The Seventh Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
In Christ Jesus, who bound our sin and death to Himself, so we would receive His forgiveness and life, dear fellow redeemed:
One of the lies the devil plants in people’s minds is that they are completely independent and free. “You are your own boss,” he says. “You make your own decisions. You don’t have to answer to anyone else.” This attitude is perhaps more prevalent in America where we enjoy such wide-ranging personal freedom. But we are not as free as we like to imagine, and we do not have freedom in all matters, particularly in spiritual ones.
In today’s text, Paul shows that every human being conceived and born into the world comes with strings attached. He writes that all by nature are “slaves of sin.” That is strong language! A slave is someone who must follow the will of his master. He must obey at all times. He is not allowed to chart his own course or make his own decisions. It’s a hard life.
This is how Paul describes our connection to sin. Sin is our taskmaster. It forces our will to submit to its plans, to participate in its campaign. It demoralizes us. It causes us tremendous suffering. Sin offers no way out, no relief, no hope. After all is said and done, the only promise sin makes is that we are unquestionably going to die. Death is “the wages of sin.” Death is what our slavery of sin has earned us.
This is the way it is for all of us. We do not start out good and then either stay good or go bad. Neither do we start out neutral, choosing good or bad from that point. We start out in slavery—spiritual slavery—slavery to sin. But there is hope for sinners. Paul outlines this hope at the beginning of Romans chapter 6 which we heard last week. This hope is Baptism into Christ.
Through water and His powerful Word, Jesus comes to the sinner in Baptism and gives him tremendous gifts. He brings forgiveness for all sin on account of His death on the cross, and He brings eternal life on account of His resurrection. Jesus’ work on our behalf frees us from our slavery to sin and to death. He broke apart our chains of spiritual slavery. Sin is not our master anymore. Or at least it shouldn’t be.
Baptism joins us with Jesus, but it does not stop us from sinning. Sin is washed away in Baptism, but our sinful nature remains. This means that until the end of this life, we must be ready for a fight. Our sinful nature, our old Adam, wants to lead us back to a life of impurity and lawlessness, back to our slavery of sin. Our new man of faith, on the other hand, wants us to live a life of righteousness drawn from and focused on Jesus.
If we do not understand or acknowledge that this battle is going on inside us, then sin will gain the upper hand. This happens to those who are baptized into Jesus receiving His blessings, but then fail as they get older to fortify and strengthen their faith through His Word and Sacraments. This is something like an army unit rushing forward into enemy territory with no concern for its supply line or any reinforcements. The likeliest outcome is capture by the enemy or death.
We must not be so reckless with our faith, or be so self-assured that we think we could never fall. None of us here is immune to this. Any of us could give up our life in Christ and return to our slavery of sin. We can all think of many people who have done just that. Today’s text calls us again to attention. It reminds us of the battle: “For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.”
In short, what the apostle Paul is urging here by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is that we view our Baptism into Christ not only as a freedom from, but also as a freedom for. In fact both of these must go together if we want to remain with Jesus. Because of what Jesus did for us through His perfect life, death, and resurrection, we are freed from our unrighteousness, sin, and death. If that’s all there is to it, we might conclude that we can keep on living in sin, doing whatever we feel like, because Jesus suffered the consequences for our sin and forgives us.
Paul addresses this wrong-headed attitude just before today’s text. “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” he asks (Rom. 6:1). “Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” (v. 15). Then he explains, “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?” (v. 16).
So either way, says Paul, you are enslaved. Bob Dylan took up this theme in one of his songs when he sang, “Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord / But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” That doesn’t sound too great. We like the idea of being free from any coercion, any commitments. But that kind of freedom does not exist. It cannot exist, unless we had created ourselves and had complete power and authority over everything around us. Because this is not the case, “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
You have already heard what happens to those who are “slaves of sin.” They experience a lifetime of pain, sorrow, and hopelessness and receive in the end the reward of death—not just physical death but eternal death in hell. How about those who are “slaves to righteousness,” or as Paul refers to them a couple verses later, “slaves of God”? It seems that this wouldn’t necessarily be much better. You might picture God as the taskmaster demanding that you do everything right, just the way He wants it, or else you will face His wrath.
But that is not how Paul describes your slavery to righteousness and to God. He says that your slavery to righteousness “leads to” or is “for” sanctification. Sanctification here is contrasted with lawlessness. Lawlessness is living contrary to God’s commands. It is living as though I am the lord and not Him. This kind of unrepentant life does welcome His judgment.
But sanctification is living according to His will. It is finding all strength, peace, joy, and love in Him. You are sanctified as you hear the Gospel message of Jesus’ work to save you and as you receive His gifts in His Sacraments. These are the means by which the Holy Spirit continues to break apart the chains of your slavery of sin and draw you closer and closer to your holy Savior.
As we hear His Word, we find that God is hardly a violent taskmaster. Instead we learn of His great love for us and the great mercy He has shown to us sinners. When we like the prodigal son have run away from Him and misused His good gifts, including the gift of our bodies, He does not deal with us in anger. He comes to embrace us with forgiveness (Luk. 15). In our sinful weakness when we fail to carry out the duties He has given us, He picks us up by His grace and helps us to move forward according to His will.
God is not the kind of master who sacrifices His slaves for His own benefit. It’s just the opposite. God sacrificed Himself for our benefit. That is how He exercises His lordship; He gives. God the Father gave His only Son to free us slaves of sin. Jesus suffered for our disobedience, for our rebellion against God. He took the wages of our sin. He took the punishment of our death. He died for us so we could be counted as righteous and receive His gift of eternal life.
This is how we “slaves of God” are treated. We are cleansed from the stains and bruises and cuts of the sin we have committed, and we are given a new status. We slaves are now treated like lords! We peasants are treated like kings! Jesus calls us to partake of His eternal glory and reign with Him in His heavenly kingdom.
But our time to depart from this world has not come yet. That means our battle here continues. With the devil and our own flesh constantly trying to deceive us and lead us back to our slavery of sin, we know the fight will be hard. We remember how often in the past we let sin gain the upper hand, so that we chose impurity and lawlessness instead of righteousness and sanctification. Does that mean we have no hope of winning the battle?
This would be the case if you were fighting by yourself. But your Master does not leave you alone in this fight. When you become discouraged or overwhelmed, or when the temptation to sin is strong, He steps right in where the conflict is most intense. He comes to you through the spiritual supply line that you were joined to at your Baptism. He speaks faith and courage into you through His holy Word. He strengthens and cheers you through the holy food of His body and blood. He protects you and guides you so you are not carried away to your former slavery.
Your merciful Lord has broken you free from your sin and death and joined you to Him. There is no shame in being a slave of this Master. Because of His grace toward you, you want to be His subject and serve Him. You want to obey Him because you know He is working for your good. You want Him to guide you where you should go. And you look forward to the day when He will lead you from the heat of this battle, from your struggle against sin, to the joys and blessings He has prepared for you in 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 Carl Bloch, 1877)
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.
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 is from “The Dismissal of Hagar” by Pieter Pietersz Lastman, 1583–1633)