March 24, 2017

March 22, 2017 - Luke 23:5-12

The Greatest Abolitionist Movement
1) Christ Abolished the Hatred of Sin.
2) Christ Reconciled God and Men.

One of the greatest moments in American history occurred on the first day of 1863. On that day President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, thereby declaring freedom for all slaves in the United States. This proclamation is rightfully lauded as one of the most significant and celebrated decisions in the history of the world. And it was a long time in coming too. For years prior to the proclamation, individuals called abolitionists struggled and fought to end slavery. They were aptly named such because they sought to abolish what was clearly a racial and corrupt system.

But, what most people forget today is that the Emancipation Proclamation, as sensible as it sounds, was actually quite fragile when first issued. The Civil War was still raging on. President Lincoln was not nearly as popular then as he is regarded in the history books. In order for this declaration of freedom to endure, a price needed to be paid. Many historians argue that President Lincoln never would have issued the Emancipation Proclamation if it hadn’t been for a monumental battle just a few months prior. In September 1862, Northern and Southern troops clashed in the single bloodiest day of the Civil War, near a tiny creek in Maryland called Antietam. After the great struggle, the Confederate troops retreated in defeat. If the battle had gone the other way, it’s quite possible that our country, and the world, would be a lot different today. And it’s almost a certainty that no Emancipation Proclamation would have been issued on January 1, 1863.

What do we learn about this? Well, it affirms one thing we know to be true, that freedom comes at a cost. But, we learn more this evening as we consider the word of God before us. We see that an abolitionist movement does not guarantee reconciliation. For long after the Emancipation Proclamation, the enmity of slavery continues to plague our nation and at times we seem further from true reconciliation than ever before. A special kind of leader and a special kind of victory is needed for true peace. We find that fulfillment in Jesus Christ, as we read from Luke 23:5-12:

But they were the more fierce, saying, "He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee to this place." 6 When Pilate heard of Galilee, he asked if the Man were a Galilean. 7 And as soon as he knew that He belonged to Herod's jurisdiction, he sent Him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time. 8 Now when Herod saw Jesus, he was exceedingly glad; for he had desired for a long time to see Him, because he had heard many things about Him, and he hoped to see some miracle done by Him. 9 Then he questioned Him with many words, but He answered him nothing. 10 And the chief priests and scribes stood and vehemently accused Him. 11 Then Herod, with his men of war, treated Him with contempt and mocked Him, arrayed Him in a gorgeous robe, and sent Him back to Pilate. 12 That very day Pilate and Herod became friends with each other, for previously they had been at enmity with each other.

What does it take for reconciliation? First, perhaps we need to understand what reconciliation really means. In a simple way, it means to set on friendly terms again. To reconcile with someone is the opposite of continuing to hate them. The end result of reconciliation is peace. The first step toward peace is the defeat of hatred. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul described in detail how Jesus did this: “Having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, 16 and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. 17 And He came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near (Ephesians 2:15-17).”

Abolishing the hatred of sin doesn’t appear to make much sense to human reason. In order to defeat the hate, you must accept mistreatment. Paul tells us that Jesus abolished the enmity by taking it to the cross. In our Lenten series we’ve been tracing that very path from Gabbatha to Golgotha. Our text this evening tells us the specifics of what came along with abolishing the enmity. To accomplish that Jesus had to endure mistreatment. Luke lists three things. First, Jesus was falsely accused by the scribes. This was not just a random smattering of vain threats. Luke adds an adjective which tells us they were “vehement” accusations. Ever had someone publicly discredit your good name in front of others? It makes you angry doesn’t it? The scribes were doing that and more to Jesus. Not only were they trying to ruin His reputation publicly, they were trying to use those accusations to put Him to death. This was no game. This was a real, life and death situation.

The second thing we’re told is that Herod’s men treated Jesus with contempt. Another way of describing this act is that they were treating Jesus as worthless or despising His very existence. Essentially, the soldiers thought Jesus was a piece of dirt, that His rights or His value, meant nothing. This is really the opposite of Emancipation. The reason that slavery is abolished in America is that all peoples’ rights are considered valid. This was not the way it was for Jesus. His existence was despised.

The third act we’re told follows closely to the second. Luke adds that the soldiers also mocked Jesus. They had already discredited the person of Jesus, now they moved on to His work. They recognized the claim He made as the Son of God and King of the Jews. And so, with heavy sarcasm mixed with hatred, they ridiculed Him by arraying Him in a robe as if they believed Him. It’s certainly one thing to be rejected, but mocking takes things to the next level. At that point you’re not just showing disagreement, you’re openly harassing the target.

In all these things, we certainly see pure enmity. But, the question is, how did Jesus abolish it? You’d think that He could do it by force and power, and He would have a just reason for doing so. But, that was not His method, nor would it accomplish His end goal. Jesus abolished the hatred or by taking it on Himself, by assuming it. He answered them nothing, as Isaiah had prophesied of Jesus, “He is despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Yet, He opened not His mouth (Isaiah 53:3,7).”     

The battle for reconciliation did not come down to which side could fight most vehemently against the other. Jesus won by taking the sin on His own shoulders and not responding. That is what it takes to abolish enmity. Only Jesus could accomplish such a victory. The power of the cross in that respect is foreign to human governments and institutions. No one doubts that the Emancipation Proclamation was a moral and noble pursuit, but it wouldn’t have come to anything without the force of an army. And despite that great moment of history, the enmity continues to linger to this day. One cannot help but stand in awe and wonder at the work of Jesus on this path to the cross. By what seemed to be such nonsensical measures He was accomplishing eternal peace for the world. Even the many so-called nonviolent protests and movements of our modern day cannot hold a candle to the peace of Christ. Outward force and the use of armies may fade to background, but hateful thoughts and intentions in the heart still abound under the guise of nonviolence.  

This was the very purpose of our Savior’s Passion. He abolished the enmity of sin, a righteous punishment of God’s law on sinners. He took this punishment to the cross, on His own shoulders. He practiced true nonviolence, both in the heart and in action.

