Archive for the ‘Reformation’ Category

A Without-Law Righteousness Has Been Revealed. Reformation 2019. Romans 3:19-28

October 31, 2019 Leave a comment

mercy seatThe Sunday of the Reformation

Emmaus Lutheran Church

Romans 3:19-28

October 27, 2019

A Without-Law Righteousness Has Been Revealed


Iesu iuva!


Beloved in Christ:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.


Two years ago was the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation of the Church that God began through Martin Luther.  You might have sensed that the celebration of this anniversary was muted, considering how consequential it was in the history of the church, even the history of the world.


The Reformation was caused by something that was as strange in 1517 as it was in 2017 and as it was in the year of our Lord 17.  What came out of Luther’s pen and mouth and started the Reformation was a message the world could not understand in any age.


It was a message about a righteousness that stands before God, a righteousness that comes without the law.  St. Paul writes: But now a without-law righteousness of God has been made manifest.  (Rom. 3:21)  And it is as that without-law righteousness is made manifest and unleashed that the Church continues to be reformed, to be healthy, to bring righteousness and peace to troubled sinners.


  1. What is so significant about a “without-law righteousness”? To answer that we should clarify what a “with-Law righteousness” is.


To a pious Jew at the time Paul was writing, the idea that there is a righteousness that stands before God apart from the Law of God would be blasphemous.  After all, God said in Leviticus 18 verse 5:  You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD.  A person is righteous when he does according to God’s will laid out in His holy law—and that’s it.


Although people today don’t circumcise on the 8th day or do no work on Saturday, they basically agree with the pious Jews at the time Paul wrote that being righteous is a matter of doing righteousness.  Being righteous is a matter of following the laws of justice.


But Paul makes it clear that the real Law of righteousness—God’s commandments—pronounces no one righteous.  Even though God’s Law is good and right, and the God who gave it is good and just, God’s Law does not make anyone good or righteous.  Instead it pronounces every single person in the world guilty.  It brings the terrifying knowledge that we are sinners against God, that we have made enemies of God by disobeying His commandments—indeed that we are transgessors of His commandments by our very nature.  And yet it leaves us no way of escape.  We know of no other way to be righteous and pleasing to God than to do works that please Him, and yet we are not able to accomplish what He requires in the Law.

  1. [A without law righteousness—free, by faith]

When Paul says, But now a without Law righteousness of God has been made manifest, what wonderful news this is to anyone who is condemned by God’s Law—who is condemned to eternal death, cut off from his presence, who lives with the shame of having turned away from God!  You can see this in the Gospels—how sinners reacted to Jesus.  There was the woman who wept on His feet and dried his feet with her hair—remember that?  There was the tax collector Zacchaeus, who climbed up a tree to see Jesus, knowing everyone would laugh at him—but he didn’t care, because he was hungry and thirsty for forgiveness of his sins.


People reacted like this to Jesus because they had no way out of their sins and their guilt.  They had no way to come to God as a gracious Father.  But Jesus opened a way for them.


That’s why Paul calls this a without-law righteousness of God.  It is a righteousness that stands before God, but has nothing to do with our keeping His commandments.  Instead, it is a free gift of God.  For there is no difference, for all have sinned and lack the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace.  As a gift means—for free, for nothing.  While we have nothing to bring to Him except that which would anger Him.  Just as Jesus freely forgave Zacchaeus his debt, just as He ate with the tax collectors, just as He freely forgave the sinful woman who washed his feet after with tears of gratitude.


But still, how can you have a righteousness before God when you haven’t done what He demands?  The answer of the Gospel is—by faith in Jesus Christ.  You don’t accomplish this righteousness.  You believe in the righteousness accomplished by Jesus.  You believe that God gives this righteousness without Law to you as a gift.


  1. [The Redemption in Christ Jesus.]

The without law righteousness God gives us is the righteousness Jesus accomplished.  God the Son did not need to keep the Law to be worthy of the glory of God.  He shared the glory of the Father from eternity.  But to redeem us from the curse the Law pronounces on those who break it, God the Son became flesh and blood and made Himself subject to the Law.  We are those under the Law.  We are obligated to keep it, and when we fall short of it, the Law curses and condemns us.  So though it is good, it makes us conscious of sin and God’s wrath.  It increases our guilt, because when the Law pronounces judgment on us as adulterers or thieves or despisers of God’s Word, we then want to run from God.  We don’t love Him.  We flee from Him.  We are trapped in condemnation.


So God the Son became man to redeem us from this curse and render the Law fulfilled for us.


In the temple, there was a box called the ark of the covenant, in which were the stone tablets on which God wrote the ten commandments.  Then God commanded a cover to be made for the ark out of pure gold.  On each end of the cover were two figures of cherubim—angels, who spread out their wings over the cover and looked toward the center of it.  This cover is called “the mercy seat” in English; and it was here, at the covering of His Law, that God promised to be present on earth among His people, and to speak to Moses.


