure before God, and nothing unrighteous gets to come into God’s holy heaven (Rev. 21,27). It is therefore only when we can be certain that we are completely righteous that we can then be certain of our salvation. And we can be certain that we are completely righteous only when we distinguish between justification, regeneration and sanctification.
In justification there are no degrees as in sanctification. When God judges a person to be righteous, then he is completely righteous, entirely pure and holy, without spot or wrinkle, or any such thing; he stands before God as if he had never sinned, had never transgressed a single commandment of God. All men who are justified are therefore equally righteous, because they are all completely righteous before God. Oh, how can we fully thank God for such grace! Since we are completely righteous before God we must be well pleasing to him, then we can come into his holy heaven. Because we know that in Christ we have a complete righteousness, therefore we can have this glorious certainty of our salvation. But if we should confuse justification with sanctification, which always remains incomplete—then we can never have peace with God and certainty of our salvation.
Man is of such a nature that he cannot produce one single good work. All his works, even the very best, are tainted with sin. Yes, all that he does, even such works as seem good, are nothing but sin before God; for he says in his Word that “All that does not come from faith is sin.” If therefore God should look for works in a person, even if it was only one single work, then no one would be justified. But God be praised, he does not look for works; he justifies the undeserving solely and alone by grace for Christ’s sake. He sees nothing good about or within man; he sees nothing other than sin and wickedness. Nevertheless, he justifies the undeserving one—by grace, for Jesus’ sake! Everything that is called a work, all that we ourselves do, either by our own natural power or power given by God, is entirely and absolutely excluded. Not once does our remorse, our penitence, our prayers enter into consideration here. No, not even does faith, except that it is by faith alone we receive the gift. (F.C., S.D., III 7,8,13,) Doubtless, repentance goes before being made righteous, and good works follow after as a fruit, but when we talk about ourselves being made righteous, these must entirely and absolutely be excluded. (F.C. Ep. III,8)
The question about how we poor sinners are justified before God is indeed the same as the question about how shall we be saved. And when we think about our salvation, asking what we should do to be saved, then we are so inclined to look into our own hearts to find the answer instead of looking away from ourselves and to God alone. When we do not find anything good there, not any right love either to God or our fellow man, not once any remorse or penitence but only sin and wickedness; and when we, trusting in our good intentions, again and again sin against God, when we see that we lack any power to do anything good, then comes the need—great spiritual need, yes, sometimes near to despair. We first have pleasure in our hearts, we first have peace and happiness there, when we receive grace to hold fast to the glorious truth that God justifies by grace alone without any merit of ours; that he does not look at our remorse, our penitence, our love or any other work of ours, but only to his love and Christ’s merit. The reform church and others who teach falsely on this point, also say that we are justified by grace alone for Christ’s sake, but in the next breath they mention the remorse, the contrition, prayer and penitence as conditions—and that is not by grace alone.
But then does not God’s Word teach that we must confess our sins, repent of them and pray for forgiveness? Yes, most certainly. But this is not some condition which God looks for so that he justifies us when he first finds this in us. Acknowledgement of sin is something God must work in us so that we get to see our own need and misery, our lost and condemned condition; so that we get to see we need this undeserved gift, so that we do not despise it and thrust if from us when it is offered to us, but instead begin to pray to receive it and accept it.
Oh what a great, glorious and blessed comfort for the alarmed sinner, for the searching soul, is this truth that God justifies us by grace alone for Christ’s sake, so that justification is not dependent on something in us, no, not one remorse and penance! This great comfort is for the terror stricken sinner, the salvation seeking soul, not for the secure sinner. To these latter we say that they serve Satan and are eternally lost, if they do not repent. But when a person has learned to see and recognize his need, his lost and condemned condition; when a person in this need turns to Jesus, hungers and thirsts after his righteousness, then he has the necessary contrition, because he has begun to hunger for grace and prays for grace like the publican in the temple. And of such who hunger and thirst after righteousness Jesus says that they are blessed, because they shall be filled. And of the publican who beat his breast and prayed for grace Jesus says, “This one went home to his house justified.”