What does it take for reconciliation? We talk about being the bigger person. So often in conflicts, the first person to absorb the blows of the other and not react, ushers in the first steps toward peace. Hanging on to enmity makes the problem grow. This is certainly true of reconciliation between people. But, to have peace over sin, to have reconciliation with God, you need righteousness. One moment of sin allows enmity to have a place. As God warned Cain, so we should heed, “Sin crouches at the door, and its desire is for you.” In this regard, nothing has changed. We can boast all we want about worldly measures of peace and reconciliation, or how far we’ve progressed as people, but without complete righteousness it will not stand before God.

Jesus won on the cross, partly because He didn’t give into the accusations, mockings, and mistreatment. But, He also won because nothing they said against Him was true. He was perfect. He was righteous. No accusation stuck. The same is not true for us. All too often we practice our own versions of reconciliation, while allowing the enmity to exist. We should see this clearly for our lives because we have an example in our text.

How interesting it is that at the end Luke tells us that Pilate and Herod became friends, though they were once enemies. They were reconciled, but only in the way they wanted. The enmity still existed, it was simply covered up for a time. Pilate never sent Jesus to Herod because He trusted Herod as a friend. He did it to pass off the responsibility. Herod did not receive Jesus because he respected Pilate. He did it to gain some notoriety for himself and satisfy his ego. Pilate never respected Herod as a legitimate leader, Herod was a vassal ruler – a puppet king. Pilate and Herod really tried to play off of one another to get something they both wanted. Pilate wanted an excuse out of this trial. Herod wanted attention. They both won and so they became friends for a time.

Yet, if they had only set aside their petty desires for a moment, perhaps they would have seen true reconciliation through Christ. They were indeed close, having become friends through the common acquaintance of the Son of God. Yet, they were also worlds apart from the truth. Do you see yourself in their example or in Christ’s? Do you ever forgive someone, yet hang on to the enmity? Have you ever faked the handshake, the smile, or the hug of reconciliation, yet still seethed with anger in your heart? Are you willing to make excuses, to ignore Scripture, to block out your pastor or your trusted Christian friends just to hang onto the enmity? That’s not true reconciliation, it never leads to peace, and it’s not why Jesus died for you.

If we were on trial before Pilate and Herod, we would have no option but to plead guilty. It might be unkind for them to treat us the same way, with the various mistreatments, but eventually they would find something that against us that is absolutely true. Not so with Jesus. He endured it all – to the very point of the cross, up to His final breath on it, without blame. Because of that, nothing sticks to you anymore. You are reconciled. You have peace.

What does that look like?   

Romans 8:33 Who shall bring a charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? No One.

March 19, 2017 - John 2:13-25

Theme: Jesus Gets to the Footing of the Foundation
1) Of the Sinful Condition: Materialism and Mysticism
2) Of the True Temple: His Death and Resurrection

L. Ron Hubbard, a famous science fiction author once said that if anyone wanted to get rich they should start a religion. That idea proved prophetic for Hubbard, who eventually founded the religion of Scientology. Herein we see a sore spot on the area of religion. So often it is used for material gain. We’ve seen the story play out again and again. Leaders and teachers talk a big game. Some pastors ask their members to give and give and give, yet they have private jets and lavish mansions. They claim to care about the common person but end up being nothing more than cheap charlatans. Sadly, fringe religious movements have even led to things like: sexual abuse, financial ruin, and even mass murder, all in the name of a spiritual cause.

One time when I was down by the water front in Seattle, an individual who appeared to be monk of some Eastern religion approached me and wanted my attention. I figured it would at least be informative to see what he wanted or hear what he had to say. But, to my surprise, he skipped an introduction or explanation, grabbed my hand, put a notepad in my palm, and pointed to it. He may have been this direct because he didn’t seem to speak much English. But as I looked at the pad I saw that it was a pledge list. I was supposed to write down a certain amount of money to give in order to receive a blessing or prayer of some sort. I politely said “no thanks” and continued on my way but I certainly wasn’t short of any shock in how direct this guy was to peddle his religion for some money. I was amazed at the artificial feel of it all, but I probably shouldn’t have been. Religion has always been used by some for financial gain, and it always will be. 

Jesus had his own encounter with this sad reality, and in the Jewish temple of all places. Imagine that, the house of Jehovah, the place where Jesus was taken as a Child to be dedicated and where He received Simeon and Anna’s blessings, now become more of a circus attraction than anything else. Imagine the sacred Passover festival, more of a barnyard bonanza than a solemn occasion of repentance and forgiveness. It would be equivalent to having a wine bar in our narthex to help us prepare for the Lord’s Supper today.

John 2:13-25 Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 And He found in the temple those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the moneychangers doing business. 15 When He had made a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen, and poured out the changers' money and overturned the tables. 16 And He said to those who sold doves, "Take these things away! Do not make My Father's house a house of merchandise!" 17 Then His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for Your house has eaten Me up." 18 So the Jews answered and said to Him, "What sign do You show to us, since You do these things?" 19 Jesus answered and said to them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." 20 Then the Jews said, "It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?" 21 But He was speaking of the temple of His body. 22 Therefore, when He had risen from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this to them; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had said. 23 Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name when they saw the signs which He did. 24 But Jesus did not commit Himself to them, because He knew all men, 25 and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man.

Perhaps what was even more surprising was that Jesus cleansed the Temple in this way twice. Many think of the time right before His death, when it was once again the Passover. But the events of our text come from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Long before He as on the direct path to the cross, Jesus set the same theme much earlier. In fact, as we think about the Temple itself, Jesus was laying a foundation here in our text. He was telling people the very purpose of His coming. This was one of the first times Jesus spoke the Gospel message as He prophesied of His resurrection.

We talk about getting “off on the right foot” in a conversation or relationship. In a similar way, we also speak about the footing of a foundation, that is, the very beginning or the start. Jesus does both here. He begins a preaching relationship with the Jews and He firmly declares His intentions as the Messiah by getting at the footing of the foundation.

Part 1: Of the Sinful Condition: Materialism and Mysticism

Jesus began by describing the problem at hand. Well, He actually didn’t have to describe it so much because the Jews naturally revealed it. Jesus Himself chastised the Jews for turning His Father’s house into a place of merchandise. You see, there was more to the Temple complex than just the sanctuary proper. The Temple also had an outer courtyard where most activities took place. It was in this area that all this buying and selling took place. People would purchase an animal for sacrifice and then enter the Temple with it in order for the priest to offer it for their sins – or as was customary around the Passover time, as a remembrance of the Exodus.

