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.

Augsburg Confession, Article XX: Good Works

“Our teachers are falsely accused of forbidding good works,” so begins Article XX of the Augsburg Confession. It continues, “Their published writings on the Ten Commandments, and other similar writings, bear witness that they have usefully taught about all estates and duties of life. They have taught well what is pleasing to God in every station and vocation in life.”[1]

Article XX of the Augsburg Confession is subtitled, “Good Works,” and is by far the longest article in the Augustana (the Latin title of the AC). You may remember that the topic of good works has come up already – particularly in Article IV, “[We teach] people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works. [They] are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith…” and in Article VI, “[We] teach that this faith is bound to bring forth good fruit. It is necessary to do good works commanded by God, because of God’s will. We should not rely on those works to merit justification before God.”[2] Despite these clear discussions of the relationship between faith and good works, it still got muddied by our opponents. This topic was, perhaps, the chief difference between the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutherans – and it remains so today. However, we will allow that the different poles have grown (slightly) closer over the centuries.

This article is a long one, so I will provide the link for you to read it here. In a nutshell, the article answers the question: “What about good works?” The answer is: we do them, not to merit righteousness nor salvation, but because they are God’s will. A living faith is bound to and will bring forth good fruit. The Lutherans were falsely accused by the Romans of both abolishing and forbidding good works. They accused us of removing good works from salvation, and then going as far as to say that we are not allowed to do them. Well, we’re guilty on the first charge: our good works do not contribute to our salvation. On the second charge, some Lutherans did teach this later on and were publicly rebuked for it.

So what do we teach? “First…that our works cannot reconcile God to us or merit forgiveness of sins, grace, and justification. We obtain reconciliation only by faith when we believe that we are received into favor for Christ’s sake.” (9) That’s pretty much what we already said back in Article IV. Our good works do not reconcile us to God, nor do they merit anything salvific. We are reconciled to God for Christ’s sake through faith. The article goes on to quote both St. Paul and our Lord on this matter. It also defends against the charge that the Lutherans have created a new interpretation of Paul. “If anyone wants to be tricky and say that we have invented a new interpretation of Paul, this entire matter is supported by the testimony of the Fathers. Augustine defends grace and the righteousness of faith in many volumes against the merits of works. Ambrose, in his book The Calling of the Gentiles, and elsewhere, teaches the same thing.” (12-13)

But, why go over all this again? Both our conscience and the comfort of salvation are at stake. The article says, “This whole doctrine must be related to the conflict of the terrified conscience. It cannot be understood apart from that conflict.” (17) That is to say, when sins wreaks havoc in our lives and we are revealed to be the most terrible and wretched of sinners, it is of the utmost comfort to know that it is not my work that gains salvation – but Christ’s. As the hymn goes, “Thy works, not mine, O Christ.” Now, the article says, spiritually inexperienced people dislike this doctrine. Our sinful flesh would like nothing more than to take pride in our own worth. But, “God-fearing and anxious consciences find by experience that it [this article] brings the greatest consolation.” (15)

The article then points out the fact that, up until then, the consciences of God’s people were plagued by the doctrine of works. There was no comfort offered in the Gospel of Christ. Instead, people were driven into the desert and monasteries, hoping to merit grace by a pious life. Over time, more good works were invented to merit grace – pilgrimages and such. To these things, people were pointed – and not to the comfort of the Gospel of Christ. “That is why the need was so great for teaching and renewing the doctrine of faith in Christ, so that anxious consciences would not be without consolation but would know that grace, forgiveness of sins, and justification are received by faith in Christ.” (22)

Next, the article moves onto what we mean by “faith.” It says, “People are also warned that the term faith does not mean simply a knowledge of a history, such as the ungodly and devil have. Rather, it means a faith that believes, not merely the history, but also the effect of the history.” (23) This is actually pointing back at our opponents. It was taught that if one simply acknowledges the historical facts of Christ’s passion, it was enough. The Lutherans teach that assenting to the bare facts is not enough. Faith is also trusting in the effects of it all: Christ suffered and died for us on the cross so that we may receive forgiveness and righteousness by grace through faith. As it says, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1)

Lastly, “We teach that it is necessary to do good works. This does not mean that we merit grace by doing good works, but because it is God’s will.” (27) It is only by faith that we receive the forgiveness of sins. The Holy Spirit creates faith through the preaching of the Gospel and the Sacraments, and through those things He also renews our wills and causes us to bring forth good works. Without the Holy Spirit, it is impossible to do good works. Works that seem to be righteous (considered righteousness even by the world) are in fact sinful, when done apart from faith.

