The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 10:23-37
In Christ Jesus, who taught us the way of compassion and mercy by giving Himself fully for the needs of His neighbors, dear fellow redeemed:
In the summertime, parents can be a little more lenient with their kids. With no bus to catch in the morning, they might let the kids sleep in a bit. With no homework to do or school deadlines to meet, kids have more flexibility with how they spend their time. But school is back in session. That means it’s time to buckle down again.
When school starts, parents become less accepting of non-committal answers. When they see their kids lounging around and wasting time, and they ask, “Is your homework finished?” they are not looking for an “almost,” or “it won’t take me long.” What they want to know is whether the homework is “done” or “not done.” When it comes to homework, those are the only two categories!
They are the same two categories that apply to God’s holy Law. God’s Law is either done or not done. Today’s reading tells us about an expert in the Law who seemed to recognize that his keeping of the Law was not done. He asked Jesus, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Then at Jesus’ prompting, he summarized the Ten Commandments: You shall love God perfectly and your neighbor as yourself. “You have answered correctly,” said Jesus, “do this, and you will live.”
Then we learn that the expert in the Law thought he actually had done what was required. He thought he was holy according to God’s Commandments. But he wasn’t. He might have understood the Law intellectually, but he did not know the Law spiritually. He might have appeared to keep the Law outwardly, but he had not kept it in his heart.
How we read the Law is very important. We don’t want to misunderstand it, and we don’t want to misapply it. Jesus’ interaction with the lawyer shows how easily both things can happen. You and I have something in common with this lawyer—we know what God demands in His Law. We know the Ten Commandments. There is another thing we have in common with this man. We think we have done a fair job of keeping the Commandments. We know we have not kept them perfectly, but compared to a lot of people around us, we think we have done pretty well at living the way God wants.
But this comparison with others is where we get into trouble. It shows a misunderstanding of the Law. When we think we have done better than others, we have actually set aside the Law. Remember that God’s Law is either done or not done. If we haven’t kept it fully, then there’s no use pointing out how we are better than others. That’s like boasting about a second-to-last finish in a field of a hundred competitors. And if we misunderstand our own failure to keep the Law, we will certainly misapply it. We will read it as though it condemns the sins of others while letting us off the hook.
The Law doesn’t let anyone off the hook. St. Paul couldn’t have said it more clearly in his letter to the Romans: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (3:20). He wrote the same thing in his letter to the Galatians: “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’ Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law” (Gal. 3:10-11).
The primary job of the Law is to smash the pride that is constantly rearing its ugly head inside us. The Law functions kind of like those robbers lurking in the shadows. We walk along, thinking we’ve got it together. We find it easy to justify our sinful actions, words, and thoughts, and we are quick to judge the weaknesses of others. We are focused on ourselves and not on the needs of those around us.
And BOOM! the Law hits us. We often don’t see it coming. Suddenly our sin catches up to us, and we realize how flawed we really are. We see how lacking we are in love. We see how we have been living for ourselves and not for God. The Law knocks us flat on our backs and strips away everything we place our trust in in this life—our works, our accomplishments, our status. Nothing is left but our sins. The Law is ruthless. It shows no mercy. It gives no hope.
Suppose the Law had done its work, and you shared your guilt with a friend, laying bare all the ugly thoughts and intentions of your sinful heart. And your well-meaning friend tries to encourage you, “You are being too hard on yourself! You are a wonderful, good, kind person! You are one of the best!” That’s like a priest or a Levite seeing the man half-dead and passing by on the other side because “he’s going to be just fine!” Fluffy compliments or rosy sentiments are no help. When your eyes are open to your sin, when the Law shows you how you really are, you don’t need someone telling you that everything is okay.
What you need is a Good Samaritan. You need someone to bind up your wounds, carry you to safety, and nurse you back to health. That’s what Jesus does. He sees you in your sin, broken by the Law, and He has compassion on you. He knows what bad shape you and all sinners are in. That’s why He took on your flesh. He came “to redeem those who were under the law” (Gal. 4:5). He came to do what you are incapable of doing. He came to fulfill the Law.
The Law didn’t catch Him by surprise. It didn’t knock Him down. The Law is His. God established the Law as a reflection of His perfect nature. He gave it to show what it means to be right with Him. And before the first man and woman sinned, they were right with Him. Their lives perfectly conformed to His holy will. But their sin ruined that Paradise. Now nothing they tried to do was perfect. Everything was tainted by sin.
Jesus came to reverse and repair all that. He lived His life in total conformity to the Law. He was tempted in every way just as we are, but He never sinned (Heb. 4:15). He perfectly loved His heavenly Father with all His heart, soul, strength, and mind, and He perfectly loved His neighbor as Himself. He lived that life of perfect love for you. He kept the Law completely for you. His holy life is yours—credited to you—by faith.
And He went to the cross to make atonement for your all sins against the holy Law. Every infraction, large and small, was counted against Him on the cross. All your arrogance, all your pride, your judgmental attitude toward others, your denial of your own sinfulness, your failure to help a neighbor in need—Jesus accepted the full wrath of God for all of it. The blood He shed cleanses you from every sin. Each and every sin is forgiven.
But you might not always feel like your sins are forgiven. You might still feel guilty for the things you have done and said and the terrible things you have imagined. This is why Jesus gives His Word and Sacraments. These are the means for your healing and strength. Through His Word of Absolution, Jesus returns you to the cleansing waters of your Baptism, where the wounds of your sins are washed clean. And through the food and drink of His Supper, He applies the medicine of His body and blood to bring you spiritual healing and strength.
Jesus sees how you struggle. He knows the countless ways you have fallen short of the Commandments. But He does not leave you for dead on the treacherous highway of this life. He has compassion on you. He has compassion because His love is not fickle like ours is. His love does not change or diminish. His love is perfect.
That perfect love counts as your keeping of the holy Law. All that He is and all that He accomplished is yours by faith. By faith in Him, the Law is done for you. It is fulfilled. That’s what Romans 10:4 tells us: “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” We no longer have the pressure of trying to be righteous through our works. Perfect righteousness is ours by faith.
But while the Law is done for us before God, there is plenty for us to do for our neighbors. There are so many around us beaten and broken by their own sin and the sin of others. There are so many crushed by the Law and feeling despair. Our neighbors don’t need priests and Levites who turn up their noses at the thought of being inconvenienced or getting their hands dirty. Our neighbors don’t need Christians who talk a good game but hardly lift a finger to help.
Our neighbors need compassion. They need mercy. We give them these things when we lend a sympathetic ear or a helping hand. And we also share with them what they need the most. We give them Jesus—His healing, His promise, His grace through the message of the Gospel. Jesus tells us to go and do this. The Good Samaritan is a picture for us, not of how we can fulfill the Law and get ourselves to heaven by our works. The Good Samaritan is a picture of Jesus’ love which He has shown to us, and which He gives us the opportunity and the privilege to show to others.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from “Parable of the Good Samaritan” by Jan Wijnants, 1632-1684)
The Sixth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 5:20-26
In Christ Jesus, whose righteous life fulfilled every detail of God’s holy law for you and for all people, dear fellow redeemed:
If I were to have a major injury, like multiple broken bones in my leg, there are two ways I could approach the recovery. I could wrap up and mobilize my leg as well as I could and hope for everything to heal up on its own. This might result in my being able to walk again but probably not without difficulties. The bones would not be set quite right.
The other option would be to go and see a doctor who specializes in broken bones. He could put everything back in place, apply plates and screws as needed, and monitor the progress. Given enough time, the bones would likely heal just as they were before. It seems obvious what choice I should make. I should not trust what I can do. I should trust the specialist who is confident he can save my leg and make it all right again.
But in the area of righteousness before God, many people take the opposite approach. They think they can fix what is broken on their own, and it only makes the problem worse. Righteousness before God is when my life matches up with God’s requirements for my life. His Ten Commandments establish the boundary markers for what is correct, upright behavior. His law shows whether the things I have done, said, and thought are justifiable before Him.
So it is clear that we will not be able to understand righteousness unless we understand God’s law. This is Jesus’ focus in His words today from the Sermon on the Mount. Just before today’s text, Jesus said that He did not come to abolish or destroy “the Law and the Prophets,” but to fulfill them (Mat. 5:17). He did not come to relax God’s standard, to make it more comfortable for sinners to remain in their sins. He came to sharpen the law, or to sharpen the people’s consciences in response to the law.
He sounded a clear warning, “Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (v. 19). And before the people could imagine that they were among the “great” ones in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus said, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
That was a shocking statement. The scribes and Pharisees were widely seen as the “good people,” the ones who scrupulously followed God’s law. And now Jesus was saying that even such a disciplined, committed life was not sufficient. God demands more. A good life does not fulfill His law. God requires a perfect life (v. 48).