I’m sure the merchants felt justified in their practices. After all, someone needed to make the animals available for sacrifice. It wasn’t the act of selling that incited Jesus’ wrath. Instead, it was the location. This buying and selling didn’t need to take place on Temple grounds, yet it did merely for the sake of convenience. This petty reason outweighed, in the peoples’ minds, the importance of keeping God’s house sacred.

Materialism in a place where it did not belong was offensive enough, but this was not the main problem the Jews had. The root of their sin comes out as the text moves along, and actually through their own words. After Jesus drives the merchants out the Jews ask Him, "What sign do You show to us, since You do these things?" This very question shows how far the foundation of their faith had drifted away from the truth. Instead of asking for a basis of truth for Jesus’ actions, truth rooted in the Scriptures perhaps, the Jews demand a sign. Here we see again that struggle for physical power that the Jews so desperately desired, just as Paul elaborated on last weekend in our sermon text. 

They wanted Jesus to show them something miraculous as proof that He had the right to speak for God. But, because they had long discarded the Scriptures in place of their own traditions, they completely missed that Jesus wasn’t just speaking for God, He was God! This was His house that they had made a mockery. They had sinned directly against Jesus and now they were going to question Him about it.

By driving out the money-changers from the Temple Jesus exposed much more than just materialism. He exposed the improper foundation upon which the Jews had established their faith. Their materialism and greed were merely symptoms of the greater spiritual blight, namely that their faith was based in signs, and not Scripture.

John goes on to tell us that many ended up believing in Jesus because of signs He did, but this didn’t mean much to Jesus. John talks about this at the end of our text. It’s an interesting section because it’s the only time in the Bible that I know of which talks about God believing. Verse 24 literally says that Jesus did not believe, or trust, because He knew what men were like. Essentially, the strong number who believed in Jesus because of signs didn’t mean much. He knew how fickle experience-based faith can be. Faith founded on the footing of signs and miracles is like the seed of the sower that springs up quickly yet withers just as fast because has no root. It is not founded in the rich soil of the Gospel promise, but rather only grows to the extent that a person can see, observe, and experience the signs which they so strongly desire.

Part 2: Of the True Temple: His Death and Resurrection

The Jews were looking for the wrong thing in order to believe. Yet, Jesus accommodated their desire in order to do all He can to lead them to faith. If a sign was what they wanted, a sign was what they would get. He would give them the sign of the Resurrection. Jesus concealed this sign in symbolic language, likening His body to the Temple, because they were not ready to hear it directly yet. Jesus also employed a tactic that He used often in His ministry. He used an illustration and declared the truth indirectly so that the people would seek out more answers. It was meant to leave a persistent feeling of wonderment to drive them to the Word of God for answers. 

At first hearing the same thing we would probably conclude the same as the Jews. How would Jesus destroy the actual Temple and bring it back in three days? It helps to have John’s anecdotal explanation. But dig a bit deeper, investigate a little more, and what Jesus says not only makes sense, it builds and strengthens one’s faith and knowledge. Think about the single purpose of God’s Temple. In the simplest explanation, it was the place where God dwelt and interacted with people. This was the place. Not the king’s palace, not the marketplace, not the shepherd’s field, or any other location. The Temple was God’s dedicated dwelling place. It doesn’t mean God couldn’t reveal Himself in other places, He certainly did. But, the Temple was set apart for that specific purpose.

Jesus took on that very role, in a literal way, when He was born. He was Immanuel, “God with us.” Jesus became the Temple of God in a way that could never be duplicated. He was the direct presence of God on earth, with men. Because of this, it was entirely appropriate for Jesus to compare Himself with the Temple in Jerusalem. What a massive blunder by the Jews to miss this! For generations and centuries, Temple worship was all about preparing God’s people to receive His Promised Messiah. Well, here He was, right in front of them, and all they could think about was the building. They were worried at Jesus’ words too. The Temple building was precious to them; who would dare think to destroy it? The Pharisees actually tried to use Jesus’ statement against Him later, by trying to make Jesus out as an insurrectionist who only wanted anarchy against Rome. But, no one would actually believe this lie.

Eyes and ears focused on Jesus’ words made the difference. John tells us that the disciples thought of this event after Jesus’ resurrection when they had seen His full work completed and explained. And what was the thing that kept the disciples attached to Jesus? The Scriptures. In contrast to asking for signs, John tells us that the disciples believed the words which Jesus spoke to them. Amazing, what happens when sinners actually listen to the Words of Christ. And don’t think the disciples were something special. Their examples in the Gospels are riddled with the same sign-based attitude that these Jews had. Why shouldn’t we naturally see that too? The disciples were raised in that same culture.

The difference was made by the Word of God. True enough that the twelve disciples actually saw the resurrected Jesus, but their faith was only strengthened when the Scriptures confirmed the signs. Remember Peter and John initially doubted the women’s Easter message. Thomas needed to see the nail prints and spear wound before he confessed, “My Lord and my God!”      

And so we ask the Holy Spirit to establish our faith in Jesus on the same, sure footing of His Word. We may not wrestle with merchants in our sanctuary, but we still have plenty of distractions and foes that could lead us away from the cross. A good place to start in examining your heart is the same place where Jesus started. Why are you in His temple? Certainly, not to make money as the Jews were. But, perhaps your reasons are less blatant but equally dangerous. Do you sometimes come to church not so much to hear the preached Word but because you’re worried about what others may think? If you’re absent for too long, then maybe you’ll be judged or looked down upon. I hope not, but it does happen.

Or maybe you come because this is your chance to visit and catch up with friends, acquaintances, or relatives? God’s sacred house becomes more about socializing than hearing and receiving grace. No one doubts the benefits of friendly visiting and building relationships with fellow Christians, but should it overshadow what is most important? Perhaps a person’s view of church is that it’s not really all that important. After all, it’s often boring and usually pretty much the same week to week. It’d be a lot easier if it was more exciting and entertaining. And yet, that feeds directly into the sinful flesh’s desire to make experience and entertainment most important.  

There are many ways for us to stumble into a sign-based footing as well. When God’s word rebukes you, do you typically have the same response the Jews did, “What will you show me God, so that I should listen to You?” That can happen more easily than we think and it can be a lot more dangerous than we think.

