The Last Sunday of the Church Year November 20, 2005
605(1-3), 609, 652, 605(4)
May the undeserved love of God be multiplied to each of us from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Dear Fellow Christians:
We have reached the end of another church year. Each year at this time it is right and proper for every one of us to look back at the year past and to evaluate our own personal growth or decline—our spiritual condition now compared to our spiritual condition one year ago. Our Lord wants us not merely to survive. He wants us to grow. We could test ourselves in any number of ways, but today we will examine ourselves in light of our grasp of two vital areas of Christian doctrine: sin and grace.
The test is really very simple, but the results are often startlingly revealing. Ask yourself this one simple question: “How do I feel about the possibility of spending eternity with men and women who spent the vast majority of their time on earth indulging every evil passion and perversion?” Do we shudder to think of it?
The fact is we will very likely share heaven with many such souls. The key is the condition of the human soul at the end of his time of grace on earth. To deny that such conversions could really take place (because of the sins that preceded those conversions) is to deny the power of both the Word of God and of the Holy Spirit who administers saving grace. To deny that God could or would ever allow contemptible sinners into heaven is to have a very dangerous misconception of what grace is all about, and just how vile each one of us is in God’s eyes apart from Jesus Christ. To deny heaven to some because of sin is to deny heaven to ourselves.
In our text for this morning, our Lord Jesus makes it clear to all who would listen that God’s grace is truly undeserved love for sinners. The sinner never earns God’s love. It is always given freely, without any merit on our part, by a merciful God. Nor is it ever too late, while breath and life remain, for the sinner to be turned by the Holy Spirit and inherit salvation. The text that will form the basis for our mediation today is the story of life in the midst of death, and it is found in the Gospel account of St. Luke, the 23rd chapter:
And the people stood looking on. But even the rulers with them sneered, saying, “He saved others; let Him save Himself if He is the Christ, the chosen of God.” The soldiers also mocked Him, coming and offering Him sour wine, and saying, “If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself.” And an inscription also was written over Him in letters of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS. Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.” But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
So far the very words of God Himself. These are God’s words, truly worthy of all study and meditation. May God himself bless our study of His words, for which also we pray: “Sanctify us through Your truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth.” Amen.
What is your opinion, your impression, of the thief on the cross—one who suffered alongside our Savior Jesus? Do you picture him as a pretty good guy who just happened to go astray and get caught? Maybe he followed the wrong crowd and just got in over his head. Perhaps we tend to picture him as ruggedly handsome and of a likable personality. Such a picture is probably pure sentimentalism and very likely inaccurate. The Roman system of law and justice, though it erred badly in connection with Jesus, was and is a model used and emulated to this very day. Jesus Christ notwithstanding, the Romans were not generally in the habit of executing innocent civilians. We, therefore, have no reason to believe that the thief was anything other than a thoroughly despicable human being. As evidence we offer the man’s own confession from the cross. He himself admitted that he was getting exactly what he deserved for his sins.
Understand that crucifixion was almost always reserved for the worst and most vile of criminals. It was a slow and excruciatingly painful way to die, and its purpose was to inflict the greatest intensity of pain possible before eventually killing the criminal. It often took three to four days for a man to die from crucifixion. Knowing all of this, the criminal still admitted that he was deserving of such a death. By his own admission this man was a bad character.
We, on the other hand, may prefer to picture this man as sort of a misguided “good guy.” We do so because we imagine both sin and grace to be less than they really are. Admit it. Don’t you imagine that God looks at sins differently? We suppose that God doesn’t so much mind the sinner who only gossips a bit, drives just slightly over the speed limit, lets a bad word slip every now and then, covets a little, and engages in an occasional inappropriate fantasy. In our minds God is—or ought to be—satisfied (if not well pleased) with such a sinner. The hard cold fact is that God is never satisfied with any sinner, let alone well pleased. This is the nature of God over against sin. God cannot tolerate sin of any kind.
But aren’t we all sinners? And does not our Lord still accept us as his children? Our God does not accept us despite our sin. That’s the very point. In his eyes we have no sin. Isaiah tells us, “The Lord has placed on him (Jesus) the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). In God’s eyes we are holy and righteous because He placed the whole ugly mass of our sins on His Son Jesus. We have now been covered with the robe of Christ’s perfect righteousness. We are as perfect in God’s eyes as was his Son. Jesus’ life is now our life, while our sins were given to Jesus.
