Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

+ Holy Baptism of Blair Elouise Rosenbaum +

Readings: Numbers 11:4–6, 10–16, 24–29 | James 5:1–20 | Mark 9:38–50

Text: Mark 9:38-50

(covering points of Formula of Concord, Article V – Law and Gospel)

38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

Imagine for a moment what the church, pictured by Jesus disciples, would be if they had their way.  Call it the “Church of the Twelve.”  There would be an emphasis on who has the authority.  Power and permission would flow through them, the gatekeepers.  There might be tiers of membership, because after all you have to tell who’s the greatest somehow. Decisions would flow from the top down, and people would be obligated, if not compelled, to conform.

Within the Church of Twelve, there would be certain standards for members to maintain.  If you didn’t meet the “community standards,” you would face discipline and exclusion.  If someone were to upset the order with dissension, those in authority would have to evaluate if they were still an asset or a detriment to the community.  They would deem it necessary to lose one or two or a few, for the sake of preserving the whole.

Thank God in heaven that Jesus crushes the disciples plans for the Church.  But as these tendencies arise from our sinful flesh, they still make their way in at times.  Even at the Church at Corinth in the 50’s AD, there was already a party spirit growing, “each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ.’” (1 Cor. 1:12)  This had also begun to divide the weak from the strong over knowledge about meat offered to idols and who got to take the Lord’s Supper. 

At various times this has continued, fueled by a focus not on the things of God, but on the things of man—of personalities, and numbers of followers.  Former Presbyterian minister, Barton Stone, once wrote, “Partyism is a foul blot on Christianity, and among the blackest stains on the character of its professors. An apostle calls such ‘carnal.’ Partyism is directly opposed to the plan of Heaven, which is to gather into one, or unite all, in Christ Jesus.”[1]

So what is most important to the Lord Jesus for His Church? 

39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 For the one who is not against us is for us. 41 For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.

Let’s pull back to why Jesus came to earth, and what the goal of the Kingdom of God is.  Is it not because the world is under the domination of Satan, and that men and women are held captive by sin and death?  And did Jesus not come to break the unchallenged rule of Satan and to free the captives?  So, tell me again what happened?  Demons were being cast out in Jesus’ Name.  If that’s what was happening, why did you want to stop that?  And do you remember how you were not able to cast out that demon in the father’s son? (Mark 9:14-29)  So it’s the goal that people believe in Jesus Christ and receive His victory over devil, sin, and death?  Yes, this is good.

It would be even better if all those who have faith in Jesus’ Name would join together and not walk apart from each other.  Barton Stone, who was instrumental in the Church of Christ movement, had the right idea, but it didn’t work out.  We have at least two things that prevent genuine unity in the Church on earth. Our old Adam is a hopeless partisan.  The voice of Moses echoes, “Are you jealous for my sake?” (Num. 11:29).  Besides, Satan himself twists the Word of God so that we are bent on following all sorts of strange doctrines and partial truths.

Our current setting in the world is also no help either, because it conditions us in the art of demonization.  By use of distance/isolation, slogans, and labels, we’ve found ways to pigeon-hole others and not even bother to take the time to have a civil, face-to-face conversation.  Based on what political party you follow, what’s your vaccine status, or even your outward appearance, we judge others and are judged.  I’m telling you this not to raise your blood pressure, but so that you see how easily we fall into parties, and how quickly that takes the focus of the goals of God’s Kingdom.

The most important thing to Jesus is salvation for all who believe in His Name.  This faith is God’s work by His Spirit: “I believe that…the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified, and kept me in the true faith.  In the same way, He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one, true, faith.”  What’s more, God doesn’t respect personalities when He does His work.  To prove this point, He even once opened the mouth of a donkey (Numbers 22:22-33).  Whether it is a mighty work, or something as simple as giving a cup of water because someone belongs to Christ, what truly matters is faith in the heart, which shows the Kingdom of God has come near.

