22nd Sunday after Pentecost October 21, 2018
2 Corinthians 4:1-7
270, 26, 469, 433
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
May the fact of the Reformation, which we prepare to celebrate next week, fill you with confidence that our heavenly Father will never abandon His Church, and that he will never abandon any one of you, his sons and daughters—members of that same beloved Church. Amen.
Dear Fellow Christians; isn’t it interesting how the written word can be so obvious and clear in the mind of the writer and yet so unclear and confusing in the mind of the reader? Or so misunderstood? If we didn’t know that fact before, we surely came to know it with the advent of email. How many times have you labored over the wording of a short little email, struggling to make it as unmistakably clear as humanly possible, only to have the recipient understand something totally different than what you intended? The smiley face and “lol” are children born of that problem. Too often words that you write as light-hearted and happy are read as angry and critical. To clarify or establish the verbal mood, you toss in a regular smiley face, “lol,” or “ha, ha.”
And sometimes the reader still doesn’t get it, which maybe is just another example of a society that seems to always be looking for ways to be “offended.” Maybe sometimes people just don’t want to get it.
In fact, carrying this whole phenomenon into the realm of the Word of God and verbal inspiration bears this out. God doesn’t make mistakes. The Bible represents the One who is perfect, writing that which is perfect. The fault for any misunderstanding therefore has to rest with the reader, not the writer.
Take this morning’s text, for example. We find it profoundly disconcerting and frustrating how anyone could ever read these strong, clear, and sure words and come away with anything but a right understanding of the gospel by which they can be saved. And yet they do. Countless millions down through the ages have had these words right in front of them and have either misunderstood or rejected.
The fact is that no part of God’s Word, no matter how clear and precise, can really enter into the heart of man without the working of God the Holy Spirit, and man has the terrible power to prevent the Holy Spirit’s entry. Rejecting the Holy Spirit carries catastrophic consequences, for only those who have been brought to faith by the Holy Spirit can hear or read his words with faith and understanding. To all others even these crystal-clear words remain a strongbox that cannot be opened by human will, effort, or intellect.
As you hear then our text for this morning, marvel not just at the clarity of the sublime message, but also give thanks in your heart that God the Holy Spirit has unlocked for you, personally, this incredible, life-giving, life-saving treasure. The text that will guide our study and lighten our hearts is found in the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans:
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. ESV
So far the very words of God. These are the words of life. Thank God for them, and for the gift of understanding that he has also given you. That this same God who gave us these words would continue to bless us through their study this morning, so we pray, “Sanctify us by Your truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth.” Amen.
A big part of Christianity is not so much learning what you can one day receive as it is learning to appreciate and be thankful for what you already have. You will not one day receive saving faith, you already have it. That also therefore means that you will not one day receive forgiveness for all you sins, you already have forgiveness, full and complete, for every one of your sins. You will not one day receive eternal life, you have it even now. Jesus himself said that “everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” Clearly there are some things that lie in the future—like heaven and the end of all that is bad or evil—but so much is ours right now.
Another tremendous gift that you even now possess is the God-given ability to understand and believe spiritual truth—and to distinguish spiritual truth from error.
That’s part of the reason we are mystified that so many can read the words of our text and absolutely miss what is arguably one of the clearest presentations of the heart and soul of the Christian faith. It is beyond the understanding of the average Christian how anyone could claim to “believe in the Bible” and still not come away from a study of this text with a solid understanding of what the Christian faith is all about.
We are mystified by the fact, but we shouldn’t be. There is little doubt that Martin Luther read this section of Scripture dozens of times without grasping just what it really said. In fact, he probably memorized most or all of it in the course of his studies, and still for many years he failed to understand its true meaning. How then was it possible that he, the brilliant and honorable man that he was, along with so many others (both then and now) failed to see and understand these words for what they so plainly say?
The fact is no one can understand these words without the Holy Spirit working in him. That same Holy Spirit has told us in 1 Corinthians 2:14: (GWN) “A person who isn’t spiritual doesn’t accept the teachings of God’s Spirit. He thinks they’re nonsense. He can’t understand them because a person must be spiritual to evaluate them.” No amount of study, no depth of meditation, no lengthy memorization or superior intelligence can enable a human being to truly understand and accept these words from our God. They quite literally make no sense to a human being unless and until saving faith is created in his heart by God the Holy Spirit.