Paul says in verse 25 that God put forward Jesus as a mercy seat through faith in His blood.  He is referring to the day once a year when the priest would throw a bunch of incense on the fire and a big cloud of smoke would go up so that he could not see God between the cherubim.  Then he would go in, behind the curtain, and sprinkle blood from a sin offering on the mercy seat to atone for his sins and those of his family, and then for those of the people.  The blood of the sacrificial animal covered the transgressions of God’s Law that was underneath the gold mercy seat.  Instead of the people receiving the wages of their sin, the debt was paid with the life of another.  But not forever—the atonement had to be repeated every year.


But Paul is saying that Jesus is the true mercy seat, the covering of the commandments of God that we have broken, now and into eternity.


When Peter and John came into Jesus’ tomb on Easter Morning, they saw two angels sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying wrapped up—one at the head, one at the foot, like the cherubim on the mercy seat.  John had seen when the body of Jesus was laid in the tomb.  He was covered with blood—from His hands, His feet, His side, from the stripes on His back, from the thorns in His brow.  John did not know then what He was looking at, but it says that when he came to the empty tomb he saw and believed (John 20: 8).  When he saw Jesus, he was looking at the mercy-seat sprinkled with the blood that redeems us from the broken Law’s curse.  When he saw Jesus’ body covered with blood, He was seeing the end of the Law, that there may be righteousness to everyone who believes (Rom. 10).


We do not see Jesus’ body in the same way John did.  We see it under the bread, we see his blood under the wine as we come to the altar and eat and drink.  There we see the without law righteousness of God, the mercy-seat.  We approach His table and the one who covers our transgressions makes us whole and sound before God with His body crucified for us and the blood that He poured out for us in great love.


  1. [Put forward by God]


But how do we come to see this?  How do we come to believe in this without law righteousness, that it is for us?  God presents it to us.  He puts forward His Son to us in the preaching and teaching of the Gospel.  He shows us Christ crucified.


In the Old Testament, no one, not even the priest, could see the atonement for their sins.  It was hidden from the people in the temple.  When the priest entered the temple with the blood of the sacrifice, that was all the people saw.  Even the priest could not see God as he sprinkled the atoning blood on the mercy seat.  If he saw God he would die.


But now God presents the covering for our sins to our eyes.  He puts Jesus His Son before our eyes.  He shows us His suffering on the cross, His streaming blood.  And He says, behold your redemption.  Behold the covering of your sins.  Behold your righteousness.  Receive it as a gift from my rich grace.  You who cannot approach me by your works, receive righteousness apart from the Law, solely as a gift.  Receive my Son who covers your sins with His blood.


  1. [We conclude that a man is justified by faith]

Paul concludes this reading by saying: For we reckon that a man is justified by faith without works of Law. 


This teaching did not make sense to the world in Luther’s day, and it doesn’t make sense to the world in our day.  And our cold and foggy hearts often miss the wonder in it.


But what wonderful, joyful, lovely, freeing words these are for us!  God freely counts you righteous, a saint.  He frees you from trying to be righteous on your own, from ongoing condemnation.  He covers your sins with His Son’s blood—not once a year, but now and forever.  And He puts forward this work of His Son before our eyes so that we believe this without law righteousness is ours.


Even if the world is ungrateful for this gift of God, may we never grow cynical about it or tired of it.  May we never become more focused on our own efforts and techniques in trying to make this righteousness known to the world than we are on the gift itself and the God who is making it known through preaching the crucified Christ.


Instead may we, like the cherubim, gaze adoringly at the covering of our sins, Jesus Christ, who gives us the righteousness apart from Law.


The peace of God that passes understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Absolution Hymn–Missing Stanzas


absolution according to jack chick

Don’t put words in God’s mouth that He doesn’t say!  That’s a bad move. God actually says the exact opposite of the “god” in this comic.  Men can and do forgive sins when God has authorized them to do so, even if it bothers the Pharisees: Cf. John 20: 22-23; Matthew 16:19; Matthew 18: 18, 20; Matthew 9:1-8

People at my congregation know this hymn, although in a different translation, but there are some stanzas that sadly aren’t in our hymnal.

On this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, one of my chief prayers is that God would cause people to recognize the gift He preserved in the Lutheran Church of the practice of private confession and absolution.  This is a gift that exists in no other church as it does in the Lutheran Church (except where they have learned it from us), and is one of the key examples of how the church of the Reformation differs in spirit from those of other protestant churches as well as from the church of Rome.  You get a glimpse of these different spirits in action when you read the sentiment expressed in the Jack Chick tract above and then compare it with the stanzas of the hymn below.  This is clearly not a minor issue.  The tract shows how fundamentalists (and American evangelicals typically) think: to trust in absolution leads to damnation.  Contrast this with the scriptural faith of the reformation that breathes in the stanzas below:

1.Yea, as I live, Jehovah saith,

I would not have the sinner’s death,

But that he turn from error’s ways,

Repent, and live through endless days.