It is necessary to do good works according to God’s holy will. Through the Word and Sacraments, the Holy Spirit leads us to do them. While we are in the flesh, we will never be perfect in our works. Our sinful flesh is always at war with the law of our minds, as St. Paul would say. Nor are all good works visible. Prayer on behalf of others is an example of a good work that flows from faith, but isn’t necessarily visible.

This was a rather long discussion. But, then again, it’s a rather important topic. Where does our righteousness before God – and salvation – come from? From our works? No, but from Christ. Christ is our righteousness, and His work is counted to us through faith. Do we then discount good works? No. Good works are to be done. It is God’s will. As the hymn goes, “For faith alone can justify; Works serve our neighbor and supply the proof that faith is living.”

Next month we’ll cover a topic that maybe you’ve had some questions about: the saints in heaven. What are they up to, and why do Lutherans not pray to them? After that, we’ll turn to the next section of the Augustana, concerning errors that had popped up in the practice of the Church, which are now corrected. Examples? Communing in both kinds, the marriage of priests, and the authority of the Church. See you next month!


[1] Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 42. Further quotes from this article are marked by their paragraph number.

[2] Ibid., pg. 33.

Book Review, “Has American Christianity Failed?”

Wolfmueller, Bryan. Has American Christianity Failed? 2016. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

When you are surrounded by a smell, you eventually go ‘nose-blind.’ You stop smelling what those outside your environment can smell. Your nose starts to ignore those common everyday smells…Christians in America have gone theologically nose-blind. (pg. 7)

That, in part, is how Pastor Wolfmueller – a pastor of the LCMS congregation Hope Lutheran in Aurora, Colorado – opens his 2016 book. Wolfmueller writes from the perspective of one who’s come out of American Evangelical Christianity to those currently suffering at its hands, burned out by it demands, and broken by its failed promises. Wolfmueller’s chief charge against “American Christianity,” is that it robs the Christian of the Gospel. Instead being concerned primarily about what Christ did for us on the cross, American Christianity places its focus on the individual. Instead of building its hope on the objective reality that Christ has secured the forgiveness of sins for the whole world, in American Christianity this objective reality is replaced by subjective feelings. Certainty from outside oneself is replaced by self-security.

The result is that, in American Christianity, one is always teetering between two extremes: pride and despair. With its emphasis on internal feelings and one’s own fulfilling of the Law, American Christianity grooms its followers into Pharisees. When the Christian faith is all about me: my faith, my testimony, my witness, my repentance, my love for God, my progression in the faith – it’s easy for the me to become so big it blocks out the Son. But, on the flip side, the more one truly focuses on himself, it’s also easy to see how great our sin actually is: our lack our repentance and our constantly repeated failure to cure ourselves of sin. What should be offered to one who realizes these things is the comfort of the Gospel. But, instead, American Christianity urges that we dust ourselves off and start again. This inevitably leads to despair and, eventually, despair of the Gospel – unbelief.

Pastor Wolfmueller writes for those broken by the failed promises of American Evangelicalism, but he also includes those who may have become blind to its influences – even within Lutheranism. He names and answers four characteristic influences of Evangelicalism that, because we also still bear the Old Adam, also affect Lutheranism: revivalism, pietism, mysticism, and enthusiasm. Each of these “isms” moves the focus of the Christian away from the cross and to oneself.

But there is hope. There was hope for Pastor Wolfmueller, and there is for all those broken by the demands of the Law. That hope is Jesus Christ and the complete and totally free forgiveness of sins found in Him. His grace demands nothing in return, only faith. You’ll find this and much more in this wonderful and refreshing book. Pastor Wolfmueller, as expected, is well-versed in the Catechism; His book also serves as a great refresher for those who haven’t been through it in a while. It also covers major topics like good works and the end times (which receives an entire chapter).

If this sounds interesting to you, get hold of me and you can borrow my copy. It’s also easily available through Amazon and CPH, in paper and digitally.