The same is true inside the congregation, where those who do follow Jesus together, are gathered:

42 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. 43 And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’

Jesus prizes the gift of faith and people being welcomed and kept in His Kingdom.  He speaks about things that “cause to sin,” which is the Greek word for scandalize or cause to stumble.  That comes from the image of following Jesus, walking along The Way (the first name for New Testament Church, Acts 24:14)  So, to make a follower of Jesus stumble is to endanger their faith and all that comes from it.

To illustrate how important this is to Jesus, remember last September, during the fires, when some places we live were under Level 2 for evacuation.  At that point, you were supposed to have your car packed with whatever was most precious and essential.  Come Level 3, anything else could burn, and you’d get by.  Picture that now with what Jesus is saying about the faith of His little ones.  The faith of even the least of His brothers is so precious to Him that everything else can go, so that no soul may be lost. 

The Church of the Twelve would see fit to cast out the problem cases, or cast out those who can’t “pull their weight”.  They would get rid of the least, the fussy children, those who simply bring their family to church, or the infirm who can’t do anything like they used to.  But Jesus turns that around to say what really needs to be cut off is whatever endangers faith.  No matter how precious it is, whether hand, foot, or eye, if it causes you or others to stumble, then that is what is expendable.  It would be better to lose that, than to lose a whole person to the eternal fires of hell.

With such a treasure as faith is to our Lord Jesus, we had also better know how that faith is properly nurtured.  That is by properly handling the word of truth, as St. Paul urges Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” (2 Tim. 2:15)  Rightly handling the Word of truth is crucial to cultivating that saving faith.  What I mean by that is properly distinguishing between the Law and the Gospel, “the distinction between Law and Gospel is an especially glorious light that is to be maintained with great diligence in the church.” (Formula of Concord Epitome V, 2)  The Law is “a divine doctrine which teaches what is right and God-pleasing and which condemns everything that is sinful and contrary to God’s will.” (FC Ep. V, 3) and the Gospel is “teaches what a man who has not kept the law and is condemned by it should believe, namely, that Christ has satisfied and paid for all guilt and without man’s merit has obtained and won for him forgiveness of sins, the ‘righteousness that avails before God,’ and eternal life.” (FC Ep. V 5)

It’s dangerous to faith when Law and Gospel are confused—when the person who feels godly sorrow for his sin is condemned for not trying harder; and when the erring are given a free pass.  This confusion causes great damage because it results in proud Christians who think sin is no big deal, and despairing souls who think they could never be saved.  What a terrible outcome!  So the Lord gives His Word, and His preachers to carefully apply His Word to His little ones, whose life is so precious to Him.

He concludes today’s reading with the admonition, 49 For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Have salt in yourselves means that our Lord wills us to be the community of the saved.  The Church is not your school or workplace, where it depends on popularity or who you know.  It’s not a social club that you belong to sometimes, and join in based on your convenience and availability.  As I mentioned before, the whole purpose of the Church is to be the place where the Kingdom of God breaks into the dominion of Satan, freeing men from their bondage to sin and death.  Where the Church is doing that, she follows in the steps of the Son of God Himself. 

Make peace with each other, indeed with all who the Lord has called in His Name.  Whether they are small or great, well-taught or needing guidance, be at peace as God has made peace with us by the Name of Jesus Christ.

God’s intended goal is to give sinners life.  Cast out demons, rescue, raise from the dead, redeem from the curse of the Law.  All this comes to you in the Name of Jesus, in which we gather, into which we are baptized, in which we call upon Him as beloved children, in which He gathers us to eat and drink, and the Name by which He puts on us as we depart from this place.

In this, we are salted to live sacrificial lives and make peace with each other, as the Lord has made peace with us.  And then He sends out by the powerful peace-making work of His Name: “The Lord make His face to shine upon you, and give you peace. Peace be with you, in that powerful, saving, glorious Name of Jesus. Amen.

