SERMONS - JUNE 2006
4 June 2006 - Pentecost/Confirmation - John 7:37-39
Jesus was a master preacher. With his artful use of imagery and analogy, the thoughts that he wanted to convey found their mark in the life experience of his listeners, and in the minds and hearts of his disciples.
What Jesus proclaims in today’s Gospel text, though brief, is no exception. “If anyone is thirsty...” We can all immediately relate to this sensation. Everyone knows what it means to be thirsty, especially in a climate like ours, which is not much different from the climate in which Jesus lived. But of course, Jesus is not talking about a literal thirst, quenched with literal water. He is using this imagery in reference to a deeper parching of the human soul. He is speaking about the absolute aridness of the inner life of those who do not know him, and who therefore are dead in their sins, and spiritually dried up like a potsherd. No springs of Godly, supernatural life can or will bubble up from the desert that is the corrupt old nature in each of us. Jesus invites those who are lost in this wasteland of unbelief to repent of their sins and to put their trust in him. The imagery he uses is particularly helpful in showing us what it means for a parched soul to receive by faith the life-giving Gospel of salvation.
“Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.’” Jesus was not bashful about drawing attention to himself as mankind’s Savior from sin and death. For centuries many people have patronizingly suggested that Jesus of Nazareth was perhaps a great teacher and maybe even a prophet, but that he was not the Son of God or the Savior of humanity. But if a man who is not actually our divine Savior were to say the kind of shocking things that Jesus says here, he could not be a great teacher or prophet. A great teacher or prophet does not invite people to come to him personally, to put their faith in him personally, and to receive spiritual life from him personally, unless he is more than a great teacher or prophet. But of course, Jesus was and is much more than a great teacher or prophet. He is our divine Lord and Savior, whose gracious forgiveness does indeed quench fallen humanity’s otherwise unquenchable thirst for eternal life. He is the Son of God in human flesh, whose death on the cross, and whose resurrection from the grave, have opened to us the floodgates of God’s peace and reconciliation.
Jesus says, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.” The grammatical construction of the original Greek indicates that what Jesus is talking about here is a one-time act of drinking. He is not here talking about the continual drinking in of Christ and of Christ’s forgiveness that takes place in our daily life of faith. Rather, he is talking about conversion. He is talking about regeneration, and the beginning of faith and spiritual life. Basically he is talking about what happens in baptism. As the Trinitarian name of God is spoken over us to mark us as one of God’s own, our soul drinks in and is filled with the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, and who unites us to Christ and to everything that Christ has accomplished for us.
For some, of course, who were not baptized in infancy, the beginning of their spiritual journey occurred through some other encounter with Christ and his Word, and baptism followed as a seal. For others, who at a later point in life turned away from their baptism and crawled back into the arid wastelands of unbelief, the invitation of Jesus needed to be heard and believed all over again. But that invitation was there, for each of us who know Christ by faith, when we needed to hear it. Without God and without his grace we were thirsty, but by the grace of God we have drunk deeply of Christ and his Spirit, and now belong to him. And just in case there is someone here right now who still languishes in the desert of alienation from God, and in the wasteland of hostility toward God, I hope and pray that you will listen today to this invitation. Jesus still says: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.”
But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He continues: “‘Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.’ By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.” Jesus now describes how the Holy Spirit works through his people, in our post-Pentecost age, to bring Christ to the world. The Holy Spirit is “flowing” whenever and wherever the Holy Spirit is working, and he is flowing through all those means and instruments that he uses to carry out his divine work.
Martin Luther paraphrases our Lord’s words in this way: “Streams of living water are to flow forth. Him who comes to Me I shall equip, not only to be refreshed and satisfied and to quench his own thirst but also to become a sturdy, earthen vessel, endowed with the Holy Spirit and with gifts that enable him to give consolation and strength to many other people and to serve them, as he was served by Me.” The nineteenth-century theologian Wilhelm Friedrich Besser also asks an incisive and instructive question about these “streams of living water”: “What is the apostolic Word itself through which we believe; what are the confessions of the church, in harmony with which we believe; what are her hymns, her prayers, her sermons, all the testimonies of the faith and love in saving word and sacred conversation - what are they but rivers of living water flowing from the body of the church?”