2.  To us therefore Christ gave command:

“Go forth and preach in every land;

Bestow on all My pard’ning grace

Who will repent and mend their ways.


3. “All those whose sins ye thus remit

I truly pardon and acquit,

And those whose sins ye do retain

Condemned and guilty shall remain.


4.  What ye shall bind, that bound shall be;

What ye shall loose, that shall be free;

Unto My Church the keys are giv’n

To ope and close the gates of heav’n.”


5.  They who believe when ye proclaim

The joyful tidings in My name

That I for them My blood have shed,

Are free from guilt and Judgment dread.


7.  However great our sin may be,

The Absolution sets us free,

Appointed by God’s own dear Son

To bring the pardon He has won.


9.  This is the pow’r of Holy Keys,

It binds and doth again release;

The Church retains them at her side,

Our mother and Christ’s holy Bride.


–Nicholas Herman, 1560.  Trans. M. Loy, 1880.

Still There Is Room. Trinity 2/ Presentation of the Augsburg Confession. June 25, 2017.

presentation of the augsburg confession catholic faith.jpgThe Second Sunday after Trinity/Presentation of the Augsburg Confession

St. Peter Lutheran Church

St. Luke 14:25-34

June 25, 2017

“Still There Is Room”


Iesu Iuva


On June 25th, 1530, the chancellor of Saxony (a state in eastern Germany), presented, or read out loud, what we now call “The Augsburg Confession” before the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles the fifth, and the gathered princes of the Empire.


The Emperor had called this meeting at Augsburg because he wanted to get the princes to give him support in his defensive war against the invading Muslim Turks.  And to accomplish this goal, he said he wanted to settle the religious controversy that had been raging in the Empire for 13 years, ever since the monk Luther had published his 95 Theses on Oct. 31, 1517.  Up until this time there had been little discussion with the Lutherans.  When Luther was brought before the Emperor at Worms in 1519 at a similar gathering, they simply asked if he was ready to renounce the teaching found in his books.  When he said no, the Emperor published the Edict of Worms, which pronounced Luther an outlaw, meaning that anyone who found him could kill him.  Anyone who protected Luther, printed his books, or aided and abetted his teaching was guilty of high treason.  There was never any discussion in the Empire, or the leadership of the Church, as to whether what had been taught by Luther and the churches of the Reformation was faithful to Scripture.


So when the Lutheran princes heard that the Emperor wanted to try to settle the controversy in a God-pleasing way, they welcomed the opportunity, even though at least some of them doubted his intentions.  They came to Augsburg and prepared a statement explaining the changes they had made to the traditional practices in the Church.  Then, because a theologian had published a book that falsely accused the Lutherans of teaching things they did not, they wrote up a confession of what they taught on the chief articles of Christian doctrine, believing that they would be recognized as Christian, biblical, and catholic—that is, consistent with what Christians had always believed.


But it quickly became apparent that no real discussion was going to happen at Augsburg.  It was a political move.  The Emperor wanted support for his war efforts, and at the same time to make it look as if the Lutheran or “evangelical” teaching had been considered and rejected as false.


Yet the Lutheran princes came anyway and had the confession read publicly, despite the efforts of its opponents to keep it from being read, or to have it read in a language most people couldn’t understand, or to keep very many people from hearing it.


They confessed—even though doing so made it look like they were prolonging the controversy, and risking the well-being of the Church and the Empire in the face of the Muslim invaders.


And because they confessed the faith, the Church was given a pattern of right, faithful, biblical teaching that would outlive those men.  It was a c0nfession that Luther did not write; he couldn’t be present for the Diet of Augsburg because he was an outlaw.  And so the Augsburg Confession was not a writing of Luther or based on Luther.  It was a statement of the biblical, Christian faith that Luther taught but did not invent—the faith taught in Scripture, confessed by Jesus.


At the center of the Augsburg Confession is the teaching that defines the Lutheran Church, but also defines Christianity.  Before the Augsburg Confession it had never been clearly summarized in a creed or a church confession except in the pages of Scripture.  Yet it is the center of the Bible, the beating heart of its life.  Jesus taught it to the Pharisees in today’s Gospel reading.  Paul discusses it in the 2nd chapter of the epistle to the Christians in Ephesus.  I am talking about the article of Christian doctrine on justification.  The 4th Article of the Augsburg Confession says it like this:


It is taught that we cannot attain the forgiveness of sins and righteousness before God through our merit, work, and satisfactions [for our own sins]; rather, that we receive the forgiveness of sins and become righteous before God by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith, when we believe that Christ has suffered for us, and that our sins are forgiven us for His sake, and righteousness and eternal life are given us as a gift.  For God will regard and reckon this faith as righteousness before Him, as St. Paul says [in the epistle] to the Romans in the 3rd and 4th chapters.


