“Justification by Faith” (Romans 1:17 sermon; Reformation Day 2021)

There are some days on the calendar that everyone knows are important:

— December 25th everyone knows is … Christmas.
— January 1st … New Year’s Day.
— December 31st? Cheryl’s birthday!

And today, October 31st, is a memorable date as well. Many people celebrate it as “Halloween,” or “All Saints Eve.” But it is also another very important day in history, that too few Christians are aware of, and that is that October 31st is also “Reformation Day.” “Reformation Day” is the day in 1517 that Martin Luther kicked off what historians call the “Reformation” of the Church in Europe when he nailed his 95 theses, or theological propositions, onto the door the Wittenburg church. He did this in response to the preaching of men like Johan Tetzel, whom the Roman Catholic Church had sent to Germany to preach and sell what they called “indulgences”: that if you paid a certain amount of money to help build the Cathedral in Rome, you could buy yourself or a loved one out of so many years in purgatory. In fact, Tetzel preached, “As soon the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs!” Martin Luther had done a lot of soul-searching, and scripture-searching (as we will see in a minute) and he believed that what Tetzel was preaching was false; that we are not saved from the fires of purgatory (or hell) by buying “indulgences” of by any other good work, but that we are saved by faith in Jesus and what He did on the cross for us, alone.

When Luther posted his challenge that day, it was an important event in Church History, and every Christian should be aware of it, because out of it came the emphasis that all evangelical churches hold to today: that we are not justified before God by our own good works and deeds, but by faith in Jesus alone. So today we’re going to be looking at the scripture that God used to change Martin Luther’s life, and give him that understanding of “justification by faith.” The scripture is Romans 1:17, where it says, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.”

I. THE QUEST: eternal life
“the righteous man shall live …”

When this scripture talks about how “the righteous man shall LIVE by faith,” that word “live” represents what every person wants; what every person is looking for.

See, the word “live,” here does not just mean “to be alive.” It is referring to something much more. It is talking about ETERNAL life.

In Luke 10:25-28 the Bible says a Jewish expert in the Law asked Jesus:
“Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?” 27And he answered, “YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND; AND YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.” And in :28 the Bible says that Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.”

Now, if you notice, the man asked Jesus, what shall I do to inherit “eternal life.” And when he quoted the Great Commandments, Jesus said, yes, do this (keep all those Commandments) “and you will LIVE.” So “LIVE” here refers back to his question, “How can I inherit eternal life?” So “live” here doesn’t just mean “exist for a period of time on earth;” “LIVE” here means “eternal life.” And it is used that way in other places in scripture as well. To “live” in those passages means to have “eternal life.”

And that is exactly what Romans 1:17 is talking about here. When it says “the righteous man will LIVE by faith,” it is speaking of how a person can obtain eternal life.

To really “live,” to have “eternal life,” is the deepest desire and goal of every person, whether they know it or not. Jesus said said in John 17:3, “This is eternal life, that they may KNOW THEE, the only True God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.” So Jesus said eternal life is to know God. To bask in the beauty of the glory of His presence; to be given the pleasures that Psalm 16:11 says He has for us in His right hand. To know God; to be fulfilled by Him, to have “eternal life,” is what everyone is looking for. It is what everyone wants, deep down in their heart, whether they know it or not.

Even someone like Bertrand Russell, who was one of the most well-known atheists in England in the 20th century, wrote of how he was always looking for something that he was missing. He wrote:
“The centre of me is always and eternally a terrible pain … a searching for something beyond what the world contains, something transfigured and infinite. The beatific vision — God. I do not find it, I do not think it is to be found — but the love of it is my life … It is the actual spring of life within me.” (p. 291, McGrath, CSL)

So even atheists like the renowned Bertrand Russell, at heart, admit that they are looking for “something infinite,” “the beatific vision,” “God”! He was looking for what Romans 1:17 calls “LIFE”: eternal life in the presence of God.

AND THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT THE BIBLE TELLS US IS WAITING FOR US WITH GOD IN HEAVEN: It is “LIFE”! It is “eternal life.” This is “the quest.” This is what everyone, all over the world, is looking for:
— it’s the “highest of all ‘highs’”
— it’s the ultimate “trip”
— it’s the indescribable beauty
— it’s the ultimate concert
— it’s the untoppable experience
— it’s the most exquisite pleasure
— it’s the ecstasy that never ends
It is the presence of God Himself; it is “eternal life.” THAT is the “quest.” THAT is what we are all longing for. Christianity is NOT just a matter of “making sure you don’t go to hell;” if that’s all it is to you, you’re missing it; it’s not just about “not going to hell; it’s about making sure you DO go to GLORY! To LIFE!

And there is nothing more important in all your life than knowing that you have it. During his lifetime, President Dwight Eisenhower had been visited a number of times by Billy Graham, who became a friend and confidante of the President’s. When Eisenhower was on his deathbed, he had Billy Graham called to his side, and he said to him: “Billy, tell me once more how I can know for sure that I have eternal life. Nothing else matters now.”
Here was this man who had been President of the United States. He had been the most powerful man in the world. He had had the nuclear button at his fingertips. He was privy to secrets and had experiences that you and I will never know on this earth. But this powerful man lay there that day and said, “tell me how I can know for sure that I have eternal life. Nothing else matters now.” That was an amazing statement for a man like that to make that day.

