By Paul Koch –
Churches are strange things.
There has always been religion, always been a recognition of something beyond our experience, beyond what we actually feel and taste and hear in our lives. And the various religions of the world have tried to answer big questions of life and afterlife, good and evil. The Christian church confesses that the answer to those questions are not found in interpreting omens or through channeling spirits or tracking the stars or some such thing, but is found in a Word that has been given, a self-revelation of the Creator of the universe, given to guide and strengthen our faith. But churches are strange things. The way in which a church receives that Word, the way they confess the truth of that Word can be quite different from one place to the next.
To begin with, the vast majority of churches are asking the same questions. They are concerned with eternal salvation. How do we get it? What is it? Where do we find it? Secondly, they deal with the question for the assurance of our salvation. That is, if we are saved, how do we know? How can we be sure of that salvation? Can we lose it? If so, how do we prevent that? So, what binds all Christian churches together? What makes us Christian, is our faith, our confession that salvation rests in Christ alone. And just what are we saved from? We are saved from the wrath of God. We are saved from His just condemnation of our disobedience to his law. We are delivered then from sin, death and the power of the Devil by the righteous blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Now, this salvation means that our eternity is not one of fire and suffering, but of a new heaven and a new earth, of resurrection and life eternal.
And so, churches have been given the gift of the Word of God. They have in their possession a Word from our Creator that proclaims to them the gift of salvation. But where things get strange is how each church then applies this Word: how they understand how we can achieve this gift of salvation, and how we can be sure that we are saved. The whole makeup of a given church, from the way in which their worship is constructed, to the types of songs they sing will bear witness to how they understand just how we are saved and how we can be sure of our salvation even now.
In some churches, the sermons will focus on giving a type of how-to lesson. Perhaps even a check list of things you can do to make sure that the gift of salvation is yours, that you really possess it, really believe it, really understand it. And we like lists. Lists give us something to do, some way to be sure that we are staying on the straight and narrow, that we are not losing sight of what is really important. Perhaps your list is full of very churchy, very Christian sort of things on it. Go to church – check. Read your bible – check. Spend time in prayer – check. And on the list goes. Or perhaps, your list focuses a little more on others, on the way in which you conduct your life as a Christian in this world. Give to charity – check. Help a neighbor in need – check. Volunteer at the local food bank – check. These lists, you see, they become the means by which you can know if you are saved or not. If you are doing them or trying to do them or working your way through the list, then somehow you can be sure that righteousness is yours.
Of course, every church will have its own preferred list and every person sitting in the pew will have their own take on that list. But in the end, it will either secure salvation in Christ or keep salvation in Christ and therefore the assurance of your righteousness will have something to do with how well you maneuver through that list of yours. Ultimately, this means that your doings and your accomplishments are the guarantee of your faith.
But listen, instead, to what St. Paul says about the gift of God’s Word. He says, “Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into the heaven?’ (That is to bring Christ down) or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead.)” Paul here is making a distinction regarding the Word of God. There is a righteousness based on the law and one based on faith. One is based on what we do, on our effort either to climb up to Christ or to even raise him by our own effort. But there is another righteousness one based on faith – and thanks be to God that there is such a gift.
For a righteousness that is based in the law is a righteousness that you cannot accomplish. You can try, you can work at it, you can redouble your efforts, turn over a new leaf, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps or any other cliché you can think of, but your effort will fall short. Think about it. Think about the list you make to achieve or maintain your righteousness. How completely do you keep that list? How thorough are you in your effort? Do you do the things required for righteousness, do you do them all the time with all your heart soul and mind? Are you perfect in your reaching up into heaven to lay claim to the things of God?
So, in His mercy God has given you another way. He has given a righteousness that comes by faith. Faith, not deeds, at least not your deeds. Your eternal Father knows your failings. He knows the weaknesses of the flesh, so he gives you a Word that proclaims another way. And this way of righteousness has nothing to do with your effort, your feelings, your successes or failures. For the way of faith is the way of Christ alone. Christ has done what you could not. Christ lived the perfect life. He repented for your sins. He bore them to Calvary’s cross. He endured the wrath of the Father. He had his body broken and his blood spilled. He cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He was buried in the tomb and on the third day rose from the dead. He did it all so that by faith in Him you might be saved. By faith in Christ you are declared righteous.
Paul says, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” Our hearts and our mouths are connected in our faith. What we believe, we then say. What we say, what we confess, are the promises and Words of God. You see your confession isn’t now some righteousness based on your work, it isn’t a return to the way of the law, only now you can do it better – no. Your confession is to say back to God what He first said to you. It is to speak His Words.
We gather together in this place and after the invocation of the name of God we confess our sins. We say together things like, “We have sinned in thought, word and deed, and that we cannot free ourselves form our sinful condition.” Now, how do you know that? How do you know that you are such a sinner? You know because God has declared that that is exactly what you are. His law has said that you are sinner in though word and deed, by what you have done and by what you have left undone. So, we come along and say to God what He first said to us. But it happens with the Gospel as well. You say you are saved, you are clothed in the righteousness of Christ alone. How do you know? You know because that is what He has said about you.
And so, it is this Word, this powerful, life-giving Word that becomes your hope and assurance. It is the source of your salvation and the means of it, as well. It is by the Word that you know you are sinners and it is by the Word that you know you are saved. It is the Word then that gives you hope and assurance. The Word, not your lists, not your efforts, not your discussions, but the Word has declared you righteous. For the Word gives to you all the blessings of Christ. The Word gives to you His death and resurrection, His victory and righteousness is now yours.
The gifts of your salvation comes from outside of you. Outside your darkness there comes a light, outside your confusion there is clarity, outside your struggle there is promise and hope and life-everlasting. For “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” And that Word echoes in your ears this day. It says, “You are forgiven and loved and righteous.”