[1] “An Address to the Churches” (1818)

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Readings: Jeremiah 11:18–20 | James 3:13—4:10 | Mark 9:30–37

Text: James 3:13—4:10

(covering points from Formula of Concord, Article III – The Righteousness of Faith)

“Even in Your Weakness, He is Strong to Save”

Why do Christians act so unchristian sometimes?  Bitter divisions and resentment separate people from the congregation, and congregations from one another.  “Oh, you go to that church?  I used to go there until…”  Or, I’m so sure that my way of understanding the Bible is right, that I refuse to listen to someone who might tell me something different.  Or, I can’t believe that just came out of the mouth of a believer.  Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?  Or maybe the most convicting, “You’re a Christian? I never would have guessed…”

Each of us has stories where we’ve been on the receiving end or been the one acting not like a child of God should.  And how do you respond to that?  With all the other wrong stuff we bear and try to cope with each day, it might be easies to say, “Well, it could be worse. At least it wasn’t as bad as what other people do.”  Maybe that’s how you’ve even tried to excuse yourself.

But James doesn’t let this slide.  He doesn’t let the offending brother off, and has some very stern words for the unchristian behavior of those who claim the Name of the Lord.  Far from what usually happens today, where we’re worried about hurting people’s feelings with rebuke, this Word of God says it how it is.

Right after his warning and rebuke of those who teach in the Church, he adds in today’s reading,

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.  14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.”

You think you know something?  You think that makes you better than the untrained or the ignorant?  Think again.  That kind of know-it-all outlook is busy trying to build itself up, and actually grows out of something more insidious.  It is earthly, fleshly, and—yes—demonic.  It’s earthly like the Tower of Babel, where they tried to make a name for themselves by their own prowess (Gen. 11:1-9).  It’s unspiritual (fleshly), because our old Adam does not want God telling him what’s what, because “the natural [unspiritual] man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him and he is not able to understand them.” (1 Cor. 2:14)  And worst of all, Satan and his demons are at work, stoking the fires of pride and dissension.  And all this is happening for believers

But it doesn’t just vex our personal sense of accomplishment.  This vileness spills over into our life with others.  James continues:

4 What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.

If only it were as simple as adopting an “attitude of gratitude,” or just purging desire from our hearts.  People have certainly tried to stem the fights by preaching contentment with what we’re given, bloom where we’re planted, and so forth.  Even more so, we are children of the God who made heaven and earth.  We know that it is He who provides all that we need for this life and more.  But even still, we find ourselves dissatisfied, fixating on what we don’t have, idolizing what our neighbor has.  Sometimes we even have the nerve to drag God into our selfish aspirations by abusing the gift of prayer to demanding that He give it to us.

What is worldly, fleshly, and demonic in us is right there, urging us on.  Rather than picture ourselves as an impartial observer, an actor who is free to go this way or that, James and Paul both describe there being a battle going on inside of the Christian.  It is an all-out fight between our passions and the Spirit whom God graciously pours out upon us.  The way St. Paul explains it in Galatians 5 is, “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” (Gal. 5:17)

So, what’s the solution for our sinful flesh and its works?  Not to ignore it, because it will only grow bolder.  Small sins snowball into greater sins if left unchecked because the problem is in the corrupt heart.  Don’t shrug your shoulders and say, “I guess that’s just how it goes” because it is not inevitable that we choose to do evil, and it is certainly not God’s will!  The solution isn’t to make excuses for it or try to keep it under wraps.  Think of the secret sins of your life—resentments, adulterous urges, coveting. Do they get better by trying to keep them secret?  Is it really any help to say, “At least I didn’t act on it?”  It’s still sin, and you need God’s solution for sin.  All others roads lead to death.

James continues:

You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”?

Sin must be exposed and called what it is.  Sin loves the darkness, as the Lord explains in John 3, “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (John 3:20-21)  And that is what God gives His Holy Spirit to us to do.  For Him, there’s no sitting by and letting things run their natural course.  He is a jealous God and will not share you with the deceptive world, or let your old Adam run the show, or permit the devil to tear you away from Him.  When you and I have committed spiritual adultery (or literal adultery), He calls us out on it because that’s the rebuke we need to hear.  The flesh needs to be put to death.  Specifically, crucified with Christ, and all sins (and the desires to commit them) nailed to the cross to die with Jesus.

