10th Sunday After Pentecost August 21, 2011


What Do You Owe God?

Romans 8:12-17

Scripture Readings

Isaiah 55:10-13
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23


11, 417, 373, 222

Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted

May God the Holy Spirit remain living and active in your heart, continually reminding you that you are a holy, sinless, child of God through faith in Jesus Christ and therefore also an ambassador of that same Lord Jesus, representing Him to the world and sharing Him with the world. Amen.

Fellow sinners who have been declared holy in Jesus Christ:

I’m not sure that our country has faced a greater threat than that which is even now systematically dismantling the very foundations of our society. The danger is so profound because it is attacking us not from the outside, it is rotting us from within. I must admit I was naïve to the problem until rather recently, and I realize that I too have been guilty of it. We’ll call it the “you owe me” mindset. Some call it the “entitlement mentality,” but I’m not sure that covers it. The problem is that a growing number of our citizens are adopting the idea that they are owed pretty much whatever they believe they are owed. This week I made a point of looking for examples. There were many…

At Menards I was standing in line with many others waiting to process a return when a 60-something gal stormed to the front of one of the lines and demanded service. Her “return” was the empty box for a deadbolt lock that she said didn’t work and that she wanted to “return.” When the customer service person asked where the lock was, her reply was along the line of, “On my door at home. It isn’t working right and I want my money back.” Unwilling to cause a further scene and amazingly enough, the clerk started to process the “return,” but she told the angry and rather imposing woman that since the purchase was made well over 30 days ago she would have to receive an in-store credit. The woman would have nothing of that. “I don’t shop here often enough for that,” she replied, “just give me my money!”

Evidently it is, or is becoming, an uniquely American idea that a store owes me my money for a product that I buy and continue to use but with which I am not, for some reason, fully satisfied. Nor should I be required to return the product. If I am not happy, the store owes me the merchandise for free.

Also this week I heard a homeowner make the claim that the government owes her family a new home because her family didn’t cause the flooding that is destroying it and the government should have prevented them from building a house where they did. An insurance adjuster recently told me that he long ago lost all faith in the character and honesty of the average American citizen because of a career-long history of being so obviously and consistently lied to by those who had come to believe that insurance companies owed them restitution for whatever they lost, whether they paid for the coverage or not. Our government doesn’t help matters any when it actively promotes the idea that those with more money than you owe you simply because they have more than you do.

It was inevitable, therefore, that the same mentality would eventually creep into the church…and it has. Pastors around the country report a dramatic increase in what members and non-members alike feel that they are owed by their church, whether they are active or not, contributors or not. Others are always expected to pay for those services or goods, and others are always supposed to supply the volunteer labor to make it happen: “Teach my children, entertain my children, feed my family, buy my gas, pay my rent, provide a motel, help with my utilities…” and the list goes on. A growing number of Americans seem to have adopted the mindset that pretty much everyone else is my debtor. Everyone who has what I believe I need or want, owes me.

This sets the stage for today’s text in which the Holy Spirit talks about “debts” and “obligations” but, as we will see, in a much different context. Our text is found in Paul’s letter to the Romans, the 8th chapter:

So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him.

These are the words of our God given to us through verbal inspiration by the Holy Spirit speaking through the prophets of old. We have great confidence in these words because we trust the Source. That our God would bless us through the study of these words we pray: “Sanctify us by your truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth.” Amen.

Admittedly, much of what today ails Christian churches is self-imposed. When churches exchanged their true purpose for the social gospel they themselves changed the image or perception of their church in the minds of their members and society. Suddenly, churches were no longer viewed as spiritual centers but rather, welfare agencies.

The moment the mission statement was changed from “We preach Christ crucified(1 Corinthians 1:23) to “We supply the needs of the poor” the slide into just another welfare agency was inevitable. Worse still, those churches that struggle to maintain a correct focus on Christ’s Great Commission to “Go and make disciples of all nations(Matthew 28:19) are now branded as loveless, greedy, and cold.

But didn’t Jesus feed and heal and in general provide earthly comfort? Jesus Himself said that those kinds of things were not His purpose, but rather signs that proved who and what He is. Every time the people tried to turn Jesus into a provider-king He refused. Another telling example is that of Mary and Martha. Whom did Jesus praise: Martha who sought to feed the body, or Mary who sought to feed her own soul?