The “streams of living water” that flow from you as a Christian, and that have a supernatural impact on others, are not your personality, your charm, or your wittiness. They are the Spirit-prompted and Spirit-filled testimonies to the truth of Christ that you declare to your fellow human beings, as one redeemed sinner to another, according to your calling in life and as the Lord gives opportunity. The Holy Spirit works through his Word. Wherever his Word is spoken, whether by a pastor at font and altar, by a family united in sacred song, or by one humble individual comforting his neighbor with the promises of the Gospel, the Spirit of Christ is flowing. Rivers of divine grace are washing and renewing and refreshing God’s people. The grammatical construction of this phrase in the original Greek describes an ongoing activity, and not a one-time event. As a baptized believer in Christ, you have drunk deeply of Christ. And as a baptized believer in Christ, streams of living water now also flow from you, continuously, as you speak to others the living Word that was spoken to you.
Today, as Andrew and Jessica are confirmed in their faith and confession, and as the grace of their baptism is recalled, we rightly think about all the wonderful things that God has done for them. We rightly think about what he has given them, and we thank God for these blessings. Their sins were washed away in baptism. They have been raised in the faith by Christian families, and have always known that Jesus is their Savior and dearest friend. They have been instructed in the Word of the Lord, so that they can give an account of the faith that the Lord has granted to them, and in which he preserves them. And of course, they will partake today of the profound mystery of Christ’s Holy Supper, receiving in their mouths the marvelous pledge of their Savior’s own body and blood for the remission of their sins. They have received much, and they will receive much. For this we are grateful. But on this day, we can also encourage our confirmands with the words of Christ regarding what other people can and will receive from them and through them.
Andrew, Jessica, you have received the Spirit of Christ. Each of you has drunk in that Spirit, and stands now before God as his beloved child, cleansed by the righteousness of Christ. Throughout the remainder of your life as a child of God you will continue to receive wonderful things from the hand of your Lord. But also throughout your life, remember that Christ will use you to bring to others the life-giving message of Christ. The Holy Spirit wants to flow from and through you, by means of the message of hope and peace that you will share with those with whom you interact over the years. Many of the people you will meet, though loved by Christ, will not know him. They will be living still in the dry desert of hopelessness and despair. But God will providentially send you to such people, and through you his Spirit will work. In the text of today’s gradual we heard the Lord’s words, as spoken by the prophet Joel and as proclaimed by the apostle Peter: “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy.” The Lord has poured out his Spirit on you. And each of you - a son and a daughter of God and of his church - will indeed “prophesy” and speak forth the truth that sets us all free.
“Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.’ By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.” Amen.
11 June 2006 - Trinity Sunday - John 3:1-17
Today is Trinity Sunday. We do, of course, worship the Triune God on every Sunday, and indeed in every moment of every day. But today, in our hymns, prayers, creed, and lessons, we direct our attention in a more focused way to the Biblical revelation of this mystery of one God in three Persons.
There are many people today who imagine that it is not really that important if people worship God as the Trinity, or according to some other conceptualization. All religious roads lead to the same God, it is supposed. This is the conventional wisdom of the modern pluralistic religious world. But this is not the teaching of Scripture. In fact, the presumption that all roads lead to the same God actually demonstrates the profound difference that exists between the worship of the Triune God and the worship of the many false gods that have been spun out of man’s imagination. The various pathways of fallen man’s religious imagination will never lead him to the Triune God. The only way for us to know the true God is for the true God to come to us, on the pathways of his choosing. When he comes, he delivers us from the delusion that we, in our fallen state, would have been able to come to him. And when he comes, to do what is necessary to save us, he thereby reveals himself to be the Triune God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The human race has been corrupted by original sin. This means, among other things, that in the condition in which we come into the world, we are incapable of having true fear of God or true faith in God. But this does not mean that we are incapable of acknowledging in our mind and conscience that there is a supreme being, or that we are incapable of using our imagination to wonder what this supreme being might be like. Without the true God’s revelation of himself to us, however, sinful humanity will inevitably envision God in ways that are contrary to what he is really like.