To deny that even a gross sinner could be converted just before he is executed, and that he can still enjoy the full bliss of heaven, is also to misunderstand the true nature of God’s grace. We in the Lutheran Church are careful with our definitions. There is a reason for that. Definitions are often the very thing that gives form and substance to a faith or religion. Our very careful and precise definition of grace is an example of the crucial importance definitions play in the explanation of our faith. We define God’s grace as “the undeserved love of God for sinful mankind.”
The key to this particular definition is the word undeserved. Absolutely no one deserves God’s love. To imagine that God could not or would not love and reach out even to a perverted mass murderer is the same as removing the word “undeserved” from our definition of grace. Then it must be true that God’s love is deserved—at least in some small way—by some, but not by others. If we truly believe and accept the fact that all sinners are completely foul and unworthy in God’s eyes, then we would have no trouble accepting the fact that God could convert and forgive the terrorist just as readily as he could forgive the liar and the gossip.
No one is in the least bit deserving. This is the beauty and the majesty of God’s grace—His truly undeserved love for sinners. It is an undeserved miracle that takes place in the heart of perverse reprobates like you and me.
And yet there is more to this text, this event. There is both great comfort and great encouragement in the fact that it is never too late, while living, for the Holy Spirit to work saving faith in the heart of the sinner. Not only is no one’s past too black and full of sin, but we also have evidence that God the Holy Spirit can overcome any obstacle to saving faith.
Perhaps the most significant problem we have to overcome in all of this is our tendency to judge God according to human standards, or even according to our own personal standards. We do this when we expect from God what we would expect from ourselves or from another human being. What a tragedy when even one human being comes to believe that his past excludes him from ever being loved and forgiven by God. Why does man do this to himself? Isn’t it because we consider what we would do in any given situation and then assume that God would do much the same? How many times would we, for example, forgive an enemy for repeatedly committing the very same sins? Maybe you are different, but I would long ago have given up on myself, not to mention everyone else. That is exactly how and why we underestimate our God. Only when we can come to terms with the real picture of mankind’s sinful condition—our own sinful condition—only then can we begin to appreciate just what our Savior Jesus did for us on the cross. He did not die for the lovable—there were none. He died to wash the foul clean.
What should be our reaction to all of this? Doubt the enormity and depth of God’s grace, or stand in humble wonder and awe at His mercy and generosity? By the grace of God all who have been brought to faith in Jesus Christ are now called the children of God. What a gift we have all been given! Instead of doubting that this is possible because of our countless sins, revel in the fact that it is indeed true, and that our God has rescued us from certain death in Hell.
Since we still have that sinful Old Adam clinging to us, a warning is in order for God’s children. Understand this about yourselves: it may never seem right to do what is right. It may feel right to turn back again to sin and perversion. Look, for example, at the thief in our text. What probably seemed good and felt right to him during those last dark hours? His religious and political leaders sneered at Jesus and demanded a sign before they would believe in him (though Jesus had given them many such signs.) The soldiers mocked and abused him. Even the other thief dying on the other side of Jesus blasphemed the perfect, sinless Son of God. Don’t you suppose that any and all of these would have felt good and natural to a man who was in great pain dying a horrible death after a despicable life?
To this very day, true obedience will never be easy and will never seem right to the Old Adam in us. It will never fit in with the world’s thoughts and morals.
Neither will Christianity guarantee a life of ease or a reduction in suffering. Turning to Christ does not mean turning away from earthly pain and hardship; it means turning away from sin. Did the thief, for example, continue to suffer on his cross even after Jesus gave him those precious words of absolution and life? Of course he did. The nails still tore at his flesh, his legs were still smashed by the soldiers, and his body still suffered great agony. Yet, during the very last hours of his life his spirit was given the life and peace that never end. All of this is evidence that we ought not expect a life of peaceful ease on earth. Yet, even in the midst of untold suffering we can remain rock-solid certain that our eternal future has been secured by our Lord Jesus.
Dear Christians, let the perversion of the times convince you of the lateness of the hour; but let our text convince you that right now, at this moment, it is not too late—not while the sinner’s heart is beating. God grant to each of us the faith to trust that the sins of all mankind stand forgiven freely for Jesus’ sake, and therefore, to spare no effort, no embarrassment, and no sacrifice in bringing that simple message to the ears and hearts of sinners everywhere.
Surely the end could come at any moment. God grant to each of us the necessary strength and enthusiasm to carry out his Great Commission to “Go and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19) while it is still day. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.