Righteousness before God and the forgiveness of our sins, and the eternal life that follows righteousness, are given to us as a gift through Christ, who suffered for us.  We don’t become righteous before God, we are not forgiven our sins through earning it.  We don’t work to achieve righteousness by being a monk, or praying, or giving money, or doing better at keeping the ten commandments.  We don’t win forgiveness from God by being sorry, punishing ourselves, or doing good works to atone for the sins we’ve committed.


Forgiveness of sins, righteousness in God’s sight, and the eternal life that comes as a result of being forgiven and righteous is given by God as a gift in His Son’s suffering and death for our sins.  And those who believe that God forgives them only because of Jesus’ suffering and death in their place—who, as Paul says in Romans 4 do not work but trust God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is counted as righteousness.


Just like Jesus tells the Pharisees.  God’s banquet is not earned.  People are called, invited to the banquet.  The qualifications we might think we have are irrelevant.  The poor, blind, crippled, and lame are just as qualified to be at the banquet as the people who buy fields and oxen.  What qualifies them is that they are called, invited—and do not refuse the invitation.  Refusing the invitation is unbelief.  Those who do not refuse—those who are brought in to the banquet of eternal life—are those who believe that God lets them in for Christ’s sake.


Of course, there are other churches that believe we become righteous before God through faith in Christ alone besides those who hold the Augsburg Confession. Baptists, Presbyterians, non-denominational churches, Pentecostals and Charismatics, and so on.  But if you get people from many of these churches to talk honestly to you about what they think of the Lutheran church, they will often say what my dad used to say: “Luther was good, but he didn’t go far enough.”  Or, more rudely, some may say something like, “Lutherans are basically catholic-lite.  You are still too Catholic.”


Even though we seem to agree on the article of justification, we do not understand the word “faith” the same way.  Many Lutherans are confused about this also.  What is faith?  How do you come to faith in Christ?  The confessors at Augsburg wrote:


To obtain this faith, God has instituted the office of preaching, that is, given the Gospel and Sacraments, through which, as through instruments, He gives the Holy Spirit, who works faith, when and where He wills, in those who hear the Gospel…the Anabaptists and others are condemned, who teach that we obtain the Holy Spirit without the bodily Word of the Gospel, through their own preparations and works.


The forefathers of the non-denominational churches, of the reformed churches, of the Baptist and Pentecostal churches, did not believe that the Holy Spirit was given through the “bodily Word of the Gospel”.  They didn’t think it was enough to hear the preaching of God’s Word, or hear the Bible read or taught, or read it yourself.  They definitely didn’t believe it was enough to be baptized, receive the Lord’s Supper, or be absolved.  Faith comes not just through those things, but through the addition of your decision to accept Jesus, or through a powerful experience of being converted.  They taught that in the days when the Augsburg Confession was written, and they still teach it.  And so they think our reliance on preaching Christ’s Work and on baptizing, receiving the body and blood of the Lord, is “Catholic”—by which they mean mechanical, ritualistic.


The Roman Catholic princes assembled at Augsburg did not get converted en masse to the evangelical faith taught in the Augsburg Confession.  And the “Anabaptists and others” didn’t either. In fact, they grew in power, and replaced the faith taught by Luther and the Augsburg Confession in many places—in England, France, Holland, Hungary, the Czech lands, and even in many of the German states.


And so we come to our time and place.  We all know that, in terms of numbers and influence, Christianity isn’t doing so well in America or in the lands they used to call “Christendom”—in Europe.  Christianity in general is declining, in some places even dying, it appears.  Just like the whole of Christendom was threatened by the invading Turkish armies, today all of Christendom around us is retreating—even if it appears to be growing in Africa and Asia.  And when all Christian Churches are in decline, it seems obscene to many people—even to many Lutherans—to be harping on the distinctiveness of the Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Confession.  It seems like we are rooting for our team instead of for Jesus.


But this is always how it has been.  It seemed rude and unnecessary for Jesus to insist to the Pharisees that He was the Messiah, the promised one of God, who would give us rest; to tell them that their strenuous efforts to obey God were good for nothing, and that they could only come to God’s feast on the basis of His call, His invitation, not on the basis of their works.  They could come to God’s feast only through faith in Him.


The Pharisees didn’t accept this message from Jesus for the same reason that the Roman Catholic bishops, princes, and emperor didn’t accept it, for the same reason people today don’t want to hear it.