But if you are a Christian, aren’t you supposed to consider yourself a debtor to all who are in need? Here’s where our text and our theme come into play. God’s Word unerringly lifts us to a higher plane. God’s Word seeks to get the heart right and then the rest follows naturally. A candle doesn’t need to be reminded to give off light. When the fire is lit the light is automatic. So also good works don’t need to be forced from the Christian they flow naturally and automatically.

Perhaps the most serious problem in this regard is that every society that follows the “you owe me” idea sooner or later turns that same mentality upon its God. You’ve probably heard the result for yourselves: “How is it fair that some get to go to Heaven and not others?” When you stop and think about it, the basic premise of that question is that God owes some sort of debt to mankind. He more or less owes Heaven to everyone unless an individual is grossly undeserving because of his particularly despicable behavior.

God is no one’s debtor. His work, His creation was perfect. Man’s sin ruined everything. Man’s sin destroyed the perfect harmony that God had created. The result of sin is that every single human being deserves hard times on earth, a miserable death, and an eternity in Hell. An honest self-evaluation will demonstrate that the verdict clearly includes you and me. God is in no way my debtor. He owes me absolutely nothing!

Then an incredible thing happened. God Himself, who owed us nothing, Himself provided all that was necessary for any and every human being to escape the Hell that we all had earned. He did this by venting the full fury of His wrath upon His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus received the punishment, and we were credited by God with Jesus’ perfection.

Understand this well. God’s riches provided for our dire spiritual needs. Though every single human being was absolutely unworthy, God nonetheless reconciled the world to Himself by sacrificing His own Son as our substitute. Though He owed us nothing, He gave us everything.

“That’s all well and good,” replies the unbelieving world, “The real question is what comes next?” In other words, since God has done so much for you, don’t you now owe something to God? We turn to our text for answers because this is where profound misunderstanding reigns and where the Gospel itself is often destroyed.

Some may well point to our text insisting that it clearly implies that we owe something to our God. After all, don’t the words “we are debtors, not to the flesh…[v.12] clearly imply that we are therefore debtors to something or someone else, namely God? Doesn’t that even sound right to our human ears? Not if we really understand the Gospel.

For starters, the word translated as “debtors” does not mean what you and I would normally think of as a debtor. A debtor today commonly brings to mind someone who is obligated to repay what he borrowed or received—someone who has to make restitution or reimbursement. The text implies nothing of the kind. The word is better translated as “obligated,” and the passage says simply that Christians have been freed from slavery to sin and are no longer obligated to fulfill the passions of our sinful nature. We never “owed” sin to our sinful nature, but we were “obligated” in the sense that we knew and could do nothing else. We could only sin which is why the Bible describes what the world sees as freedom to do whatever it wants as the worst form of slavery. Unbelievers can do nothing but sin.

Before we were brought to faith, that is all that we were about—fulfilling the desires of our sinful flesh. That’s what is so hideous about the new focus of so many Christian churches on the social gospel—it drives human beings right back to the slavery of their worldly passions. It makes each of us debtors all over again as it drags man’s vision from Heaven and the salvation of the human soul and fixes attention instead on what gives gratification and comfort in this present world.

The amazing truth of the Gospel is that it is truly grace, that is, it is truly not only undeserved, but absolutely free. There is no debt for man to repay. In Jesus Christ we were given a gift free and clear: the complete forgiveness of every single one of our sins. Not only was no payment demanded by our God from mankind, no payment of any kind could possibly be given. Remember how Scripture put it in 2 Corinthians 5:17-20: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.” Note how God did it all. God the Father sent His Son. God the Son paid our debt. God thereby reconciled us to Himself restoring the relationship we had ruined. The result is that we are now His ambassadors, though even that is not our debt to pay, but our privilege to practice.

But aren’t we now obligated to obey the commandments? As God’s children through faith, of course, we want to walk in perfect harmony with God’s will which is exactly what the new man in the Christian wants to do. But that new man does not regard this as a debt to be paid or even as some oppressive obligation that God has placed on us. We see it now as the joyful desire of our hearts. What then do we owe to our God? Nothing—which is the very essence and joy of the Gospel of forgiveness through faith in Jesus Christ. What do we now want to do for our God as His children and as the co-heirs that will one day join Him in Heaven? Anything and everything that pleases Him.

Resist, fellow Christians, the growing prideful notion that you are owed something whether by God or by man. God reminds us that the life of the Christian will be characterized by humble service and by patient suffering. Yet remember too, as our text concludes, that in Christ Jesus we have already won: The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ. [vv.16-17a] Amen.

—Pastor Michael J. Roehl

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