One of these human ways of envisioning God is to imagine him to be a God who rewards the religious and moral works of unregenerated man with eternal life in heaven. Another human way of envisioning God is to imagine him to be an indulgent God who can be expected to give people what they want. In other words, God’s usefulness in the lives of men is evaluated in terms of his being a supernatural resource or supply-house, from which religious people can requisition the blessings and benefits that they have determined they want to have. But both of these ideas - both of these ways of believing in God - are wicked and damnable. They are not variant religious pathways to the one true God, but they are pathways which lead away from the one true God.
In listening to this we might feel that we can rest secure in the thought that Christians like us are, thankfully, free of such heretical notions. But if our sinful nature still clings to us - and it does - then the temptation to think and behave in these ways is never far from us. And because these temptations are temptations to religious sins, those sins can easily and insidiously hide themselves just beneath the surface of religious ideas and practices that God would seem to approve, so that they would not be so easily noticed.
For example, how easy is it for us to slip into manipulating our fellow believers into doing good religious works, like evangelism or church attendance, by means of pouring upon them the demands of God’s law, thereby using guilt and fear as the motivation for getting them to perform their religious duty? Or how easy is it for us to come to church with a preconceived plan of what we desire to “get out of it” according to the “felt needs” that we bring with us, so that we would want the Divine Service to be changed to fit our short-sighted expectations, instead of letting our short-sighted expectations be changed by the Divine Service?
Well, as the Triune God powerfully reveals himself to be the Triune God, through the saving works that he accomplishes for us and in us, these and similar aberrations will evaporate. And they will be replaced by a faith in a God who does not remove our guilt on the basis of our works, and who does not accommodate himself to our sinful preconceptions. Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel: “No one has ascended into heaven except him who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
The Second Person of the Holy Trinity became one of us in the womb of his virgin mother. In his incarnation he came to the human race to live for us, to die for us, and to rise again for us. The divine Redeemer who died for our sins promises us forgiveness. The divine Victor who broke the bonds of death for us promises us eternal life. And when we believe these promises, we receive what God genuinely wants us to have. The gods whom we create in our own sinful imagination are expected to reward our righteousness. But the true God - the Triune God who created us - bestows his own perfect and justifying righteousness on us through Christ. The gods whom we create in our own sinful human imagination are expected to give us the things we want. But the true God - the Triune God who created us - causes us by his grace to want the things he gives us through Christ.
Again, Jesus says that “whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” But where does that faith come from? Where do we get the ability to believe what God tells us, instead of believing the myths that we create in our own mind? How is our will transformed, so that we desire the things that God wants for us instead of desiring the things we want for ourselves? Jesus answers that question too. He says: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. ... Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
The Third Person of the Holy Trinity gives us a new birth and a new life. He does not try to coax or bait the old fleshly nature into denying itself and believing in a God whom it actually hates. Instead, he comes to each of us by water and the Word to create and instill in us a new nature. According to this new nature he fills us with the love of God and with the abiding presence of God, and he bestows on us the gift of faith in God.
In describing the beginning of spiritual life in the heart of a Christian, Jesus very aptly uses the imagery of generation and birth. When you were conceived in the womb of your mother, did you cooperate in helping to bring yourself into existence? Of course not. Your human life was completely a gift to you from your earthly parents. Through the procreative process, your father and mother gave you your life. And it’s the same way with your spiritual rebirth - the baptismal life wrought in you by the Spirit of your heavenly Father through the supernatural, creative power of his Word.
The spiritual life of your new nature is God’s gift to you, and the faith that flows out of that life, and that clings to the Lord’s promises, is likewise God’s gift to you. God did not wait for you to exercise your free will in his direction before he saved you. Rather, according to the miracle of faith, he liberated your will, which had been bound in sin, as he moved in your direction through his Word and sacrament. You did not negotiate your salvation with God. Rather, according to the miracle of regeneration, your salvation was supernaturally birthed in you as his gift.