In Jesus’ parable, the people who refused the invitation to the banquet were more interested in the land they just bought, the oxen they needed to test, the wife they just married, than in the banquet of the Lord.  And that is the way people are today.  They were that way in Jesus’ day, in the days of the Augsburg Confession, and today.  The emperor cared about fighting the Turk and keeping the empire secure more than he cared about the truth of God’s Word and the eternal life that it brings.  And we see all around us that people are interested in getting a new car, following sports, getting their kids into fun activities, and so on.  But eternal life?  Righteousness?  Forgiveness of sins?  The pure teaching of God’s Word?  The vast majority of people, if you tell them that that is what your church is offering, will think, if not say out loud, “If that’s all you’ve got, your church is going to close.”


But if we take seriously what the Bible teaches about human nature, like the Augsburg Confession does, we would not be surprised at this.  In the second Article, it confesses:


Further it is taught among us that since the fall of Adam, all men who are born in the natural way are conceived and born in sin.  That is, they all from their mother’s womb are full of evil lusts and inclinations, and by nature are not able to have any true fear of God or true faith in God.  They also teach that this same inborn disease and inherited sin is truly sin, and damns all those who are not born again through Baptism and the Holy Spirit to the eternal wrath of God. 


People by nature are unable to fear God or trust Him.  That is the sin in which we are born.  But by nature nobody feels the force of this. It’s not hard to recognize that people are broken.  Many people understand without being taught from the Bible that people are not born good.  You only have to look around and see that people do evil far more easily than they do good.


But we do not recognize that even when we are good, humanly speaking, we are still not able to fear God or trust Him in reality—and that this inability deserves and will receive God’s eternal wrath and punishment.  People do not believe this.  Even Christians don’t comprehend their guilt and God’s serious anger against it.  We don’t fully recognize our helplessness in it.


It is a counter-cultural message.  It doesn’t matter whether you are liberal or an arch-conservative.  No one, by nature, is able or willing to fully grasp this.  We want to believe it is in our power to draw near to God—or that we are already near Him.


It is a work of God when a person recognizes and believes what the Bible says about his helplessness in sin.  It is a work of God to become spiritually poor, blind, crippled, and lame—to be terrified at your sin and cry out for God’s grace.


For that person, the invitation of the Gospel is a banquet of joy in itself.  It says, “Believe what God promises.  His Son suffered for you, His Son received the wrath of God against Your sin.  His Son merited and earned the forgiveness of your sins.  His Son fulfilled all of God’s laws in your place.  Through Him God is reconciled to you, forgives you, counts you righteous, clothes you with Jesus’ honor and righteousness.  Through Him God invites you to sit down at His table for eternity and eat with Him, feast with Him, drink wine and celebrate with Him, as His son and heir.”


And the Gospel comes into our ears in the words of Jesus to those who are condemned to the eternal wrath of God and says, “There is still room.”  If you persecuted the Church, like Paul; if you have been a self-righteous Pharisee; if you have lived an ungodly life while bearing the name of Christ, and have committed the sins we all recognize as sins, there is still room.  God has gathered in wretched sinners from the broad streets, the alleys, the highways and hedges, through his servants who proclaimed the Gospel—but there is still room.  You are invited, and your place is set.  The meat is steaming.  The wine is sparkling in the glass.  He invites you to come and eat and drink today at the altar a taste of what you will enjoy forever in heaven.  Your garments of righteousness, dyed red with the blood of Jesus, gleaming white with His innocence and glory, are waiting in your Baptism.


We should not fear when we see that many are simply not interested.  Jesus said that is how it would be.  That is how it was for Him.  That is also how it went after the Augsburg Confession was read.  And yet Jesus’ Church continues.  It advances under the appearance of weakness and defeat until the final victory appears, when He appears in glory.  In the midst of her weakness, He works in power. As the Confession says:


It is also taught that there must always be and remain in existence one holy Christian Church, which is the assembly of all believers, among which the Gospel is purely preached and the holy Sacraments are given out in accordance with the Gospel.


However, because in this life many false Christians and hypocrites, and even manifest sinners remain among the believers, nevertheless the sacraments are powerful and effective, even if the priests who give them out are not godly.


Even when the Church seems to be overrun by its own sinful members, Christ is present with us, spreading His feast, giving the gift of faith, inviting and gathering His Church.  In that confidence we confess with the confessors of long ago, trusting that our Lord will continue to gather and preserve His Church around His pure Word in the face of all opponents, all sin, and all the works of the devil.


The peace of God that passes understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.



Repentance and Reformation. Ash Wednesday 2017.

Ash Wednesday (7 p.m.)second-world-war-german-g-001

St. Peter Lutheran Church

Joel 2:12-19, 2 Peter 1:2-9, St. Matthew 6:16-21

March 1, 2017

Repentance and Reformation

Iesu Iuva


“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matt. 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”


That is the first of the 95 Theses that sparked the Reformation.  The first word of the Reformation of God’s Church was about repentance.  If your life needs to be reformed, if a family needs to be reformed, if a congregation or the whole Church needs reformation, this is where it begins—with repentance.