This is also why Jesus commends verbal confession of sins to us, because by confessing—saying the same thing as God,[1] we are turning away[2] from the darkness and to the light of Christ.  By saying it out loud, preferably before a confessor like your pastor, you are owning it.  You are acknowledging the truth and entrusting yourself to the Lord’s mercy. And that’s when the Lord’s servant says to you, “In the stead, and by the command of my Lord, Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins—yes, including those filthy, wicked ones you don’t even want your kids to know about, and might not even tell your spouse or best friend—I forgive you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

This is the comfort of the Christian—that Christ only is our righteousness before God.  Very often we will look for victory over sin by how we’ve changed.  In the time of Jesus, the Pharisees taught righteousness in obeying the letter of the Law.  In the Medieval church, one’s righteousness was how much they did in service to God.  Today, Christians are taught that a changed life is where righteousness is found—not drinking or smoking, getting off the drugs, stopping swearing, giving to the needy, and so forth.  There’s nothing wrong with living a clean, moral life—and we should aspire to that!  But that is not where our righteousness before God is.  Think of it this way: One of us walks out of church today, having heard the absolution, truly believing that Christ has given us His Body and Blood to forgive and strengthen us…and then backslides.  If righteousness is in our changed behavior, where’s the consolation now?  If this is what we have to cling to, then the peace of the Gospel disappears like fog.

The only solid comfort is that Christ is the one whose perfect work makes us accepted in God’s sight.  Hear how St. Paul speaks of this in Romans 8: “33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” (Rom. 8:33-34)  God justifies us because of Christ, who died and was raised. And what’s more is He now intercedes for us!

And how we need His intercession—His prayer on our behalf—because we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment (Small Catechism, Lord’s Prayer).  We are soldiers on the spiritual battlefield, men of dust who have often failed [Ps. 103:10-14].  Our weakness is not reason to doubt, because God’s saving Word to us is what is true and faithful.  Our forefathers in the faith write, “many weaknesses and defects cling to the true believers and truly regenerate, even up to the day they are buried [1 John 1:8]. Still, they must not on that account doubt either their righteousness, which has been credited to them through faith, or the salvation of their souls. They must regard it as certain that for Christ’s sake, according to the promise and ‹immovable› Word of the Holy Gospel, they have a gracious God.” (Formula of Concord, Epitome, Article III, 9)

And James goes on, But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”

God opposes your pride, that He might rightly humble you.  You wouldn’t have known how much you needed His salvation if you never thought you were that bad.  Commit yourself once more (day after day) to God, resist the devil, forsake the mind set on the flesh, leave the world to its own evil plans.  As for you and the Holy Spirit, you will serve the Lord [Josh. 24:15].  Let your old Adam’s pride be brought to nothing, and the things he delights in be counted as rubbish for the sake of knowing Jesus Christ your Lord.  As it says in Psalm 4, “Lift up the light of your face upon us, O Lord! You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.” (Psalm 4:7)

And He will exalt His humble children, weak though we are, not because of our strength, but because of His righteous work, His perfect Son, His powerful Word through which He draws near to you, and His holy gifts, through which He assures you, even in weakness that He is strong to save. Amen.

[1] The Greek word for “confess” homologeo means “to say the same”

[2] The Hebrew word for “repent” shuv means “to turn back”

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Readings: Isaiah 50:4–10 | James 3:1–12 | Mark 9:14-29

Text: Mark 9:14-29

covering points from the Formula of Concord, Article I – Original Sin

“To Shine on Those Who Sit in Darkness and the Shadow of Death”

Arguing, suffering from childhood, inability to help, exasperation, unbelief, convulsions, and near death—This is what the Lord Jesus walks into in today’s account from the Gospel.  And we will see how He comes to the aid of those who live in darkness and under the dark shadow of death. 

