The Sixth Sunday of Easter May 21, 2006

INI

The Foolishness of True Saving Faith

Acts 17:22-33

Scripture Readings

1 Peter 3:15-22
John 14:15-21

Hymns

193, 290, 286, 261

Putting aside all pretense and hypocrisy, may you come face to face with your God, and confessing your sins, stand before him in the righteousness of his Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Dear Fellow Christians:

Paul reminded us in 1 Corinthians 1:26, “For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called.” Why is that? The answer is two-fold: To begin with, those that have everything in this world are little concerned about the world to come. Secondly, those that are “wise according to the flesh” have great difficulty in putting aside their own human wisdom long enough to listen to true wisdom from God the Holy Spirit.

Martin Luther was one of those rare Christian men of great intellect and wisdom. History tells us that he excelled in his study of the law before entering the priesthood. Luther therefore understood the seduction of human logic and reason. Yet on this topic he wrote:

In matters pertaining to faith—matters concerning the divine essence and will and our salvation—we should close our eyes, ears, and all our senses and merely hear and carefully note what and how Scripture speaks of them. We should simply wrap ourselves in God’s Word and follow that: Nor are we to dabble in these subjects with our reason and try to take their measure. Otherwise we shall fare like the fellow who looks directly into the bright sun with bare eyes. The longer he looks into the sun, the greater is the damage he does his vision. So it is here: The more a person wants to search out, plumb, and judge this and other articles of our faith by reason and human wisdom, the deeper he falls into error and blindness.

Christianity, as we have said often enough, is most often anything but logical. In logic one plus one plus one equals three. In Christianity One plus One plus One equals one God. According to human logic it takes a man and a woman to make a baby. In Christianity a virgin conceives. Here on earth you get what you pay for. In Christianity you receive what you did not pay for, what you could not pay for, and what you did not deserve.

Logic is, in fact, most often a great obstacle to Christianity. This simple fact prepares us to hear today’s text: God’s Word recorded for all time in the book of Acts, the seventeenth chapter. Here we learn the natural reaction of the wise men of this world to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshipped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their pre-appointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising. Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.” And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, “We will hear you again on this matter.” So Paul departed from among them.

So far the verbally inspired words from God Himself. What a joy and privilege for a mere man to be able to read and study the very words of God. In great reverence therefore we pray, “Sanctify us through Your truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth!” Amen.

He had them, didn’t he? He had them right where he wanted them—Paul did there on that hill in ancient Athens. But then he lost them right there at the end. How did that happen?

Paul visited Athens during his second missionary journey and he had been enjoying tremendous success—albeit through much persecution. In Thessalonica, for example, “some of the Jews and a great multitude of the devout Greek, and not a few of the leading women(Acts 17:4) came to faith before others drove Paul from the city. At his next stop in Berea, the people received the Word eagerly. We read that “many of them believed(Acts 17:12).

The next stop was Athens, recorded for us in our text. There the people were not as noble as were the Bereans, but they did want to hear Paul speak. After all, Acts 17:21 tells us, “…all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing.” In other words, they were noble in their own minds. They were philosophers and scholars—men of leisure who had nothing better to do than to sit around and discuss trendy new thoughts and ideas. It was a perfect recipe for arrogance and befuddled false wisdom.

But Paul had them, didn’t he? He had their full and undivided attention. They quite obviously heard every word he spoke. They listened and at first were intrigued by Paul’s message. How, why, when did he lose them? At what point did they turn away and lose interest? He lost them at the very point where his message departed from their rational point of view.

Look back at what Paul had been telling them. He credited these men on their religious nature, remarking about the altar that was dedicated to the Unknown God. Paul went on to explain how he knew this “unknown God” and that he was going to tell them about Him. No doubt the Athenians were all ears. Any race of people so zealous to know and please every god that they would erect an altar an unknown god (just in case) would be keenly interested in hearing all they could about that god.

Paul began by speaking to them on their own level. He referenced their everyday life and culture. All of these things the men of Athens could accept. It was not until Paul broached the first uniquely Christian (and illogical) truth that the men of Athens had any objection to what he was saying. Yet we note with great interest that it took only one such Christian saying. One was enough. Paul had only to mention the resurrection of the dead and the Athenians were done listening.

Again, it was not as if these men were not religious—they were extraordinarily religious. It was not as if these men were like the thugs in Thessalonica who started a riot over what Paul was preaching because it interfered with their pocketbooks. These were civilized, religious men. They were wise men and therein lay their downfall. Hear this well: The Athenian’s earthly wisdom served only to confirm them in their damning unbelief.

Learn here the first great lesson of our text. Religion, piety, civility—none of these did the men of Athens any good when it came to the life and death struggle between the Gospel of God and the musings of man. The very intelligence of these men proved to be their downfall. They could accept the concept of a one-God creation. Their logic told them that there had to be a source outside of mankind powerful enough to create mankind, together with the world wherein he dwells. Unlike today, this teaching didn’t seem to pose any problems for the ancient Athenians. But the resurrection of the dead—that was a different story! From little on these men had evidence that what Paul was saying was not true. Every man, woman and child that had died had stayed dead. The experience of even the oldest men on Mars Hill had been that no one ever rises from the dead. Here Paul’s teaching contradicted their logic, their personal empirical evidence, and natural man will choose his own “truth” over the truth of God every time.

