The Third Sunday after Epiphany January 24, 2016
2 Corinthians 13:5-11
1 Peter 1:3-9
5, 517, 366(1-4,7), 50
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Even as all around you the godless madness of this world rages in ever-greater fury, may the simple peace of the Gospel grant calm and contentment to your heart until that incredible day when our Lord rolls up this earth like a scroll and carries us all to the Heaven He has prepared for us. Amen.
Dear fellow workers in the Lord’s service:
One of the paradoxical oddities of the pastoral ministry is the fact that members often hesitate to confide in their pastor and share their problems until that shepherd has been with them for a number of years. Unfortunately, by the time members gain that sense of comfort and confidence, they may also have tired of the sound of the same voice week after week. Having heard many of his “best” stories and examples, there is a tendency to be lulled to sleep by the familiar cadence of his presentations and sermons. In other words, just when a pastor begins to be truly effective, he ceases to be as effective as he once was.
The unique danger—if one can call it that—is that we can come to imagine that we have learned all, or nearly all, that we can from our called servant and, as a result, that we begin to listen accordingly. It is the old “familiarity breeds contempt” carried into spiritual matters. The answer is that no one has ever learned all that he can from another individual simply because that individual has not learned all that he will. That is why pastors continue to study, learn, and grow. It is also foolish to imagine that one can know all that there is to know about another human being in light of the fact that we don’t even know all that there is to know about ourselves.
So it is that we find encouragement in God’s Word to examine and reexamine ourselves—our own hearts, our own thoughts, our own actions. What we find, whenever we attempt such a thing, is that truly understanding ourselves requires both honesty and great humility. We hear just such encouragement from our God in today’s text which is found in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, the 13th Chapter:
Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you are disqualified. But I trust that you will know that we are not disqualified. Now pray to God that you do no evil, not that we should appear approved, but that you should do what is honorable, though we may seem disqualified.For we can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth. For we are glad when we are weak and you are strong. And this also we pray, that you may be made complete. Therefore, I write these things being absent, lest being present I should use sharpness, according to the authority which the Lord has given me for edification and not for destruction. Finally, brethren, farewell. Become complete. Be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.
These are the perfect words of our Holy God. What a blessing it is, in our shabby, artificial, hollow world, to know that these words are both holy and divine without flaw or defect of any kind. God grant us the wisdom to regard these words always with that understanding. With confidence we, therefore, pray, “Sanctify us by Your truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth!” Amen.
First a question for parents: Do you ever wonder if your children hate each other? I know the question occurred to my mother…often. I remember her repeatedly lamenting aloud: “I just can’t help but wonder if you kids even love each other at all.” We would, of course, examine the question briefly in our fertile, adolescent minds, and come quickly to the conclusion that love is not the point. Foolish behavior in one’s brother had to be dealt with, or it would simply fester and grow like a fungus. We were more than happy to do that for each other.
I could always count on my brothers to identify any silly notions that might enter my thought process and quickly and efficiently dispel them with a wrenching headlock or an elbow to the solar plexus. The more serious the foolishness, the more serious the purging or cleansing that was called for. And I was always there for them. I’m not sure that our sister ever understood the procedure, although we regularly tried to include her in the educational process.
On a much more serious note, it can occasionally, or often, occur to us to question our own love—and not just our love for another human being, but our love for our Lord. Although those can be serious and sobering thoughts, they need hold no terror for us. In fact that is the very thing that the Holy Spirit through Paul encourages us to do in our text. There we read quite plainly: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves” (v. 5). He can’t get much more straightforward than that, can He? But what exactly is God suggesting? How do we go about examining ourselves?
There are actually two tests we are encouraged to perform. The first is to evaluate whether or not we are believers. The second test, once we have determined that we are in fact spiritually alive, is to determine if there is any spiritual sickness in us.
How are we then, first of all, supposed to go about verifying whether or not we really are believers in Jesus Christ?
Most of you have probably heard the simplest answer to this dilemma. “If you are worried about whether or not you are a Christian, that in itself is an indication that you are, in fact, a Christian. Unbelievers don’t worry about such things. The concern, in itself, is therefore the verification.”
There is clearly a certain element of truth in that simple answer. It is not foolproof, however. Not much on this earth is. Unbelievers can also worry about death and Hell, but theirs is a different kind of worry—a mindless, panic-stricken terror. The key for the Christian who finds himself in crisis over the very existence of his faith is to stop looking at himself and to start looking only to Jesus Christ. That is where the Spirit directs us: “Do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?” (v. 5). The question then becomes not “What do you think of yourself?” but “What do you think of Jesus Christ?” Do you believe that Jesus did what He said He did and that He was who He said He was? Did He, or did He not, live a perfect life on this earth and then offer that life on the cross as a payment great enough to cancel the debt of every single sin?
Most often we find that doubt is created by our own sin and repeated disobedience to what we know to be the will of our God. At those times—indeed at all times—we are to remind ourselves that this is exactly what we add to the equation of our salvation plan. We add sin, and weakness, and doubt, and inconsistency, and ingratitude, and selfishness, and every other kind of sin and evil imaginable. We add only to the debt side of the ledger. Jesus is the only one who adds to the payment side.
This understanding of what we “bring to the table” is indeed a tremendous comfort whenever we examine ourselves and see exactly what we are supposed to see: our sin. Foolishly, our doubts usually come when we fail to see anything at all that we have added to the payment side of God’s salvation plan—as if we could ever add anything at all to the payment side.