But a Christian life not only begins with repentance.  The entire life of a Christian is one of repentance—an ongoing, daily “changing of your mind.”    A change in how we think, look at the world, what we love and hold dear, what we believe, with the result that we return to God.


This the reason ashes are imposed today.  Ashes are a physical way of saying that our way of thinking and living must change.  Ashes are what remains to people who have been destroyed.


Look at pictures of a place that has been through a war, like Germany after World War 2, its cities pulverized to dust, rubble, and ashes by the rain of bombs falling from the sky.  You see people with wide eyes hiding in blackened, charcoal shells of houses, their faces dirty from the ash that is everywhere.  They haven’t just been going through a hard time.  Their country has been laid into the dust and destroyed.  The ashes of what they once had smeared their faces black.


Do you recognize that that is how you are?  A shell of what you were created to be, sitting in the ashes of the glory you once had, not knowing when fire will rain down from the sky to consume what is left of your life?


In ancient times, in the Bible, when people grieved and mourned, they sat in ashes, they sprinkled ashes on their heads.  They did this to show that they had been destroyed.  Frequently, along with the ashes, they stopped eating food—they fasted.  People do that when they are too full of pain to fill their stomachs; they also do it when war or destruction has so ruined their worlds that there is no food to eat.  When God had punished people in the Bible, or when it seemed like He was about to punish them, they would sit in ashes, they would fast, and they would cry out to God from their destruction: “You have destroyed us; please bring us back to life.”


They understood correctly who the God of the Scriptures is.  He is the God who, out of a handful of dust, made man in His image, and breathed in His nostrils the breath of life.  We were created with glory to bear the image of the one God.  But when Adam and Eve rejected the Word of God, they lost their form, just like the palm leaves in the fire.  The image of God was destroyed.  They lived out the remainder of their lives under a curse until their ruined bodies returned to dust.  God gives life.  God also destroys life that turns away from Him.


But God is able to bring back the life He destroys.  He is able to gather the ashes of the palm leaves and make them once again the green branches they once were.  He is able to bring back human beings that have been destroyed by sin; to raise to life flesh and bone that have returned to dust, and to restore the lost image of the Creator to human bodies and souls.


But when He does that in a person, or a household, or a church, it always begins with repentance, with a change of mind.


If a person is a burnt wasteland, a bombed-out ruin, he hasn’t started to come back to life yet until he recognizes he has been destroyed. Until our ruins are rebuilt and no sin remains in us, a Christian cannot be comfortable and satisfied.  Could a person who has lived through a war be comfortable and content while his country is burning, his home is ashes, and he is sleeping on a cot in a refugee shelter?  No!  He will not be content until his home is rebuilt, the fields of his nation are sprouting grain, the roads are paved, there are schools for his children.  So Christians can’t be content while sin remains in them.


As we seek to renew our life of repentance this Lent, it is important to remember that repentance has two parts.  The first is contrition, which is heartfelt sorrow and terror over our sins, the recognition of God’s wrath against sin revealed in the Law, together with the desire to be free from sin and its destruction.  Contrition is necessary, but it is not something we can do or make ourselves feel.  It is God’s work within us, and there is only one way that God has promised to work it.  That is through His Word—in particular, through the preaching of His Law.


If you listen seriously to the sermons that are preached to you instead of sitting in judgment on them, as so many do; if you allow yourself to be taught God’s Word by the pastor God sent you;  if you faithfully read the Scripture; and if you take up the Small Catechism, learn the ten commandments with their explanations, and look at the way you live in light of them, God will work contrition within you—not because you have done a good work by listening and reading, but because He desires that all be saved and come to repentance.  His Word is the instrument He uses to create repentance within you.


He will give you a contrite and broken heart, which is the sacrifice of God, which He does not despise (Ps. 51).  He will not only terrify you with the threat of His wrath, but if you believe in Christ, He will also create in you the sorrow that comes from having offended the God you love.


Ashes a biblical symbol of the destruction sin has brought upon us.  But there is another kind of ashes in the Bible—ashes used not to grieve, but to purify.


In Numbers 19, God commanded that a red heifer should be sacrificed and burned and its ashes mixed with water.  This water was used to purify those who were made unclean through contact with a dead body.  An animal, completely consumed in the fire, reduced to ashes on God’s altar—those ashes, that residue of a destroyed life, when mixed with water, made a person clean from the impurity that came from contact with death.


God has provided another, much greater life to be consumed in the fire of His wrath for your sins—the life of His Son. In Baptism, the ashes of His sacrifice on the cross, the fullness of His death for the sins of the world, are joined to water and poured upon you to cleanse not only your body but your soul from death.  Not only His death under the wrath of God, but His resurrection into life free from the condemnation of the Law.  In Baptism you become a participant in both.  You are joined with Him.  On the cross, the burning wrath of God fell on His soul as He carried your sins as His own.  You also were brought to an end with Jesus.


