Faith and the Theology of the Cross

Text: Genesis 15:1-6

30 years ago, this March, Irish rock band U2 released its fifth studio album. The Joshua Tree. The album’s theme was based off the wide-open spaces of the American west. The album, which has gone on to sell more than 25 million copies, truly does bring out a sense of vast openness throughout its 50-minute length – particularly in the second track, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” It’s still up in the air what exactly the song is about. There are references to the devil, to Jesus, and heaven. But, we’ll leave it to song critics to discuss it more. Whatever it means, the song brings out this idea of searching; of longing for something you know is there…but you haven’t found it yet.

Our text today from Genesis finds Abram in a similar situation. In the Bible, three chapters pass between when God first came to Abram and called him out of idolatry, promising to bless him and make a great nation out of him. Three chapters pass, but in time it’s about a decade between these chapters, maybe a little more. It’ll be more than that, still, before Isaac is born. Isaac, the child promised in our text. As we’ll see, Abram was a little fearful about his situation, about whether the things God had promised would actually come to pass. Then God appeared to him. He reassured Abram that the promise was not forgotten. Abram believed God, and the Lord counted his faith as righteousness. St. Paul said that these things were written not for Abram’s sake alone, but for ours. Today, we confess that, like Abram, the righteous live by faith in God’s promises – and they are not disappointed.

I.

We should all know the story of Abraham, but let’s recap it for a moment. The Flood happened in Genesis 6. Noah entered the ark with his wife, his sons, and their wives. 8 souls in all. Noah’s sons were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. After the Flood, the three sons all spread out and had children. Abram is a distant descendant of Shem. Abram and his family lived in a place called Haran and they had become pagans. They were unbelievers who worshipped idols. Then, in Genesis 12, God called Abram. He called him out of idolatry to worship the one true God and to go where the Lord would lead him. The Lord promised to bless Abram and make of him a great nation. So, Abram went.

Abram went as the Lord said, but it maybe wasn’t as straightforward and easy as he might’ve liked. There was a famine, so they went down to Egypt. While they were there, Abram did do somethings that were sinful. He doubted God’s promise; yet God forgave him. God also kept His promise and blessed Abram, who came up from Egypt a rich man. He amassed a large household and many servants – but no children. Abram rightly understood God’s promise to make him into a great nation required a son. But, as time went on, no son came. Abram started getting into trouble with neighboring nations, and with no son to inherit if he were to die, Abram began to fear and doubt whether this promise would pan out. In other words, Abram still hadn’t found what he was looking for.

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’”[1] As Abram began fearing for his future and doubting the promises of God, the Lord spoke to him in a vision. The Lord told Abram not to fear. For, despite appearances, the Lord was with him. Abram was sure that the Lord had reneged, or at least was second-guessing His promise. Abram said to God, “‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus…Behold, You have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.’”[2] What Abram meant was: God promised to make him a great nation, and so far, that hadn’t happened. Sure, Abram was wealthy; but with no son by birth, that wealth would pass from his name to someone else. No great nation.

Then the Lord said, “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.”[3] Abram was misled by his own conscience and felt that God wouldn’t make good. Things appeared to be the opposite of what God had promised. Abram felt abandoned. Then God made Abram another solemn promise. It wouldn’t be Eliezer of Damascus who would inherit him, but a son from Abram’s own body. Then God took him outside, and told Abram to number the stars. So, would his offspring be. Our text concludes with one of the most important verses in the whole Bible, “He believed the Lord, and He counted it to him as righteousness.”[4]

II.

The readings this week direct our minds to this idea: Even when it appears to the contrary, God doesn’t go back on His promises. God promised to make of Abram a great nation, and this nation would come from a son of his own flesh. The rest of Scripture – and history – tells us that, of course, this promise came true. Isaac was born when Abram was 99 years old. Isaac fathered Jacob, from whom is descended – according to the flesh – Jesus. St. Paul tells us that God’s promise to Abram was ultimately fulfilled in Christ and the great nation, now of billions, who have believed in His name. Abram believed God’s promise, even when it looked like it wasn’t going to happen. God counted his faith as righteousness. Eventually, Abram did find what he was looking for.