There are those, no doubt, who think that it is dangerous to hold forth this full truth that God justifies men solely and alone by grace, without looking for something in man—not one remorse and penance—since many will use this for fleshly security. It doubtless is true that many misuse this truth, as well as other truths of God’s Word, to their own destruction. But should we therefore suppress the truth? Should we think to hide that which God has not hidden from us? Should we think to hide that truth which is the only thing that can give an alarmed sinner peace, comfort, and hope? Yes, this is the truth which has power to save his soul. This truth is indeed the Gospel, the joyful tidings; and God has commanded us to go out into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. No, we will not suppress it, but we will hold it forth now and continually.First and foremost it is because this truth saves and, next, because this truth alone gives us power to forsake sin and live a life after God’s will- which we shall hear more about later.
IV. God Offers and Gives This Righteousness Through the Means of Grace, the Word and Sacraments.
God does not come to us in visible form in order to offer and give us this great gift of righteousness, life and salvation. He does not talk to us face to face, such as he did with his servant Moses. Nor does he send an angel down to us in order to communicate the gift to us. Neither does he send someone from the dead back to the world, such as the rich man in hell requested, and which he thought was necessary. Nor does God work upon us immediately with his spirit, as some enthusiasts dream about. No, God has given us his Word, law and gospel; he lives in this his Word, he works through this his Word, by this his Word he gives us forgiveness of sins, righteousness, life and salvation. Thus his Word is not merely a historical account, but it is a living Word, because God lives in the Word and works through it. The words which I speak, says Jesus, are spirit and life. The gospel is “the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1,16).
“The word of the cross—is the power of God” (I Cor. 1,18). “The word—is able to save your soul” (James 1,21). By this his Word, by his holy law, he brings us to recognize our sin, our lost and condemned condition. By this his Word, by the saving gospel, he tells us not only about salvation in Jesus but gives us a full forgiveness in him, gives us a complete righteousness, and thereby life and salvation. Yes, by this same gospel he gives us power to receive this glorious gift. He, therefore, who will learn to know his true condition, who will gladly receive this glorious gift which Jesus has acquired for us, he will go to God’s Word. There, and there alone, is God with his grace and gifts (Rom. 10,6-8). Certainly God works also in the sacraments, but the sacraments are connected with the Word, and without the Word they would not be sacraments. The sacraments are also called the visible word.
And in order that this saving word can be preached to people and the glorious sacraments be administered, God has established the holy ministry. He has sent out his servants in order to preach freedom for the prisoners, to open the prisons for those who are bound. Jesus’ last word and command to his disciples was this: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.”
As often as this dear word ofGod is preached,—as often as these most worthy sacraments are administered, God offers and gives the hearers these great gifts, forgiveness of sins, righteousness, life and salvation. Forgiveness of sins, and therewith the gift of righteousness, is offered and given to all who hear the Word,—to all without exception. The forgiveness of sins is offered and given indeed as a free gift, by grace alone—to all who hear the Word, because with God there is no respecting of persons. God offers and gives this gift through the Word without any conditions whatsoever, neither acknowledgement of sin nor remorse or penance or any such thing, because otherwise it would not be by grace alone. Yes, God offers and gives this gift through the means of grace without even questioning the faith of the person. It is not faith that produces the gift or moves God to give us the gift; no, the gift is there already, before faith arises, because otherwise there would be nothing to believe. If I am to believe that my sins are forgiven, then the gift of the forgiveness of sins must already be there. If I am to believe that I for Jesus’ sake am completely righteous before God, then this complete righteousness must already be given me. Thus it is certain and true, that as often as the gospel is preached God offers and gives a full forgiveness to all who hear the Word. Therefore Luther also says: “A preacher can not open his mouth without pronouncing the absolution.”
