We believe the unbelievable!
Lutherans are sola fide people. Faith alone. Typically, when we talk about faith alone, we talk about salvation, that is, that we are saved by faith alone, faith in Jesus Christ. We think of Romans 3, which we heard a couple weeks ago, “We maintain that a man is justified by faith, apart from observing the law.”
When Luther translated this verse into German, he got into trouble because he “added” the word allein, German for “alone” or “only,” as in, “a man is justified by faith alone.” His Roman Catholic opponents jumped all over him in saying, “You talk big about sola Scriptura – Scripture alone – and yet you add words to the Bible. ‘Alone’ isn’t in the Greek!” Luther freely admitted it, but then countered saying, “It’s there when you say, ‘Justified by faith apart from observing the law.’ And that’s how a German speaks.”
Thus Luther enshrined “faith alone” in Lutheran minds. It entered our confessional language also through the Augsburg Confession and the Apology. Over and over again they talk about how faith alone saves. At one point they mention how priests and popes used to talk about salvation by works only, but now they talk about works and faith. Marginally better; but best is “faith alone.”
We have this mantra pummeled into us: faith alone, faith alone, faith alone. And we think about Jesus, his blood, his cross, his death, our forgiveness. “Through faith, and this not from yourselves…not by works, so that no one can boast,” Paul writes. Through faith…alone.
This morning Paul sounded that theme in Romans 5. In fact, Romans 5 started with that theme, “Since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Faith alone brings me that peace, peace with God, peace because of and through Jesus: sins forgiven, life and salvation.
Now, in verse 12, Paul talks about another “faith alone” issue. We don’t just talk about faith alone and think Christ and salvation. We must talk about it at the beginning of the process. We talk about faith alone when we talk about our sinful condition too.
Because it seems so unfair, doesn’t it? How could all mankind fall when Adam fell? And how could that fall be so deep and so complete? I mean, seriously, I’m that lost? Babies are that lost? Everyone is that lost whether they hear about Jesus or not? From beginning to end, lost, depraved, dead in sin, objects of wrath, law breakers even with no specific law to break? Yes.
But we don’t like it. We refuse it. People have left our congregation over this, especially when applied to infants. “God would never damn an infant to hell for sins!” Hidden in there is the thought, “And what sins could they commit anyways!”
At least to our eyes, we might agree with the no sin assessment. Not just with babies, but with many people. We err when we combine the word “unbeliever” with “ragingly immoral.” Don’t a lot of people who don’t believe in Jesus act just as good as, if not better, then Christians? Atheists do charitable deeds. Muslims love their neighbors. Jews save people’s lives. Hindus honor their parents. Every country, even the most “godless”, have rules and laws, right and wrong. Paul admits that in Romans 2, “When Gentiles who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.”
So we see the pious pagan and the innocent babe and we rebel against this word of God: “all sinned.” We rebel against the thought of passing down and inheriting sin, what theologians call “original sin.” How can someone get a status like that: sinful? How could God operate that way? It’s unfair that God marks us in this manner even before we have a chance to screw up. Which is what original sin is. It’s the theological and moral equivalent of being born American. Whether you wanted it or not, whether you were aware of it or not, you have it. A status: American. Likewise, those born according to the normal order of things, from a sinful mom and a sinful dad, receive a status, a citizenship: sinful. Whether you wanted it or not, whether you’re aware of it or not, you have it.
“No, no, no, no, no!” the world bellows. This is one of the chief arguments of the atheists: the unfairness of God putting us behind the eight-ball. They point to this as the cruelty, the sadism, the basic un-godness of God. That he would damn us all to hell. And for what? Eating some fruit? Giving the finger to someone once in your life? Thinking a dirty thought? How could those things end up earning hell? It’s not a proportional response! How can we love a God “who can destroy both soul and body in hell”?
