This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it! Amen.
Dear brothers and sisters: what is the true Christian faith? If you ask any American that question, you'll get any number of answers, possibly as many as there are Americans. Many will quote the golden rule: "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." As long as that "doing" is loving, I'd say that's part of the right answer, but love is a fruit of faith, and it does not save. Others would say you should follow Christ's example of love and charity. Once again, a fruit of faith, which cannot save. But rather than run down a list of wrong answers, let's find out what the right one is. Fortunately, we have before us today a lesson that spells out what the Bible teaches, and what we believe about sin, grace, and salvation. This is your answer, dear Christian, to the person who asks you: what is the true Christian faith?
Now, I'd like to present this in a kind of "Bible study" fashion: we'll take each verse or part of a verse and examine its meaning by itself, and in its context. It is good for us to occasionally return to Scripture and examine it carefully, one piece at a time, so we may know with certainty what the Bible teaches about our salvation.
And so, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul writes:
At the appointed time…
It's no surprise to us, since we believe in an all-knowing, eternal God, that he planned our salvation from eternity. He revealed the fact that he had a plan to Adam and Eve, right after they fell into sin. In time, he called Abraham to be the father of a nation, and he grew that nation in the land of Egypt, freed them from slavery and gave them a land of their own. Most importantly, he gave that nation the Law, a law so comprehensive there was no way sinful man could keep it…they needed someone else to keep it for them. When that nation stopped trying to please God and repeatedly ran after other gods, our Lord destroyed that nation and sent it into exile. After some more time, he returned a remnant to their land, because he had plans…the Savior would come through them. And when that appointed time, planned from eternity, came…so did he. He came to a nation under the thumb of the Romans, because the method of our Savior's execution was also appointed in prophecy. And when Christ lived, died and rose again, the Pax Romana enabled the young Christian church to take the gospel of salvation far and wide. All this, friends, at the appointed time.
While we were still helpless…
Because we are dead in our sins, we are as helpless as a body in the morgue, or as the diver who finds himself in the middle of the Pacific, with no land in sight—and no amount of clinging and screaming about our so-called "rights" will change that fact. Likewise, no amount of self-sacrifice, charitable works or any of the filthy rags humans call "good works"—no effort of ours, at all—will take us one step closer to heaven. We need someone to save us.
Christ died for the ungodly.
We'll discuss the implications of his death in a moment, but let's focus for now on whom he died for. The ungodly—for you, for me, for every Lutheran, every Catholic and Pentecostal. For every Atheist and Satanist, even. For every liar, cheat, thief, adulterer and murderer. "The ungodly" is an inclusive term—our Lord did not die for just some of us, but for all of us. Because all of us are ungodly and doomed to hell if we are not saved.
It is rare indeed that someone will die for a righteous person. Perhaps someone might actually go so far as to die for a person who has been good to him.
We would seldom be willing to die for another; perhaps a mother or father would die for their children, or a patriot might die for his country. But Paul's point is really not that, anyway. Would someone be willing to die for a righteous man? Probably not, unless that man had done some great service that "earned" such sacrifice.
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
We are not righteous, that someone might
be willing to die for us. We are not worthy of any sacrifice on our behalf. But such is God's love for us, a love that takes its form in him doing whatever is good and best for us—whether we want him to or not—that while we were still sinners, that is, unrighteous, undeserving, selfish and self-serving lawbreakers and miscreants, still Christ died for us.
Remember the Law I spoke of earlier. It is the Law's purpose to lay out every one of your sins, to lay your heart bare so you can see all the ways you have broken your Lord's decrees, and then condemn you for it. When the mirror of the Law shows you your sin, and shows you just how debased you are, and that there is only one eternal destination fit for someone like you, only then can you appreciate the great love your God has for you: despite what you are, and how dreadfully far you fall short of his glory, he still died for you.
Therefore, since we have now been justified by his blood, it is even more certain that we will be saved from God’s wrath through him.
The fact that we have sinned means we deserve God's punishment. And there is no punishment sufficient to satisfy God's wrath against sin except eternal damnation in hell. The Old Testament sacrifices, animal blood, forestalled this wrath, but they only put off the reckoning. Only the blood of a righteous man is precious enough to pay for sin—and so God became a man so that he, a righteous man, could die for the sin of others. And because that shed blood was God's blood, it was precious enough to pay for all sin of all time. So God declares us "justified," that is, not guilty of sin, and we are spared the punishment of hell.
And note that "we" is the same as in the previous verse. All of the ungodly have been declared not guilty. All those sinners I mentioned before have had their sins paid for by the sacrifice of Christ's blood. But elsewhere in Scripture we are told that we must believe this, apprehend this, if we are to own this. Those who do not believe in the power of Christ's blood to wash away sins have rejected the forgiveness offered by God, and are still in their sins.
For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, it is even more certain that, since we have been reconciled, we will be saved by his life.
When the Bible speaks of peace, it usually means this kind of peace: peace with God. Though prior to faith, we sinners were enemies of God, nevertheless he counted the death of his Son as that accord which would bring us back together. We are reconciled, brought back into unity, with our God, through the death of Jesus Christ.
But, although our sins have been washed away, and we have been spared the punishment of hell, we are still sinners, and still do not deserve to stand in the presence of our perfect and holy God in heaven. I've said before that any Christian can say "I am saved," but salvation is not complete until we stand before our Lord in heaven. So that requirement was part of God's plan of salvation, too. God came to earth, not just to die for us, but to live for us. He kept the Law God's people could not keep, and when he offered his death for us, so too he offered his life. His life, like a pristine white robe, is placed on us, instead of the soiled rags we have made for ourselves. And so we are saved by his death, and by his life.
And not only is this so, but we also go on rejoicing confidently in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received this reconciliation.
From whence comes this confident rejoicing? It comes from the knowledge we have, through faith, that Jesus has given his life and his death in place of ours, and that his Father has accepted his sacrifice. We know this to be true, because on the third day our Savior rose from the dead. He lives, and so we know that we live, and will live. We will live forever with him in heaven.
Friends, this is the true Christian faith
: knowing our Savior and our salvation by the grace and gift of God. And what, we conclude, are we to do with all this blessing that has been showered upon us? Dear friends, take your answer from Christ's own words in Matthew's gospel. "Freely you have received; freely give." Let your lives be shining examples of the fruits that come from faith—hope, love, charity, service—all to the glory of the God who saved you. And may you be as generous with the gospel, always ready to give an answer for the hope that you have, that others may hear, and believe, and be saved.
The peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
The Holy Bible, Evangelical Heritage VersionTM (EHVTM) copyright © 2016 The Wartburg Project. All rights reserved.
Lectionary listings from Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal © 1993 Northwestern Publishing House. All rights reserved.