Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Creston, Iowa;
But 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. For 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, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. 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. 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. (Romans 3:21-28, ESV)
“Green Stamp Theology”, Thanks to Rev. John Standley
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
A friend of mine pointed out that this text sounds like its talking about Green Stamps. Do you remember Green Stamps? Back there in the 60’s and 70’s lots of stores gave them out. How about around here? Did stores in Creston give out Green Stamps? You know how they worked you’d buy something and the store would give you some free stamps based on how much you spent. If it was a small amount you’d just get a few stamps, but if you bought a TV or a piece of furniture the clerk would keep turning and turning that machine until the string of stamps was as long as you are tall. Green Stamps were fun stuff, cause they were free. You’d roll up your stamps and take them home and put them in a special place until you thought you had enough to redeem.
One activity that was common for Green Stamp families was to gather together at the table and fill those Stamp books. Lick and Stick. Some folks used a sponge, some used the purest method, there’s nothing like the flavor of Green Stamp Glue. Then, when you have your books all full, you take them all to the redemption center and pick up your treasure—for free!
Believe it or not Green Stamps are still around! I found a web sight http://www.greenpoints.com. You get a card that you present to the sales clerk and they add your points to it. Well it just isn’t quite the same, now is it? There’s something about that lick and stick, that’s a part of our history.
Well, today’s text is kind of like Green Stamps. St. Paul tells the Roman church and us about our free gift from God. He tells us about our salvation. God freely gives us the gift of eternal life won by the shedding of the precious blood of Jesus Christ. This gift is completely free, by God’s grace that is, God’s undeserved love for us. It has nothing to do with anything we would do. We can’t earn it. We can’t buy it. We can’t bribe God to give it to us. It is ours only through faith in what Jesus has done, as Martin Luther emphasizes, “for me.” That’s the key of faith. Believing that what Jesus has done, His life, death and resurrection, was for me… for you.
What we are talking about here is Justification. That’s a ten dollar theological word that means “how you get right with God” or “how you get saved.” What’s important to know is that “getting right with God” or justification is the heart and center of our faith. It’s so important that we say our faith stands or falls on this very idea. Luther said that where this point is kept clear and at the center the church remains without error, where this point is misunderstood it becomes impossible to keep errors out of the church. You actually don’t have to look very far to see this idea working the way Luther says. Churches that get sidetracked all the time on social issues, on political issues, on community connections and set aside the work of Jesus on the cross for the sake of helping people, or changing society, and end up with no foundation in Jesus anymore at all.
Well, St. Paul talks about justification in this text. So, today we’re going to look at it too. We’ll look at three questions: First, why do we need to be made right with God? Second, where does this “right-ness” come from? And finally, how do we receive it?
Why do we need to be made right with God?
The answer to the question is in the text at verse 23. all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23, ESV). The key to this passage is that little word “all.” There’s no way St. Paul doesn’t mean “all” when he uses the word “all” here. All means all those liars and cheats out there. All means all those drunkards out there. All means all those who cheat on their wives and husbands. All means all those who cheat on their taxes. All means all. Even here in out little community we’ve got all these things going on. It’s like living in Sodom and Gomorra again. The problem started way back with the first humans. At first Adam and Eve had a perfect relationship with God. That means that everything God wanted them to do, they did, and everything God didn’t want them to do they didn’t do. They loved God with their whole heart and soul and mind. They walked with God. They talked with God. He provided them with everything they needed and they trusted Him to do it. When they sinned they destroyed all that. The first sin was not wanting God to be God, that is trusting Him for everything. They wanted to do that for themselves. They wanted to be God. It broke everything. Now they didn’t walk with God. They didn’t talk with God and more importantly they didn’t love God anymore. In fact, God became their enemy. They had sin and God can’t tolerate sin. He is perfect and holy, so he must destroy sin. Being God’s enemy shows up in all that cheating, lying, stealing, and killing, but under it all is hating God for being God. We might try to do good stuff to fix it. But without a proper relationship with God, the things we do are just an insult to Him. Think of it this way. A friend has a gift to give you. He brings it to you and wants you to take it. “No,” you say. “I don’t want your gift. Instead I want to buy it from you.” With God the Green Stamps we want to buy God’s favor with is just a pile of manure.
There was a nationwide survey asking the question: Can a good person earn their way to heaven? “Yes” answered by 22% of members of the Assembly of God; 38% of Baptists; 52% of Presbyterians; 58% of Episcopalians; 59% of Methodists; and 82% of Roman Catholics. So what about Lutherans? Well, you’d think at least we’d understand the point that we consider the most important point of our faith wouldn’t you? Well, a whapping 54% of Lutherans said that good people can earn their way to heaven. Martin Luther’s fears were well founded. People who believe they are earning their way to heaven do not have faith in Jesus Christ. They are headed for hell.
