The Third Sunday of Advent December 17, 2006
70, 61, 65(1-4), 528(3)
For as many as have sinned without law will also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law will be judged by the law (for not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified; for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them) in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel.
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior:
A while back I had heard on the radio that the latest trend in the church pew industry was to install cup holders. I can’t envision that we would go in that direction, but the generation previous to ours might have questioned why we have pads for our pews. A few hundred years ago even being able to sit down would have been considered a luxury. Everybody used to stand, and at that time they had a one hour sermon and a one hour prayer, and this was without the benefit of fans, air conditioning, or central heat. We would have to admit that we have moved toward being more comfortable as we worship our Lord.
But even if we had couches and recliners instead of wooden pews, there would be times when we would be uncomfortable in reading or hearing the Word of God. This is the case when God’s Word requires righteousness and we look within ourselves and instead of finding righteousness we find a deep layer of sin. In today’s text and elsewhere in Scripture, the Lord wants us to be uncomfortable so that we realize that true comfort and peace come only from Him. It was for those very reasons that Jesus came to this earth. May we find continued comfort in Him alone this Christmas season.
There are two false premises put to rest in our text. These are summed up in verse 12: “For as many as have sinned without law will also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law will be judged by the law.” The two positions that this strikes down are first the excuse, “I didn’t know what was wrong so I shouldn’t be responsible,” and the second is, “Since I know what is right and wrong that should be good enough.” Both of these attitudes bring false comfort to the person relying on them.
Just because a person was not aware of all the intricacies of the Ten Commandments will not earn him a pass on the Last Day. God tells us that ignorance is not an excuse. In verses 14-15, He lays out the reasons why: “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things contained in the law, these although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts…” Exhibit A is the knowledge of God’s Law that we know simply by nature. Even pagan societies have formed codes of law that are based on the Ten Commandments. People know instinctively that murder and stealing and lying are wrong. People also know by nature that we should respect our parents and elders. This shows that the Law of God is at least partially written in our hearts.
If that’s not enough, then there is the proof God gives through one’s conscience: “…their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them”.
We do know that a conscience can be made dull over time and will not be entirely accurate if not trained by the Word of God. Nevertheless, your conscience is proof that you are answerable to someone beside yourself. It is proof that you know deep down inside that your guilt needs to be addressed. There needs to be some sort of payment for your guilt. On the Last Day a person will not be able to say, “I didn’t know that I was guilty.” Your conscience has already told you.
On the other hand, a person who knows the Law, but does not do it will not be exempt from judgment. “For not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified.” [v.13] If you can recite the Ten Commandments perfectly, it will not gain you any favor before the Judgment throne of Christ. Here is another area in which people take false comfort. False pride is taken in knowledge and in the hearing and knowing what is right. God is concerned with more than that. He is interested in the doing. God’s Law does not have any loopholes or technicalities. You are responsible for keeping it in its totality.
If you are pulled over for doing 70 mph on a state highway in Wisconsin it won’t do you much good to say, “I know that the speed limit is 55. I think that’s a good law.” Neither will you be excused if you say that you didn’t know what the speed limit is. In the same way both the atheist who says to God, “I didn’t know,” and the moralist who said, “I did know,” will both be condemned on the Last Day.
Are you comfortable now? Hopefully not because that is not the purpose of this part of the sermon, or more importantly this part of the Bible. God uses the threats of His Law to show us the utter hopelessness that we have without Him. In Basic Training, the Army trains a new recruit to “unlearn” everything that he knows so that he can be trained the Army way. Similarly, God uses His Law to get rid of every shred of hope we have for salvation simply within us. He wants to get rid of false comfort. To this end at times we will need a blow by blow account of how we have sinned. That can be painful, but necessary, to knock down pride.
As an example: In the school’s Catechism Class we have studying the 9th and 10th commandments concerning coveting. It would seem that it would be relatively painless to evaluate ourselves concerning coveting, but that is not the case. Consider the symptoms of covetousness: jealousy, envy, greed, anxiety, worry, lack of contentment. Which one of us is satisfied every hour of every day with what God has given us? Which one of us has been content even for 24 hours? Each commandment breaks us down in preparation for the Savior just as the John the Baptizer found that he had to break down many self-righteous before the arrival of Jesus. There is not room for both self-righteousness and Christ in the same heart.
What a relief to find comfort in Jesus! God could have left us with the Law written in our hearts and our consciences. He could have revealed to us the Law written in His Word and then done nothing else. He would have been perfectly right and just in doing so—but He did not. He sent His very own Son to change our status from condemned to redeemed. The words of the angel in Luke 2 may resound in our ears and hearts not only at Christmas but throughout the year: “For unto to you is born this day in the city of David, as Savior who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). God sent Jesus for you.
God sent Jesus to bring comfort to the afflicted and take away that burdensome weight of guilt. In Christ we find a true and effective removal of guilt, not just some stop-gap solution. Jesus, knowing what the curse of the Law was, became a curse for us. When God then tells you that you are declared to be “not guilty,” you may truly believe it! He did not let us off on a technicality. Rather, knowing that there was no way out for us, no excuse in knowledge or lack of knowledge, He provided the cure for your guilt and punishment. While the Law shreds any hope of heaven, Jesus and His forgiveness gives you every reason to hope for a future with your Lord.
Paul says in verse 16, “God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel.” This is not to say that he had exclusive rights on it, but rather he is referring to the good news that He was preaching about Jesus and not some homespun ideas of how a person is saved. There are all sorts of home remedies for sin and guilt, but none is truly effective. Whether you knew or didn’t know all the Law of God, it is most important that you know that Jesus kept all of that Law for you.
Just as you will not be comfortable looking for righteousness within, you may be totally comfortable for your future in looking outwardly to Jesus. He took away what was poisonous and damning to us. He then supplied what we needed: righteousness. If you want joy on this day don’t look within. Instead look to the manger, to the cross, to the empty grave and see the complete work of Jesus for you.
Everyday no matter what new guilt you may find, whatever grief you may encounter, whatever pain you may be going through, know that you are right with God through Jesus Christ. What great spiritual freedom there is in knowing that information! You can be comfortable in church when you hear the good news of salvation. You can be comfortable whether you’re sitting or standing when the focus is on the Redeemer. You can be comfortable anywhere from the battlefield of Iraq to the playground because you know that Jesus is on your side. You can be comfortable even on your death bed when you are right with God—and you are. Jesus has left nothing undone concerning our salvation, and this brings us tidings of comfort and joy.
Don’t minimize the Savior’s work by minimizing your sin. Rather, with no excuses confess your sins to God and find the wonders of His love in the monumental and complete forgiveness He gives away. Amen.
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