Jesus walks into this agonizing scene with a father grasping to find healing for his son, who is tortured by violent seizures or demonic origin.  The father is at his wit’s end and doesn’t have anywhere else to turn.  Now the disciples of Jesus, the good Teacher and worker of great signs, haven’t been able to help and he is forlorn.  On top of all that, an argument has arisen with the scribes, which puts relief for this man’s son even farther out of reach.

In the middle of this murky circumstance, filled with pain, Jesus—the One through Whom all things were created, Who has humbled Himself in order to deliver and redeem us from sin, death, and Satan—says, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.”

We’re taken aback at this rebuke, because it’s not just directed at the crowd that day arguing this way and that; it’s aimed at all the generation after the Fall—all the sons of Adam and Eve.  We know it’s bad, but think we were bad enough to exasperate our Creator.  But Jesus brings light from above, unsullied by the darkness of this broken creation.

The people that day were closer than we are to seeing with the light of God’s Word.  After all, they had scribes there, who were well-acquainted with the Scriptures.  But if the darkness was bad on that occasion, imagine how much worse it is the further people go from their Creator.

You see that in many ways in our neighbors today.  Lacking the instruction and direction of their Creator, they are wrestling with basic questions about what it means to be a human.  Is gender a given or a choice?  What does it mean to be a parent?  Are we more than what our medical chart says?  What causes people to break out in such rash violence?

Right now, common wisdom is to understand and define human beings by what is, to try and discern what makes people work based on what’s normal.  Only when something is grossly out of balance, like a heinous crime, do we wonder what went wrong in that person?  That shooter, that terrorist, that mentally unstable person.

I think Christians are uniquely poised to understand and answer what’s broken about humanity because our Creator has revealed Himself to us through His Son.  As Christians, who have been gifted with God’s Word, we are taught to see humanity in terms of what ought to be

We learn about what humanity ought to be from the difference between what God created us to be and what happened when sin came into the world.  Understanding original sin is key to getting an understanding on what’s wrong with the world.  There are several theories people have come up with, which are misunderstandings about original sin, so let’s hear those first and see if you recognize them or have though them yourself.

“That’s just the way people are.” or “I can’t help myself.”  This is the belief that humans are irreparably evil and there’s nothing to be done about it.  It leads people to the “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” attitude, or the self-loathing that thinks human beings are a scourge on the planet that must be eradicated.

Another approach is the belief that deep down nobody’s really a bad person.  Somehow, you just need to see past the thorny exterior.  Given enough opportunities, reeducation, time to reflect, or someone to love them, they could be reformed.  This idea is very popular in movie villains from the past few decades.  Nobody is really all evil.  It’s just nobody’s taken the time to get to know him and he’s just working out his unresolved issues.  But you see it in action stories about criminals, trying to arouse sympathy for the poor, misunderstood young man.  What this does, however, is—ever so subtly—to exonerate the person from the things they do.   

The last misunderstanding is to say that people at their core are good, but it was because some external influence corrupted them.  If only it hadn’t been for those violent video games, the young man wouldn’t have gone on a rampage.  If the suburban white boy hadn’t been radicalized by Al Qaeda, he wouldn’t have become a terrorist.  This pictures evil as some force that’s out there, and corrupts what would otherwise be a healthy, rational person.

All the explanations that people can offer bring up some good points, and they shouldn’t just be dismissed as if they have no idea what they’re talking about.  But the problem is that they don’t get the whole picture.  They don’t realize all that sin did to humanity.  When you talk about “sin,” usually what comes to mind is specific things people do.  That’s why people think of little children as innocent, and who would call a dear, little child a sinner?  But that’s not what God’s Word says: “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Gen. 8:21) and “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Psalm 51:5).  This is how God teaches us to think about sin.  In other words, “Christians must regard and recognize as sin not only the actual transgression of God’s commandments but also, and primarily, the abominable and dreadful inherited disease which has corrupted our entire nature. In fact, we must consider this as the chief sin, the root and fountain of all actual sin.” (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Art. I, 5)

This “inherited disease” infects all people.  It’s worse than cancer, because it can’t be located in one part of the body and separated out from the healthy cells.  No surgery or treatment can be devised on earth to excise our sin, but no doubt people have tried, as St. Paul mentions in Colossians 2, “Why do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”… 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Col. 2:20-23)

But there is a distinction between what God created good—body, soul, eyes, ears, reason, emotions, senses—and original sin that corrupts all of those things.  It deforms bodies, blinds eyes, deafens ears, darkens reason, causes emotions like wrath and anxiety to break loose, and makes people dull and callous.  But still, in God’s sight, there is a difference between what He created, because He is not the author of any evil, “For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you.” (Ps. 5:4)  From our perspective, though, we can’t tell what’s what.