If Abram, that great patriarch of our faith, was fearful and doubting God’s promises, we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves suffering the same temptations. Like Abram, we have each been called out of pagan idolatry. We were all by nature born sinful and unclean, desiring to be our own “God.” But we were called out of that in the washing of Baptism. At our Baptism, the name of the Triune God was spoken over us and we were made heirs of the promise of Christ. Namely, the forgiveness of sins and eternal life that are found through faith in Him. At our Baptism, we were made heirs of the promise, and we are continually reminded of it through God’s Word – yet we are filled with doubts and fears.

Luther, considering this passage, failed to come up with an answer as to why God orders our lives in such a way. At times, we say that our suffering we endure teach us to rely on God or another lesson. Sometimes, we plumb the depths of reason and empathy to find a reason for our suffering. We know that suffering comes as a result of sin. But, more often than not, we fail to find an answer to, “Why me?” Then we begin to doubt, to fear, and to be angry that we also still haven’t found what we’re looking for.

Dear brothers and sisters, St. Paul did write, “The words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also.”[5] Meaning, this passage of Scripture wasn’t written for Abram’s sake alone, but for our benefit, also. We are meant to look at Abram’s suffering and fear, and Lazarus’, and find in them fellowship. Abram suffered, Lazarus suffered, our Lord suffered, we suffer. Abram suffered, at times thinking the Lord would not fulfill His promise; then He did. So, will He also fulfill His promise to us. What promise? The promise to remove our sins from us, which He has done in Christ. The promise to bring us to a land flowing with milk and honey, foreshadowed by the Promised Land and fulfilled in the New Creation. The promise to bring us through this valley of the shadow of death, and feed us beside still waters. The Lord spoke these things and others to Abram. Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord counted that faith as righteousness.

God grant that we also, by that same faith, would continue to be counted righteous. Scripture does say that the afflictions of the righteous are many, but also that the Lord delivers them out of them all. At times, it does feel like we aren’t finding what we’re looking for. But, God’s promises are sure and will ever stand true – even for us. Abram believed the Lord’s promise of deliverance, God counted His faith as righteousness and did deliver Him. He will deliver us, too. Amen.


[1] Gen. 15:1, English Standard Version.

[2] Gen. 15:2-3.

[3] Gen. 15:4.

[4] Gen. 15:6.

[5] Rom. 4:23-24.

NT Handout 06

New Testament Catechesis VI – Peter’s Vision and the Gospel for the Gentiles

Text: Acts 10:1-48

Discussion Questions (See if you can come up with some of your own.)

  • Who was Cornelius? What was he like?
  • What was Cornelius told to do in the vision?
  • What did Peter see in a vision?
  • What was Peter told to do? How did he respond?
  • What did the Lord say to him?
  • What does the vision mean?
  • What did Peter say about the visit in verse 28?
  • What did Peter figure out in verse 34?
  • When did the Holy Spirit fall on the people?
  • What does this teach us about where faith comes from?

Terms to Know

  • Jew: The most common name for someone who was descended from the bloodline of Abraham.
  • Gentile: Anyone who was uncircumcised and not from the bloodline of Abraham.
  • Children of Abraham: 1) Only the descendents of Abraham in the Old Testament. 2) Now, all true believers in Christ – Jew or Gentile – who believe in salvation by God’s grace alone through faith in Christ.
  • Caesarea: A port city on the Mediterranean Sea. It was first evangelized by Philip, was the home of Cornelius, and a prominent city in Paul’s missionary travels. Paul spent over two years there when he was under arrest before going to Rome.
  • Cornelius: The Roman centurion who became the first Gentile convert to Christianity through the ministry of the apostle Peter.

Memory Work

What is the Sacrament of the Altar?

It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and to drink.

Where is this written?

The holy Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and St. Paul write:

Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to the disciples and said: “Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you. This do in remembrance of Me.”

 

In the same way also He took the cup after supper, and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”

Next Week: The Lord’s Supper, Pt. I

Everything – Everything = Everything

Text: Mark 10:17-22 (23-31)

“How do you get to heaven? Well, I’m a good person.” That’s what most people think. Or, at least, that’s what you hear at funerals. “So-and-So was a good person.” They’re meant to be words of comfort, and they’ve probably come from my mouth; but when I hear that, in my head I always ask, “Why?” What do you mean? Do you mean that they were a morally good person? Okay, I’ll give them that – at least on the outside. Were they then a good enough person morally to get to heaven, though? Is that even the right thing to say, “So-and-So was a good person,”?