Jesus gives us the same sign He gave the Jews - His resurrection. He even did it twice, remember the sign of Jonah? Three days and three nights in the belly of the fish – just as the Son of Man was three days in the heart of the earth. But, even a sign of the resurrection is not enough. At the end of the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, remember what Jesus said, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced even if one rise from the dead (Luke 16:31).”

It was what the resurrection meant that made the difference. What beautiful depth there is to its meaning. Your sins are taken away. Death itself is sealed up in hell and conquered, Jesus Himself went there to declare it so. The meaning of the resurrection continues to strengthen and uphold you through trials and difficulties today, by telling you that each day you are one step closer to your true home in heaven. Let Satan rage all He will, you have eternal life through Jesus! The resurrection is not some mystical sign, it has depth and meaning; reality, but only through the Scriptures.

Only the Word of God is sufficient as a foundation for strong faith in Jesus. The Word is true and lasting, unchanging and unshifting. It means you don’t have to believe because you’ve seen it with your eyes, or because God has proven it enough for your liking. That kind of belief is one that demands. The Word is the only foundation for belief that trusts. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen. 

March 14, 2017

March 12, 2017 - 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Theme: The Worldview Battle Matters
1) Some want wisdom but get foolishness
2) Some want power but get weakness
3) Christ preaches the Gospel (Christ = The Cross) v.18 and v.24 (Telic Note)

1 Corinthians 1:18-25 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, And bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent." 20 Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. 22 For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; 23 but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

Avid coffee drinkers in the Pacific Northwest know how important a filter is. Before I moved out here I never really thought there was much of a difference in how coffee was brewed. What a novice mistake right? The choice and quality of filter is right up there in importance with bean selection, roast type, and freshness of the grind. Some filters are simple, like the light paper kind used in brewing mass quantities of coffee. Others are more specialized, like the tiny re-usable pod for Keurig brewing machines. Still others, used in commercial machines are even more complex. Not only does a filter determine quality, different types are also not interchangeable. You can’t fit a big paper filter in a tiny Keurig machine. Each brew system has its own particular filter.

The same principle is truth when it comes to a person’s worldview. A worldview is a sort of filter through which you distill the events that happen in the world. This filter shapes the things you believe, the choices you make, and the values you hold. Like coffee filters, not all worldviews are the same, nor are they interchangeable. And, perhaps most important of all, there are different qualities of worldviews.

The text before us outlines the simple distinction in worldviews and how they ultimately determine what a person believes about God. We can certainly share differing opinions about things like coffee, but the truth about God is not based on opinion.   

When it comes to human nature, everyone ultimately falls into one of two worldviews. Paul makes this distinction between Jew and Greek. Jews look for a sign. Greeks seek after wisdom. Now, Paul uses the terms Jew and Greek to speak to his direct audience in their cultural setting. These titles do not mean that only Jews and Greeks ethnically hold to these worldviews. One may be a Gentile and have the same frame of mind that Jewish people in Paul’s time did. No matter what one’s race, upbringing, or gender is, the two basic worldviews of life come down to wisdom and power.

Part 1: Some want wisdom but get foolishness

Paul directed the wisdom-dominated worldview at the Greeks because it’s what they were known for. The Greeks ushered in Western-minded philosophy which sought to find true wisdom. Great thinkers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle come to mind. Historians like: Herodotus and Thucydides are also of note, as are the influential poets like Homer and Sophocles. All of these individuals, though they pursued different forms of the arts, sought after wisdom.

It’s also noteworthy that this was the very culture into which the New Testament Church was born. Many times in the book of Acts we are told that Paul “reasoned” with Greeks over the Scriptures, such as we’re told about his time in Athens, Then Paul, as his custom was, went in to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures (Acts 17:2).

The kind of reasoning that Paul engaged in involved disputing and arguing between two different worldviews. What exactly were those two worldviews? One was the wisdom of the world, based on personal evidence. We might think of the saying, “Show me and I’ll believe.” The other worldview was the message of the cross. Listen to what Luke records about Paul’s time in Athens. Immediately after stating that Paul began reasoning with them, he says this, explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, "This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ."

To the Greeks, the gods were slightly better than humans but certainly willing to stoop to human levels of morality and retribution. A portrait of the sinless Son of God, condemned to the cross and raised in glory stood in stark contrast. Yet, the message of the cross is not based on human wisdom or discernment. According to Paul’s description here in our text, the cross is the last thing the world would imagine to be true, and it is received by faith, not experience. And so the natural Greek mind counts the gospel as foolishness.   

Is this not what we continue to see in the world? Today, the Greek philosophical style is emulated in our culture too, in fact our culture is built upon it. Truly, when it comes to the natural world, observation of the physical is how we grow in our wisdom. But, because that is true, many assume that the physical is all there is, that there is nothing spiritual. And so the cross of Jesus, a purely spiritual blessing, is discounted as nonsense. When the blessings of forgiveness in Christ are counted as foolishness, the only remaining hope is in material things. And so, societies’ attention is shifted to the environment, to personal rights, to quality of life here on this earth. These things become the Greek philosopher’s highest morality.

Even at Paul’s time there was a specific school of philosophy known as the Epicurean style. Their motto was, “Eat, drink, and be merry.” If the here and now is all there is, then get what you can while you can. It’s not hard to see how philosophies like these, based entirely on the material and physical, have become a breeding ground for greed, coveting, materialism, self-indulgence, and the much more in our culture.

A message of the cross, which tells the sinner to repent, the believer to trust, and describes a Kingdom not about eating and drinking but rather righteousness, peace, and joy will certainly be counted as foolishness in such a worldview. But that’s exactly how God would have it be. He does not want the work of His Son to look like the things of the sinful world. He wants it to stand out as it certainly does. He wants the cross to be highlighted by contrast to anything else that exists in the world. Sometimes, that leads people to call it “foolish” but at the end of the day the cross stands on its own and it always there for people to see.

How clear is the vision of Christ’s cross in your life? How strong is your trust in it? Would you claim it as your worldview, or have you fallen prey to thinking that human knowledge and wisdom are the cure to societies’ problems? Does true morality come from a Savior’s love and devotion, as He died alone without your help? Or must morality be driven out by progressive ideas and agendas and by finding new ways to attack the same problems that afflict our world? All of the sudden, if you’re being honest, it’s pretty easy to see how the Greek worldview has entered the Christian faith. It can exist there for some time, side by side with the gospel cross. But, in truth, only one can truly be trusted and relied upon for help. Some to whom Paul ministered to gave up the fight for the cross, and counted Jesus as too foolish. He continues to encourage you to trust in Christ alone.       

