2 Corinthians 5:21
21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Dear Friends in Christ,
I’d like to begin my sermon this morning by playing a little word association game with you. I will put a word or phrase on the screen and you shout out the first thing that comes to your mind, ok? Here we go: BIG MAC…ZEBRA…KING. Now let’s try one more. How about WHITE FORD BRONCO. For those of us who saw it back on June 17, 1994, that one automatically brings to mind a scene that was played out on live television when O. J. Simpson was being pursued by police because he was being charged with the brutal murders of his wife and one of her male friends.
Well, that scene that is so indelibly etched on our memories reminds me of another event that was played out nearly 500 years ago in Europe. The date was April 16, 1521. On that day a covered wagon pulled by 3 horses rounded a bend and made its way into the German city of Worms. As it did so, people lined the streets of the city and erupted in cheers because that wagon held a man who was now recognized as a national hero, but who was coming to Worms to be put on trial. His name? Martin Luther. The next day would be a climactic moment in what has come to be known as the Reformation as Luther would stand before Emperor Charles V, the princes of Germany, and representatives of the Pope and be ordered to recant, or take back, everything he had been saying and writing and doing that was in opposition to the Roman Catholic Church of his day.
Now obviously there are some major differences between O.J. Simpson and Martin Luther and between a white Ford Bronco and a covered wagon. But there is something strangely similar about these 2 incidents. And it has to do with a legal term that is commonly heard in courtrooms and criminal cases and on popular television shows like CSI, and that is the word “forensic.” That word has to do with the use of scientific methods and techniques that lead to the declaration of a person’s guilt or innocence.
Now it’s easy to understand how the term “forensic” might relate to an O.J. Simpson, but what does it have to do with Martin Luther? Well, the real issue that was at the heart and core of the whole Reformation debate had to do with the question: How can an unjust person be justified (or declared righteous or innocent) before a holy God? How can we who are blatantly guilty of sin in the eyes of our perfect and sinless Lord ever stand before his bar of justice and be acceptable to him? My friends, the way we answer that question will determine where we spend our eternity, and it will depend to a great extent upon our understanding of the Gospel and of what Jesus has done for us. And thanks to the insight and efforts of Martin Luther, all of that has become crystal clear to us, though there are still many in our world today, and even within the church, who don’t quite get it or understand it.
When some people are asked the question, “What purpose did Jesus have for coming into this world?” amazingly they answer in a wide variety of ways. Sometime ago I listened to a broadcast in which college students were asked that question. And while I was happy to hear some of them get it right, others blew it badly. And my fear is that those are the ones who represent the thinking of most people in our world today. One fellow said Jesus came “to try to get people to be a little nicer to one another.” To which he added, “And obviously it didn’t work.” Another male student claimed that Jesus had powerful persuasive abilities and it all went to his head, which led him to make the outrageous claims that he was the Messiah and Son of God. Interestingly, he concluded his remarks by saying, “I hope I don’t get into trouble for saying that.” By that he meant, “Just in case I’m wrong about Jesus, I hope God won’t hold it against me.”
Well, my friends, the truth of the matter is that God does have something to hold against that young man as well as all of us, and that something is sin. And that’s not very good news for us because the day is coming when each of us will be summoned before the judgment seat of God. In Rom. 14 the Apostle Paul says, “For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.” And then one verse later he adds that at that time, “each of us will give an account of himself to God.”
Now think about that for a moment. It’s one thing to stand before a human judge like O.J. Simpson and Martin Luther had to do. But it’s an entirely different matter to be summoned into the courtroom of God, to be subpoenaed by the Lord and Ruler of this universe, and to be put on trial not for one thing you’ve done wrong in your life, but for everything you’ve done wrong, however great or small it was. Imagine being summoned into that environment to be judged not by the world’s standards, but by the standard of absolute perfection.
That could be a very scary thought, couldn’t it? And nobody knew that fear more than Luther. And he resented God because of it. At one point in his life he was asked if he loved God and his rather shocking reply was, “Love God!!?? I hate God!!” And the reason Luther hated God was because up to that point in his life he had never been taught and had never truly understood what Jesus had done for him. And what exactly had Jesus done?