If God had a list of clichés that He hates to hear, I’m sure that “I’m a good person,” would be on there. Do you know why? With those four words the devil cuts the cross and Jesus out of the picture. It’s marvelous. We see it our text. The rich young ruler comes up to Jesus and asks Him what he can do to inherit eternal life, and then he rejects the answer Jesus gave, figuring that he was already a good person. He was already a good person, so he didn’t need Jesus. The devil wants us to answer the question, “How do you get to heaven,” with those four words instead of the ones God’s Word gives: “Jesus died for me.” Of our own powers, we will never say that. The Bible says no one can call Jesus Lord except by the Holy Spirit. By the works of man salvation is impossible, but with God all things are possible.

I.

In the text we’re couched square in between the time of Jesus’ transfiguration and the Triumphal Entry. We have here a period of intensified instruction. During this time Jesus predicted His death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins three times. All three times the answer He was looking for (amen) was rejected: first, by Peter, then by the rest of the Disciples, then by James and John – who wanted to be seated in glory. The whole point of Jesus’ teaching is that He is going to suffer and die for the forgiveness of sins so that our trespasses may no longer be held against us. He is suffering so that we can be given salvation as a gift.

Now, as Jesus was setting out on His journey toward Jerusalem, the text says, “a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’[1] Have you ever met someone for the first time and made a total fool of yourself? Maybe you called them the wrong name or sneezed on them, or in whatever other way made yourself the butt of a joke. It’s called getting started off on the wrong foot, and it’s what the young man in our text is doing. To start with, the man calls Jesus, “teacher.” This isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s definitely a red flag. Anyone who believes in Jesus in the Gospels calls Him, “Lord, Son of David,” or something similar. Those who address Him as teacher are the Jewish authorities who see Jesus as just another rabbi, whose opinion people are to seek.

The man really steps in it, though, because he puts these two words together: good teacher. See, if Jesus is just a teacher to you, why call Him good? Jesus rebuffs the man from Scripture, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”[2] I’ve said before, aside from the demons and few others, nobody gets it in Mark’s Gospel. Nobody gets that Jesus is out to die, that He is going to suffer and die for the forgiveness of sins. The man, believing that Jesus is just a teacher, is asking Him what must be done to earn eternal life. It’s not a stupid question, but it’s definitely the wrong one.

Jesus lets him have it. “You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’ ”[3] There it is. What must we do to get into heaven? Follow the commandments. Perfectly. Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie. If you want to earn eternal life, Jesus says, go for it. Keep the commandments. But remember – it’s not just your actions that count, but the things you don’t do, and your thoughts either way. Jesus shows us that in the Sermon on the Mount. If you want to earn eternal life, go for it. Knock yourself out; But, if you fail once – in thought, in word, or deed – it’s over, and you’re going to the eternal hell of fire where there is only weeping and gnashing of teeth. Deal?

What does the man say? “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.”[4] The text says that Jesus looked at the man and loved him. Certainly his zeal for God’s Word was commendable. His desire to live according to God’s commandments was laudable. But, there was just one thing. Jesus said, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”[5] The man thought he had all the commandments down, but he missed one: the First. He had all his ducks in a row, but he wasn’t ready to forsake his possessions and take up the cross of Christ. Instead, he went away sorrowful.

II.

How difficult it will be, Jesus says, for those having possessions to enter the kingdom of God. It is easier for camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. To inherit the kingdom of God one must keep a perfect guard upon their heart and mind by obeying God’s Law to completion, which means forsaking all things – family, home, possessions, and life – to follow Christ, and Him alone. Upon hearing this, the Disciples were exceedingly astonished. “Who then can be saved?” With man it is impossible.