Part 2: Some want power but get weakness

The other predominant philosophical worldview at Paul’s time was the Jewish emphasis on power. We might at first think that the Jews focused entirely on the Old Testament Scriptures and were therefore concerned with the Messiah’s cross. However, the very ministry of that Messiah, Jesus, spelled out clearly that this was not the case with most the Jews. They had been led down the wrong path in seeking not the kingdom of God by grace, but an earthly kingdom of power and autonomy from the Romans. Paul states that the medium through which this power was desired was signs – think miracles. In contrast to the Greek tendency of denying the supernatural, the Jews freely embraced it. Their history was one with many supernatural events through which God interacted with signs and miracles. But, the purpose of these signs was to confirm and establish the fulfillment of covenant through Jesus, not to set up an earthly kingdom.

For those caught in this worldview of power, Paul says they will receive weakness instead. How ironic that just like the Greeks, those Jews who denied the Savior would actually receive the very thing they were trying to avoid. Don’t we see this at the actual cross of all places? The doubters cry to the Christ: Come down from the cross and we will believe! Essentially, show Your power, give us a sign and we will follow You. A dying and suffering Savior, pinned to the tree of punishment by nails, was simply too weak for them to trust. Yet, the very moment that Jesus would have come down from the cross, all would have been lost.

All unbelief is real foolishness and weakness. Imagine what must have been going through Christ’s mind, as He hears the mocks and taunts, and as the crowd cries for the very thing that would spell eternal disaster for them. What more could be said than, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”   

The Jewish desire for power may not be as predominant in our culture as the Greek pursuit of wisdom, but it still affects us today, and especially the church. How many Christians do we hear of that claim to have received some divine message or sign from God? Instead of humbly and quietly following the simple word of God, they attract huge followings by proclaiming some sort of a sign. In a way, it’s not so different from the Greeks; both methods are asking for more than God’s word of grace as a reason to believe in Jesus.

This worldview of power also reels its ugly head when it comes to displaying faith. Too much is made of what must be shown to establish true faith. We hear questions like, “do you have faith or saving faith?” “Are you a Christian or a born again Christian?” It’s all a matter of what you show in your life – signs. But, since when did the Holy Spirit sanctify sinners by such methods. We confess, “I cannot by my own reason or strength, believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, nor come to Him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with HIs gifts, sanctified, and kept me in true faith.” 

Yet, even power and the attraction for signs can be present under the protection of faith. This is not only a problem that Jewish-minded people of the world have, we Christians struggle with it too. Have you ever pushed against God’s Word because you just felt you knew better? Have you ever put more stock in your own experiences rather than God’s promises? How many times have we all invested more effort, care, and energy in pursuing the things of this world and not the things of God? All of it, is vain chasing after power. 

In the end, we may judge truth from different worldviews, or filters, but they all eventually come down to wisdom or power. Either the basis of truth is something intellectual or something tangible. And so, we remind ourselves again that whether we are actually Greek or Jewish is not the distinction, but whether we are wisdom-dominated or power-dominated. All nationalities are included.

Yet, here is the very change through Christ. His death on the cross marks the perfect intersection between wisdom and power. It seems the opposite to the eyes of unbelief but God Himself has ordained it to be so. This should lead us to think for our lives. If I see myself trusting in human wisdom to solve life’s problems or if I see myself pursuing power and influence here on earth, have I set up an idol that gets in the way of truth? The world will tell us what it wants. God will too, and He warns us to be on the guard against what may appear right, but in reality is completely opposed to His will. This is the battle of worldviews and not all are created equal, nor do all deliver the same blessings or curses.

So, where is the opponent of the cross? The wise, the scribe, the disputer; Paul covers all – thinker, writer, and doer. The answer is that there is none. Sure, many try, but never does any opponent of Jesus measure up to a threat is even worthy to be counted. We would do well to pay attention for our lives. Perhaps we are not as wise and powerful as we so often think.

The true hope of wisdom and power is found in Christ. Vv. 18 and 24 summarize nicely, v. 18: the message of the cross is power to those who believe. V. 24: Christ, the power of God and wisdom of God. There it is clear as day, preached time and time again by faithful Christians. To have Christ is to have true power and wisdom. To have Christ is to have His cross. It may not seem like much on the surface. Truly, we have heard it many times before and the world certainly isn’t advertising it well. But, which one of us could honestly say we don’t inwardly feel the truth of our final verse: the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. We know this to be true because God has created us to know it. But, we trust it with full confidence of faith because the Holy Spirit has fixed our hearts and minds on Jesus. And perhaps that’s really the simplicity of it all. Wisdom and Power – different worldviews – knowing and trusting.

May God continue to equip, strengthen, and encourage us in the battle of the truth – keeping our worldview on the cross of Jesus above all others. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen. 

March 8, 2017 - John 18:28-38

(please rise)
            To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

            The text that I would lay upon your hearts for this mid-week lenten service comes to us from the Gospel of John, chapter 18, starting at verse 28...

            John 18:28-38   28 Then they led Jesus from Caiaphas to the Praetorium, and it was early morning. But they themselves did not go into the Praetorium, lest they should be defiled, but that they might eat the Passover.  29 Pilate then went out to them and said, "What accusation do you bring against this Man?"  30 They answered and said to him, "If He were not an evildoer, we would not have delivered Him up to you."  31 Then Pilate said to them, "You take Him and judge Him according to your law." Therefore the Jews said to him, "It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death,"  32 that the saying of Jesus might be fulfilled which He spoke, signifying by what death He would die.  33 Then Pilate entered the Praetorium again, called Jesus, and said to Him, "Are You the King of the Jews?"  34 Jesus answered him, "Are you speaking for yourself about this, or did others tell you this concerning Me?"  35 Pilate answered, "Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered You to me. What have You done?"  36 Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here."  37 Pilate therefore said to Him, "Are You a king then?" Jesus answered, "You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice."  38 Pilate said to Him, "What is truth?" And when he had said this, he went out again to the Jews, and said to them, "I find no fault in Him at all.

            This is the Word of God. Please be seated...
            Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Dear fellow redeemed...