The old Adam, our sinful nature, cannot tolerate this. It tells us that God has set the bar too high. He can’t really expect us to be perfect! After all, God loves us, and it isn’t loving to make rules that no one can follow. So then we do the very thing Jesus said He would not do. We abolish the law, or at least we set it aside whenever it suits us. Or we reinterpret the law so that it can accommodate our sins.
All of us have done this. We got caught doing or saying something we shouldn’t have, but we were quick to justify the wrong:
- “I lost my temper because they kept provoking me!”
- “I hit him because he hit me first!”
- “I took that because they owed me!”
This week I became aware of a Pew Research Center report which was released less than a year ago (8/31/20). The topic was sex outside of marriage. 57% of Christians surveyed—more than half—said that “sex between unmarried adults in a committed relationship” is acceptable. Slightly less of the Christians surveyed, 50% of them, said that “casual sex between consenting adults” is acceptable. This is not at all what the Bible says. The Bible says that sex is a gift from God that is to be exercised within marriage only. So either the Christians surveyed don’t know what God’s Word teaches, or they don’t think it is all that serious or important.
So we Christians go forward thinking that we have lived a pretty good life and have little to be ashamed of. But Jesus says, “If you think you have lived a righteous life, let’s take a closer look at what God’s law demands.” He points to the Fifth Commandment. Haven’t you and I kept that one—“You shall not murder”? Jesus says this commandment is also broken by those who have been angry with a brother, or insulted someone, or spoken harshly toward someone.
Do you find yourself justifying your anger? Maybe someone crossed a line you told them not to cross. Maybe someone you trusted betrayed you. Maybe you’ve been bullied. You were sinned against in these circumstances, and that isn’t right. But it does not give you the right to be angry. It does not give you the right to speak harshly toward and about another. It does not give you the right to treat somebody like dirt.
Jesus says, “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Jesus does not say that we should wait for others to come to us. He does not say we should hold their sins against them. He says that if we have sinned in any way against someone else—even if they committed the greater sin—we should apologize and seek to be reconciled.
This is really hard. This runs against our own idea of justice, which often looks a lot like revenge. Our failure to love our neighbor as God commands should show us that we are not capable of fixing everything we have broken. Most of us don’t have the knowledge and ability to properly set our own broken bones. None of us has the ability to fix our breaking of God’s holy law.
But there is an expert Fixer, a Specialist who is able to set things right again. Jesus said He came to fulfill the law. He came to keep it, every detail. He was able to do this because He was not a man who inherited Adam’s sin like the rest of us. He was a man without sin. He was God incarnate, God in the flesh. Because God became Man, He was obligated to keep His own law. This was not for His own benefit—He was already righteous from eternity. Jesus kept the law for your benefit and mine.
The righteousness that the law demands was supplied for us by our Savior Jesus. He is the one who perfectly honored His parents. He is the one who never wronged His neighbor. He is the one who lived a sexually pure life. All the ways we have broken God’s law, Jesus set right with His own perfect life.
Does that mean everyone in the world is now righteous before God? Jesus kept the law for everyone, but not everyone is credited with His righteousness. Some have no remorse for their sins. They don’t care what God commands, and they fully intend to continue in their sins. Others recognize their sins, but they think they can supply the righteousness that God requires. They think they can make up for the bad; they can balance out their bad with their good. These sinners are outside of God’s grace. They will have to answer for their own unrighteousness.
But all who trust in Jesus alone for righteousness are righteous. St. Paul writes that “if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal. 3:21-22). And again, “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4). So the righteousness you need is obtained by faith in Jesus.
This faith was given to you at your Baptism, which means that Jesus’ righteousness was given to you at your Baptism. Today’s Epistle lesson from Romans 6 says that through Baptism your sins were buried. You died to sin and were raised with Jesus, so that now you walk in newness of life. Now you walk in His life.
What Makes a Person Righteous is his or her connection to Jesus. Jesus is the only one who is righteous by His own doing. He lived that righteous life for you, and then He died to erase all the wrongs you have done. The standard of righteousness before God has never changed and never will change. Jesus met that standard for you.
And He meets you now through His Word and Sacraments to keep delivering His righteousness and forgiveness to you. There is no justification for your sinning. There is no good excuse for the wrong you have done. But Jesus wants you to know that He is not angry with you. He does not condemn you for your sins. He died for you. He looks upon you now as though you never sinned against Him. And He promises to help you look at the sinners around you in the same way.
You will not find justice in this life for all the wrongs that have been done to you. And you will not be able to fix all the wrongs you have done to others. But you will always find forgiveness and healing in Jesus. You will find strength through Him to show love and kindness to others whether or not love and kindness have been shown to you.
Even when your best intentions and your best efforts fail, you stand righteous before God for Jesus’ sake. By faith in Him, you have a righteousness that satisfies the requirement of God’s holy law, a righteousness that guarantees that you will enter the kingdom of heaven.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from “The Sermon on the Mount” by Rudolf Yelin the Older, 1912)
The Fifth Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 8:46-59
In Christ Jesus, who told the truth even when it was not welcome, so that some would hear it and believe, dear fellow redeemed:
In the iconic scene from the movie, A Few Good Men, the prosecuting attorney demands answers from the witness on the stand, a marine colonel. “I want the truth!” he shouts. And the marine colonel snaps back: “You can’t handle the truth!” The truth is difficult to handle, as this colonel soon found out. The truth is so difficult to handle, that many today deny there even is such a thing. Instead of THE truth, a set of facts about which most everyone can agree, people dismiss long-held beliefs as YOUR truth. It may be true for you, they say, but it is not true for all. This is post-modernist thinking.
Jesus was no post-modernist. He spoke definitely. He pointed out right and wrong, and He stated His message clearly even when He knew people would struggle to accept it. We saw this last Sunday when Jesus called Himself “the bread of life” and said: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (Joh. 6:35, 56). He spoke the truth, but it was a truth the people did not want to hear. It did not match up with the way they viewed Jesus and what they expected Him to do.
Later Jesus told the people that they would know the truth if they remained in His Word (8:31-32). What He spoke to them was “the truth that [He] heard from God [the Father]” (v. 40). But they did not want the truth. They could not bear to listen to His Word (v. 43). Why was that? Jesus stated it bluntly: “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me” (vv. 44-45).
Then He continued with the words of today’s text, about truth, the Word of God, and eternal life. All of these topics are ones that our “enlightened” society ignores or rejects. Jesus still seems to be viewed favorably today, but it is not really the Jesus of the Gospels. The “Jesus” who is popular today is “Jesus the Social Activist,” or “Jesus the Teacher of Morality,” or “Jesus the Cheerleader.”
The real Jesus says, “Which one of you convicts Me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe Me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” Jesus does not leave room for anyone to stay neutral about Him. He called Himself the eternal Son of God who came down to bring life to the dying world. Was He telling the truth, or was He lying?
The Jews who opposed Him accused Him of having a demon. They had already shown their cards. They did not believe He was God in the flesh. If they believed this about Him, it would have revealed a truth about themselves, a truth they weren’t prepared to consider. If Jesus was who He said He was, then they weren’t who they thought they were. They thought they were holy. They thought they were right with God by the way they lived their life. They did not think they needed a Savior from sin.
Much of the world says the same thing: “I’m a good person,” “I’m doing just fine on my own,” “I’m not that bad,” “I don’t need a Savior.” No one wants to face the hard truth that they are not as good as they think, that they are not fine on their own, that they deserve eternal punishment for their sins and will certainly have it if they don’t have Jesus.
Even we who know this truth don’t like it. We don’t like the idea that no matter how hard we try to be good or how much good we do, we can’t make up for the sins we have done. We don’t like it that God has given us a standard for our moral conduct that is impossible for us to fulfill. We don’t like it that as far as our eternal future is concerned, we are not the ones in control.
The truth that no matter what we do on this earth we all deserve to suffer eternally in hell, is too much for us. We can’t imagine that our inherited condition is so dire, or that our sins should require such punishment. We can’t handle the truth. If God didn’t tell us we needed a Savior, we would imagine there was some way we could overcome our sins, or some way that we could appease Him.
But only God could save us, and the only way for Him to do it was to send His eternal Son to take on our flesh. If nothing else shows us the bad shape we were in because of our sin, the Son of God becoming Man should. The Creator God didn’t take on human flesh just to get a closer look at things on earth. He came because the world and every human heart were so broken, they could not be repaired. They had to be redeemed.