With these words, Christ puts us all in our place. We all think we’re good people. On the outside, it appears that way, too. We are present in the community, we give our offerings, we give keeping the commandments the good old college try. But if you think that you are going to get into heaven because of those things, you might as well give it up now, because you still lack one thing. Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you will not get into heaven. Unless you give up your cabin, your farm, your devotion to the Bison, your whatever, and spend all that you have and are seeking to learn and obey God’s Word – you will not earn either God’s grace or your way to heaven. With man it is impossible.

With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”[6] According to man’s power, salvation is impossible, but not according to God’s. My friends, when the rich young man went to Jesus looking for a way to earn his way to heaven, Jesus sent him away in sorrow. The answer to his question was right before his eyes, even though he didn’t want hear it. What must we do to inherit the kingdom of heaven? Absolutely nothing, except believe in Jesus Christ and Him crucified.

St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”[7] That is what one must do to inherit eternal life. There is nothing that we must do except know and believe in Jesus Christ, and Him crucified for our sins. Though He was in the form of God, He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped. Therefore, He emptied Himself by taking on the form of a servant. The eternal Son of God took on our human flesh and was tempted in every way, yet without sin. In that way He became the perfect sacrifice for all sin on the cross. By His death you have been forgiven all your sins.

Through the preaching of His Word and through the Sacraments, Christ comes to you with that forgiveness. You don’t have to search and scour where to find Jesus. He finds you here. He found you at the fount when you received the Holy Spirit and the gift of faith. He finds you here, at His altar, as He gives you to eat of His body and drink of His blood for the forgiveness of sins.

The rich man went to Jesus figuring that he was already a good man. According to himself, he had kept all the commandments since he was baby. Jesus showed that he still lacked one thing: faith in Christ. Without that, all the riches in the world, and all the righteousness that we appear to have, come to nothing. What must you do to inherit the kingdom of heaven? Believe in Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Call yourself a disgusting sinner, but one clothed with the white robe of Christ’s righteousness.


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mk. 10:17.

[2] Mk. 10:18.

[3] Mk. 10:19.

[4] Mk. 10:20.

[5] Mk. 10:21.

[6] Mk. 10:27.

[7] 1 Cor. 2:2.

Faith And Works?

Text: James 2:1-10, 14-18

We Lutherans are sometimes a fragile bunch, but I love it. Since we’ve finished up our walk through Ephesians in the Epistle readings of the last two months, we now turn to the Book of James – The dreaded James. Some people think it doesn’t even belong in the Bible. After all, isn’t it where we get the verse, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone”?[1] Yeah, that’s in the chapter we’re looking at today. Doesn’t that just make your Lutheran skin crawl? Martin Luther himself couldn’t decide how he felt about the book. He didn’t go so far as many people think he did; He did not say it doesn’t belong in the Bible, just that it did its job poorly. That was in 1522 and Luther would go back and forth on the topic. As I said, Lutherans are sometimes a fragile bunch.

I’d like for us to look at this text today because I think that we Lutherans have a distinct malady, maybe an illness, in that we’re sometimes afraid to talk about good works. The Lutheran reformation happened partly because of a misunderstood relationship between faith and works. The Roman Church was teaching that works are a contributing factor to salvation. That teaching continues in the Catholic Church, and ironically, in Protestant churches that teach that one can choose to become a Christian. The correct teaching of Scripture is that works contribute nothing at all to our salvation. Jesus Christ suffered and died for the forgiveness of our sins and gives that forgiveness to us freely through faith, without any work or merit on our part. If you ever hear anything other than that, I want you to plug your ears, because it wouldn’t be the truth.

The illness that we have as Lutherans is that, because we know so well that works are not part of salvation, we end up throwing out the topic entirely. This becomes a problem because, as James so well points out, good works flow from an active faith. You cannot see in a person’s heart that they are a Christian, but you can tell it from their lives. You can also see the opposite. Therefore James exhorts his fellow Christians to be rich in good works. As we are made to hold to the faith of Jesus Christ through His Word and Sacrament, we are also led to bring forth good works as the fruit of our living faith.

I.

But, like I said, Luther went back and forth on whether James should be in the Bible or not, but we don’t hang on every word that proceeds from the mouth of a German ex-monk. We do hang on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God; As does James. The focal of James and the thrust of the Epistle is not that our good works save us. Rather, it is the salvation that we have received freely by the grace of God. James writes, “Of his own will [God] brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.”[2] James says that it is not because of our works that God chose us, but purely out of His good and gracious will. If you remember the Catechism you know that God does all good things out of pure, fatherly, divine, goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness within us.