On this Trinity Sunday, therefore, as we confess God as he really is, we are not just dusting off a long and precisely-worded creed, which will then be put away for another year. We are also, more intimately, testifying to the wondrous and blessed reality of our own salvation. God the Father loved us and yearned for a restoration of his fellowship with us. God the Son died and rose again for us, to reconcile us to the Father. God the Holy Spirit regenerated us and continues to live in us, sustaining our faith, renewing our hope, and energizing our love for God and man. And by the power of his Word, the Triune God is daily transforming our minds and hearts, so that with his help and strength we are delivered from the religious delusions of our own human imagination, and are preserved steadfast in true adoration of the Holy Trinity.
And finally, as we consider the gathering of God’s people around the means of grace that the Triune God has given to us, and by which he makes himself known to us, we also think today about the beginning of the mission outreach in Queen Creek that our congregation is sponsoring, where his holy name will also be proclaimed and praised. The name by which this new preaching station is currently known, “Sun of Righteousness Lutheran Mission,” recalls the words of the prophet Malachi: “But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.” Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God in human flesh, is the “sun of righteousness” who rises on his people, and who enlivens them with the warms rays of his justifying grace. The hymnist Charles Wesley guides us to worship our divine Savior in these words: “Hail the heavenly Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of Righteousness! Light and life to all He brings, Risen with healing in His wings. Mild He lays His glory by, Born that man no more may die. Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth.” May the Sun of Righteousness, who gives us second birth by his Spirit, preserve and prosper the preaching of his Gospel and the administration of his sacraments among our brothers and sisters in Queen Creek. May that gathering of forgiven saints be kept always in the one true faith, and may it never cease to sing the pure praises of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, its only God and ours. Amen.
18 June 2006 - Pentecost 2 - 2 Cor. 4:5-12
We live in an era of disposable containers of all varieties. We have throw-away bottles, throw-away cups, throw-away vases, throw-away pans. These disposable containers are not very attractive, and they are not very sturdy. They are not permanent, and have no enduring value. Once we have gotten out of them the food, the beverage, or the product that came in them, or that was temporarily placed in them, we are finished with these containers, and throw them away without a second thought.
But this culture of disposablility is not in every sense a unique feature of our modern times. In the ancient world they had something roughly equivalent to the disposable containers that we use. We are all aware of the beautiful gold and silver goblets and vases that archeologists have unearthed over the decades. We are all also aware of the sturdy, long-lasting stone or iron vessels and implements that have been dug up. But any archaeologist or historian will tell you that by far the most common man-made objects found at archaeological excavations are clay pots and clay jars. Most of the time they are not found intact. Only pieces, or chards, usually remain. And that’s because clay pottery was, roughly speaking, the ancient world’s equivalent to the disposable, throw-away containers with which we are familiar.
Clay pots were not made to last. Oh, they were used and reused for a while, but before long they would crack, or get dropped and break, and would then be unceremoniously discarded. Common household clay jars in the ancient world were not highly valued. They were cheap and easy to replace. They were not sturdy, and they were not attractive. For the limited time of their usefulness they were indeed used, for all sorts of un-glamorous and utilitarian purposes. But when the time of their usefulness was over, they were thrown away.
In today’s epistle lesson, from the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul tells us about the great heavenly treasure that is Jesus Christ and his salvation. He tells us about the priceless treasure that we have within us, as the light of Christ shines upon our hearts through the Gospel, and as the knowledge of Christ’s glory enters into our minds by means of God’s Word and Spirit. And so, in describing his ministry as a preacher of salvation, the apostle writes: “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
Listen, though, to how Paul then describes the human “containers” into which this divine treasure has been deposited by God. He writes: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” Jars of clay. Earthen vessels. Clay pots. Temporary. Easily breakable. Unimpressive. Disposable. That’s what we are.
There seems to be an incongruity here. If the knowledge of Christ is such a marvelous treasure, we would expect the containers in which God puts this treasure to be more fitting and suitable for such a noble association than clay pots are. We might expect God to put this treasure into attractive gold or silver vessels, beautiful in appearance, glimmering and bright. Or we might expect God to put this treasure into strong and sturdy receptacles, made of iron or carved stone, rugged and permanent.
