In Romans 3:19-28, we find the words that lie at the heart of the Reformation. Paul here stresses the truth that every human being is by nature a sinner in need of God’s help and grace, including those who claim they follow the Law. Even they fall short of perfection. Not only do they fail to obey every detail, they obey for the wrong reasons. Many obey do so to earn favor with God or as a means of saving themselves from damnation. Either way they are in rebellion against the Lord because they assume they can be perfect and sinless by their own efforts. They maintain, essentially, that they do not need God or His help.
Paul sees the Law as a mirror that reveals our sins and our hopelessness to us. In order to rectify our hopeless situation and make us right with Him, the Lord justifies us, that is, declares and makes us righteous. By making us righteous He enables us to live lives of love, goodness and charity. He does not excuse or ignore sin, nor does He merely forgive it for sin is a very serious offense that provokes the anger of the Lord. Rather, He atones for sin for so great is our offense that nothing we can do will assuage God’s righteous anger. So, in love, He has taken the necessary steps to make us right with Him by offering up His Son Jesus as our propitiation, our sin offering. Paul makes it abundantly clear that the work of salvation is all God’s work. We human beings add nothing to this, not even the faith to accept it. Even that comes from God as He enables us to see our sinful depravity and our hopeless state. Then as we stand on the edge of the abyss of despair, he reaches out to us with His gift of mercy by the sacrifice of Christ alone.
On October 29, 1976 I came to faith through the testimony of scripture through the life and testimony of Martin Luther. Like Luther I felt my acute sinfulness and knew my inability to make myself right with God. After months of agonizing, I felt I was teetering on the edge of the abyss of hell, ready to fall and be lost forever when I read and believed the words of Romans 3:20-21: “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” God used Luther to restore the beauty of His grace to a world enslaved by the darkness of sin and fear. The Lord still is doing this today through His people, the Church.