Well, he had saved Luther, just as he has saved all of us. But what exactly had he saved us from? Ask that of the average Christian and I can pretty well guarantee that the vast majority would say that he saved us from our sins. And while that’s certainly true, there’s more to it than that, for what we really needed to be saved from was God. “Now wait a minute!” some of you might be thinking. “I thought we were saved by God, not from God.” And that’s true. We were saved by God, but we were saved by him in order that we might be saved from him, that is, from his righteous wrath and condemnation that we deserve because of our sins.
You see, sometimes we conveniently forget what God really demands of us. For example, he says, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” So how about it, my friends? Are you holy? Are you absolutely pure and perfect and without sin? I’m certainly not. And yet when I stand in the courtroom of God I will be judged by his standard of holiness which means that all the forensic evidence, all the testimony, all the facts will scream out against me and proclaim me to be GUILTY AS CHARGED. So how will I ever be able to stand in that day and be declared innocent and righteous before this holy, perfect, and just God? Or to put it another way, how is it possible for a poor, pitiful sinner like me to ever be saved?
Well, when Luther was on trial at Worms he was being tried for teaching what he was convinced was the New Testament answer to that question. And it had to do with that word “forensic,” or what we sometimes call in theological circles “forensic justification.” Now those are 2 pretty big words that we don’t hear or use everyday. So what do they mean? Well, in simple terms forensic justification is that act by which God declares us to be righteous in his sight even though in reality we are not. Of course, that begs the question: How can God do that? How can he declare someone to be righteous who is anything but righteous?
Well, to answer that question I need to acquaint you with another big theological word, namely, imputation. To impute something is to count it or reckon it or transfer it legally to someone else’s account. In the Old Testament this was done in a very dramatic way on the holiest day of the year, known as the Day of Atonement. On that day the high priest of the Jews would take a live goat, lay his hands on the head of that goat, and confess the sins of the people over it, thereby symbolically imputing or transferring those sins to that goat. The goat would then be led out of the camp or city far out into the wilderness where it would wander around and eventually die, bearing the sins of the people. By the way, that goat came to be known by a term we still use today for someone who bears the punishment for another person, and that is a scapegoat.
Well, God’s plan of salvation for sinful mankind involved a double imputation or transfer. The first one occurred when Jesus became our scapegoat on the cross and God imputed to him or laid on him the sin of all mankind. (Show ledger illustration on screen) But that’s just half the story. The heart of the Gospel is that not only did Jesus die for us, he also lived for us – a perfect, sinless, flawless life that we couldn’t come to close to living. And he did it as our God-appointed and God-anointed substitute. And in the Gospel God tells us that anyone who believes this, anyone who trusts in Jesus as their Savior, to such a person God will impute or transfer in a forensic or legal way the perfect merits and righteousness of Christ so that, as I’ve stated in my sermon title, even though we are guilty as charged, from God’s perspective we are as innocent as Christ. This double imputation then of Christ receiving our sins and us receiving his righteousness is stated so clearly for us in our text for today where the Apostle Paul says: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” So important was this basic yet central truth of the Gospel that Luther and the other reformers called it the article of faith upon which the church either stands or falls. In other words, if you don’t get this article of justification right, if you don’t believe, teach, and confess that we are saved by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, then you can’t consider yourself a true Christian church.
I’d like to close my sermon then by asking you what I believe is the most important question you will ever be asked because the answer you give will determine where you spend eternity. The question is, “If you were to die tonight and you found yourself standing before the judgment seat of Christ, and he asked you, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven?’ what would you say?” In a recent poll conducted by the Barna Research Group 50% of adults stated that anyone who is “generally good or does enough good things for others during their life will earn a place in heaven.” Even though that false and sadly mistaken view of salvation was the major issue over which the Protestant Reformation occurred back in the 1500’s, 40% of adult Protestants stated in this poll that they agreed with it. And yet as we heard before in our Epistle lesson from Rom. 3: “No one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law.”
My great hope then would be that if God were to ask that question of us, we would say in the words of the hymn “Rock of Ages:” “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.” In other words, we would base our hope for salvation not upon anything we’ve done, but upon everything Christ has done for us through his perfect life and his sin-paying death. If that is not your answer to that question yet, I pray that soon, very soon, it will be. And if it is your answer, and you truly mean it with all your heart, then you can live each day in perfect peace and confidence knowing that when you are summoned before the judgment seat of Christ and you give that answer to him, he will swing open wide the gate to heaven and joyfully declare to you, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father and inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”