And so, if we correctly recognize that the knowledge of Christ is indeed a priceless treasure, we could incorrectly begin to imagine that we, who have been appointed by God to be the human “containers” for this treasure, are not merely the equivalent of clay jars. Christians, in comparing themselves to those who do not know Christ and his salvation, can easily develop a spirit of pride, or an attitude of superiority, especially if they see in the lives of their unbelieving neighbors an obviously low level of morality, culture, or civility. We can become elitists of a sort, with the feeling that we are better than others, like golden vessels, attractive and impressive. Or in comparison to the instability and chaos that seem so often to characterize the lives of non-Christians, we can come to see ourselves as vessels of iron, permanent and sturdy. We can puff ourselves up to the point where we forget what St. Paul says. “But we have this treasure in jars of clay.”
Or, on the other side of the equation, if we correctly recognize that we are indeed jars of clay, we could incorrectly begin to imagine that we, who have become the human “containers” for what God has put into us, have not received something from God that is really all that valuable after all. If God is willing to put his “treasure” into a container that is so ordinary and unspectacular, then that “treasure” might not be as valuable or important as we had thought. In their daily interactions with the decadent influences of the sinful world in which they live, Christians can begin to become decadent themselves, as their faith loses its grip on God’s Word, and as God’s Word loses its influence in their lives. Christians who know that they are jars of clay, but who also lose their appreciation for the eternal significance of the treasure that was given to them in the Gospel, can in time lose the treasure. As they ignore their calling to live in a different way than the unbelieving world lives, and as they minimize their responsibility to make ethical decisions on the basis of a standard than is higher than the fads of the popular culture, they can become so indifferent to the demands and claims of God’s Word that they cease to be Christians altogether. We can sink down to the point where we forget what St. Paul says. “But we have this treasure in jars of clay.”
We are jars of clay. Don’t ever think that in this lifetime, from the perspective of the world, you will become something other than an unimportant, temporary, and insignificant container. In your human sinfulness you will remain weak, frail, and insecure. In your earthly mortality you will always be on the verge of getting dropped and broken. You will not be immune to the human tragedies and disappointments that impact the lives of so many. These tragedies and disappointments will touch your life too. And in the inevitability of your bodily death, which cannot be avoided, the world will someday discard you. In this life you are not a silver vase, of enduring quality and value. You are not a sturdy stone pot, enduring through the ages. You are a jar of clay.
But into the humble jar of clay that is your human existence in this world, God has indeed placed the most priceless of treasures. His Spirit has carried Jesus Christ to you, in the Gospel that has been spoken over you and in the sacraments that have been bestowed upon you. His Spirit has put upon you the righteousness of Christ, which forgives, and covers over, all your sins. His Spirit has opened your heart to believe the living Word of the Lord, and to live and grow in that Word.
St. Paul says: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” We are jars of clay, with all of the fragileness and vulnerability that would characterize jars of clay. But in Christ, and with the treasure of Christ filling us up by God’s grace, we will not ultimately be crushed, and we will not ultimately be destroyed. In this life, even in the midst of our weakness, we have a living hope that will endure beyond this world, forever in the heavens.
As a general principle, we know that when enough pressure is put on a clay jar, it will crack and cave in upon itself. But this would apply only to an empty jar, or to a jar that doesn’t have anything solid in it. For us who are filled with the uncrushable treasure of Christ, it will not be like this. In the strength of Christ, who dwells within us, we are “afflicted in every way, but not crushed.”
As a general principle, we also know that when a clay pot is dropped or thrown to the floor, it will break apart into many pieces. But this would apply only to an empty pot, or to a pot that doesn’t have anything solid in it. For us who are filled with the indestructible treasure of Christ, it will not be like this. In the strength of Christ, who dwells within us, we are “struck down, but not destroyed.”
For those who will participate today in the Lord’s Supper, the treasure of Christ, which we already have, will be renewed to us in a most blessed and wonderful manner. The words of Christ will speak his true body and blood into the bread and wine, which we will then receive into our owns bodies for the strengthening of our resurrection hope. The words of Christ will also speak his gracious forgiveness into our minds and hearts, which will renew and solidify in us the precious gift of salvation.