Pastor Swenson

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Text: Luke 18:9-14

Listen to the sermon here

Two men enter, and two men leave. Two men go up to the temple to pray, and both go down again. Two men go in, but only one returns justified. One man was a Pharisee and the other, a tax collector. Yet, the one who went down justified was not the one people would’ve expected. Our text today from St. Luke’s Gospel often gets combined with another occasion where Jesus talks about Pharisees and prayer. In Matthew 6, Jesus says, “when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” Jesus uses the word “hypocrites” there, but it’s clear that He’s talking about the Pharisees, who habitually put on shows of piety for others to see.

Passages about the Pharisees often get combined, and most of the time when they come up, the sermon becomes an opportunity to encourage humility and tolerance. For, every knows how judgmental those evil Pharisees were; and, of course, we are better than they are. Or, if you like – take out Pharisee and put in whatever other people you want. Although we could preach a sermon on humility from this text, I’m not convinced that’s the main point. St. Luke gives us why Jesus preached this parable in verse 9, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous.”

This parable is a little more sophisticated than it appears at first. It actually cuts right to the core of the Christian faith and the thing that separates the true faith from all the other falsehoods out there. The core of the Christian faith and what separates us from all other religions is how we are justified, how we are made righteous – how we are saved. Two men go into the temple to pray, one leaves justified. One man offers an eloquent prayer, which is to be commended, but his prayer revealed where his confidence ultimately lied: in himself. So, he left without his sins forgiven. The other, as we will see, returned to his home forgiven. Jesus demonstrates in our text that the ones who are truly justified – who are made righteous and whose sins are forgiven – are those who trust not in themselves, but only in God’s abundant mercy.

I.

Our text begins, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: ‘Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.’” In Luke 18, things are starting the ratchet up a little bit. If your remember last week, our text was Luke 19, which was just after Triumphal Entry. Jesus is teaching in this chapter in view of His upcoming passion. The things that He talks about have His suffering and death as their central point. Soon after our text comes Jesus’ third prediction of His death, which will accomplish all that was written in the prophets; He will win salvation for the world by His death and resurrection. His suffering is what makes peace between God and the world and is the reason for our justification.

In order to teach this, Jesus uses a parable. He sets up a contrast that would be startlingly real to the audience. In one corner, a Pharisee, and in the other, a tax collector. It’s important to remember that, contrary to how we perceive Pharisees now, they weren’t the bad guys. Well, they were for their evil doctrine; but think of the Pharisees as the people in church that everyone likes. They are the most religious, most giving, most well-liked people in the congregation. They were whom everyone looked up to. The tax collector, on the other hand, was the bad guy. Yeah, they were Jews. But they were greedy swindlers, who worked for the Roman occupiers. They paid a great sum of money be tax collectors, only so they could extort more money out of their fellow man. And yeah, they probably went to church, but they maybe weren’t the most well-liked.

II.

Both men go up to the temple to pray. “The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’” The Pharisee goes up to the temple for the time of corporate worship with all the other people, but he situates himself so that he is set apart from the others. To some extent, this was the Pharisees’ M.O.; to them you were either pure or not. Salvation for them was measured by how pure you were. Included among those who were not pure, were some who were fellow churchgoers. So, he separated himself from the crowd, because if he got too close, then he would also be impure, and then also so he could be seen by the others.

He offered this prayer: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers…” Now, in some ways, the prayer itself is not so bad. It is good to thank God that He has preserved us from falling into great shame and vice. If it weren’t for the Holy Spirit, we would be much worse off. It’s okay to recognize that. But that’s not what the Pharisee did. Remember why Jesus is telling this parable. The Pharisee was saying that he was better than all other men. All the others are unrighteous robbers and adulterers, but not him. He concluded that, because he does not do any of those things, he must be righteous. Then he justified himself by saying, in addition, he also fasted not once but twice a week and tithed not just what he earned, but also what he bought.

Jesus spoke this parable against those who were confident that they were righteous in and of themselves. They were the ones who counted their works, and based their hope of salvation on them. The Pharisee wasn’t really thanking God, but he was advertising and celebrating himself. He didn’t need to ask God for forgiveness, because he knew how good he was. His posture and prayer revealed what was inside his heart: neither repentance over sin nor faith in Christ, only his own goodness. Therefore, Jesus said, the Pharisee was not the one who went down from the temple justified. The Pharisee thanked God that he was not like the others, the unrighteous. But now he is the “other,” the one whose sins were not forgiven. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

III.  

The tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.” As the Pharisee stood in front of the congregation congratulating himself, the tax collector stood at a distance. All men are liars, cheaters, adulterers, and thieves – in other words, poor miserable sinners – a fact the tax collector freely acknowledged. Convicted by God’s Word and ashamed of his sin, the man would not even look up to heaven. Instead, he beat his chest. This act of contrition was common in times of great sorrow, but even then usually only among women. For a man to do it…

He offered up a simple prayer, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Hidden in those words is a profound theological statement that we miss in English.The word for mercy in Greek is ἔλεος , which is where we get Kyrie Eleison from. That isn’t the word the tax collector uses. He uses the word ἱλάσθητί, which relates to another word, ἱλαστήριον. The ἱλαστήριον is the part on the ark of the covenant that would be covered by blood of a sacrifice. Once a year, one priest would go furthest into the temple, into the holy of holies. There he would present a sacrifice and sprinkle the blood on the mercy seat of God. That blood would cover the sins of the people.

When the tax collector came to the temple and offered that simple prayer, what he was asking was that the blood that was shed for the forgiveness of sins would be for his sins also. His sins were great and many, there was no righteousness in him. But God is righteous and merciful and provides His own payment for sin. The author to the Hebrews writes, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins…[therefore, Christ] by a single offering [he] has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” When the tax collector begged that God would have mercy on him, he asked that God would make atonement for his sins and wash them away with blood. And, so has God done through the blood of Christ.

Jesus said, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.” Those who are truly justified, made righteous, are those who trust not in themselves, but wholly in God’s abundant mercy. The Pharisee prided himself in his goodness. Though it is good to tithe and do other good works, it is wrong to place your confidence in them and measure your salvation against them. Or, insert good intentions, good morals, church attendance, or whatever else you want into that sentence. The Pharisee is anyone who places his hope of salvation and confidence anywhere other than God’s mercy. The tax collector went away justified, forgiven his sins, because he trusted not in himself but in God’s great compassion. Does that mean the tax collector got a free pass to continue on sinning? No, for being forgiven our sins leads us to show that same compassion to others. But, that is the point. We are not saved by who we are, by our works, or by anything else we do. We are saved because God has had mercy on us. He has made atonement for our sins not by the blood of bulls and goats, but by the blood of the only-begotten Son of God.

 

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.

Apart from the Law

Text: Romans 3:19-28

This year marks the 497th anniversary of the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses by Martin Luther on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Though it was early in his career, he wouldn’t die for another 29 years, Luther had already stumbled onto the fact that, contrary to the Church’s teaching of his day, we are saved by grace alone. Our sins are forgiven purely through the precious, innocent suffering and death of Jesus Christ, and not through any work or worthiness of our own. This played out in the 16th century as the controversy over indulgences. Indulgences were pardons that you could buy for yourself or a relative to get them out of purgatory, and thus into heaven, quicker. This situation would become the catalyst for what is now known as the Protestant Reformation.

The central idea, the spark that ignited the flame, is here in Romans 3. The text says that the righteousness of God is manifested apart from the law. One is justified by faith, apart from any works of the law. To be true, this idea is the central idea of all Scripture. It is all about the promise of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. This is what our Lutheran forefathers called, “The Article upon which the Church Stands or Falls,” meaning that if this teaching is lost, so then is the Church. Thus, this is our good confession this Reformation: The righteousness of God is manifested apart from the law; we are saved by grace.

I.

The Apostle Paul writes in our text, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in His sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”[1] We read that verse and, at least at first glance, it appears to be such a no-brainer. Earlier in chapter 3 we read, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”[2] We all have that and Ephesians 2, where it says we are saved by grace, in mind; but our flesh often tells us something different.

Paul’s writing here is a clean cut against our natural human inclination. It’s very, very, subtle – but our natural tendency is to search inside ourselves. We’re taught from childhood to look inside ourselves and others to find the good that is inside us all. We’re taught to look inside and do our best to be a good person, because good things happen to good people. That sentiment is what you’ll find in many of the best-sellers at the bookstore, but it’s not Gospel – it’s law. Law says: put good in, get good out. Some call it karma, but it’s still law, and it gets us nowhere.