In fact, listen to the struggle in the boy’s father in the Gospel:

21 And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” 23 And Jesus said to him, “ ‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

For one, he can’t tell what’s the demon’s influence; all he can see is his son being thrown into fire or water.  But then look how he sees Jesus, “If you can do anything, have compassion and help us.”  It’s full of doubt, and as James later writes, “the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord.” (James 1:6-7)  But when Jesus challenges him on the, “if,” he cries out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

And that is the experience of every Christian.  Just because God exposes what sin has done to “the highest and foremost powers of the soul in mind, heart, and will” (FC SD I, 11), we still struggle with the powerful work of sin even in our faith.  We can scarcely tell the difference when our sinful flesh gets the upper hand, because it’s our mind, our hands, our tongue that are indulging in sin. Corrupt as we are, what hope can there be for us?  Like the father’s prayer, “Help my unbelief,” we also hear the words of St. Paul: 21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:21-24)  

The only way that we can even begin to get a handle on the difference between our unbelief and our faith is by the power of God’s Word.  In mercy, He is able to separate between the fruit of sin and the work of God.  What’s more, He is also gracious to forgive us for not just individual sins, but He forgives the whole person, unclean, broken, doubting, and brings you to Himself, sinful though you are.  Our experience can preach very loud and convincingly, and might lead us to our own conclusions about sin and its remedy.

But God doesn’t leave us in our weakness.  He did not leave the poor father in his doubt, but gave what weak faith he had something to cling to: 25 And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, ‘You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.’ 26 And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, ‘He is dead.’ 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.”  The father had his son back, freed from the demon, brought down to the grave and raised up again.

This is the magnitude of what the Lord does for the sinners who follow Him today—you and I.  And the things He gives our faith to cling to are there to convince us over against the preaching of our sin.  That’s what the Sacraments He instituted are for.  Consider what is said about Baptism: “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:5-7)  This is a trustworthy saying, because in our Baptism, God assures us of His regenerative work, His work to renew us back to the image of our Creator (Col. 3:10).  That may not be what we see today, because today we might be seeming to lose the battle with sin.  But God helps our unbelief with His external promise: “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor. 6:11)

And that He confirms when you are absolved: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them” and “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (John 20:22, Matt. 18:18)  There it is: Even though you are sinful from conception, though your sin has broken out in minor or horrible ways, they are forgiven, nailed to the cross, died with Christ and you are raised with Him!

And He is still not done confirming His grace toward us poor, miserable sinners: “the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Cor. 11:23-26)  If we look to ourselves, our strength, our determination to live a godly life and to do better next time, we will be let down.  So, Jesus takes us out of the mire of our own frailty and sets our feet upon the Rock (Ps. 40:2).  Here, beloved by the Lord, trust not in your own flesh and blood, but receive His Body and Blood, given and shed for you.  He gives them to you to forgive you, to strengthen you, to assure you of peace in heaven and bringing all His saving work to remembrance in this moment.

And that enables us to know not only the depth of human depravity, but also the Lord’s mercy and grace toward our sinful generation.  It’s may be surprising the ways that the sinful flesh gains power over people, but remember the Lord’s power to save sinners from this darkness and certain death.  He sends you and I as ambassadors, ourselves having been saved from the tyranny of sin, to declare the wrath of God which comes against all ungodliness, and the perfect sacrifice which God gave to rescue and reconcile to Himself this world of lost souls.  Peace be with you in Jesus Christ! Amen

“Good Works are Necessary (not for Salvation)”

Readings: Isaiah 35:4–7a | James 2:1-26 | Mark 7:24–37

Text: James 2:1-26 (covering points from the Formula of Concord, Article IV – Good Works)

“Good Works Are Necessary for Salvation.