            We are continuing in our series “from Gabbatha to Golgotha”. Last week we saw the beginning of that journey that Jesus set out on, that He was bound and led away to Pilate, and the sad account of what happened to Judas. This week's account which we just read continues to follow Jesus down that road which He traveled willingly, and it is the account of Jesus before Pilate.
            Pilate was trying to figure out what was going on here, and to get to the bottom of it, he asked Jesus several questions. But one question seems to stand out to me more than the others in this section of Scripture. It really isn't even a question, it was more of a cynical rhetorical remark intended to end their conversation... “What is truth?” To me this always seemed like a very interesting thing for Pilate to say. After all, he was the ruling Governor in the region, and his job involved just that, finding out the truth. When it came to this situation that Pilate was handed, he was the one who should have cared the most about what was true and what was untrue.
            “Here it is, the moment of truth...” Have you ever experienced a moment of truth? What is it? A moment of truth is not simply a moment when you discover the truth about something, it is much more than that. [A moment of truth is a time when a person or thing is tested, a decision has to be made, or a crisis has to be faced.] Simply put, it's a time when somethings gotta give. In last week's service we talked about the phrase “It isn't whether you win or loose; it's how you play the game.” This phrase is of course often brought up around sports. Likewise, the phrase “the moment of truth” (to me at least) seems to be linked with sports. Moments of truth happen all the time in sport. Bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, full count. That is definitely a moment of truth.  Same for a last second field goal, a penalty shot or a game winning free throw. These moments are snap shots of the larger picture of the game, and yet they can be clearly pointed to as the moment when the game was won or lost.
            Of course, as was stated with the previous phrase, this was not some game to be won or lost. The sakes were much much higher than any competitive event, the salvation of the world hung in the balance here. But make no mistake about it, there were definitely “moments of truth” here, moments when decisions had to be made, where something had to give, and they would result in either disaster adverted or a catastrophe realized. We pray that the Holy Spirit would bless our study here tonight.

            Before we get to the moments of truth, let us first examine the moments leading up to them; the moments of untruth if you will. There was a lot of untruth going around here, and of course the whole case against Jesus was one big lie. Jesus didn't do anything wrong, He was prefect. To get Him convicted would require a lot of false testimony. Before this trial ended up on Pilate's door step, they put Jesus through the phony show before the high priest. This wasn't a legal trial. All matters of legality had to go through the governing body of Rome. But it was more or less the Jews putting the stamp of approval on His death. Even at this mockery of a trial, they couldn't get there story straight. Matthew 26:59-61  Now the chief priests, the elders, and all the council sought false testimony against Jesus to put Him to death,  60 but found none. Even though many false witnesses came forward, they found none. But at last two false witnesses came forward  61 and said, "This fellow said, 'I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.' "  Out of all the false witness they produced, they only thing they could get two people to agree on was something that Jesus actually said. Of course, they did not understand what He was really talking about when He said He would be able to rebuild the temple in three days, that He was talking about His resurrection. Even then, this was not a crime. But it brought up the question of whether or not He was in fact the Son of God, and He told them it “was as they said”. They considered this to be a blasphemy and a lie, but Jesus was 100% truthful.
            And this was what led them to bring Jesus to Pilate, the Roman Governor. The Jews had concluded that He was worthy of death, but they had to go through the proper channels for execution. Pilate could tell that something was going on, these Jews with their bound prisoner sitting outside his Praetorium, which served as his home and his office.   John 18:29-30  Pilate then went out to them and said, "What accusation do you bring against this Man?"  30 They answered and said to him, "If He were not an evildoer, we would not have delivered Him up to you."  
            There is clearly a break down of truth from the beginning. They can't even really honestly answer Pilate, rather they give him an answer which is essentially “Trust us, He's evil...” Of course you can't convict someone because you don't like them, but that is what the Jews are doing here. They clearly also have a certain disdain for the pagan Roman government, not daring to defile themselves by entering into the Praetorium before the Passover. But they knew that they needed the OK from this guy before anything could really get accomplished.
            Pilate can tell where this is going. "You take Him and judge Him according to your law." He didn't want to get dragged down into this. But they wanted the death penalty, and they needed the government to sign off on it. If it would've just been up to them, they would've killed Him by stoning Him to death, which was the punishment for blasphemy that God had instructed. But, by this being a Roman matter, it would be a death by crucifying, for that is how the Romans handed out capital punishment. Jesus foretold that this would happen, and He had said And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.
            The following questions that Pilate asked Jesus were also moments of untruth. Pilate didn't want the truth about who Jesus really was. He wanted to know if Jesus could make this situation any easier for him. If Jesus would claim to be the king of the Jews, then Pilate could sing off on Him being a type of insurrectionist. If Jesus would just tell him what He had done that made these people so angry, that would help him out greatly, one way or the other. But Jesus didn't make it any easier on Pilate. He wouldn't defend himself, but He also wouldn't say anything that would make the case against Him any worse, because, well, He was a prefect. There was no wiggle room for Pontius Pilate.

            This is where the moment of truth comes for Pilate. John 18:37-38  Pilate therefore said to Him, "Are You a king then?" Jesus answered, "You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice."  38 Pilate said to Him, "What is truth?" And when he had said this, he went out again to the Jews, and said to them, "I find no fault in Him at all.
              Pilate could clearly tell that Jesus was innocent. He said as much. “I find no fault in Him at all.” That wouldn't be the last time that he would say it. Throughout all of the trial of Jesus, Pilate would state several times that this was indeed an innocent man. Yet the Nicene Creed doesn't read “He was tried under Pontius Pilate, found innocent, and released...” but rather states “and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate.” Pilate was a judge, he was responsible for upholding the values and standards of the government and his position. But what did he do instead? He succumbed to the political pressures of the Jewish leaders, and he gave in to the mob mentally of the Jewish people. He knew that Jesus wasn't guilty, especially of the death penalty, yet that is exactly what He would get.

            What is the moment of truth here for Pilate? It is that moment when he realizes that Jesus is innocent. He found no fault in Him AT ALL. It was at this point that Pilate could have made the decision to stop this trial from going any farther. It was a wrongful trial and it should have been thrown out immediately. But Pilate let it go on. He tried to find a way out of it, He tried to compare Jesus to another criminal and have the people choose. That didn't work. He knew that he couldn't do the right thing AND appease the Jews, so he washed his hands clean of the situation and let them do whatever they wished. When Pilates moment of truth came, he choked, and he is remembered forever as the man who crucified Jesus Christ.