As we receive our Savior sacramentally, in repentance and faith, we will do so as “jars of clay,” without pretense or personal glory. But we can still pray, in the words of St. Paul, that by the power of the heavenly treasure that God here gives us, “the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies,” through deeds and words that will testify to the reality of what is hidden within us.
“For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” Amen.
25 June 2006 - Presentation of the Augsburg Confession - Psalm 119:46
Psalm 119:46: “I will also speak of your testimonies before kings and shall not be put to shame...”
Today is observed in the Lutheran Church as the Commemoration of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession, which occurred on June 25th, 1530. This might be called a “minor feast,” but the subject on which this day focuses is not of minor importance. This might also be called a non-Biblical feast, since it marks the anniversary of something that happened many centuries after the time of the apostles, but the Bible is very much at the center of what we will be thinking about today.
Throughout Christian history, beginning already during the time of the apostles, false teachers have arisen in the institutional church in each generation, to twist and distort the Word of God, and to confuse and discourage the people of God. And also throughout Christian history, beginning with the apostles, the Lord has raised up faithful teachers and preachers to refute the error, and to defend and underscore his saving truth. The apostolic epistles are filled with this kind of defense of the truth of Christ, and with presentations of a clear and full articulation of that truth for the sake of souls that otherwise might be misled.
When the apostolic age came to a close, so that the church no longer had in its midst inspired and infallible teachers, the problem of false doctrine certainly did not disappear, and the church’s duty of combating it, and of confessing the pure Word of God in opposition to it, did not come to an end either. In the three ancient Creeds that come from the first four centuries of Christian history, we have enduring testimonies to the church’s faithfulness in confessing and teaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in the face of heresies that would have robbed God’s children of their faith and salvation if they had prevailed. But they did not prevail. The Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds still confess the truth of God to the world, and to us. And by means of those Creeds, we still confess to others what has been faithfully confessed and taught to us.
There is only one God, the almighty maker of heaven and earth, and the loving maker of each of us. This one God from eternity is the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For our salvation the only-begotten Son of the Father took to himself a true yet sinless human nature: so that he could be our brother according to the flesh; so that he could live for us under the demands of the divine law; and so that he could die for us as a perfect sacrifice for sin, to satisfy in our place the requirements of his own divine justice.
All of these Scriptural articles of faith, of fundamental importance for our salvation, were either questioned or outrightly denied by the various heretics of the ancient world. But by God’s providence, all of these articles of faith are embraced in, confessed by, and preserved in, the ancient Creeds.
St. Jude writes in his Epistle: “Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” St. Peter, in his First Epistle, also writes: “...but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience...” The orthodox Fathers and bishops who composed the Creeds were faithful to this apostolic example and to this apostolic admonition. They contended for the true faith, even when their lives might have been at risk for doing so. With God’s help they were always prepared to make a defense of the hope that was in them, even when they were disheartened by the seemingly endless controversies that were ripping the church apart. We are thankful that they were faithful in these ways, and that they have passed on to us the words of their faithful confession of God’s saving truth.
The last of these Creeds - the Athanasian - was composed in the fifth century. But the threat of false teaching, rising up in new forms, remained. The three ancient Creeds had confessed the Biblical truth of who God is, and of what Jesus did to save us from our sins. During the Middle ages, however, a new kind of false teaching emerged which distorted the Biblical teaching of how God applies this salvation to men, and of how men receive it and are individually reconciled to God. The scholastic theologians of the Medieval western church taught that a person becomes acceptable to God, and is made worthy of a place in heaven, through a cooperative process that involves God’s grace in combination with his own will and his own religious and moral efforts. The basic idea was this: God does his part, but man has to do his part too. Or another way of summarizing the scholastic theology would be this: God declares a person to be righteous and worthy of heaven, when that person actually becomes righteous and worthy of heaven.