The proclamation of God’s Word is also an absolution; the forgiveness of sins is given and distributed to all who hear the Word. To be sure, there are many hearers who do not believe the word about the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ blood, and therefore the gift is not theirs, because faith is the only hand whereby the gift can be received. But if they do not believe, it nevertheless is still true that the gift was given to them, the gift was there for them, but they would not take it. That many reject the gift by not believing treats God’s trustworthiness as if it were nothing, as it is written in Romans 3,3: “For what if some did not believe? Shall their unbelief make the faith ofGod without effect? God forbid!” And 2 Tim. 2,13: “If we believe not, yet he abideth faithful; he cannot deny himself.” And because the gift is there for all who hear the Word, for all who receive private absolution, for all who enjoy the sacraments, it therefore also remains such a great heaven—robbing sin to disdain and reject the gift by unbelief. Therefore unbelief remains the only sin which now condemns, as Jesus also teaches us in John 16,9.
Oh let us watch out for the dangerous assertion that the gospel and absolution are powerful only for the penitent and believers. Because of the assertion that the gospel and absolution are not powerful with the impenitent, there follows the most dreadful conclusion: By this Christ’s perfect merit, also the world’s redemption and reconciliation, are denied, because faith must always be viewed as a work which still must come before there can be any forgiveness given in the gospel. Next, it then follows that Christ’s merit is not perfect. So it is also important that we remember and fold fast to the truth that the gifts of grace God gives us he gives unconditionally. “For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance” (Rom. 11,29). Then there is, for example, one who is baptized, who by this means of grace has received forever the forgiveness of sins, deliverance from death and the devil, and given eternal life. Unfortunately, it happens that such a one may for many years go away and live in sin and shame, the whole time trampling God’s precious blessings under his feet—and yet the gifts remain for him. Therefore he can at any moment turn back to his baptism and, without committing thievery, grasp and use those good things which he so long has disdained and refused.
And when it is true that God gives the gift of righteousness to all who hear his Word or use the sacraments, and that the gift he gives he gives forever, how infinitely great and incomprehensible are the blessings which God lets the land and people share, for whom he lets his Word be preached and his sacraments administered. Oh what a blessing for the man, the woman, who has heard the Word, even if it was only for one time, because the forgiveness of sins, righteousness, life and salvation are there in truth offered to him. The gift is his forever. If he then for a time rejects it by unbelief and treads it under foot, he nevertheless can at any time whatsoever take the gift to himself, if God gives him the grace to believe. To be sure, the grace which has been with him till then also remains with him till judgment, if he continues to oppose the Holy Ghost, continues to reject the gift and push it away.
V. This Righteousness Is Received and Appropriated by Faith Alone.
In Romans 3,28 we read: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” Eph. 2,8: “For by grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.” Rom. 4,16: “Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace.” From these and other places we learn that if the gift of righteousness is to become our personal possession so that we receive its benefit and blessing, then we must believe. We must believe, not because faith is such an excellent work that God for the work’s sake gives us righteousness, because, as we have heard, it is given whether we believe or not. But faith is necessary because it is the only hand that can receive the gift. (FC, LC 3,3).It is also stated in the Augsburg Confession, Apology 2,17: “Faith saves not because it is in and of itself a meritorious work, but only because it receives the promised mercy.” And when it is stated in Rom. 4,16: “Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace,” we learn from this that faith should not be viewed as some good work which, in whatever manner, brings it about that we receive the inheritance. For it says precisely, “therefore is the inheritance of faith, that it might be by grace.” It would also be absurd to say that faith, in whatever manner, brings it about that we receive forgiveness of sins, because that would be the same as saying that God gives us sinners forgiveness because we accept it. If there is to be something to accept, then the gift must already be there.
The saving faith consists not only in a historic knowledge about the saving truth; it consists not only in this that we have knowledge about Jesus and what he has done for the world’s salvation and we believe that this is true; but it consists in this, that we believe in him as our Savior; it consists in this that we, each for himself personally trusts only what Jesus has done for our rescue and salvation, so that we know nothing for salvation except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. Such a faith presupposes a living recognition of sin. If I truly believe in Jesus as the sinner’s Savior, if I am to believe in the forgiveness of my sins in his name, then I must confess that I am a sinner, that I have transgressed God’s holy law. If I shall put my trust only in what he has done for my rescue and salvation, and not at all in the poor works I myself have done, then I must first have learned to acknowledge my own miserable, helpless condition. If I am to be able to go to Jesus and cling to him as my Savior, then I must have learned to see my need and that I demand such a Savior. As Jesus himself says: “They that are whole need not a physician, but they that are sick” (Matt. 9,12).