But God is able to raise up again and put back together what He has utterly destroyed in His wrath. And He did.  He raised Jesus from the dead on the third day.  And in raising Jesus, He raised you and all people up, put us all back together again as a new creation, as children of God.  He raised up our ruins, brought our ashes together and re-formed them, remade us in the image of the glory of God, so that we will never taste the second death.


This is the second and most important part of repentance—not only sorrow for our sins, but faith that our sins are forgiven for the sake of Jesus.  By faith I mean certain confidence and trust that although we cannot free ourselves from spiritual destruction, God has done so.  He destroyed our sins in the wrath that He poured out on His Son who bore them.  Then He raised up the one who bore our sins, freeing Him from the curse.  Instead of ashes He gave us a beautiful headdress, a crown of victory (Is. 61), like the Old Testament priests who wore a crown that said, “Holy to the Lord.”  This crown is placed on our heads by God, because Jesus, our head, is alive again.  His battle with sin is over and He has emerged in righteousness and victory.  He is our crown of righteousness and sanctification.  He was poured on our heads in Baptism.  By faith we wear His holiness as our crown.


“The entire life of a believer should be one of repentance,” Luther wrote in the first word of the reformation.  That means not only a life of sorrow over our sin, but a life of confidence and trust that God has dealt with our sin.  A life in which we daily return to God, not only with sorrow over our destruction, but with firm trust that our destruction has been swallowed up by life.  Then instead of transforming us to ash from outside, God, who is an unquenchable fire of love, transforms us from within into the image of His Son.  He burns away our old self until Christ appears in us.


Repentance begins with the recognition of sin and ends with the certain trust that our sins are forgiven—not because we feel that they are, but because the Gospel of God declares them to be.  Where the pure Gospel of God is preached, it will work this change of mind—contrition and faith.  And this repentance—true repentance– always brings reformation with it.  Wherever an individual, family, or congregation is given this change of mind, and clings steadfastly to the promise that their sins are forgiven for Jesus’ sake, that individual or family or church will begin to reorder its life according to God’s Word.  It will begin to produce fruit that pleases God.  May God graciously create and strengthen this repentance in us this Lent.


In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


Soli Deo Gloria

Saints in our Weakness. All Saints’ Day 2015.

November 1, 2015 Leave a comment

All Saints’ Day

St. Peter Lutheran Church

St. Matthew 5:1-12

November 1, 2015

“Saints in our Weakness”

Iesu Iuva

Today is All Saints’ Day. What is a saint? A saint is a holy person. “Holy” means “set apart for God.”

On the altar, veiled by a cloth, is bread and wine. Later it will be consecrated, hallowed and made holy by God’s Word to be the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. The consecrated bread and wine are holy things. We treat them with reverence, not like common bread and wine. In the same way saints are holy people. They are not normal, common, unclean people. They are God’s people, set apart for Him, filled with a treasure that is not of this world—the Holy Spirit of God.

And where do you find these holy people, these saints? You find them where the thing God uses to consecrate and make holy is. You find the saints where God’s Word is, because it is God’s Word that sanctifies, cleanses, and makes the saints holy.

That means you find the saints of God not in a monastery somewhere, or out in a cave fasting. You find them in this congregation and others like it, where God’s pure Word is proclaimed and taught.

Yes, you yourself are a saint, you who are baptized and believe that Jesus died for the forgiveness of your sins. That is the way the Bible addresses and describes Christians, people who only believe in Jesus. The first reading from Revelation says the saints are those who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:14) In the epistle John does not tell us to doubt and question whether we belong to God. “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called the children of God! And that is what we are.” (1 John 3:1) And whenever Paul starts his letters he addresses the churches he writes to as congregations of saints. “To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints,” Romans 1:7. “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” 1 Corinthians 1:2. “To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus,” Ephesians 1:1.

Why are we saints? Not because of our works, but because of the works of Jesus. All our sin was given to Him, and He wore it as His covering on the cross and bore God’s wrath against us. Scripture doesn’t say merely that Jesus bore our sin, but that He became sin for us. “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5:21) Just as surely as God made Jesus to be sin, so surely are we righteous for Jesus’ sake. And if we are righteous, then we are also saints.

This is why so much of our effort at witnessing is misguided. We look at our unbelieving neighbors as if they had something to give us, by making our numbers larger or by adding to our offerings. No! We are God’s saints through Christ. We long for the salvation of our neighbors for their sake, not for ours. We don’t need the help of the world; we already have everything, because we are God’s saints.

This is where worldly wisdom barges in with scornful laughter. “You are God’s saints? You don’t need anything the world has to give? Are you crazy? Look how few of you there are! See how you are barely paying your bills, and you are only doing that with the gifts people left you when they died! And look at your sins—your own private sins that no one knows about as well as the obvious sins that afflict the congregation—disunity, disregard for God’s Word, pride, factions and jealousy. You are supposed to be saints, and you have everything? Then why does God let you be weak and suffer and be dragged through the mud?”