Verse 19 says, “We know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.”[3] The purpose of God’s law is to stop every mouth. It’s to stop us from claiming to be a good person or to deserve heaven. The law shuts every mouth. Galatians 3 says that “the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin.”[4] Eternal life was not intended to come through following the law, because then there would be no promise. The purpose of the law, the 10 Commandments, is to show us that we fail to earn God’s favor. The idea of putting good in to get good out doesn’t work with God.

God shows us this in the law because we naturally try to do things. We want to do better than everything and everyone. We want things to do, we want to work and to contribute. There must always be something that we can add to the situation. But that is all false. There is nothing that we can do to earn our own salvation or contribute to it. God’s law shows us that we fail at everything, even at our attempts to be decent human beings. Try going even one day without being driven by your hunger for food or desire to not be bored. God’s Law says, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”[5] Often we wrestle with the temptation to skip church, or even in church we find ourselves thinking about whether the Vikings will win against Tampa Bay or how the Bison did yesterday. The purpose of the law is to catch us in our sin, to imprison us beneath it so that salvation might be totally through faith in Jesus. Over 400 years before the law was given on Mt. Sinai God promised to Abraham that in Christ all nations would be blessed.

II.

            Contrary to the Beatles, love is not all you need. Even if it were, we still wouldn’t have enough to even gaze upon the walls of the heavenly Jerusalem.

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”[6]

Luther’s breakthrough was his rediscovery of the Biblical truth. Instead of through works of the law, the righteousness of God is manifested in Christ. Righteousness is not something that we earn or deserve or merit or even have in ourselves, but it is the free gift of God through faith in Christ Jesus.

This is not a new teaching, as Paul’s opponents were charging against him. They insisted that, in order to remain a Christian and in God’s grace, one had to follow the law. But instead, righteous is apart from the law, as the Law [capital “L”] and the prophets, the Old Testament, bear witness. Scripture says that God spoke of His Son through the prophets long ago. As St. Peter spoke to the centurion Cornelius, “To him [Jesus] all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name.”[7] Jesus also said that Moses wrote of Him and Isaiah spoke of Him. As He was speaking to disciples on the road to Emmaus after the resurrection, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.”[8]

When Paul writes that the Law and the Prophets bear witness to the fact that righteousness comes through faith, he means that the entire Old Testament is about Jesus – The Offspring that would crush the head of the serpent, the promised Offspring of Abraham, the Bronze Serpent on the pole to which the people looked and were healed of the poison within them, the New Prophet who would speak with the words of God; all of the Scriptures are about Jesus. It’s all about faith in Him. Because we are sinners, Jesus was put forward as the payment for our sin. He made propitiation by His own blood, though He Himself was without sin.

The Scripture says, “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”[9] Justification, being declared righteous in God’s sight and forgiven our sins, is not something that we can do ourselves. In Luther’s time, they had the idea that you could buy your way into heaven. You can’t. Today we often find ourselves clinging to morality or some sense that we are good people, and that good things happen to good people. But God’s law shows that we are not good people. We put ourselves before others, before God. We take the Lord’s name in vain. We refuse to hear and obey God’s Word. We do not honor our parents or those in authority. We harbor malice in our hearts. We lust. We could keep going down the list. Every single sin is punishable by death. On our own, we cannot get out of it.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”[10] Though our human inclination is to look for things to do, in the case of salvation, there is nothing left to do. Even though we try to be good and follow God’s law, we fail. But Jesus’ Word stands true, “It is finished.”[11] All the work is done. Jesus has won for you the forgiveness of sins by the shedding of His own blood and He gives you His righteousness freely. In His Word, He comes to you. He does all of the work. In His Holy Sacrament, which we are about to receive, He comes with His very body and blood to be received for the forgiveness of sins. In Him all things are ready and prepared; through faith in Him we have salvation. There is nothing left to do but receive the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus, apart from the law.

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Rom. 3:20.

[2] Rom. 3:10–12.

[3] Rom. 3:19.

[4] Gal. 3:22

[5] Ex. 20:8

[6] Rom. 3:21–25.

[7] Acts 10:43.

[8] Lk. 24:27.

[9] Rom. 3:28.

[10] Eph. 2:8.

[11] Jn. 19:30