Note: This devotion and the next are revised from past sermons Wade preached, so there is some crossover in the verses covered and some themes.
A conscience can be a dangerous thing. A conscience can bring horrible questions into peoples’ minds. A conscience is what got the Reformation started: a conscience that took the words seriously that there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Someone read this and believed it, because their personal experience confirmed its veracity all too well. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
Our Savior taught in the Sermon on the Mount: You must therefore be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Not you must be pretty good, or you must be better than that other guy, but perfect. In that same sermon, He said: I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Outwardly, the Pharisees were the most righteous people of all, but Jesus here says He expects something even more: real, perfect righteousness of thought, word, and deed, righteousness that does all the right things all the time for all the right reasons and with all the right thoughts. Who can do that? Our text answers that: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
The Greek for “sinned,” simply put, means to “miss the mark.” This implies that one may indeed be aiming at the right thing, intending the right result, but nevertheless missing the bull’s-eye. It is impossible to do any perfect work that measures up to what God deserves. We cannot woo or bribe God. There is nothing we can give Him that isn’t His in the first place. As sinners, we cannot do a perfect work because we are not perfect people. A murderer may buy his victim flowers for their grave, but he remains a murderer and his relationship with his victim remains severed by his previous evil act. Manure painted up nicely is still just painted manure.
The Greek for “fall short” means “to come too late, to miss, to fail to reach, to be lacking, to come short of.” All of our works come too late. We are born enemies of God, heirs of original sin, and, for that reason, have already missed our chance at perfection and a relationship with the Father. That is why we need Baptism from the moment we leave the womb. A poisoned tree may produce beautiful fruit, but the fact remains that its fruit will bear its poison. The difference between the fruit on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and on the other trees in Eden was not necessarily its appearance, but what it bore.
“Almost only matters with horseshoes and hand grenades,” it’s been said. We recognize that in the real world almost doesn’t cut it, yet when it comes to spiritual matters, we often expect almost to be good enough for God. An old black and white television wit rabbit ears is good enough for getting the news and the football game, but how many of us sport such a picture box in our living rooms? Yet, many individuals and church bodies are comfortable making good enough the standard God will use with us on Judgment Day. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. You have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. How? I think you already know how. I know God already knows how. A conscience can be a dangerous thing.
But there is something that can be even more dangerous than a conscience. It doesn’t look dangerous. Most dismiss it as harmless and outdated, but it is the most dangerous thing of all. If you need proof, look at how the world has sought to discredit it for the last two thousand years. In our Holy Gospel, Jesus says, If you abide in My Word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. Luther got a hold of that Word, and something happened. Before he was tempted to hate God, this arbitrary Judge who was going to damn him no matter how hard he tried to be saved, who had given him commands no one could possibly keep perfectly. Rule after rule, sermon after sermon, book after book, demanded righteousness, but none could bring that righteousness into grasp, at least not for the honest conscience and the thoughtful mind. Luther writes:
“That expression ‘righteousness of God’ was like a thunderbolt in my heart. When under the papacy I read, ‘In thy righteousness deliver me’ [Ps. 31:1] and ‘in thy truth,’ I thought at once that this righteousness was an avenging anger, namely, the wrath of God. I hated Paul with all my heart when I read that the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel. Only afterward, when I saw the words that follow—namely, that it’s written that the righteous shall live through faith—and in addition consulted Augustine, was I cheered. When I learned that the righteousness of God is his mercy, and that he makes us righteous through it, a remedy was offered to me in my affliction.” (LW 54, 308).
This book, the Bible, is a dangerous thing, I tell you. Men and women do crazy things when they discover the grace of God in Christ. That God would become man for me, that God would die for me, that God would rise for me, that can make a heart explode with gratitude and joy. We fall short, but Christ does not. Yes, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, but looks what comes next: and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. You are justified. The word means you have been “declared righteous.” What you could not be by your own works, God has declared you to be in Christ. Your sin became Christ’s and His perfection is now yours, through Baptism, Absolution, Communion, and the Word. You have been saved by grace through faith, and now, now you can do what you could never do before: you can live for God, as His workmanship, doing what He has divinely prepared for you to do.
A conscience can be a dangerous thing, but the Bible is a dangerous thing, too, and in the best way. For me. God was crucified for me. Forget the all for the moment. You have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But, my brothers and sisters, you are also justified by His grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward for you as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by you by faith. You’ve got a conscience. You’ve got a Bible. Your conscience is clean. The Bible is full of “for you”s and “for me”s. In that we have life. In that we have freedom. In that our sins are gone and we are righteous.