There is good reason for this lack of understanding. What God wrote here runs exactly contrary to the way things work outside of the realm of the Christian faith. In the world, a man can earn the praise and respect of other men by consistently obeying the law. In Christianity however, our text teaches us that “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight.” In the world, to be righteous a man has to either do something good or avoid doing what is evil. In God’s eyes, a man must be unerringly perfect, or he must obtain his pardon and perfection through the righteousness of another. Our text refers to this “outsourced” perfection as “the righteousness of (that is, produced or provided by) God.” A righteousness “manifested (revealed) apart from the law.” In the world, if something is valuable we expect it to carry a hefty price tag. In Christianity, we are freely declared to be not guilty, “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
Luther did not understand these words until the Holy Spirit worked faith and understanding in his heart.
What should be clear up to this point is that nothing man does is worth very much. Note in our text how God also rules out any and every form of human pride. Taking credit for what Jesus Christ alone has done is an affront to God—an abomination. Our text asks a simple question and then answers it for us: “What then becomes of our boasting?” God’s answer: “It is excluded.”
What great damage we do to the whole spirit of the Christian faith in general and the Reformation in particular when we try to find some credit in or for ourselves as members of the Lutheran Church. What, after all, were the three pillars of the Reformation? Grace alone. Scripture alone. Faith alone. Grace is “God’s undeserved love for sinners.” Scripture is the verbally inspired Word of God. Faith can be created only by the working of God the Holy Spirit in us. Again, where is there reason to brag—except in the Lord? He alone has made us heirs of heaven. So our text concludes: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith, apart from the deeds of the law.” God did it all.
So, is that it? Have we then harvested what we can from this field? Is that all that we were to gather here and to carry into our hearts? We’ve gathered much, to be sure, but is that it? Time to set it aside and move on? We have, after all, learned that these clear, strong, and sure words are really only available to those in whom the Holy Spirit has worked saving faith, and that they are therefore our possession. We have been reminded again in the clearest and strongest of terms both what the gospel is really all about—God supplying the perfection necessary for our salvation in Jesus Christ—and what it is not—man supplying any form of goodness or sin payment. These things we know and these things are sure and certain, but, again, have we left part of the harvest in the field?
In fact, we have, since that part which we have harvested is of little use unless we have also gathered the part that yet remains. What part have we left? Just this: “…so that every mouth may be stopped” and “through the law comes knowledge of sin” and “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We have carried into our hearts the easy and comfortable part—the forgiveness part. There is also a hard part—without which the other has only limited application and value. In other words, the message of forgiveness means much less than it should if we don’t first recognize the full measure of our sin and thereby our individual, personal, and desperate need for forgiveness. We are not done here unless and until we have actually applied also the law to our own hearts and lives, to our own thoughts, words, and actions. We are not ready for the gospel of forgiveness unless our own mouths have been stopped by the demands and condemnation of the law.
This is the part that is simple, but not easy. There is a part in each of us that would like to play the role of the Pharisee in the temple, thanking God that we are not like other men. We do understand the Gospel. We do recognize and believe what these clear, strong, sure words from our God are telling us—that we are saved by what God has done, not by what we do or don’t do.
Yet our Savior didn’t commend the Pharisee in the temple, did he. It wasn’t the Pharisee that went to his home justified, having identified to God all of his strengths and attributes, it was the tax collector—the sinner—that recognized his sin and was crushed by it. His was “the mouth that was stopped.” He brought nothing to God’s altar but an honest admission of his own guilt and unworthiness. He was the one who, finding no good thing that he himself could provide, looked only to the righteousness that God could provide for his hope, peace, and comfort.
Need help with this? In his catechism Martin Luther offered a framework for the process of sin identification in our own individual lives: “Examine your place in life according to the Ten Commandments. Have you been faithful as a father, mother, son, daughter, employer or employee? Have you been disobedient, unfaithful, or lazy? Have you injured anyone by what you have said or done? Have you stolen anything, neglected your duty, been careless, or damage anything?”
Before the priceless truths of our text can really be what God intends them to be, you and I need to be honest about the realities of our day to day lives. This, again, is unpleasant but necessary. Our sins are no better than those of the godless. In fact, if anything, they are worse. You and I know better. Most of the godless do not.
Only then, when we have been crushed by the enormity of our own very real sins, are we ready to be lifted up. Only then do we recognize the clear, strong, sure words of our text as the lifebuoy that our God has thrown to us—desperate sinners who were drowning in the sea of our own sin. Then we read these words not just as “God is good” but as “God has rescued me, the wretched, desperate sinner.” 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.
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.
Scripture quotations marked (GWN) are from GOD’S WORD is a copyrighted work of God’s Word to the Nations. Quotations are used by permission. Copyright 1995 by God’s Word to the Nations. All rights reserved.