We cannot give ourselves this faith. No, not once do we contribute the slightest effort toward it. Just as justification is a free unearned gift from God, so is also the faith with which we receive this gift itself from God. This we confess also in the third article: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him. But it is the work of the Holy Ghost.” As soon as a person comes to this living faith, he is regenerated, born anew, awakened from spiritual death. To the question in our Explanation “What is regeneration or the new birth?” the answer is given, “The same as the impartation of a living faith or awakening from a spiritual death, conversion and translation from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to God.” The impartation of faith is also awakening from spiritual death. By nature a person is spiritually dead, dead in trespasses and sin (Eph. 2,1 & 5,14; Col. 2,13). Just as little as one who is physically dead can awaken himself, give himself life or cooperate in the least—so also as little can one who is spiritually dead awaken himself, give himself faith or cooperate in the least.
When Jesus wakened Lazarus from the dead, he who had lain in the grave for four days and whose body had begun to decay—who would dare claim that Lazarus somehow cooperated towards his resuscitation! But just as certain as Lazarus was really physically dead, so certain is it that all men by nature are in truth spiritually dead; because God who himself is truth, who cannot lie and deceive, has said this. Therefore, when these are awakened from spiritual death, when faith is created in their hearts, that is a work which God alone can perform. A person can not in any way whatsoever cooperate in the least, whether it be with his remorse, his penitence, his prayers, his good conduct, or any other thing. Therefore a person cannot of himself truly want to believe, cannot want to be born anew. The “wanting” is a work of God in man, as we read in Philippians 2,13: “For it is God which works in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.”
And just as it is God alone who from first to last creates faith in people’s hearts, so also it is he alone who preserves and upholds faith. As we confess in the third article: “Just as he also calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian church and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.” Furthermore, just as it is through the means of grace that God offers and gives the gift of righteousness, so also it is through these same means of grace that God creates and maintains faith in people’s hearts (A.C. Art. 5).
The saving faith is not always and in everyone equally strong. At times it is very weak, yes, so weak that one hardly dares appropriate God’s grace to himself. The alarmed and distressed sinner’s faith can at times be so weak that he is worried he does not believe, and thus he comes in great need and anxiety. It then is of the greatest importance for him to hold fast to the truth that it is God alone who works faith, that man can not cooperate in the least; no, not once can he seriously want faith, not once can he long for Christ’s righteousness. And why is it of such great importance to remember this during such need and anxiety? Because he inwardly would like to believe, as shown by such an alarmed soul. It is his deepest wish, his innermost desire to be a partaker of Christ and his righteousness -that he knows. He remembers that God does everything, even the wanting to believe, even the longing to partake ofChrist’s righteousness. He knows also that it is God who works this in him. God has begun his good work in him, and what he has begun he will bring to completion (Phil. 1,6). He is no longer spiritually dead, God has already given him spiritual life; otherwise he could not want to believe. To want to believe, as the fathers have said, is to believe.
Weak faith, when it is true and sincere, saves just as certainly as that which is strong, because the weak faith takes hold of the gift just as certainly as well as the strong faith. Whether a gift is received by a child’s weak hand or a giant’s strong hand, it makes no difference. The gift remains for everyone who receives it and to whomever it comes. But a weak faith can thus be easily lost, just because it is weak. So it then does not bear as many and great fruits as a stronger faith. Therefore we should not be satisfied with a weak faith, but with a diligent and right use of the means of grace let God strengthen faith. And who of us is there who does not need strengthening of our faith! Who of us is there who does not need to pray with the apostles: “Lord, increase our faith!” (Luke 17,5)
VI. The Consequences of a Person Becoming Righteous before God.
When a poor sinner by faith has received a full righteousness before God, so that he stands before God as though he had never sinned—stands before God holy, pure, without blemish—what are the fruits and consequences of that? Oh, there are great, glorious, blessed consequences!