Surely you know that voice as well as I do. Sometimes it comes out and speaks openly. Other times it is present as nagging doubt. Whether we are speaking of the congregation or ourselves as individuals, we don’t often feel like saints who have everything. The reason is because we are weak, we suffer, we see our ongoing sinfulness. This shouldn’t happen to saints, says our reason. They should be like the saints we see pictured in Revelation, who are dressed in white robes, carry the palm branches of victory, and sing hosannas. God should lead the saints from victory to victory, from glory to glory. If we are really saints, there must be something wrong with our sainthood.

But if we paid attention to our Lord’s words in the Gospel reading today, we would see that the reasoning of our flesh is incorrect. In the beatitudes, the “blesse are’s” that Jesus speaks at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus describes the saints on earth in terms that contradict our reason. He calls blessed not the spiritually rich but the spiritually poor, not the happy but the mourning, not the church that is loved by the world but the one that is persecuted by the world and cast out as evil.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” says Jesus. The saints are not rich in

spirit. They don’t come to God with their own righteousness, with something to boast about. We come

before God with the awareness of our ongoing sinfulness and spiritual poverty. But in our ongoing

struggle against our sinful flesh we have the kingdom of heaven. That’s because our righteousness, our

spiritual riches, are outside of us. Jesus is our “wisdom form God, righteousness, sanctification, and

redemption.” (1 Corinthians 1:30) We have no righteousness in ourselves that could save us. We

possess the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus. We believe that all Jesus is and has done is for


But we believe that in the midst of sin’s raging and storming within us. That is why Jesus says, “Blessed

are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” We mourn because we are constantly afflicted by our own sinfulness and unbelief. In addition we live in a world of death and suffering. We long for the day when we will be in Paradise and the Lord Himself will “wipe every tear from our eyes.” (Rev. 7)


And so throughout the beatitudes Jesus describes the saints not as living what might be called a “victorious life”, but as living with weakness and suffering. We are blessed in the midst of that weakness. In fact Jesus says we should rejoice in our weakness. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12) It’s one thing to bear with weakness and suffering, and something else to rejoice in it. But Jesus says to rejoice in weakness and suffering. It is not a sign that you are not a saint; it is the normal experience of saints.

There should be no surprise in this if we thought according to faith in Christ and not according to the flesh. Because what happened to the Holy and Righteous One, Jesus? He exemplified these beatitudes. He was poor in spirit because He bore the sins of the world. Look at Him going down to the Jordan to be baptized with sinners. Look at Him in agony in Gethsemane and crying out, “My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” from the cross. He was meek and lowly in heart, so meek that He would not cast away the most unworthy sinner but invites them to come to Him so that He may stoop down and wash their feet. He was pure in heart, as no sinners are except through faith in Him. He, the Son of God, was the peacemaker, because He made peace with God for us by His suffering and the shedding of His blood. And He was persecuted for righteousness. Because as He fulfilled the Law for us and gave righteousness to the sinful and lost, the leaders of the Jews reviled Him and spoke all manner of evil against Him until finally they had Him put to death as a criminal, as a blasphemer.

So you are a saint, baptized into Christ. And it is not a shock when you are weak, you suffer, and you continue to struggle against sin. You are born again into Christ in your baptism. You were remade into His image where you used to have the image of Adam. Adam was proud and tried to snatch the glory of God for Himself. But you have put on the image of Christ, who was “a man of sorrows and familiar with grief” (Is. 53). Your proud Adam died with Him and dies daily, so that you might be raised up with Christ in the glorious image of His resurrection.

No! says your sinful flesh. No, I do not want to live by faith. I want to see the glory that is supposed to be mine as a Son of God. I want to experience it. I want to see signs that Christ is really among us, not just receive His promise that He is when He gives me His body and blood.

Repent. Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is yours now in your poverty of spirit. He calls you a saint. He gives you everything. “The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know Him. Beloved, we are God’s children now.” (1 John 3:1-2) Do you want something greater than what your Lord experienced on earth? “A servant is not greater than his master” (John 15:20). But even under the cross and weakness you are a saint through faith in Him. You have the kingdom of heaven.

That is what we Christians rejoice in. In the midst of our suffering, sin, and weakness, we already have God’s kingdom. God is pleased with us. Jesus gives us His very body and blood which was crucified and poured out for us on the cross to assure us that the kingdom of heaven is now ours, that our sins are forgiven. “And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.” (Romans 5:2) We rejoice not only that we have God’s favor now. We rejoice in the sure promises of our Lord of what is to come for us. We will be comforted when the Lord wipes away every tear from our eyes. We will be satisfied with righteousness. We will receive mercy on the day of judgment. We will see God. We will be called His Sons before all creation when He judges the living and the dead.



Soli Deo Gloria

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