Ever since the time of the Reformation lead by Martin Luther, good works have been a point of contention.  The Reformers pointed out the gross error of the Roman church which was teaching that our works merited God’s favor.  In response, the Romanists accused the Reformers of encouraging an inactive and libertine Christianity by forbidding good works.

This carried on for the next fifty years in Evangelical churches (later called Lutheran), in arguments by Reformation teachers saying, on the one hand, “Good works are necessary for salvation” (Philip Melanchthon) and “No one has ever been saved without good works” (George Major), to on the other hand, “Good works are detrimental to salvation” (Nicholas von Amsdorf).  In the midst of all this reactionary madness, Christian charity was warped into this self-conscious act where nobody could just do good in response to God’s grace.  Then people would be asking themselves, “Am I doing this to get on God’s good side?” or “I’m saved by grace through faith, and it’s fine if I don’t do anything.”

But the best way to handle misunderstandings and disagreements in the Church is by teaching.  This starts with defining terms, because, as we know from the emotionally-charged rhetoric of our day, a mere word can lead to heated arguments.  “Good works” was a freighted term, because it had meant whatever you did for God and the Church: “[observing] holy days, particular fasts, brotherhoods, pilgrimages, services in honor of the saints, the use of rosaries, monasticism, and such things” (Augsburg Confession, Article XX 3).  It’s gotten a little better, because now people associate good works with activities that actually help your neighbor.  But why are they called good?  As Jesus once said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:18)  If something is to be called ‘good,’ it’s because it comes from God.  So, a good work is work that God empowers.  Sure, anyone, regardless of where their heart is, can do outward good, but only a Christian can do good works, because only a Christian has God working in them by His Spirit.

The other part is the works themselves.  What works?  Does God limit works to only religious things?  That might sound kind of silly to us, since the Church isn’t an institution that wields social influence like it used to.  But it’s not some mysterious, higher act.  The Ten Commandments teach us works that God wants us to do (and not do): Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength (#1-3), obey and honor your parents and authorities, protect other’s lives and safety, honor marriage and devote yourself to your spouse, protect people’s property and income, defend reputations, and keep yourself content with what God has given you (#4-10).  There’s enough there to keep someone busy in their daily life without ever having to leave their hometown!  After all, it’s things like this for which the Lord will commend His saints the Last Day: 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” (Matt. 25:35-36)

And as Christians, God has also given us the work of sharing the Gospel—“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 5:16)  It’s also true that giving to the Church, which is supporting the Gospel ministry, is a work God commands (just don’t elevate so you neglect your daily duties, Mark 7:10-12).  St. Paul teaches, “the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:14).  Sometimes this also means giving to causes within the Church, like our Macedonian forefathers did, “For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints.” (2 Cor. 8:3-4).  And even though it’s not flashy, the maintenance of the facilities at your church, or paying for the pastor’s health insurance, is part and parcel of the work God gives His people to do.

Now with an understanding of what’s good and what the works are, let’s see how St. James teaches us.  You see, James is writing to congregations of former Jews, who are well-acquainted with salvation-by-works.  Just picture the rich young man who comes to Jesus asking what he must do to inherit eternal life: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 And Jesus said to him, 20 ‘You know the commandments…’ 21 And he said, ‘All these I have kept from my youth.’” (Luke 18:18-21)

1 My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.  Here’s the scene which is painted: The Christians have gathered in the good Name of God.  In walk two men—one who is well-dressed and opulent, and the other a poor man who is in tattered clothing.  They look favorably on the well-dressed man and give up their favorite pew to him, but the poor man is made to sit in the very front row so the pastor can keep an eye on him.  James says this favoritism is “becoming a judge with evil thoughts” because while they are busy schmoozing their well-to-do visitor and thinking of all that they could get done with a large donation, they have neglected the soul whom the world has despised and who is driven to set his hope on God.