Thus our Lutheran confessions remind us, faith alone doesn’t just talk about salvation and forgiveness. It talks about our lost condition. Left to myself, I would never conclude that things are as bad as they are. Sure, they’re bad. With my eyes I see that something is wrong. As Paul says, even if only by observing the unstoppable march of death, I see a problem. But still, this bad? All sinned because Adam sinned? No. Everyone’s born not just potential sinners, but sinful? No. I’m damned to hell because of original sin; I will die, even if I could avoid actually sinning? No. I refuse. I reject. Thus, the Smalcald Articles affirm, “This hereditary sin is such a deep corruption of nature that no reason can understand it. Rather, it must be believed from the revelation of Scripture.” Faith alone, not just in Jesus, but in the lost condition, the total depravity, the eternal death of hell earned by the sin of Adam that is my sin. “Death came to all men, because all sinned.” The Bible tells me so.
And my life happens to confirm the Bible. All this rage and anger and hostility against God evidences what lies beneath the ground, the root of all my actual sins (not mistakes, not oopsies, but sins, violations, trespasses, lawlessness). Hostility to God: “I won’t listen to him.” Ignorance of God: “I don’t really know him.” No fear of God: “I don’t care what God says; he’s not that scary anyways.” No faith in God: “Can I even trust him?” In other words, every one of our sins unites us to Adam who did all those things when he listened to his wife repeat the serpent’s words, “It’s good for food. Look how yummy it is. We’ll be like God!”
That original sin wrecked everything for Adam, for the world, for us. What a gift! Thanks, Dad! But he’s not the only gift-giver. In fact, Paul’s purpose for writing these words in Romans 5 wasn’t just to shame and embarrass you, though his words do that because God’s law always causes me to fear the God who destroys souls and bodies in hell, who pays out the wages of sin: death, the death that still comes at the same rate: one per person.
No, Paul had a bigger picture in mind. Our text begins with “therefore.” Paul draws a conclusion based on things that came before. I already mentioned how Romans 5 began: peace with God through faith in Jesus. The immediately preceding verses talk about how, while we were still enemies, Christ loved us and died for us, how he justified us through his blood, how he saved us from God’s wrath, how, when we were enemies, “we were reconciled to him through the death of his son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” And so “we…rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation!” All that precedes the “therefore” of 5:12.
Paul draws an incredible contrast that we grasp by faith alone. What made us enemies to God? The gift of sin Adam passed down to us the moment life began, damning us to eternal death after we physically die. Though, notice, Paul doesn’t use the word “gift” to talk about Adam. In verses 12-14 he talks about how sin and death entered the world; though they didn’t have to work too hard. We opened the door and said “Come in.”
Paul waits until verse 15 to talk about gifts. “But the gift is not like the trespass.” Gift? What gift? Where’s Paul getting this gift talk? He’s going back to what he laid out as the theme of the whole letter to the Romans – “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed” – which he’s been describing since the middle of Romans 3: “But now, a righteousness from God has been made known.” It “comes through faith in Jesus Christ.” “The promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace.” What’s the promise? That God is not just the One who destroys souls and bodies in hell, but also “the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.” The God who sends his Son Jesus to be the reconciling agent bringing sinful man back to God. The God who says “If the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!”
There’s that phrase again, “How much more!” Adam cursed us all. We have no hope in our flesh. But Adam was, as Paul says “a pattern of the one to come.” Adam pictured someone coming: Jesus. This seems strange, to compare Adam in his death-dealing sin to Jesus. Look at the point of comparison.
One man, Adam, committed one act, one sin, one trespass: all sinned and all died. One man, Jesus, the new Adam, God’s Son, performed one act, gave one gift and, as Paul says in 5:18-19, “The result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life to all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.”
What a gift! And this too comes by faith alone. Just as unbelievable and unfair as damned babies and pious pagans feels, so unbelievable and unfair is God’s gift and the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ. He loved the unlovable. He chose the unchoosable. He died for the ungrateful. He died for the already dead. He brought forgiveness, life, and salvation to all of us dying in our sins. And tells us about it. And gives it to us when he says “For you, a gift for you, for your forgiveness, for your life.” Jesus’ cup runneth over with forgiveness, and by faith alone in him he fills our cup with life everlasting. It’s unbelievable. But true. For you. Amen.