They had to be cleansed and purified from all their sins, and only Jesus could do it. He had to offer Himself in every sinner’s place. He had to come among the prideful who thought they were holy on their own. He had to come among the liars who called Him a liar, when it was their hearts that were full of darkness. He had to come among the ungrateful who would never in this life fully appreciate what He came to do.
But knowing all this would happen, He still came. He came to substitute Himself for us and shed His blood for our sin. He came to suffer the unquenchable fires of hell on our behalf. He came to be slaughtered as our sacrificial Lamb on the cross. This was the only way our redemption could be accomplished. Jesus asked His Father if there might be some other way, but there wasn’t. The divine requirement that Jesus must endure suffering, hell, and death for our salvation was a hard truth, but it was THE truth.
We can’t handle the truth of what we deserve for our sins, but Jesus could. He could handle the truth of what our sins required. He could handle the hellish punishment. He could handle the cold dark of death. He did all of this willingly for the sins of the whole world. Because of what Jesus did, God the Father declares every sinner righteous, innocent of any wrongdoing. He says that heaven belongs to one person just as much as to another because Jesus paid for all sin.
But our sinful nature within us protests: “This can’t be! It can’t be that easy! There must be something I have to do to become right with God!” Just as we can’t handle the truth of the Law, which tells us what we deserve for our sins, we can’t handle the truth of the Gospel. The good news of what Jesus has done seems too good. His grace seems too free. The way we receive forgiveness and life through His Word seems too simple.
But how it seems to us does not matter. What matters is whether or not the Gospel message is true. St. Paul says it is, and he received his words from God. He wrote: “[I]n Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2Co. 5:19). He said that God sent him to preach to everyone that Jesus brought us back together with God through His death and resurrection.
Paul was sent to preach “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1Co. 2:2). He was not sent to preach “Ten Secrets to a Having a Happier Life,” or “Five Steps to Becoming a Better Person.” He was sent to tell what Jesus had done to save us from sin, death, and hell. He was sent to tell everyone the truth, whether they wanted to hear it or not.
You and I have heard the truth, and we have believed it by the power of the Holy Spirit. Others have heard the truth, and they have ignored it because they prefer the devil’s lies instead. The devil’s lies are appealing. They agree with our sinful, self-centered thinking. They make us comfortable in our sin and glorify the bad choices we make. But as nice as the devil’s lies sound, they all lead to death.
Only Jesus’ Word of truth can bring us life. He declared, “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word, he will never see death.” What a promise! He says that whoever pays attention to His Word, holds it tightly, guards it in his heart, shall never see death. What the believer has to look forward to is eternal life, life with Jesus, life in His heavenly kingdom with all the saints and angels. Can it really be? “Truly, truly,” said Jesus, “Amen, Amen”—“Yes, yes, it shall be so.”
The unbelieving world will never stop peddling lies in the name of “truth.” It will keep trying on new truths to see if the latest one will fit better than the last one. But there is no truth apart from God, and no way to know truth apart from His Word. By the grace of God, you have the truth. You can’t handle it, because it is so far above you. But it is still yours.
Rejoice that you have it. Thank God for giving you the truth. Ask Him to help you share the truth with others. And take comfort that the truth of God’s love for you in Christ stands today and will stand forever.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from “Ecce Homo” by Antonio Ciseri, 1871)
The Festival of the Reformation – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Romans 1:16-17
In Christ Jesus, who “saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy” (Ti. 3:5), dear fellow redeemed:
Who is responsible for the Reformation movement? The answer that comes immediately to mind is Martin Luther, the bold monk from Wittenberg, Germany. But that is not really correct. The one who brought about the Reformation was God the Holy Spirit. The Reformation did not grow out of someone’s personality, personal strength, or intellectual ability. It grew out of the powerful Word of God.
To be specific, the Reformation can be said to have grown out of the short text before us today from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. It may seem straightforward and comforting to us, but it was terribly perplexing to Martin Luther. The part that troubled him the most was the part about “the righteousness of God.” He said these words “struck [his] conscience like lightning” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 54, p. 193), and that they were “like a thunderbolt in [his] heart” (LW, Vol. 54, pp. 308-309). He went as far as to say he hated these words.
He had been taught to understand “the righteousness of God” as referring to the vengeful God who punished unrighteous sinners. He explained it in this way: “Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction [by the good works he had done]. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God” (LW, Vol. 34, pp. 336-337).
But as discouraged as he was by this text, he couldn’t leave it alone. He couldn’t shake the sense that he was missing something. The ideas didn’t seem to match up. On the one hand, Paul wrote about “the righteousness of God.” On the other hand, he cited a passage from the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk about how “The righteous shall live by faith.” Luther had been taught and was convinced that no one could be righteous before God unless he did enough good works to please Him. But Paul was connecting righteousness to faith.
One day Luther was sitting in the tower at his monastery pondering the words before us today, when it suddenly dawned on him. He realized the problem was not with the text—the problem was with him! He said he now “began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God” (LW, Vol. 34, pp. 337). He learned that there was a difference between “the righteousness of the law” and “the righteousness of the gospel.”
The righteousness of the law is how God requires us to live according to the Ten Commandments. But the righteousness of the gospel is not about what we do at all. The righteousness of the gospel is all about what God gives to sinners according to His grace. What Luther learned in these two short verses is the proper distinction between God’s Law and God’s Gospel (LW, Vol. 54, pp. 442-443). He didn’t come to this understanding on his own. He gave all glory to God. He said, “The Holy Spirit unveiled the Scriptures for me” (LW, Vol. 54, p. 194).
This is why I said that God the Holy Spirit brought about the Reformation. But there are many who disagree. They wish the Reformation had never happened. They view it as the work of the devil. They feel this way because the Reformation caused the church to break in pieces like it never had before. Besides dividing the Lutherans and Roman Catholics, the Reformation also led to the formation of other Christian denominations like the Anabaptists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists. (We’ll be studying these denominations in more detail in our next Bible Class.)
We, too, are sad that the church is so divided. But we thank God for the Reformation. Before the Reformation, the Gospel message of salvation had been obscured. Christians were not confident that their sins were forgiven because of what Jesus did. They were terrified of death because they thought they would be in purgatory a long, long time paying for their sins. This is why they jumped at the chance to buy indulgences authorized by the pope. They were told that as soon as they purchased an indulgence, they could send a loved one from purgatory to heaven and store up merit for themselves.
But an indulgence is not needed for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Jesus is. He stated this clearly when He said, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Joh. 3:16). We call this “the Gospel in a nutshell.” This is the good news—that God the Father sent His Son to take on our flesh to save us. Jesus lived a perfectly righteous life under the Law for us, and He carried all our sins to the cross to atone for them there. We are saved because of what He did and not because of anything we do. As soon as we believe this good news by the power of the Holy Spirit, we have eternal life in Him.
This runs contrary to natural human thinking. We think that since we messed up, since we sinned, we have to fix it. We have to make up for our wrongs by doing lots of good. Even we who know this is not the case still beat ourselves up over past sins. We won’t let ourselves live in the grace of God. We won’t let ourselves rejoice in His wonderful love and goodness toward us. “I have sinned too much,” we think. “My faults are too many.”
Do you realize that is just another way of saying that Jesus is not much of a Savior? If your sins are too great, if your past is too horrible for God to forgive you, then He is a very limited God, and Jesus was wasting His time on the cross. Why was Jesus there if not for you? Why did He suffer if your sins could not be forgiven? Or was He there because your sins could be forgiven? And did He rise again from the dead because your sins are forgiven? This is why He suffered, died, and rose again: to blot out all of your sins with His precious blood and to win your eternal salvation.
You’re not alone in wondering if this message of the Gospel is too good to be true. Luther wondered this. So did the Apostle Paul. Paul admitted he was “a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” of God. But, he said, “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1Ti. 1:14-15).
Paul spread this Gospel message all over Europe. No matter how much he was ridiculed and attacked, he would not stop preaching the good news. “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” he wrote, “for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” It is hard for us to understand how a message, a collection of certain words, could have the power to save. Our words do not have this power. But God’s words do.
In His Gospel, God reveals His righteousness. He shows us that what we could not accomplish, He accomplished for us. He tells us that we are no longer His enemies doomed to eternal destruction. Now we are His children destined for eternal life. Everything He required of us in His Law, He gives to us in His Gospel.
The Gospel message is able to do this for us because the Holy Spirit is powerfully at work through it. Just as He opened Luther’s mind and heart to understand and believe the good news of what Jesus had done, so He does the same for us. He works faith in our hearts through the Gospel, and He continues to strengthen our faith in the same way.