This teaching had the effect of directing man’s devotional attention away from Christ’s saving work on the cross, and toward his own feeble and faltering works. The teaching that you and I must contribute something from within us toward bringing about our own acceptance by God, and our own righteousness before God, turns our devotional attention away from that which is perfect, complete, certain, and comforting, to that which is imperfect, flawed, doubtful, and unsettling.
Martin Luther, a theological professor and pastor in Wittenberg, Germany, posted his famous 95 Theses on October 31st, 1517, in protest of various abuses connected with the Medieval system of salvation. This was the beginning of a large-scale public rejection of these errors, and it was the beginning of a large-scale pastoral effort, on the part of many Christian teachers throughout western Europe, to reassert and reemphasize the Biblical doctrines of salvation by grace alone, and of justification by faith alone.
In response to the popular Medieval teaching that God does his part in saving us, but that man must then do his part too, the Lutheran Reformers confessed the apostolic teaching that God does his part, and that Christ then does man’s part, in our place and on our behalf. St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Ephesians: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved - and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
In response to the Medieval teaching that God declares man to be righteous and worthy of heaven when man actually become righteous and worthy of heaven, the Lutheran Reformers confessed the apostolic teaching that God declares man to be righteous and worthy of heaven because Christ is righteous and worthy of heaven, in our place and on our behalf. St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans: “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.’” And a few verses later: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”
The posting of the 95 Theses in 1517 was the beginning of a movement. But before long, this movement took concrete churchly shape in a thorough Reformation of the life and ministry of the church. The gospel was once again proclaimed in its purity. The sacraments, which seal to us the promises of the Gospel, were once again administered according to Christ’s institution. Pastors, called by God to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments, were once again fulfilling their vocation in the church. And so, when the historical circumstances demanded it, thirteen years after the posting of the 95 theses, the first and chief creed of the Reformation period - the Augsburg Confession - was formally presented in the presence of Emperor Charles V in the city of Augsburg on June 25th, 1530.
In the noble tradition of the three ancient Creeds, the Lutherans at Augsburg confessed the faith with confidence and certainty. They confessed to the confused and unbelieving world what God says in Holy Scripture about his justification of sinners and his salvation of souls. They confessed to the consciences of Christendom, troubled by the guilt of sin, God’s way of bringing forgiveness and heavenly peace to his children.
Listen now to the Augsburg Confession as it proclaims the Christian faith to you. Joyfully embrace this confession, as it embraces you, and as it preaches Christ to you. Articles 4: “...it is taught that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through our merit, work, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith, when we believe that Christ has suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us. For God will regard and reckon this faith as righteousness in his sight, as St. Paul says in Romans 3 and 4.” Article 5: “To obtain such faith God instituted the office of preaching, giving the gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit, who produces faith, where and when he wills, in those who hear the gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe.” Article 6: “It is also taught that such faith should yield good fruit and good works and that a person must do such good works as God has commanded for God’s sake, but not place trust in them as if thereby to earn grace before God. For we receive forgiveness of sin and righteousness through faith in Christ, as Christ himself says: ‘When you have done all [things]..., say, “We are worthless slaves.”’ The Fathers also teach the same thing. For Ambrose says: ‘It is determined by God that whoever believes in Christ shall be saved and have forgiveness of sins, not through works but through faith alone, without merit.’”
God has given the church its faith. In the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures the saving truth of Christ is revealed. In the working of the Holy Spirit through the means of grace, this saving truth is impressed on us, enters into us, and makes us to be new creatures in Christ, who believe this truth and who find our hope and life in it.
As we are commissioned by our Lord to confess him before men, and to bring his saving message to all nations, we join our voices to the voices of the saints of the past, who did faithfully confess Christ against the deceptions and distortions of their day. Out of love for God and our neighbor, with a heartfelt desire that all men would know and believe the truth of Christ, and with God-given courage and conviction, we too proclaim to our confused and misled world the saving truth of God. And as we do so, we trust that the Word of the Lord, which God has placed in our hearts and on our lips, shall not return to him empty, but shall accomplish that which he purposes, and shall succeed in the thing for which he sent it.
“I will also speak of your testimonies before kings and shall not be put to shame...” Amen.