He now has peace with God, as it says in Rom. 5,1: “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” O what a blessed consequence: peace with God! God is no longer angry with such a one. God is no longer his enemy who stands against him and threatens him with death and condemnation. No, on the contrary. Because he now sees him in Christ as completely pure and holy, he has accepted him as his own beloved child and made him his heir. Think of it!He has become a child of God, and God the Father’s heir! Who can fully comprehend how great, how splendid, how glorious this is! No, the blessedness and glory which lies therein, that we become God’s children and heirs of heaven, is surely so great that it surpasses all we poor humans can imagine or understand. Therefore the apostle John exclaims: “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God!” Then he continues: “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be; but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (I John 3,1.2).
God has not promised that those who are made righteous shall have peace in the world. On the contrary, he has said that in the world they shall have affliction, be persecuted even as he was persecuted, that here in the world they shall become the object for much strife, conflict and struggle. Neither has he promised that we always shall feel that we have peace with God. At times under temptation and distress we can feel quite the opposite. But at other times, when God finds it useful for us, he lets us also feel some of this glorious, blessed peace. Furthermore, a consequence of our having been justified is this, that we now serve God in holiness and righteousness all our life’s days. Rom. 6,18: “Being then made free from sin, you become the servants of righteousness.” v. 22: “But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, you have your fruits onto holiness.”
Also, as soon as one by faith in Christ has put on his righteousness, is pure and holy before God, free from the law’s coercion and condemnation, then—and not until then—does his sanctification begin; then he begins to live a holy life; then he begins to keep the law. Far from abolishing the law, by faith we establish it (Rom. 3,31). As we have heard, so crave the law of love first and foremost. Love is the great commandment in the law. But the law is not able to give us this love; on the contrary, it works wrath with us when it stands and threatens us with eternal perdition if we do not perfectly comply with its demands—which no man can do. When we first receive grace to believe that in Christ we are free from the law’s coercion and condemnation, entirely free from sin’s guilt and punishment, are pure and holy before God, then love is created in our hearts, then we love God because he has first loved us. Then we also begin to do what the law demands—we begin to love God and our neighbor. Now it becomes our desire to do God’s will, yes, now we will willingly devote our whole life to his service. Now we begin to say with the hymn writer: “You, O Jesus, are my desire and my glory, you in life and you in death; therefore I will strive to walk in your footsteps, finding the time of conflict to be sweet.”
The Christian also serves God when he keeps his commandments. This is a fruit of faith. But this his godly service, this his sanctification, always remains imperfect. With sorrow he must exclaim with Paul: “The good that I would I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do” (Rom. 7,9). Furthermore, this that he so often sins against the dear God makes him so inwardly evil, that he prays daily for forgiveness for these sins, prays for more strength to live a better life. Yet he has the great and glorious comfort that though he struggles with these many sins which still trouble him, he nevertheless in Christ has a perfect righteousness; for despite these many sins he still stands before God as though he had never sinned.
In recognition that he in Christ is perfectly righteous, despite that so many sins still cling to him, he then lauds and thanks and praises God “with heart and hands and voice.” He begins here in the world to hum the song which the blessed sing up yonder before the throne: “Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb” (Rev. 7,10). Yes, he has the blessed and glorious hope that he also one day shall be among that great number which no one can tell, who are clothed in long white garments, who stand before the throne and praise God. This is the believers’ hope. They rejoice in hope of the glory of God (Rom. 5,2). This glory which they hope to attain is an exceedingly great glory. It is a glory so great that it surpasses all that we poor humans have seen or heard or even imagined, because it is what no eye has seen and no ear has heard, and which has never entered into any man’s heart (I Cor. 2,9).
When Christians become the object of cross and affliction, of hatred and persecution, need and sorrow; when hands begin to hang down, and courage fails; then they get renewed courage and strength when they think about the hope of glory with God. And this hope shall not make them ashamed (Rom. 5,5).They shall attain the goal of their faith, their soul’s salvation (I Pet. 1,9). When they remain faithful unto death, they shall receive the crown o f life (Rev. 2,10). Then it shall be easy to forget what we suffered here in this world. God be thanked for his inexpressible grace! Amen, in Jesus’ name.