This faith, a gift from God, joins us to Jesus and everything He did to save us. This is why God the Father counts all who believe in His Son as righteous. We are righteous because Jesus was perfectly righteous. His righteousness covers over all our sinfulness. And because Jesus rose from the dead, never to die again, so we live in Him. Jesus Himself promised, “everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (Joh. 11:26).
When the Holy Spirit led Luther to understand the truth about what God had done for him, he could not contain his joy: “Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.” Luther now realized that his sins were all forgiven, not because of anything he had done, but by faith in his Savior. “And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word ‘righteousness of God,’” he said. “Thus that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise” (LW, Vol. 34, p. 337).
The Gospel of salvation through Jesus is our “gate to paradise” too. It is why we celebrate the Reformation. It is why we will not budge an inch from the Bible’s teaching for the sake of outward unity in the church. The Gospel is everything to us. If we lose the good news of what Jesus has done for us, we will go back to thinking salvation depends on ourselves. And then we are lost.
But as long as we have the Gospel, the Holy Spirit is at work cleansing, comforting, and strengthening us. He continues the work of reformation in our hearts just as in the church, so that we are pointed always to Jesus, our Savior.
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(picture from “Martin Luther at Worms” by Anton von Werner, 1877)
The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Galatians 3:15-22
In Christ Jesus, in whom “all the promises of God find their Yes” (2Co. 1:20), dear fellow redeemed:
It is election season in our country, which means it is a time when politicians make a lot of promises. Some of those promises are within their power to carry out if they are elected. Other promises they only hope they can keep. Still other promises are made to score political points, but there is really no follow through to fulfill them. A politician makes these promises to secure votes. In other words, he is willing to give something in order to get something in return.
That doesn’t sound very impressive, but a lot of our promises are like that. We promise to give our best on the field or court or in the classroom, and we expect our good effort to be recognized. We promise to work hard for an employer, and we expect to be treated well in return. We promise to be faithful to our spouse, and we expect their faithfulness to us. When we know our promises will be rewarded, it is easier for us to keep them.
It is much harder to keep our promises when the person we have made a promise to proves unworthy of it. Then we might try to go back and adjust our promise. “What I really meant was that I promise to do this or that if you meet my conditions, or as long as I am happy with you.” Experiencing betrayals and hurts might also cause us to adjust our promises on the front end. This has happened with marriage vows in certain places where “as long as we both shall live” has been changed to “as long as we still love each other.” But a conditional promise is really no promise at all.
A true promise is difficult business. A true promise puts us in another person’s debt. It commits us to serve them in some way, and service always requires sacrifice. Making a promise conditional or making no promises at all is much “safer,” so to speak. But that is not the way we have been taught by God. That is the way of selfishness, not the way of love.
Our gracious and merciful Lord does not make conditional promises. He does exactly what He says He will do. The promise that Paul writes about in today’s Epistle is the promise God made to Abraham after Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son Isaac (Gen. 22:15-18). But although it included a formal covenant, it wasn’t really a new promise. At its core, it pointed to an old promise, the promise of salvation for sinners. God first made this promise to Adam and Eve after they fell into sin.
When you read the account of the fall in Genesis chapter 3, you might expect to find Adam and Eve asking God what they could do to get right with Him again. Or you might expect God to give them some incentive to be better and prove themselves to Him. Neither of those things happens. First He makes the promise that the Seed of the woman will crush the serpent’s head (3:15). Then He outlines the consequences that man and woman will face because of their sins (vv. 16-19). No impression is given that the fulfillment of God’s promise to save is dependent on how well Adam and Eve carried out their callings in a sinful world.
The same goes for Abraham. The LORD called Abraham away from the idol worship of his father’s house. Abraham in no way deserved God’s favor, but the LORD chose him as an ancestor of the promised Messiah and gave him faith to believe the promise (Gen. 15:6). Even Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son at God’s command did not cause God to keep His promise.
If God’s promise to send a Savior depended on the world’s worthiness to receive this gift, no Savior would have ever come. The LORD did not negotiate terms for sending a Savior like Abraham did for saving Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham asked God to spare those wicked cities if only fifty righteous people were found there and then forty-five righteous ones and then thirty and then twenty and then ten (Gen. 18:22-33).
If the LORD had said He would save the world as long as fifty percent were righteous or even ten percent of the population, we would have no Savior. By nature, “None [of us] is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). The LORD’s promise was not conditional like this. His promise did not depend on our character and our actions. It depended entirely on His holy will and His immeasurable love for us sinners.
This is why He kept His promise even though so many had despised His promise and so few were looking for its fulfillment. “[W]hen the fullness of time had come—when the time had come to fulfill the promise—, God sent forth his Son” (Gal. 4:4). God the Father sent His Son to be born into the world of men, to be subject to the holy Law, to endure terrible injustice, suffering, and pain, and to die at the hands of sinners.
If anyone had the right to change a promise because the recipients of the promise were obviously unworthy, it is God. But God did not change His promise. He kept it. He sent His only-begotten Son to die alone for the sins of the whole world. Jesus died for everyone, even for those who hate Him and His Word, for those who bow down at the altars of worldly power and pleasure and riches, for the murderers, abusers, thieves, liars, and cheats. He died for all people past, present, and future who sin. That means He died for you and me.
Besides rejecting the salvation He won, the worst thing we can do is act like we contribute toward our salvation. Many people fall into this error, including many Christians. They say things like this: “Jesus did His part, and now I have to do mine.” Or, “Jesus died for my sins, and now I have to prove I am worthy of His sacrifice.” Or comfortless statements like these, “God helps those who help themselves.”
Jesus did not fulfill the Law and die for your sins just to have the Law placed on your shoulders again. Keeping the Law does not complete your salvation or give you another way to obtain salvation. This is St. Paul’s emphasis in today’s text. He said that God gave the promise of salvation to Abraham 430 years before He gave the Law through Moses. The giving of the Law did not annul God’s covenant of grace. It did not make the promise of salvation through faith void. Paul wrote that “if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.”
You know this. You know you are saved by grace and not by works. You know that your inheritance of heaven comes by God’s promise alone. But the devil and your own flesh want to tempt you away from this certainty and get you to focus on the things you do or don’t do. So you might watch the news and think you are better than the rioters and looters. You would never behave like that! You follow the rules. You lend a helping hand. You prove every day how much more kind and loving you are than others.
Do you see the problem? Thinking so much about your own good deeds plants you in the ground of the Law. The only fruit you can bear there is self-righteousness and pride or else despair. But looking to your Savior in humility and faith plants you firmly in His promise. God did not give the Law so you could compare your righteousness with others. He gave the Law “because of transgressions,” as Paul writes. He gave the Law to humble you, to show you how far you have fallen short.
And He gave His promise to save you, to show you how deep His love is for you. No matter how often you have messed up, no matter what terrible words you have said or thoughts you have imagined toward others, God’s promise of your forgiveness has not changed. He does not say that the shed blood of Jesus takes away only minor infractions, or only benefits the people who show they are worthy. He says that “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1Jo. 1:7).
You may feel like the most wretched sinner the world has ever known. You might hardly hope for peace with God because of your many sins. You may carry the burden of a million failures. But God says, “As surely as My holy Son died on the cross and rose again, your sins are forgiven. Your record is completely clean. Salvation is yours.”
God kept His promise to send a Savior, which means there is nothing you have to do to be saved. But what about the example of the Good Samaritan? Isn’t Jesus teaching us that we have to be kind and merciful toward those around us? He is. He is teaching us about love, which is the summary of His Law. But He is not teaching that salvation is earned by our love toward others.
Salvation was earned by His love. He is our Good Samaritan who saved us from our sin and death. Our love for Him and others comes as a response to His love, as a living sacrifice of thankfulness for what He has done. “We love because he first loved us” (1Jo. 4:19). As soon as we try to add our love to the equation of our salvation, then salvation becomes uncertain, because we do not love as God commands us to do. Paul writes: “For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.”
God has not changed His mind about you or the rest of the sinners of the world. He has not voided the work His Son did to save you. He gives no conditions to meet if you would enter into His favor. God’s Promise Stands on His faithfulness alone. That means your forgiveness, your life, and your salvation are completely secure in Him.
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(picture of Abraham viewing the stars from 1919 Bible primer book published by Augustana Book Concern)
The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 2 Corinthians 3:4-11
In Christ Jesus, who drank the cup of God’s wrath, so you could drink from the waters of salvation through His Word, dear fellow redeemed:
What does it mean that “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life”? Some say that when Paul refers to “the letter,” he is talking about the words of the Bible. So they argue that the Bible is a “dead letter,” and a “dead letter” cannot save your soul. If you want to be saved, you need the Spirit. And how do you get the Spirit? Not by reading or hearing the words of the Bible, but by your own prayers, your own inner struggle, the stretching of your feelings and emotions toward the mighty God.