Here there is great irony clearly evident, for we are often comforted by the very situation that should cause us alarm, and we are alarmed by the very situation that should cause us comfort. How so? We are often comforted when we look at our lives and focus on the things that seem to be going well: regular church attendance, consistent prayer and Bible reading, lack of any recent hideous sins, etc. Yet, God’s Word teaches us that “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). Living as we ought to live, in other words, contributes nothing toward our salvation—no more than saying, “Thank You,” caused the gift that preceded the, “Thank You.” Yet, it seems to always be in surveying our own conduct that we often manufacture our own consolation. A realization of our sins is actually now a source of comfort—or should be. How is that possible? Because it demonstrates that we are included in the central Gospel truth that Jesus Christ came to save sinners. Jesus didn’t come for those who think they are well, but for those who know they are sinners.
So it is that our text continues by talking about “failing the test” (v.5 ESV). What does it mean to “fail the test”? What it does not mean is that our actions fail to measure up to God’s requirements. How could it mean that when our part of God’s salvation equation, our contribution, is sin and failure of every kind? Since Jesus provided everything necessary on the payment side of the Father’s plan, the only way any human being can now “fail to meet the test” is to reject Jesus’ payment. We do that by trying to replace it or supplement it with our own good works.
The word picture contained in the Greek word that is translated as “fail to meet the test” is that of a coin that is tested in an effort to determine whether or not it is genuine and, therefore, whether it has any value. Though there is little danger today that anyone would go to the trouble of trying to counterfeit American coins—it would cost more to make the counterfeits than the criminal would stand to gain—as late as 50 years ago this sort of testing was still done in the United States. The easiest, most common test was to drop the coin on a marble countertop and to listen to the ring of the coin. A solid, genuine coin would “ring true.” The ring of a counterfeit would be dull and lifeless.
Imagine the horror of standing before God on the Day of Judgment and hearing His eternal condemnation of your faith as counterfeit and worthless. There is only one way that sort of thing could ever happen, and that is when man rejects Jesus and tries to pay for his own sins with his own currency of good works. That is the only sort of payment that could ever be disqualified by God. He is certainly not going to disqualify, or declare counterfeit, the perfect holy payment made by His own dear Son. How could He? Why would He? He Himself declared that payment to be perfect and complete by raising Jesus from the dead. What hung in the balance as Jesus lay in the tomb was not just Jesus’ own eternal future, it was our eternal future. Remember that God had laid on Jesus “the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). When God raised Jesus, He declared the entire debt of sin to have been paid in full. The soul that pleads the blood of Jesus on Judgment Day simply cannot be condemned, for God Himself has sworn, “whoever believes in [Jesus] shall not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16).
We can see, therefore, that when the Holy Spirit encourages us to “Examine ourselves to see whether you are in the faith,” and to “Test ourselves” (v. 5), we are right first of all to see only debt in our lives—the debt that was, however, paid in full by our Savior Jesus. The right question to ask of ourselves is not, “Am I good enough?” but “Was / is Christ good enough? Do I believe that He paid my sin-debt for me?” A “yes” answer to the last question is as good a definition as any of saving faith.
Having, therefore, determined that we are alive through faith in Jesus Christ, Paul also encourages us toward the second part of the self-examination: Is there “sin sickness” in my life that is causing me harm and threatening my faith and eternal salvation? Our text first spoke of whether or not we are alive in Christ. Now, we find exhortations in our text that we “do no evil” and that we “should do what is honorable” (v.7). There is no contradiction here. We are not saved by our actions, yet by our actions we certainly want to thank our Lord for what he has done for us. This is not a difficult distinction to make, but you would never know it by the number of Christian denominations who justify themselves according to their own conduct.
Think of it in terms of going to the doctor. You don’t go to the doctor to determine if you are alive, you go to get help with a problem, or to determine if you are sick. So also Christians are assured that we are alive in Christ, but we now also want to identify and purge any cancer of sin from our lives. The purpose of regularly evaluating ourselves and our actions is never intended to give us confidence or assurance that we are Christians. It is done as Christians to see if our actions are in harmony with our Savior’s will for our lives. He bought us. We are His. How does He now want us to live out our time of grace on this earth?
Such an examination is now the responsibility of every single Christian. It is something each of us is moved to do on our own—willingly, according to that new man that has been brought to life within us. The new man in us is not afraid of God for our new man exists in perfect harmony with our God—experiencing only God’s love and mercy. That part of us is a perfect, holy creation of our Savior God, and it is that part that we want to “put on” every moment of our lives.
So it is that the Holy Spirit calls on you, personally and individually, to examine your hearts and lives and to honestly identify what is not right and to rip from your life—no matter how difficult—all that does not belong there. No other human being can do that for you.
Learn then to know yourself as a sinner who could never contribute anything to his own salvation. But then know yourself also as a perfect and holy saint in the eyes of God because of the payment Jesus Christ made on your behalf. Then, with confidence in God’s own assurance that by grace through faith you are, in truth, His own child, take to heart His call to regularly identify and purge from your life all that does not serve to the glory of the God who has saved us.
Then, finally, don’t fail also to apply the closing words of Paul to yourself: “Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you” (v. 11 ESV). Amen.
Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.