James also readily teaches in our text today, “Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?”[3] The whole relationship between God and us is based on His mercy. In love He chose us out of the world, we who are poor in its eyes, to be rich in faith and heirs of heaven. That actually sounds a lot like St. Paul. St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.”[4] In 2 Corinthians Paul wrote that Christ, though He was rich, became poor for our sake, so that we might become rich in Him.

James and Paul kind of sound alike when read together. It continues. Everyone knows, “For by grace you have been saved by faith…” but the very next verse continues, “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”[5] Paul does it again Colossians where he prays that they, “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.”[6] So we see in James and Paul, who both correctly teach the doctrine of Christ, exhorting Christians to good works. The focus for both Paul and James is the salvation that we receive freely through faith. Our works have no bearing on the justification that we receive in Christ; they flow from faith in response to Christ’s love.

So now that we’ve determined that it is not against Scripture to speak about works, so long as we keep them separate from salvation, let us move to the teaching the Holy Spirit has for us through James. This Epistle is perhaps the earliest book in the New Testament. At this point Christianity was still operating within the realm of Judaism. Acts tells us that there were a great many priests that converted and were seeking to minister to the others. One of the downsides of Judaism at this time was complacency. People were content to identify as Jews and God’s chosen people, but not really anything beyond that. They were greedy, swindlers, idolaters and adulterers. It even seeped into their worship life. Therefore St. James exhorts his hearers to be rich in good works.

II.

Now we’re talking about the part that makes our Lutheran skin itch. Good works. The text says, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?”[7] James concludes, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works is dead.”[8] We Lutherans have been so accustomed to talk only about how we are saved by grace through faith (which is totally true) that we sometimes don’t know where to go next. Well, we can talk about works without confusing ourselves. James here is talking about sanctification, the redeemed life that we have in Christ and led by the Holy Spirit.

Scripture says that we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works. Stanza 9 of “Salvation unto Us Has Come,” speaks concerning this, “Faith clings to Jesus’ cross alone and rests in Him unceasing; and by its fruit true faith is known, with love and hope increasing. For faith alone can justify; works serve our neighbor and supply the proof that faith is living.”[9] What does that mean? We are justified by God’s grace through faith alone. In Baptism we are given a new heart and a new spirit which then brings forth good fruits. Good works neither create faith, nor are they added to faith as the Catholic Church teaches, but they flow from a living and active faith and cheerful obedience to God’s Word.

Where does that put us? Well, for starters we should stand convicted. We are not as active in love as we could, should, and are called to be. What is a good work? A good work proceeds from a cheerful and willing obedience to God’s will as revealed in Scripture. Feed the hungry, cloth the sick, house the homeless, visit the sick and distressed, stand up for the unborn and the institution of marriage, showing in all things the mercy, the compassion, the love, and forgiveness of Christ. By these things the world will know that we are Christians, the body of Christ on earth. He is the one who created all things, who loves all things, and for us and all people, died on the cross.

Lutherans do have a sort of aversion to this talk. Even the word, “works,” kind of hurts coming out of the mouth, so we resist talking about it, thinking that everything will be okay. But it won’t, and it isn’t. Without the teaching that good works flow from an active and living faith, the sinful nature within us will do its best to have a field day. We behave poorly in church, and before the world Christians become no different than anyone else. For that, we must always stand convicted before the Word of God.

Our lives as Christians will never be totally perfect. We will be partial; we will be complacent to be well-wishers and not good-doers. However, hear this word from James: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.”[10] Though we grow complacent and cold, the love of Christ never grows dim or tired. He forgives all of your sins and has given you His Holy Spirit. Through the preaching of His Word and the Sacraments He strengthens you and leads you to bring forth good works through the gift of a living and active faith.


[1] James 2:24.

[2] James 1:18.

[3] James 2:5.

[4] 1 Cor. 1:27.

[5] Eph. 2:10.

[6] Col. 1:10.

[7] James 2:14-15.

[8] James 2:17.

[9] Lutheran Service Book

[10] James 1:17-18.