Another twist on this idea is the churches which display rainbow-colored banners outside their walls which say, “God is still speaking.” They believe that the Spirit reveals new teachings to Christian communities that may even contradict deeply-held beliefs of past generations. “God is still speaking” is another way of saying, “We don’t believe the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God. We don’t believe it is all-sufficient for Christian life in today’s world. The times when the Bible was written were much different times than these. We believe that the Spirit is still shaping and guiding us not through the Bible but through the collective judgment of the Christians in this place.”
These attempts to separate the Spirit from the Word remind me of a story I read a while back. It’s a fairly short story, and I’d like to share it with you today.
Once upon a time there was a beautiful little village nestled in a valley between two mountains. In the center of the village was a well. The well provided water to all the inhabitants of the village. People came from all over the world to drink the cool, clean, crisp water that was drawn daily from the well. Countless people remained in the village and made their homes there. They loved the water.
The well was sufficient for the people of the village. No other wells graced the cobblestone streets of that mountain town. There was no need. No one ever suggested that they might like some other well more. Such a thought would be incomprehensible. The well was sufficient to satisfy all their needs, and it seemed that no matter how many people came to dwell in the mountain village there was always enough water. Water from another well? The thought was unheard of—absurd.
The well was also powerful. At the suggestion that the well might run dry some day, the people only laughed. “A waterless well?” The thought was unheard of—absurd. Whenever anyone went to the well, from the smallest child to the mayor himself, water was always there. The well was predictable, trustworthy, and always dependable. The well had power.
The people depended on only one well, and that well never let them down. The well and the water went together. You could not have one without the other. If you wanted water, you got it from that well and that well alone. If you went to the well, you always had water. There was no water without the well and no well without the water.
One day, the saddest day the town had ever known, a stranger came to the village. He tasted the water, as had every visitor before him. The visitor said, “This is good water. But I know another source that can give you water just like this well.”
The people were divided. Some said, “Impossible. Water comes only from this well.” Others were curious.
The visitor took another drink and said, “This is a good well. But I don’t think that we can depend on the well.”
The people were divided. Some said, “Impossible. Water always comes from the well.” Others were curious.
So the townspeople discussed two questions. First, was it only the well? Was that well sufficient enough? Second, was it always the well? Was that well powerful enough? The stranger proposed an experiment. “Why not cover the well? I’m sure that there will be water from some other place. This well is not sufficient. Yes, let’s cover the well. I don’t think we can afford to rely on it forever. The well is not powerful enough.”
But the people protested. “No, the well and the water belong together. If you cover the well, we will not have water.”
Scornfully the stranger replied, “You are well lovers. You should love the water. Don’t you think that God can give us water from anywhere He wants? Are you trying to limit God? You faithless people, you lovers of wells, God does not need a well to prosper you.” That talk of “God” seemed so pious and godly. Of course the people did not want to limit the power of God. They covered up the well.
And, alas, all the people in the town died. (Klemet I. Preus, The Fire and the Staff: Lutheran Theology in Practice, pp. 80-82)
What do you think of the story? It’s kind of silly, isn’t it? What little village would cover up the only source of water it had?
But this sad story is not really about a village, a well, and water. This story is about the church, the Word, and the Spirit. It is about the church centered on the Word. As long as the church drinks from the Word, like the village from its well, it has the Holy Spirit in full measure. It lacks nothing. By the Spirit working through the Word, faith is fed and the thirst for righteousness is satisfied. When the church has the Word, it has the Spirit.
But there are “strangers”—false teachers—who try to convince the church that it can have the Spirit apart from the Word. “Why stick to the ‘dead letter’ of the Word?” they ask. “‘For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life’—isn’t that what Paul says? God can give the Spirit however He wants. He doesn’t need the Word to do it! Don’t worry about the Word; go right to the Spirit!” This is all a lie. There is no Spirit apart from the Word. The Holy Spirit works through the Word.
Today’s text does not teach that the Word and the Spirit are separate. What it teaches is the distinction between God’s Law and God’s Gospel. God’s Law is referred to in this text in different ways. It is called “the letter,” “the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone,” and “the ministry of condemnation.”
God gave the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai, and when Moses came down the mountain from God’s presence carrying the two tablets of the Law, his face shined with a bright light. It shone so brightly that the people of Israel ran away from him in fear (Exo. 34:30). After he called them back, he delivered God’s Law to them. And then he covered his face with a veil, so the people would not be afraid (vv. 31-33).
Moses’ shining face reminded the Israelites that they were not like God. They were not holy like He was. God’s holy Commandments drove this point home. The letter of God’s Law condemned them. This is why Paul wrote that “the letter kills.” God’s Law kills any idea that we can be right with Him by our own efforts. It kills our self-righteousness. It kills our boasting. It kills our pride. If we take a good look at ourselves in the mirror of the Law, all we can see is our sin. There is no hope for salvation in the Law.
But “the Spirit gives life.” How? Through the Word of God’s Gospel. The Holy Spirit does not bring you anything new today. He does not bring you any knowledge or understanding or wisdom that believers in the past did not possess. If you run into someone who claims to have new messages from the Spirit to share, run the other way.
Jesus clearly stated the work of the Holy Spirit: “He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (Joh. 16:14). The Holy Spirit takes what belongs to Jesus and gives it to you. He takes Jesus’ perfect life of obedience to the Law. He takes Jesus’ innocent suffering and atoning death for all sin. He takes Jesus’ triumphant resurrection from the dead. And He declares it all to you. “Jesus’ righteousness—yours. Jesus’ forgiveness—yours. Jesus’ life—yours.”
That is why Paul calls “the ministry of the Spirit” through the Gospel, “the ministry of righteousness.” The Word of God’s Gospel is the way that He gives you everything He demands of you in His Law. Through the Word of what Jesus did for you, the Holy Spirit gives you all that you need to get to heaven.
However, you still need to hear the Law in this life. The old Adam, your sinful nature, still needs to die every day through the condemnation of God’s Law. The Holy Spirit is at work there too to lead you to repentance. But His primary work is to bring you Jesus. Jesus kept the letter of the Law for you. He was condemned so you would be freed. He died the death you deserved to die, so you would have abundant life in Him.
Eventually, Moses with his shining face was replaced by another leader and then another. The tablets of stone engraved with God’s Law were lost. “[T]here was glory in the ministry of condemnation,” but “the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory.” What Jesus has done for you and all sinners will never fade. His Word will never lose its power. The church will never need something new.
The saving words of Jesus are “spirit and life” (Joh. 6:63). Whoever drinks of the water of this world will be thirsty again. “[B]ut whoever drinks of the water that I will give him,” says Jesus, “will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Joh. 4:14).
Drink Deeply from the Well of Jesus’ Word through which the Holy Spirit does His powerful work. The living waters of His Word are meant for you and your salvation. Jesus’ Word of forgiveness and life is your oasis in a parched and dying world. It is the source of your healing and strength. It is the guarantee of God’s favor upon you and of the eternal glories to come.
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(picture from annual outdoor service on the parsonage grounds)
The Fourth Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Galatians 4:21-5:1
In Christ Jesus, who took upon Himself the yoke of sin and entered the dungeon of death, so that we would be ransomed and freed, dear fellow redeemed:
You and I are Americans. We were born here. We are citizens, so we have all the rights and privileges as outlined in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We wouldn’t like it if someone came along and tried to say we weren’t actually Americans. “You don’t understand what it means to be an American,” you’re told. “You don’t appreciate American freedoms. You may have been born here, but you are not from here.” We probably wouldn’t have to think too hard about a response. We know what we are.
But what if it were true? What if we thought we were “good Americans,” but everything we stood for contradicted the founding principles of our country? Something like this happened when Jesus told the Jews they were not descendants of Abraham. “What!?” they said, “Of course we are descendants of Abraham! We can trace our family line all the way back to Abraham and his son Isaac and his son Jacob!” Jesus replied, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did” (Joh. 8:39-40).
The Jews to whom Jesus spoke may have been blood relatives of Abraham, but they were not his spiritual heirs. They thought they were children of promise in good standing with God. Jesus called them “slaves”—slaves to sin. “Whoever is of God hears the words of God,” He said. “The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God” (8:47). The Jews were so offended at Jesus’ criticisms and His claim to be God that “they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself” (v. 59). It wasn’t His time to die yet, though that time would come.