            Who's fault is this? Who truly was to blame for this trial? Was it the Jewish leaders who arrested him? Was it the Jewish people who would shout “cruicify him!” at the top of their lungs? Was it Pontius Polite for not throwing out the case and letting Him go? What is the truth?
            The ugly truth is this: you are to blame for this...I am to blame for this...every person who has ever sinned (all of them) is to blame for this. What is truth? The truth is that every time we break one of God's commandments, we are doomed to death in hell for all eternity. Every time we sin against God's Holy Law, we are the reason for Jesus being on trial. We are the reason for Him not being found innocent,  we are why He was guilty. The truth is like the hymn put it... “The sinless Son of God must die in sadness; the sinful child of man may live in gladness; Man forfeited his life and is acquitted- God is committed.”
            What was the moment of truth for Christ in all of this? We talked about how Pilate failed to act when he determined that Jesus was innocent. But what was the moment that it all came down to for Jesus? . . . Christ moment of truth was...all of them. It was all of the moments. It was every second of this trial, it was every...single...second.  When Pilate asked Jesus what He had done, Jesus replied "My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here."
            The truth is that this trial is much more than hearing of whether or not Jesus was an enemy of the state or an insurrectionist. This was about more than just political relations and aspirations. This wasn't about the kingdom of Rome or Israel, this was about the Kingdom that wasn't of the world, the kingdom of heaven. If Jesus' kingdom was of this world, His servants would've fought for Him. (As was mentioned in our gospel harmony reading tonight, Jesus could've have 12 legions of angels fight whomever He wished.) No one could have laid a single hand on Him if He were not letting that happen. But this was how the Scriptures were to be fulfilled.
            Yes this was not a mere court room battle. It was much more than a political or military battle as well. It was much more than any of those kinds of battle. It was a fight that went way back. It was a feud that started in the garden of Eden when Satan got mankind to rebel against God. But even way back then, God had promised mankind Salvation. Genesis 3:15  And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, And you shall bruise His heel. This was the beginning process of Satan bruising the heel of Christ. It would go on and continue to escalate, culminating finally with Jesus dying on the cross. But, the head of the enemy would be crushed when Christ rose again and completed His work of Redemption!
             What was the moment of truth for Christ? It was every moment that He chose to suffer. It was every moment that He allowed this mistreatment to continue. He could've ended it all. But He chose not to. He could have told Pilate to let Him go. He wouldn't need a miracle for Pilate to release Him, He could've just told him the truth. That the Jews had no really evidence, that He had never commited a crime in His life, and this was a unwarranted trial and He should be set free immediately. But He didn't. Instead (just like the prophet Isaiah said) Isaiah 53:7  He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, And as a sheep before its shearers is silent, So He opened not His mouth.
            You might say that Christ moment of truth was there in the garden of Eden. It was when God had promised the Messiah in the first place; His trial and crucifixion was simply the last part of that moment. Jesus not defending Himself is just part of that moment of truth and soon it would be all over.

            “It all comes down to this, the moment of truth...” In every sports “moment of truth”, there is an underlying quality behind each one. In a game winning field goal, the underlying quality could be leg strength. In baseball, a game winning hit might come down to hand eye coordination. A game winning free throw's underlying quality could be repetition in practice or perhaps mental toughness... 

            But what about Jesus and His moment of truth. What was the underlying quality that made His moment of truth a winning moment? … It was what Pilate was looking for and cynically dismissed, it was the truth. It was the Gospel truth that God so loved the World that He sent Jesus into it to rule it. It was for this cause that He was born, and for this cause that He came into the world, that He would bear witness to that truth. That truth's underlying quality was love. Jesus suffered and took all the hate and crucifixion because He loved us! What is truth? Truth is that we have a Savior that paid the ultimate price for us. Truth is that we have been forgiven. Truth is that we will live with Him in Heaven. Truth IS JESUS. Amen!

March 6, 2017

March 5, 2017 - Romans 3:27-31

“Faith Alone” is understood by your faith’s direction
1. To yourself: “Do what I command.”
2. To Him: “Give what You command.”

The Lord is a strong tower, the righteous run to Him and are safe. His words of protection and safety before us today come from Romans 3:27-31:

Romans 3:27-31 Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law. 29 Or is He the God of the Jews only? Is He not also the God of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also, 30 since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. 31 Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law.

Today, we merge the old with the new. We take a timeless truth, a pillar of the Lutheran Reformation and our faith, and we bring it together with the modern phenomenon of the meme. For those unfamiliar with a meme, I offer the following definition: “a humorous image, video, piece of text, etc., that is copied (often with slight variations) and spread rapidly by Internet users.” A meme is a modern way to make a point.

For many years, opponents of Martin Luther have argued that he maliciously added to the inspired Word of God. They make this claim because in his German translation of the Bible, Luther added the word “alone” to Romans 3:28. In the minds of the opponents, this error has tainted the entire Reformation movement, as well as the Lutheran insistence of a Roman Catholic error in the doctrine of justification. I could quote people at length to explain the reasoning, but the meme really says it all.

It also uses satire to make its point; harping on Luther’s use of faith alone using the helpful grammar paperclip from older versions of Microsoft Word. It’s a funny point, no doubt, but how could it be that well-intentioned Christians end up at so very different places in their understanding of faith? And the end result of such different teachings is no laughing matter.

The case could certainly be made that Luther should have left the word “alone” out of the passage. In his defense, he stated that he was trying to make the message of the verse as clear as possible to his German parishioners. Luther fully admitted that “alone” was not in the original text, but he wanted his readers to know absolutely, that no work was needed for salvation with Christ. We could hardly fault him with this line of thinking given the context of his day, when true, unadulterated justification had been thrown to the wayside. Yet, in the end is translation has probably created more controversy than confidence.  

The passage itself is clear enough regardless of Luther’s translation. Whether or not you think the word “alone” fits, there is simply no room for teaching salvation by works. When God says, “we are justified by faith, apart from the works of the law” He ends the debate. But then why does this divide continue to exist today? Why do we still see shots taken against Luther’s teaching, even with the modern day format of memes? The answer is that not all faith is directed at the same location and not everyone means the same thing when they say “faith alone.”