Now the real problem for you and me is that we are sinful people just like everyone else. All that we are guilty of all that cheating, lying, stealing, and killing. God demands perfect obedience to the law and we are far from perfect. We break God’s law often. We know we are “poor miserable sinners.” When we remember this and think about it we fall right back into the pattern of offering God our manure money (Isaiah called it filthy rags) as a way get into His good graces. When I get enough “Green Stamps” I’ll make God think of me better. But we can’t make ourselves right with God. We can’t clean up our act. Sin is always with us making all our Green Stamps filthy dirty.
So if we can’t earn back our relationship with God, how are we going to get right with God? St. Paul says again, that our righteousness with God comes to us apart from the law. That’s a way of saying that we can’t earn it. We are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. Think of it this way. You are standing before a judge who is about to pass sentence on you. He reads the charges against you. You have broken every single law in the book. You have no defense at all. There is nothing you can do. The judge pronounces the verdict. “I find you guilty on all counts therefore I sentence you to death.” The guards start coming to get you, when suddenly a man steps out from the audience. “I’ll take his place.” “Very well.” The judge replies. “Guards seize him.” The guards grab the man and begin beating him without mercy. They drag him away already bruised and bloody to the gallows. The judge turns to you and says, “your debt has been paid, you are free to go.” That’s what Jesus does for you. He offers his perfect life in place of your sinful one. He offers his innocence in place of your guilt. He offers his death in place of your death. You are free to go.
But there’s another part of what Jesus does for you that happens too. Not only does Jesus take your punishment but he gives you credit for all the good that he did. Remember he was the only person who ever live who completely loved God perfectly. As he’s being dragged off to death, a list of all the good things that he did is given the judge. “These are to be counted to him.” The judge looks at you again and says, “Ah, you are now declared to be a model citizen. Not only are you innocent but you are now perfect in the eyes of the law.”
This is what the Reformation was all about. The understanding that the righteousness we have before God comes from someone else. We don’t get right with God because we do stuff to make it happen, but because we get Jesus’ stuff. The righteousness of God is the righteousness from God, Jesus Christ. It’s like Jesus went out and bought the most expensive item ever made, and we get the Green Stamps.
That’s Grace. God’s undeserved love for us. Grace, G,R,A,C,E. God’s Richest At Christ’s Expense. God in the person of Jesus Christ came to save us from our sin. Jesus offered himself up to beating and death on the cross. That’s where we deserve to be. But Jesus said, “I’ll go instead.” God, the Judge, turns to us and says, “You are not guilty.” There is nothing we need to do. There is nothing we can do to make that happen. It is true for us as God has done it and given it free of cost. When we say “There must be some part of this salvation that is mine.” We say that the work of Jesus isn’t enough. We say that we think we can do better.
So, God makes this free gift available, how do we actually get it? How does this gift become mine? St. Paul talks about that too. The righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. Here we often misunderstand a major point. We think that faith is some kind of thing that we do to get God’s grace. As if what Jesus did is God’s part and my part is faith. No, that’s making faith a work that we do to earn forgiveness. That’s depending on me to get it done. My salvation is all dependant on Christ and him alone. If faith is my part that means that Jesus can’t do it without me. Jesus already earned the “not guilty” verdict for everyone. All that remains is for God to deliver the goods. He does that through Word and Sacrament. It’s the power of God, working through the Holy Spirit, in the Means of Grace, that is the ways that God gives us what Jesus did. Just as a tennis player uses a racket to hit the ball, God uses His Word, Holy Baptism and Holy Communion to hit us with salvation. Our confession of faith, the Book of Concord says it this way:
For faith does not justify because it is so good a work and so God-pleasing a virtue, but because it lays hold on and accepts the merit of Christ in the promise of the holy Gospel.
This faith trusts in something that has already been accomplished. It doesn’t cause it to happen. It is our sinful nature that keeps telling us that we’ve got to have something to do with our salvation. We’ve got to earn it in some way. We turn our faith into a work that we do. That’s not so with our salvation, justification, God does it all in Jesus Christ and gives it to us without our having anything to do with it.
You know the problem with Green Stamps? They really weren’t free. The store owners had to buy them. Then they passed that cost on to their customers. It is very interesting that when the stores stopped giving Green Stamps they didn’t lower the prices. That means that we are still paying for Green Stamps, we just don’t get to go to the redemption center and get our “free stuff” that wasn’t really free anymore.
That’s just like believing that we make ourselves right with God by doing good stuff. We continue to pay the price but we don’t get any of the free stuff. Our Salvation is a free gift from God– No strings attached, no hidden costs, no stamps to lick, no rules to change. Simply through faith by Grace – God’s riches at Christ expense. Amen
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Tappert, T. G. (2000, c1959). The book of concord : The confessions of the evangelical Lutheran church (541). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.