James then brings them back to the Commandments: If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.”

Love your neighbor as yourself means just that: Love every neighbor.  When we do that, we are doing well.  Yes! Go for that, and aspire to love your neighbor, no matter who they might be!  But, whenever you and I have failed to do that—and we all do—we are found to be sinners.  Our works are imperfect and inconsistent, so they can’t be what we base our salvation upon.  That’s why the Reformers gave the wise advice, “Good works must be completely excluded from any questions of salvation as well as from the article on our justification before God.” (Formula of Concord (FC), Epitome IV 7)

James continues, 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”  If we are to be judged and not be condemned, it can only be through the Lord’s mercy.  Those saints whose works the Lord commended, who I mentioned earlier (Matt. 25:31-46) were surprised by the commendation because they had not always obeyed the Law. There were people they had failed to feed, clothe, and visit.  But the Lord’s judgment was not based on their perfect righteousness—but His own which He covered them with. They inherited, not earned the Kingdom.  This is being judged under the law of liberty or freedom, and shows how mercy triumphs over judgment.  With a brilliant turn of phrase, those who lived showing no mercy and insisted on all their works—akin to those on the Judge’s left hand—are in turn shown no mercy.

That brings us to the next part, where James has stern words for those who believe they can have faith without it impacting the way they think and live.  This is a needed warning, especially to the Church today.  It was a very timely message to Christians who were recovering from confusion that our works were something that gained God’s favor.  There are many signs that the Church now has swung in the opposite direction, and that’s only further aggravated by the thinking of our day.  In a time when what you identify as can be distinguished from what objective reality says about you, it’s really no surprise that one can identify as a Christian, but live as an atheist.

James takes this disparity head on: 14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

Can that faith save him?  I thought that we are “justified by faith, apart from works” (Rom. 3:28)  Yes, we are, but what kind of faith is important to understand.  We could use the same to describe someone who says, “I love you.”  Those are just words, unless they are accompanied by fitting actions.  You know this if you’ve had a family member say, “I love you” but what they do is yell, hurt, and abandon you.  Even a child can tell that doesn’t add up. 

Now faith is much greater than human love because it is the gift of God, and where it is, it changes the heart.  It awakens new desires, new priorities, new ways to treat the treasures you’ve been given.

So James explains,

18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

Living faith gives birth to good works.  ”A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.” (Matt. 7:17) If you call yourself a Christian, you should be able to see a new heart.  That’s what we pray for, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10)  It’s that new heart and right spirit that desires the works God commands.   So it’s perfectly right to say it is necessary for Christians to do good works.  Necessary in the way that St. Paul so beautifully explains after one of our favorite passages: For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:8-10)  God has forgiven our trespasses, our disobedience, our deadness in trespasses and sins, in order to rise from death and be His creatures.  As creatures of God listen to the voice of their Creator, that’s the relationship we Christians have to good works.  God commands it, so we do it.  The Lord Himself says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15)

So when James says “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”  He’s not just talking about salvation, but that the faith the Christian claims is justified, vindicated, or confirmed by their works.  And this drives each Christian back to the Ten Commandments, to the command to shine as lights, to support the Gospel, to give to the needs of the saints, and to live in mercy.  And that makes each of us ask, “Is this what I’ve been doing? Have I been living in accord with the Lord who bought me with His own blood?  Have I shown mercy and poured myself out for the lost, the poor and hurting?”  Or have you been more interested in making sure you’re comfortable?  This disparity is not good.  It is sinful, and we must put off selfish and atheistic ways.

The Lord is gracious and merciful to forgive you your trespasses.  He does not judge you by your performance, but according to His mercy.  You are His, and an heir of eternal life.  Your sins are forgiven.  Let that new life be what moves you to love God, to love your spouse, family, all your neighbors.  This is the Christian life, not just holding to Jesus in word only, but also in deed.  Therefore, let us pray for the Lord to accomplish this in us with the Offertory (Psalm 51:10-12).  Amen.