This same damning tendency is alive and well in each one of us here. Recognize this in your own heart and the danger it poses to your eternal soul. Christians are continually tempted to abandon the simple truths of God’s Word in favor of our own wisdom, logic, intuition. Every single Christian carries around with him an idea or conception of what is true and right. Solomon warned of the inescapable results of following our own natural preconceived notions when he wrote, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death(Proverbs 14:12).

Those words reveal the subtle, terrible nature of the evil that resides in every one of us. This malevolence is so terrible because, as Solomon warned, it does seem right to us. It seems natural, true, even logical. Whatever therefore conflicts with what we naturally imagine to be right is in constant danger of being dismissed as false.

And if this were not bad enough in itself, the Devil makes things even more difficult for those he would destroy. He recognizes that Christians soon develop a certain comfort level with the big inconsistencies, so he gains entry through the smaller points. In other words, since Christians quickly become comfortable with the big logical inconsistencies like the triune nature of our God, Satan steals his way into unsuspecting churches through other doors. That means that while Christians today might not object to talk of the virgin birth, they feel comfortable in rejecting God’s designated roles for men and women in the church. The resurrection might not be challenged, but Close Communion is.

The reason for this is not that God’s Word is unclear in these matters. The problem is that they tend to conflict with what “feels right” to modern man. Then—make no mistake here—once the Devil has entered the castle through the unguarded side door, the damage he inflicts is every bit as catastrophic as if he had crashed through the main gates. So we see church bodies that once challenged only the fellowship principle, now championing gay marriage. Where once only God’s plan for men and women was at issue, today openly lesbian pastors are now embraced as God-pleasing and acceptable.

The basic truth is that natural man is comfortable with certain elements of Christianity, but only until such truths begin to interfere with what his mind tells him is true. By nature you and I would have no trouble with kindness, gentleness, peace, and the like. That, however, is neither the sum nor the basic substance of Christianity. Such things are products or fruits of Christianity. Christianity is much more, and herein lies the second great lesson of our text. Note well that Paul did go on to say more. He went on to introduce these proud yet desperate souls to the one true God and to their Savior Jesus Christ. He laid his own prideful self-love aside and gave these men the very words of life eternal. If they never heard it again, on that day and on that famous hill they did hear the “foolishness of the Gospel” and the true meaning of the Resurrection and the empty tomb. The message is simple: Jesus was sacrificed to pay for our sins and was raised to life as proof that our debt had been paid. Man will not, therefore, be judged by his own goodness. He can be saved only through faith in the goodness of another: Jesus Christ.

Paul could have avoided the illogical aspects of Christianity in his speech to the Areopagus and never once offended them. What good would it have done them? Paul would simply have helped to confirm those blind souls in their unbelief. In fact every time you and I give the impression to an unrepentant sinner that all is well between him and his God, we confirm him in his sins and in his unbelief. Every time we speak in “I’m okay, you’re okay” terms to an unbeliever, we serve to make him even more of an unbeliever. This is the great tragedy of today’s one-size-fits-all religiosity. Damned sinners could quite easily practice such a religion for a lifetime and never once hear what they need to hear to be turned and to be saved—never once hear that the Gospel is not about what we do, but faith in what Jesus did for us. “In times past,” Paul said in our text, “God overlooked such ignorance, but now commands all men everywhere to repent.[v.30]

What about you in your own personal relationship with your God? Is it a real relationship founded on blind faith in your Lord Jesus Christ, or is yours a religion where you feel free to pick and choose what parts of the Bible your human intellect allows you to believe? What about your conversations and your interactions with your neighbor? Do you put true, pure, real Christianity in your conversation, or do you talk about everything but? Ask yourself, “What real benefit can I be to my neighbor if I never introduce him to both his sin and his Savior?”

Let the words of Paul in our text ring in your ears each time you are tempted to compromise your witness: “(God) has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained.[v.31] The world needs desperately to hear this very message. A good life and pious conduct will save no one. The world will be saved or damned alone on the basis of Jesus Christ. “He that believes and is baptized shall be saved. He that believes not shall be damned(Mark 16:16).

Know then that unbelief will almost always sound and appear completely logical. It is by default what natural man will always choose. Saving faith, on the other hand, is a precious gift created in our hearts only through the working of the Holy Spirit. Praise God that he has given this great gift also to you!

A great change has been worked in you by God Himself, for you too embrace that which is foolishness to the unconverted. You possess, even now, the simple confidence that your sins stand forgiven before your righteous Creator because those sins were loaded upon Jesus and carried by Him to the cross. There He paid for every single one of them. Rejoice, therefore, fellow Christians, that Jesus Christ has written your name too in the Book of Life! This is the mystery of the Gospel—folly to the world, but the great and powerful key to Life eternal for God’s children. Amen.

—Pastor Michael J. Roehl


Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.