Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity October 18, 1998
7, 377, 385
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found? For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin. Here ends our text.
In the Name of Jesus Christ, who bore our sins on the cross, Dear Fellow-Redeemed,
Do you know how many Russian rubles will buy one bushel of U.S. wheat? No, you don’t. Neither do I. For that matter, neither does anyone else, because the Russian ruble is an “unconvertible currency.” Russia is not a member of the International Monetary System, and that means that their basic unit of money, the ruble, can only be used inside the Soviet Union. Whenever the Soviets want to buy goods from a foreign country, they have to use the foreign currency earned by their exports to pay for it. When they buy U.S. wheat, they have to pay for it with U.S. dollars. This causes them no end of trouble—especially now, when they’re trying to reform their national economy. Rubles are just fine, as long as you spend them in Russia; but outside Russia, they’re not worth the paper they’re printed on.
In a way, good works are very much like rubles. They’re good for some purposes, and absolutely worthless for others. On earth, good works will buy you all sorts of things. Before God’s throne of judgement, though, they won’t buy anything. In order to be justified before God, you need a different sort of currency. In our text for today, the Apostle Paul uses the example of Abraham to show us the difference between faith and works. Abraham had both; but he was justified only by one. Which do you think it was? Right now I want you to think about your eternal future in the light of these two currencies. Consider, today, the vital question…
In every community, there are important and respected men who are NOT Christians. How did they get that respect of their fellow men? By using their financial, physical and mental powers to the best advantage. By working hard with what they had. In every community there are respected men who are not believers, and yet they seem to do all sorts of good things for other people, and for the community in general. They give to charities, they sit on the town council, they coach Little League. Could you say that these good works “buy” them anything? Of course they do! They certainly get something in return for their efforts: they get the admiration of their neighbors, peace of mind, and no doubt some sort of “warm feeling inside” from helping their fellow men. These unbelievers give something of themselves, and they get something in return. It’s a fact: good works do buy the admiration of men. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that!
What bothers me are the people who want to use their good works to buy salvation, too—and there are a lot of so-called "Christians" who think they can do that! They confess Jesus with their mouth, but they still have this vague notion that, on Judgement Day, all their good works will be there to back them up; all their faithful church attendance, their generous giving, every time they helped somebody out or forgave an insult. Jesus has some striking words for that sort of attitude, “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ (‘Lord, didn’t I go to church regularly, and didn’t I live an honest life?’) And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness!’” You know, work-righteousness, for as much as we talk about it and warn against it, is not an obvious, up-front sort of sin. It’s a sneaking, deadly idea that can get under anybody’s skin and then grow.
We have to very careful not to give ourselves the least credit for our salvation. In our text, Paul points us to Abraham, one of the great heroes of the Old Testament. Now there was a Godly man if there ever was one! Why, he was ready to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, at God’s request! But what does our text tell us about him? What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found? For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. No, not even Abraham had anything to brag about. This was a good man! A hero of the Old Testament! But if you took all his good works and put them together in a bundle…they would buy absolutely nothing before Almighty God!
When you get right down to it, the only thing we have “bought” in the sight of God—the only thing we really deserve—is His total condemnation for our sins. In the section just before to our text, St. Paul describes the condition of natural man when he says, “…all are under sin; as it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one; There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, there is not even one.’” Romans 3:10-14. Paul didn’t beat around the bush when describing man’s natural ability to "buy" his salvation—that ability is nil!
Now, you’re not going to meet anyone who will tell you right out that they’re buying their way to heaven with good works. Satan’s temptation is much more subtle than that. At first he’ll just ask you to contribute a few of your own good works to supplement Christ’s righteousness; but this is just as deadly a mistake, and finally leads to the same end. As soon as you try to chip in a few of your own goods works to the cause of your salvation, you’re in trouble. The more that you rely on your own merits, the more you deny the merits of Jesus. Before you know it, you’ll be patting yourself on the back and saying, “Of course I deserve to go to heaven! Why, I’ve certainly paid enough for it—just look at all the good I’ve done in my life!” Speaking of the Pharisees, Jesus said, “When you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward…” Mt 6:2. When you parade around doing good works, He says, you may very well gain the admiration of men—but that’s the only reward you’ll get. Good works are like rubles—they don’t buy anything with God!
The truth is that God’s grace and man’s good deeds were never meant to work together. In fact, the Bible tells us that, in terms of justification, the two are mutually exclusive, “…nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified.” Galatians 2:16. It’s an either-or situation; you either accept the full atonement of Jesus, or else you are lost! Jesus said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are ill…I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Matthew 9:12-13. If you cherish the feeling that, well, perhaps you’re not so bad after all, or that at least you’re not as bad as that rotten sinner that lives next door, you are as much as saying to your Great Physician, “Go away, Jesus; I don’t need you forgiveness.” What a horrible mistake, but what an easy one to fall into!
The point is that our salvation has already been purchased, and it was very, very expensive. Jesus bought it by living a perfectly righteous life, and by dying an agonizing death in payment for our multitude of sins. The prophet Isaiah foresaw the suffering of Jesus when he wrote, “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” Isaiah 53:4-5.
The currency that works in heaven is not our own good works, but the blood of our Lord Jesus. He has bought and paid for a place in heaven for every one of us here today. That’s why it’s so important to look away from ourselves and look only toward Jesus—only toward our Savior’s cross—for the complete payment of our entire debt of sin. With faith in Christ, we can say, “Yes, Lord, I know I have forgiveness, because YOU’VE BOUGHT IT FOR ME!”
What are we going to say about doing good things for our neighbor, then? Should we stop trying to do good? No, of course not! In fact, someone who has this gift of forgiveness from God, this free ticket into heaven, just can’t help but express his happiness in words and actions. These are the natural fruits of faith, just as Jesus once said, “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing.” For all the good things that Abraham, the faithful man of God, did, our text tells us that it was his faith in God’s promise that saved him. And what about king David? Did he say, “Blessed is the man who contributes a lot of money to church”? Or, “Blessed is the man who helps old ladies across the street? Blessed is the man who does good works”? No. King David said this: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.”
Rejoice, my Christian friend…for that passage is describing you! In Christ, full forgiveness is free for the asking. All that’s required of you is that you trust in Jesus for salvation. NOTHING MORE! With faith in Christ, eternal life is yours!
President Boris Yeltsin is eagerly looking forward to the day when Russia can join the International Monetary System. When that day comes, the ruble will be convertible, and his country will be able to use it to buy things in other countries. Good works, on the other hand, will never be a “convertible currency”. No one will ever be able to buy salvation with them. Thank God we don’t have to! We’ve already got a currency that works just fine: not gold or silver, but the holy precious blood of our Savior Jesus Christ. What can you buy with it? Heaven. 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.