As we draw one week nearer to the cross, the question that the hymn writer Johann Heermann probably borrowed from a tenth-century French abbot rings in our ears:
O dearest Jesus, what law hast Thou
That such sharp sentence should on Thee be spoken?
Of what great crime hast Thou to make confession,
What dark transgression? (LSB 439)
You won’t find the answer to the hymn writer’s startling question from the high priest or the Jewish ruling council. Who needs evidence? Without finding a single fault in Him (T), they tried to have Him executed for blasphemy. You won’t find the answer from the Jewish people who called for the blood of Him who healed their sick and suffering, instead they insisted that a guilty murderer should be set free.
God reserved the answer to this disturbing question: “What law has Thou broken?” for the lips of a godless governor. “I find no basis for a charge against this man” Pilate said (John 19:6). And in the hopes of satisfying the bloodlust of the crowd, Pilate added, “I will have him punished and then release him” (Luke 23:22). We rightfully ought to ask, “Why, should even this milder sentence, be spoken against our dear Lord Jesus?”
“Of what great crime have you to make confession—what dark transgression?” God answers this burning question through the lips of a dying criminal on the cross next to Him: “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:41).
Only Pilate and a condemned thief spoke a word in Jesus’ defense. Surely the words Jesus spoke on Palm Sunday were being fulfilled: “If these disciples of mine keep quiet, the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:40).
Johann Heermann’s question is rhetorical. He means to say, “Think about it, dear brothers and sisters! Death happens only to sinners. And you know that Jesus is in every way like us except, (T) He is without sin.”
We have the answer to the hymn writer’s question in the first two and a half chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans. First the apostle turns to those who do not have God’s Word and says that they have no excuse for their condemnation. “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Romans 1:18-20).
Even the heathen know some things about God. But in their stubborn minds, they don’t allow their natural knowledge of God and his laws to govern their lives. Much less do they look for a way out of their desperate, eternal situation! “God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. . . . God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. . . . Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion” (Romans 1:24,26,27).
Already during their time of grace on earth, they display, by their actions and words, God’s judgment. See if this description doesn’t describe the eternal future of all who reject God and his wisdom:
“They did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them” (Romans 1:28-32).
You don’t need to imagine the reaction of God’s ancient people to God’s judgment on the Gentiles. It probably wasn’t different from the reaction we have when we see mighty politicians or influential clergy fall. “I thank you God, that I am not like him. . . .”
“All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous” (Romans 2:12-13).
To be declared righteous by God’s legal system, answer these simple questions:
1. You may not have bowed down to idols? But do you spend your life hoarding up material goods which rust destroys and thieves break in and steal?
2. You may not have cursed by God’s name. But do you use it in prayer and in giving thanks?
3. So you have been in church. But do you take to heart God’s Word or do you leave as empty as you arrived?
4. So you have honored God’s authorities to their faces. Are you like the son in Jesus’ parable who says, “Yes, father!” and does what he pleases anyway?
5. You’ve never murdered? But is there enough anger in your heart to choke your brother to death? Or walk by on the other side of the road when he needs your help?
6. “You would never cheat on your spouse!” At least, not with an act that can be prosecuted. But is there absolute purity in your heart and speech?
7. Not even misdemeanor theft on my conscience! Would you repeat that with a lie detector?
8. I would never tell a lie about another. No? But do you delight when others do it for you?
And, perhaps, most disturbing of all, does any of this matter as much to you as it does to the God who demands total perfection? Where is our boasting now? By what pretense can we lay claim to heaven by God’s legal system?
This is where St. Paul locks Jew and Gentile, you and me, and the whole world into the dungeon of hell with the words, “What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin” (Romans 3:9). Then what purpose does the law serve if none of us can be saved by it? The apostle answers, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin” (Romans 3:20).
Written in large letters over the doorway to the legal system in which we placed our hope are the words: “Despair of hope, all who try to enter through here!”
And it’s precisely when we are in this valley of despair that our God takes us to the hill of the Skull, points to his beloved Son hanging there (T) on the cross, and shouts, “Nevertheless! . . .”
“A righteousness from God, . . .” This righteousness does not come from within us, from our efforts to keep laws that we have broken beyond recognition. It comes from outside and above us. It comes from another—from God, wrapped in the flesh of man, hung in our place upon the awful cross of Calvary! Why then do we still search our empty hearts for hope? Look up! Look up at the cross. This holiness that God gives us satisfies God’s judgment against us because it was created by God.
“. . . apart from law, . . .” “Of what great crime have you to make confession?” In two words, My crime. Our crimes. Here is a righteousness apart from the law that has nothing to do with keeping the Ten Commandments. Rather, it comes from the spotless Lamb of God who kept his own unbendable demands in our place. By his death, he made our debt with God right. His cross released us from the guilt of sin, the eternal punishment of sin, and the ability of sin to dominate our lives.
“. . . has been made known, . . .” The greatest lights of human thinking would never have been able to discover this righteousness. It had to be revealed to us by the One whose thoughts are higher than our thoughts. If God had not told us who that man on the middle cross was, we wouldn’t have believed it. He is God-our-brother. In our place under God’s eternal anger over our sins!
“. . . to which the Law and the Prophets testify.” The messengers through which God has revealed the answer to our question are Moses and the prophets. God did not let a single generation die out without the answer. In the hearing of the first sinners, God said, “I will put enmity between you, Satan, and the woman; and between her offspring and yours” (Genesis 3:15). “He (that is a male from the woman’s children) will deal you a fatal wound, Satan. He will crush your head.” But not without being injured Himself. “You will strike his heel.”
This new way of righteousness is not arbitrary. God does not simply ignore sin.
“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 presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.”
Johann Heermann puts the holy apostles’ words into our mouths and hearts this way:
these sorrows, whence this mortal anguish?
It is my sins for which Thou, Lord, must languish;
Yea, all the wrath, the woe, Thou dost inherit,
This I do merit. (LBW 439:3)
Sin is always joined at the hip with death. They never come separately. Never! Not even in Jesus’ case. He too died for sin, our sin, not His. And it is this very message—wondrous to speak of—that moves despairing hearts to faith in Him. “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” Once again we stand with the Roman soldier and marvel at the divine love in the person of Jesus:
What punishment so strange is
The Shepherd dies for sheep that loved to wander;
The Master pays the debt His servants owe Him,
Who would not know Him. (LSB 439:4)
God presented Him (T) as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in His blood. Blood offered for you on His Cross. We Preach Christ Crucified, for there (T) is the power of God for you, the power that saves.
In Jesus name, AMEN.