In his letter to the churches of Galatia, the apostle Paul by inspiration of the Holy Spirit took up the same topic of Abraham and his descendants. Paul had traveled through the area of Galatia on his first and second missionary journeys. Christian congregations had been established along the way. But after Paul left, other preachers came. They did not teach the same doctrine as Paul. Presenting themselves as Christians, they urged the Galatian congregations to diligently keep the Old Testament laws. This included the laws regarding Jewish festivals and the law of circumcision.
But the Old Testament regulations were in place to point to Christ. Once He had accomplished His work, the Old Testament ceremonial and civil laws were no longer required (Col. 2:16-17). Jesus perfectly fulfilled them for all (Mat. 5:17-18). Hearing that the Galatian Christians were being swayed by these false teachers, Paul sent his letter. He asked the congregation members whether they received “the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith” (Gal. 3:2). He wrote that Abraham received the Spirit by faith, so “it is those of the faith who are the sons of Abraham” (v. 7).
Further on in the letter, Paul illustrated this teaching by the example of Abraham’s two sons. One was born from Sarah’s maidservant Hagar whom Sarah gave to Abraham in the hopes of obtaining a child (Gen. 16:2). Abraham and Hagar conceived a son named Ishmael. But Ishmael was not the child of promise. God kept His Word to Abraham and Sarah that they would have a son of their own. They named their son Isaac. Isaac was the child of promise. “[A]ll the nations of the earth [would] be blessed” (Gen. 22:18) through him, because the Messiah would come from him.
The practicing Jews in Paul’s day would have absolutely called themselves the spiritual descendants of Isaac. But Paul disagreed. Paul called the Jews who rejected the Gospel the spiritual children of Hagar’s son Ishmael. “[Hagar] corresponds to the present Jerusalem,” he wrote, “for she is in slavery with her children.” And what was it that the Jews were enslaved to? They were enslaved to the law. They adhered to a religion of works. They rejected Jesus as their Holiness, their Substitute, and their Savior, and they trusted in their own righteousness. Therefore they remained in slavery to sin.
But the spiritual descendants of Isaac are those who believe the promise. They believe that God the Father sent His only Son to be born of Mary who could trace her lineage back to Abraham and Isaac. They believe that her Son Jesus kept the law perfectly in their place, so the law could no longer condemn them. They believe that His sacrifice on the cross ransomed them from the power of sin, devil, and death. These, wrote Paul, are “children of promise,” children of freedom.
So which category describes you? There are some who believe that the freedom which Jesus obtained for them allows them to do whatever they want. They are kind of like those who behave badly and say whatever wicked and unkind thing they want because “it’s a free country.” Our freedom as Christians can be misused just like our freedom as citizens can. Jesus’ death for the forgiveness of our sins should not make us comfortable with sin. Since our sin caused the death of our perfect Lord, we should want to avoid sin at all cost. We are free from the condemnation of the law, but the Ten Commandments are still in place for our good and for the good of our neighbors.
Let’s dig deeper into what it means to be free in Christ. Freedom in Christ means I do not have to wear a certain kind of clothing, eat or avoid certain foods, or work a certain job. I am free to go to the grocery store and buy whatever I want. I am even free to buy more than I need in the case that I might need it in the future. However I am not free to disregard the needs of my neighbor. Unfortunately we see this happening now when people hoard essential goods in quantities far higher than they need or for the purpose of reselling the products at a higher price. This selfishness and greed leaves their neighbors without and uncertain what to do. That is not the way of Christ.
At the same time, it is easy to think well of ourselves when we do not do those things. We care about our neighbors. We want to help them. We are generous. From these thoughts, it is only a small step to self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is comparing ourselves with others and imagining that we come out ahead. It is the opinion that we have done a fair job of keeping God’s law. This is how the Jewish preachers were who wanted to pull the Galatian Christians from the doctrine they had been taught by Paul. They urged the Galatians to seek comfort and peace in what they did for God and not in what He had done for them.
Like the Galatians, we have fallen for this temptation many times. We love to compare ourselves with others and pass judgment on them: “Well I wouldn’t have done that!” “How could he be so stupid!” “We would be so much better off without them!” Or, “They would be so much better off if they were like us!” This kind of self-righteous behavior comes even easier to us at this time of tremendous stress in our country. We want to find people to blame for this disruption in our lives. It could be carriers of the virus from other countries, our national and local government officials, health care workers who do not support us the way we expect, or any number of other targets.
But if all we want to do is hold other people’s feet to the fire, then we should start holding our own feet to the fire. If we want to level the law at others, we should level it at ourselves. The fact is none of us by ourselves is better or more righteous than another. Paul wrote in another letter quoting a Psalm that “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one’” (Rom. 3:9-10). By nature we are all slaves to sin.
But “Christ has set us free” from this slavery. He kept the requirements of the law perfectly in our place. As soon as we came to faith by the power of the Holy Spirit, His righteousness became our righteousness. That means we have no need to compare our life with the lives of others. We have nothing to do to get ourselves into heaven. Jesus fulfilled the law for us, and He fully paid the price for our sins. His atoning death in our place means the devil can do nothing more than blow hot air. His accusations cannot stick anymore, because Jesus won salvation for us.
We are now “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17). We are children of promise, and The Children of Promise Are Free. We are free to love God and our neighbors, not in an attempt to get ourselves out of trouble or to prove our worth, but because Jesus set us free to love freely just as He loves us. We are members of “the Jerusalem above,” the holy Christian Church.
Our membership in Christ’s Church by faith subjects us to persecution from those who remain enslaved to sin. But we are not about to return to that slavery. We “stand firm” in the glorious freedom we have in Christ. In Him, our sins are not counted against us anymore. Through Him, our salvation is certain when our life in this world ends. And with Him, we will enjoy the perfect bliss of heaven forever.
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(picture is from “The Dismissal of Hagar” by Pieter Pietersz Lastman, 1583–1633)
The First Sunday after Christmas – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Galatians 4:1-7
In Christ Jesus, who came at Christmas to set us free from our sin and the condemnation of the law, dear fellow redeemed:
Adoption should be as simple as connecting a parentless child with childless parents. This child needs a home, and this home wants a child. But there are complicating factors. One of them is cost; the process of adoption can be very expensive. Another is location; the children who need homes may not be close to the people who want to adopt. Another factor is the health of a child or whether he or she has special needs. Another is the child’s age; the older the child, the less likely he or she is to be adopted.
Imagine the child in the orphanage who sees kids come and go, while he stays put. The orphans and caretakers are the only family he knows. He plays with the kids his age. They develop unique methods of communication like siblings or close friends do. The older orphans tease him. The younger ones look up to him as a big brother. But this orphan family is temporary. Smiling people arrive to adopt his friends but not him. He hates to see his friends leave. Where are they all going? Will he ever see them again? Will there ever be a home for him?
Gentle caretakers find ways to comfort overlooked children or at least distract them from the nagging questions. These caretakers represent the only love from an adult that the orphan has ever known. But there are harsh caretakers too, ones who do not love the children in their care. These tell the orphans left behind that nobody wants them because they aren’t nice enough or attractive enough or smart enough. “You can just stop dreaming right now,” they say. “You’re never getting out of here.”
The Apostle Paul writes about a scenario like this in his letter to the Christian congregation in Galatia. He stopped in Galatia during his missionary journeys because of some sort of “bodily ailment” (Gal. 4:13). While there he preached the Gospel, and many heard the Word gladly and believed. But after Paul left, other teachers came. They did not proclaim the comfort of the Gospel but urged the people to abide by all the rules and regulations of Old Testament law if they wanted to be saved.
Paul summed up the issue clearly in his letter. He said: “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain” (Gal. 4:8-11).
So the Galatian Christians had gone back to “the elementary principles.” They had gone back to the law. They had gone back to all the regulations of the Old Testament that governed how they were to live. Instead of focusing on what God had done for them, they were focusing on what they must do for God. That focus can only lead to pridefulness and then despair. Paul explained that this is like the child who stands to inherit everything but has nothing until the appointed time. Until he inherits, he “is no different than a slave.” We are slaves like that, he says, when we go back to “the elementary principles” of the law and ignore the Gospel.
There is no comfort in God’s law. The law does not encourage us. It does not lift us up. The holy law is like the harsh caretaker in the orphanage. It tells us we are not good enough to please God. It points out the wrongs we have done. It shows us why God would never let us into His home as we are by nature. We are failures. We are ugly. We are undesirable. The law gives us no reason to hope we will ever escape God’s wrath. “Is that what you want?” asks Paul. “Will you set aside the Gospel and run back to the law?”