And the truth is, there IS nothing more important than knowing that you have eternal life.
— It’s more important than anything else in life, because everything else can all be lost.
— It’s more important than athletic ability; as one knee injury can destroy all the hopes of your pro career.
— It’s more important than money, because you can lose it all in a business deal gone bad, or in an economic downturn or inflation.
— it’s more important than popularity, because popularity can turn around on you so quickly. I just finished reading a biography of George H.W. Bush, who at the end of the Persian Gulf war, had a Presidential approval rating of over 89% — higher than ANY president in history — but only 18 months later he would be turned on by the American public and voted out of office! Popularity can be lost overnight.

But “eternal life” is just what it says: it is “eternal.” It is forever. You can’t lose it. Jesus said in John 10 “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.” When shall those whom Jesus gives eternal life perish? “NEVER”! “They will NEVER perish.” John 10:28 is one of the greatest verses on the eternal security of the believer in all the Bible. “They will NEVER perish.” You cannot lose eternal life – which just makes sense; if it could be lost, it would not be “eternal” life.

Knowing that you have eternal life is THE single most important thing there is; like President Eisenhower said, “nothing else matters now” — and not just on your death bed; it’s most important thing that EVER matters in your life: do you have the most important thing? Do you have eternal life? This is “The Quest: Eternal Life.”

II. THE QUESTION: How do you get this “life,” eternal life”?
Romans 1:17 says: “the righteous man shall live BY FAITH.”

This is what drove Martin Luther, who lived in the early 1500’s. For most of his adult life, Luther had been fearful about his eternal destiny. He had no peace with God; he did not know if he had eternal life. Once, when he was almost hit by a lightning bolt in a thunderstorm, he cried out “St. Anne save me,” and he decided to become a monk; but even becoming a very religious monk he felt that he had not done enough to earn his salvation. When he shared his fears with his superiors in the church, they told him that teaching might help alleviate his fears, so he went to school, and got a doctorate in theology. But the doctorate in theology did not give him assurance. Then they told him: “You must go to Rome!” Rome was the heart of the Roman Catholic Church. There you could see what were purported to be the bones of the Apostles, and pieces of the cross of Christ, and so many different “holy sites”, all of which, when you saw them, would supposedly give you “credit” for so many years out of purgatory. So people flocked to those sites — and Luther went as well. He couldn’t wait to see these sights, and gain the peace and assurance he was searching for.

One of those sites in particular was what they called the “Scala Sancta” or “the holy stairs.” According to tradition, these were the very stairs on which Jesus Christ stepped on his way to Pontius Pilate during His trial. The Stairs were supposedly brought to Rome by St. Helena in the fourth century. Pilgrims to Rome were told to confess their sins, and pay a fee, and on each one of the 28 steps, to say the “Our Father” prayer — and if they did that at each step, all the way to the top, they would be given a massive number of years out of the fires of purgatory. So Luther did it; he knelt; he prayed; he climbed; he knelt, he prayed, he climbed. But when he arrived at the top, he had no more peace than he had before. In fact, he said “Who knows whether it is true?” All the good works that he did, and all the shrines that he visited, did NOT give him peace in his heart with God. In fact, he came away from Rome discouraged and disillusioned at all the shallow superstitions and the religious hypocrisy he had seen there.

But one day he was studying his Bible — the very passage we are looking at today, Romans 1:17 (which quotes Habakkuk 2:4) “the righteous shall live by faith.” But importantly, Luther didn’t just “read” that verse; he really pondered what it really meant: that we shall LIVE — and by “live,” as we have seen, the Bible is talking here about eternal life — that we shall have that eternal life HOW? By FAITH. “The righteous shall live (have eternal life) BY FAITH.” Not by works; not by being baptized, not by taking the Lord’s Supper, not by joining a church, not buying an indulgence, or climbing a certain number of stairs — or by any other religious works —but BY FAITH — by BELIEVING that God GIVES us eternal life when we put our faith in what Jesus for us did on the cross. When Luther realized that, he said, all of the sudden “the whole Bible became clear to me, and the gates of heaven were opened to me.” He finally had the peace with God he had been looking for all of his life — but it did not come from all the religious works he had tried to do, but just BY FAITH in what Jesus did for him on the cross.

And the Bible tells us this is how everyone must be saved; by faith:
— Romans 3 says that all have sinned and none are righteous but, :21 says “But now, apart from the Law, the righteousness of God has been manifested … through FAITH in Jesus Christ for all those who believe.”
— Romans 5:1 “Therefore, having been justified by FAITH, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
— Ephesians 2:8 “For by grace you have been saved, through FAITH …”
— Galatians 3:26 “For you are all sons of God through FAITH in Jesus Christ.”
— Hebrews 11:6 “Without FAITH it is impossible to please God”
— I Peter 1:9 says we obtain “as the outcome of your FAITH the salvation of your souls.”
Over and over the scripture tells us, it is by FAITH that we must be saved, and by faith ALONE, and not by any of our good works.