The law serves its purpose. It condemns us. It exposes the selfishness, weakness, and arrogance of sinners. How could we ever think that we had lived the life God demands? This was like the young man who asked Jesus what more he had to do to have eternal life. He claimed that he had kept all the Commandments. So Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mat. 19:21). That was too much for the young man. He wasn’t willing to part with his “great possessions” (v. 22).
The reality is that we are further away from holiness than we think. Consider how you react when things don’t go your way, or when you are tested by health problems and pains. Do you meet these trials with patience and a humble trust in the Lord? Or what do you do when someone says something mean about you? Are you quick to respond with kindness and to forgive? Or do you like to compare yourself with others and use that as the benchmark for how well you have lived? Righteousness before God is not a matter of being better than others. God requires a spotless life. Can you honestly say when you go to bed at night that there is no blemish of sin on your record for that day?
Jesus could say that. He was always patient, obedient, forgiving, humble. The Apostle Peter, who spent three years with Him, wrote that “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1Pe. 2:22-23). If someone spent three years with you, would they ever see you sin? How about three days? How about three hours? Peter never saw Jesus sin, because Jesus never did.
“God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law.” Jesus officially took on the demands of the law when He was circumcised the eighth day after His birth (which falls on January 1st on our calendar). He did this not to prove anything about Himself, but to keep the law perfectly for the rest of us. Our confidence and strength are not in how well we have kept the law, but in how well Jesus kept the law.
So the law rightly condemns our sin. It shows us how flawed we are, how unworthy to be accepted by the holy God. It is that harsh caretaker. But it does not say the same thing about Jesus. The law found nothing lacking in Him. The law declared Him righteous, perfectly worthy of His Father’s love.
This holy status according to the law of God, Jesus now conveys to us sinners. By His holy life He redeemed us from the harsh verdict of the law. He did this so that “we might receive adoption as sons.” But how do we know we are sons of God? How do we know we have officially been adopted by Him? Paul explained this to the Galatians: “in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Gal. 3:26). Your adoption into the family of God did not come by your efforts. You did not make yourself desirable to God. Jesus shared His favor with you.
You gained Jesus as your Brother and God as your Father when the Holy Spirit worked this faith in your heart. For many of you, your adoption into the family of believers was processed and finalized when you were baptized. That is when you became an heir of God and a fellow heir with Christ (Rom. 8:17). “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27).
On your adoption day, God looked at you in your sin, your ugliness, your wretchedness, and He said, “You’re the one I want. I choose you.” What a beautiful act of mercy and grace! The Lord loves the unlovable and the unloved. He gives a home to those who have no home, family to those who have no family, hope to those who have no hope.
The child who is adopted never has to go back to the life he had before. No more watching other children get adopted while he is left behind. No more wondering why he isn’t loved. No more being alone. This is what your adoption into God’s family means. Because He “sent forth His Son” to redeem you, you have value, you are loved, you have a place. God did not leave you in your sins under the condemnation of the law. He rescued you from the law. He adopted you as His own son.
“So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” In biblical times, the firstborn son inherited his father’s wealth and possessions. Because you are joined to Jesus by faith, His inheritance as God’s only-begotten Son is now your inheritance. His eternal life and glory are yours. In Him, you belong. In Him, you have a future, a bright, happy, never-ending future.
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(picture is stained glass from Redeemer Lutheran Church)
The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 10:23-37
In Christ Jesus, whose love and mercy led Him to sacrifice Himself for all people, dear fellow redeemed:
You have heard in recent decades about the effort to remove the Ten Commandments from public places, places like courthouses and schools. Critics argue that we need to keep church and state separate. Their issue ultimately isn’t with the Commandments themselves, though they probably aren’t too fond of those. Their issue is with the God who gave those Commandments. They do not acknowledge His authority or even His existence.
At the same time, those critics are hard-pressed to come up with a better set of laws. Let’s suppose they adopted their own rules which were the exact opposite of God’s Commandments. This is how they would sound:
- You shall have many gods.
- You shall not treat these gods with respect.
- You shall not listen to these gods.
- You shall not honor parents or any other authority.
- You shall not respect your neighbor’s life.
- You shall not respect marriage or be faithful to your vows.
- You shall not respect your neighbor’s possessions.
- You shall not respect your neighbor’s reputation.
- You shall not be glad for your neighbor’s prosperity.
- You shall not be glad for your neighbor’s success.
How would society look if those were the laws that governed us? We would have chaos. People would only worry about their own plans. It would be “every man for himself.” No one would care about his neighbor. The world would be a violent, scary, unhappy place—much, much worse than it already is. It would be a world without love.
And that is what is so important about the Ten Commandments. They are God’s Law of love, love toward Him and toward our neighbors. This is exactly how the Commandments are summarized in today’s text. An expert in the Mosaic Law approached Jesus and asked what it is a person must do to gain heaven. Jesus told him to share his understanding of the Law. The man said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
That was a correct summary of the Ten Commandments. The first three are about love for God. The last seven are about love for neighbor. The problem with the man talking to Jesus, and the problem with so many today, is that they actually think they have loved God and others as they should. They think they have kept God’s Law.
So Jesus told about the man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho who was stripped, beaten, and left for dead. A priest came by and did not help him. Neither did a Levite, a worker in the temple. Help came from a most unlikely place. A Samaritan came by, tended to the man’s wounds, and ensured that he would be nursed back to health. The Samaritans and Jews did not like each other, and yet here a Samaritan man was going far out of his way to help a Jewish man.
You and I may think to ourselves that we would have done the same. Maybe we can even give examples of how we went out of our way to help someone less fortunate than ourselves. Or maybe we could point to the amount of time and money we have committed to charitable causes. Those certainly are good things.
But how willing are we to share examples of times we did not help a neighbor in need, times we did not show love? Maybe you are always ready to drop anything to help a friend or neighbor. But are you so ready to help the neighbors you live with—your wife or husband, your children, your parents? Or how eager are you to help the person who hardly seems to try to help himself?
There are times in life when our love for others has shined. And maybe we did not even think about being recognized or rewarded for our work. Other times we have done our duty toward others but not gladly. And sometimes because of our selfishness and pride we have shown no love at all.
If we honestly size up our life according to the Ten Commandments, we don’t end up looking very good. In fact, the Law does a number on us like the robbers did to the man on the way to Jericho. The Law is relentless. It commands love and does not stop pushing us along and throwing us back in line until we have kept it perfectly. This is why many try to ignore the Law or get rid of it altogether. The Law hurts, because we do not love like we should.
But the Law is not the only Word God speaks to us. He loves us. Here we are, stripped, beaten, cast down by the Law—His Law, which we have not kept—and He had compassion on us. He sent His only Son to rescue us. That’s who we should see in the Samaritan who went to great lengths to help the wounded man. We should see Jesus.
Jesus took responsibility for what got us into trouble in the first place. He was born under the holy Law, so that He could keep it for us. The Law did not expose His shortcomings and beat Him down, because He was perfect. He perfectly loved God with His heart, soul, strength, and mind, and He loved His neighbor as Himself. Examples of this love are abundant in the Gospels. He did not ignore a neighbor in need.
Sometimes love required that He condemn the Pharisees and scribes. Love does not mean affirming people in whatever choices they make. Love includes pointing out sin, so that a person recognizes his or her need for salvation. Jesus did this. He condemned self-righteousness (Mat. 23:27-28), sexual immorality (Joh. 4:16-18, 8:11, Mat. 19:9), disrespect for authority (Mar. 7:9-13), and many other sins. In today’s text and a number of other places, Jesus clearly spoke of the Ten Commandments as God’s will for the moral conduct of all people.
He fulfilled these Commandments which condemn each and every one of us. His holy life covers over even the most sinful life. And His death on the cross accomplished the complete satisfaction for all sin. So if the Law is fulfilled and sin is forgiven through Jesus, why does it matter how we live anymore? Why can’t we do whatever we like, since Jesus did everything needed for our salvation?
It is because salvation comes only to the believing, and faith lives only in the hearts of the penitent. Faith cannot survive in those who embrace sin, who take pride in breaking God’s Commandments. Faith cannot endure in the heart of one who shows no love for God or neighbor. Whoever thinks he loves, but does not repent of his sin and believe in Jesus as His Savior, does not love as God commands. He loves in line with His own desires, His own designs, and “the wrath of God remains on him” (Joh. 3:36).
But salvation does come to those who recognize their sin and repent of it. They know they have not kept God’s Law as He requires. They see they are dying in their sin and cannot stop the bleeding. But they also see Jesus, Him who took the punishment for their sin, who hung bleeding on the cross, so that they would not die in misery.