Martin Luther finally gained peace with God, and knew that he had eternal life, when he stopped trying to earn his way to heaven, and put his faith in that JESUS had paid his way to heaven for him. And YOU can have that same confidence today. You can know that your sins are forgiven. You can know that you are right with God. You can know that you have eternal life. But to get it, like Martin Luther you need to make sure you are not depending on anything that YOU have done or can do; but that you just put your faith in what JESUS already did on the cross for you.

Maybe today you would say this morning that you have been like Martin Luther: you have been trying SO many different things to “make God like you,” and make yourself acceptable to God, and to deserve a place in heaven: maybe that’s why you came to church today: hoping it will help make God love you; maybe that’s why you volunteered to do something, thinking it would “make up” for some of your sins; maybe that’s why you put something in the offering box; hoping that will give you some “credit” with God.

But today you realize, like Martin Luther did, that Jesus has already paid it all. That you “live” — get eternal life with God in heaven — by FAITH — not by anything YOU have done, but by believing what JESUS did on the cross for you. Just in your heart, believe it! And THAT MOMENT you will be saved!

Acts 10 gives us an example of that. It tells us that God commanded Peter to go and tell a man named Cornelius about Jesus, and so Peter went to this man’s house, and began share the gospel. And the Bible says as soon as Peter got to the words, “Everyone who believes in Him receives the forgiveness of sins” (Acts 10:43), instantly the Holy Spirit came upon Cornelius, and he was saved (:44).

This is a great example of what it means to be saved by faith alone. Cornelius did not do any “good works” for that to happen. He didn’t go get baptized first; He didn’t go to church; He didn’t go give any offerings; He didn’t do ANYTHING to earn it. ALL HE DID WAS BELIEVE IN HIS HEART — AND THE SECOND HE BELIEVED IN HIS HEART that “everyone who believes in Him receives the forgiveness of sins”, THAT MOMENT in his heart, HE WAS SAVED — “by faith ALONE”! Nothing else.

This is what Martin Luther brought out in the Reformation: that we are saved by faith in Jesus and what He did on the cross for us, alone. In fact, there came out of the Reformation an expression in Latin: “sola fide;” by faith alone. In fact, there were 5 “Solas”; 5 “alones” that came from the Reformation:
— In God’s word alone, we learn that salvation is:
— By grace alone
— Through faith alone
— In Christ alone
— To the glory of God alone.

But salvation: “life,” as Romans 1:17 calls it; eternal life; comes through faith in Jesus Christ ALONE. “Sola fide”; “faith alone;” in Christ alone.

It may be that what happened to Cornelius in Acts 10, is happening in YOUR heart right now: maybe you have been searching for how to be saved and be right with God, but just now “the light has come on,” and now you understand that you don’t get eternal life by doing a bunch of good deeds, but by putting your faith in Jesus alone. And right now, in your heart, you are being saved. If so, then remember this:
you are not saved when you come down to the front of the church and tell me about it
You are not saved when you get baptized
You are not saved because you came to church today, or put money in the box or did anything else.
You are saved because just now in your heart, you truly believed that Jesus died on the cross for you. And now what happened to Martin Luther has happened to you. Romans 1:17 has become true for you. You will “LIVE” — you will have eternal life with God in heaven forever — by FAITH. “Sola fide” — through faith alone in Christ alone.

It’s just like the songs tells us:
“In Christ ALONE my hope is found.”
“My hope is built on nothing less than JESUS’ blood and righteousness.”
“What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.?

Now, IF that is really happening to you; you’re like a baby being born — the Bible calls it being “born again.” And if you’re really being born again today, then you will grow, and there will be some things that you will do: the first thing you will do is, you’ll be baptized, because that is Jesus’ first command to those who follow Him, to be baptized and show the world that you are truly His follower. Then you’ll want to continue to go to church, and read the Bible, and serve in the church — all kinds of things. But remember: NONE of those things are what saved you. Faith in Jesus alone saved you: “The righteous shall LIVE — have eternal life — by FAITH.”

And if that is happening to you today, you will always remember this day — the day that Romans 1:17 became real to you, and you put your faith in Jesus alone as your Savior. And from now on, October 31st, 2021 will be YOUR “Reformation Day”!

— Some of you might say you just put your trust in Jesus a moment ago in your heart … that is the moment you were saved. Now you need to be baptized and show the world that Jesus is your Savior. Remember it is not the baptism that saves you, but faith in JESUS alone. But come in a moment and tell me that today you put your faith in Jesus and you need to be baptized.
— Or maybe right now you need to put your faith in Christ … you can put it in the form of a prayer if you’d like to …. And if you’re doing that, come tell me about it.
— Or you’ve put your faith in Jesus some time before, but you’ve never followed through by being baptized …
— Or you need a church home …
— Or there’s something special on your heart, and you just want to humble yourself, and come and kneel and pray about it …

About Shawn Thomas

My blog, shawnethomas.com, features the text of my sermons, book reviews, family life experiences -- as well as a brief overview of the Lifeway "Explore the Bible" lesson for Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers.
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