This is what Jesus did for you. He shed His blood, so that your sins would all be blotted out and washed away. He shed His blood, so that life would come to your dying body. He shed His blood, so that your heart of faith would be healthy and strong. He shed His blood, so that His love would flow through you and lead you to love others as He has loved you.
You have nothing to boast of about yourself. There is no place for pride. No matter how loudly the culture shouts it, Pride and Love Cannot Coexist. Pride is inward. It is focused on one’s own pleasure, one’s own happiness, one’s own glory. Love is outward. It focuses on the needs of others and the good that can be done for them.
God calls us to love as He has loved. Paul wrote that Jesus “died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2Co. 5:15). This love of God in Christ is a great love, an unfathomable love. On our own, we cannot come close to loving like this. But God helps us to do better and to love more. Through the Law, He keeps us humble and guides us to sacrifice for the people He has placed in our life.
But the power to do His will does not come from the Law; it comes from the Gospel. Through the Gospel in His Word and Sacraments, Jesus equips us for this blessed work. He comes to bind up the wounds of our sins by bringing us forgiveness, and He nourishes and strengthens us by feeding us with His life-giving body and blood. The Holy Spirit also comes through the Gospel to sanctify us and cause fruits of faith to grow for the benefit of our neighbors.
Like the Samaritan did for the dying man, the Lord makes provision for all our spiritual needs. Whatever we need, He supplies. He takes care of us, so that we can be healthy and productive for our neighbors who struggle and suffer and hurt as we have and still sometimes do. Jesus blesses us with the gifts of His love, so that in Him and Him alone, eternal life is ours.
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(“Parable of the Good Samaritan” painting by Jan Wijnants, 1632-1684)
The Tenth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 19:41-48
In Christ Jesus, through whom we are justified and have peace with God (Rom. 5:1), dear fellow redeemed:
When Noah and his sons worked on building the ark, none of their neighbors thought a great flood would come. When the people of Sodom and Gomorrah tried to abuse Lot’s guests, none of them expected fire to rain down on them from heaven. When the leaders of Jerusalem conspired to kill Jesus, they did not imagine that Jesus’ prophecy about their beloved city would come to pass. But it did. In the year 70, the Roman army did what Jesus predicted. The Romans besieged the city of Jerusalem, breached its walls, killed its inhabitants, and burned the great temple to the ground.
Each of these examples—the flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the overthrow of Jerusalem—teach us something about the human condition, about God’s wrath, and about God’s mercy. They show us how unaware or uncaring sinners are about the will of God. Noah’s neighbors heard his warnings about what was coming and ignored it. Lot’s neighbors saw his righteous example and despised it. The people of Jerusalem witnessed Jesus’ miracles and heard His teaching, and still they sent Him to His death.
Therefore God’s wrath burned against these hardened unbelievers. By the waters of the flood, He destroyed all life on the earth. By fire from heaven, He burned up everything in Sodom and Gomorrah. And by the hand of the Romans, He brought terrible suffering and death to Jerusalem.
On the other hand, these events show His mercy too. Many were drowned in the flood, but Noah and his family were preserved. Two cities were burned up, but Lot and his daughters were spared. Jerusalem was overcome, but the Christian inhabitants of the city were moved to relocate before the Romans arrived.
God does not delight in destruction. He wants all sinners to repent and be saved. In Ezekiel chapter 18, He says, “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone… so turn, and live” (v. 32). We see His compassion in the tears Jesus shed while looking over Jerusalem: “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!”
The “things that make for peace” were the things Jesus was about to do in the city. He was going to offer Himself as the sacrifice for sinners. He would willingly let Himself be beaten, flogged, ridiculed, and crucified. He suffered and died to pay for all sin. This included the sins of the people in Noah’s day, the sins of Lot’s neighbors, and the sins of the people of Israel who rejected Him. He paid for their sins and everyone else’s sins besides.
He paid for sin, so that mankind might no longer be separated from its Creator. He is the One who could blot out the wrongdoing of thousands of years of human history. He could right the wrong begun in the Garden of Eden. He and only He could do this, and He did. He made peace “by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20).
But so many reject this peace. They want war, war with God. Who would go to war with God? Satan tried it and now he slithers along on his belly eating dust. That doesn’t stop others from doing what he did. They rebel. They go to war with God by acting like His Commandments are no longer in place. In our “enlightened” age, many now feel comfortable setting that “traditional morality” aside. Among other things, they ignore what God says about respecting authority, about guarding against harm to the body, and about keeping sexual intimacy within marriage only.
Many who take issue with the Bible’s teaching, however, still like what they see in Jesus. They like the Jesus who sticks up for the poor and hurting and who eats with social outcasts. But what do they make of the Jesus who forcefully drives out the sellers from the temple courts, as we heard in today’s text? Jesus is the Savior of all people. But He also clearly identified Himself as the Judge, who will condemn the unrepentant to hell on the last day (Mat. 25:31-46).
Early in His public work, Jesus went around preaching this: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mat. 4:17). Jesus called sinners to repentance. His primary mission was not to diagnose and treat people’s physical or social ills, but to address their spiritual ones. He said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luk. 5:31-32).
Those who think they need no spiritual care are the self-righteous. They find it easy to point out the shortcomings of others. But they fail to see their own sins. They compare their lives with others and feel they must be on the right track. They haven’t made the mistakes that this person made. They haven’t acted like that person does. They have done a lot of good for a lot of people. Others could learn plenty from their example.
This was the attitude of the chief priests and scribes. They took pride in their holy living. They also hated Jesus. Our text says that they “were seeking to destroy Him.” Why were they fighting against Jesus? Why did they want Him dead? It’s because they did not want to acknowledge their sins and repent.
It is painful to admit our sins. We do not want to believe that we have been as bad as God’s law says we have. But by clinging to our self-righteousness and doing all we can to keep our sins buried, we only make things worse. Then we fail to recognize “the things that make for peace.” We fail to realize “the time of [our] visitation.” By refusing to repent of our sins, we show that we are opposed to Jesus, because He came to suffer and die for sinners.
But the Lord does not give up on stubborn sinners. He weeps for them. The Holy Spirit continues to work on their hearts through the law, so that their eyes are opened. He helps them to see the difference between God’s holiness and their sin. He shows them there is no hope for them without Jesus. There is no salvation apart from Him.
Jesus and only Jesus could bridge the gap between us and God. He is perfect God and perfect Man in one person. He came to live the life the law requires. He came to fulfill all righteousness for us, to do what only God can do. We sinners have fallen far short of God’s requirement, but Jesus met it. He met it for us.
And then He went to the cross absorbing the punishment for our violations of the law. He suffered for the people’s rejection of the truth in Jerusalem. He suffered for every time a Christian house of prayer is used to pedal the world’s goods. He suffered for our self-righteousness, our spiritual laziness, and our selfish attitudes.
Whether you own up to them or not, Jesus shed His blood for each and every one of your sins and my sins. The price has been paid. The payment is made. No bad deed went unpunished. Jesus bore the sins of all. He suffered death and hell for all. God and man have been reconciled. The sin that separated God and man was atoned for. Jesus made peace between us. That means you have nothing to lose by confessing your sins—nothing except your pride.
When you repent of your sin, God does not sit on His throne weighing the pros and cons of forgiving you. Your sin was already forgiven when Jesus hung on the cross. So then why should you have to confess your sins? Because you need to remember who you are in relation to God. You are the sinner. He is the Savior. There is no justification for your sinning. But there is justification for those who admit their sin and trust in the grace of God.
You cannot come to this understanding on your own. On your own, you would be at war with God, trying to show how you are better than He says you are. But the Holy Spirit humbles you through the law and then brings you peace through the Gospel. Through the law, He cleanses the temple of your body like Jesus cleansed the temple in Jerusalem. Through the Gospel He fills you with the righteousness and glory of God.
So the work is done for you. Your sins are forgiven. In Jesus, You Have the Things That Make for Peace. Is that it? Should each of us go back to our homes secure in the knowledge of God’s mercy and grace toward us? Yes! And day after day, we should retrace the spiritual steps that brought us this comfort. You and I sin every day, so we should repent every day. And every day we should replenish our hearts and souls with God’s message of peace. Then a week from now, we will have the opportunity to be fed again through Word and Sacrament in the divine service just as we have been fed today.
When Jesus was teaching daily in the temple, we are told that “all the people were hanging on His words.” They listened intently to Him. They did not want to miss anything, because Jesus had “the words of eternal life” (Joh. 6:68). He spoke words that they could not live without. He spoke words of peace, peace for the greatest and the smallest, peace for the good and the bad, peace for you and for me.
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(painting of the “Reconstruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of Herod” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)