To recognize this difference for ourselves we bring in the thoughts of another church father, one who lived long before Luther. Augustine famously said of verse 27: The principle of works says, “Do what I command.” The principle of faith says, “Give what You command.” Augustine was referring to that phrase in our text, “the law of faith.” At first glance that makes no sense and seems to defeat this entire issue. The entire point of Paul’s words here is to show the difference between the law and faith. What is this “law of faith”? Paul is talking about a principle of faith, a basis upon which one believes. One’s principle is either of the law or of faith. Obviously faith is not a law in the sense of being a work we must accomplish. But, it is the principle, or basis, of salvation in Christ.

There are ultimately two ways in which people measure their faith; or in the words of Augustine; there are two principles on which faith can rest – Us or Christ. Either faith becomes a matter of what I do before God, namely how well I keep what He has commanded; or it is a matter of what God gives me; namely how He blesses me in Christ because He has kept the commands. This is precisely where the difference rests in Luther’s use of the word “alone” in Romans 3:28 and what has separated Christians on this issue for more than 500 years.

Part 1: To yourself: “Do what I command.”

If faith is directed at the person, their principle will be of works. They will base their hope on upholding God’s Word. They will continually hear from God, “Do what I command.” Paul was trying to defeat this idea when he wrote, “we conclude that a man is justified by faith, apart from the works of the law.” If people look at themselves when they use the phrase “faith alone” it becomes a principle of the law. This is confusing because faith is not of the law; it is produced by the Gospel. 

It’s also confusing because although someone may use the word faith in this way, as soon as it becomes based on the law it stops being faith. True faith always looks to Christ as the source and the power. Faith itself is simply trust. It doesn’t necessarily define what or who is trusted. But, every context of saving faith in the Bible is always directed at Jesus, not works. It’s precisely what Paul is saying in these verses. He is trying to take the attention away from the individual sinner and putting it squarely on the merits of Jesus. This is only way to have confidence in our faith. When works of the law become the main foundation, whatever we’re talking about ceases being true, Biblical faith, even if it’s still called that.

Those who argue against Luther in things like this meme, can say all they want about his choice of translation. I can see the legitimate criticism in adding a word that isn’t part of the text. That’s not really translation; it’s more of a paraphrase or commentary. But, in the end, you have to get past Luther’s translation choice and ask whether or not the teaching itself is Biblical. Namely, is “faith alone” a valid teaching? Well, if faith is directed at the sinner, it’s not valid. It’s not even faith. The real problem is that those who continue to criticize Luther’s teaching and the confessions of our church today, continue to emphasize this hollow, self-centered faith.

The chief portion of Scripture often used against “faith alone” is James 2. In that chapter James writes of Abraham’s faith, “Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? You see, then, that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.” (James 2:22,24) Who wouldn’t naturally see a contradiction between James and Paul, and furthermore between James and Luther? James pretty clearly condemns “faith alone” doesn’t he? Those who deny “faith alone” champion James’ words. They see “faith alone” as a teaching that allows a ‘cheap out’ of following God’s Word; a trite excuse offered for sin. Truly, it would seem to put the proverbial nail in the coffin of Luther’s teaching of “faith alone.”

But, when you take the entire context of James’ letter, it’s clear that he actually condemns the type of faith that is based on the law. James talks about the importance of works as an effect of faith, but he does that to show the Christians he was writing to that they were not beginning with Christ. James’ point is that if your faith is not squarely based on Christ’s work for you, you won’t have the fruits that give evidence of that faith. His words continue to be twisted into a contradiction of Romans 3 even today but the truth exposes that position as false.
Before James even wrote the passages in chapter 2 he said this, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” That sounds pretty close to what Paul wrote in Romans 3. Gifts coming from God alone. Being re-born by the Word of God. No partiality between Jew and Gentile with God. All similar themes to Romans 3. There is no doubt that James says the same as Paul; he just approaches it from a different perspective. Life in Christ is produced by God working through the word. Works or fruits are effects of that faith, or indications of how healthy and strong that faith is. They are never the cause.
Part 2: To Him: “Give what You command.”

At this point I would also add a verse from our text for today that proves the same thing. What Paul writes in verse 31 is really a summary of James’ letter, Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law. Our entire discussion has been about the proper use of the word faith, especially when we talk about “faith alone.” But, the other side of that coin is the proper use of the law. In order to explain faith, Paul tries to better explain its complementary opposite, the law. Paul says, faith does not destroy or abolish the law. Rather, it uses the law in the only proper way. Therefore, the only correct way to use the law of God is to believe in Christ by faith apart from the works of the law.

The great fear of teaching “faith alone” is that it will somehow give a person a free license to sin. If you allow a person to believe that their sins are paid for freely by Christ (Faith Alone) and no additional effort from the person is needed; then they will naturally do whatever they want. And so it is supposed that it is a dangerous thing to teach “faith alone” and those who believe it will always fall back into sin. It’s easy to see the logic in this premise. It not only makes sense, but we experience it too, because so often we abuse God’s grace and forgiveness. We have a tendency to treat it as a free pass to sin. This always happens, in fact, it’s precisely the issue that James addressed.

But, human error never overtakes God’s truth. It can obscure it to be sure, but it can’t defeat God’s work. What Paul taught and Luther taught, that we are still saved by faith alone apart from the law, is just as true as it has always been. Human error cannot abolish that. In fact, human error proves it to be absolutely true, because it shows us there is only one way. The fact that sinful humans abuse this grace does not discredit its effectiveness. And to hammer down that point, Paul made the stunning statement that faith apart from the works of the law was the only path toward a proper use of the law. Teaching faith alone does not destroy the law, rather it upholds the law and complements the true nature of the law in a sinner’s life.
What faith destroys is the curse of the law. Don’t take my words for it, listen to God’s: For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse … Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree ") (Galatians 3:10,13). This is the principle of our faith. Christ was cursed on the tree for us. That breaks the curse that hangs over our heads because we haven’t kept the law. And we receive it by faith alone. If it came by any other means, it would not be of Christ, and it would not be faith.  

You can see now why Augustine chose to word the proper foundation of faith as that which the sinner speaks to God, “Give what You command.” Faith is not by works. It is a given by God freely to all. But, faith also does not nullify that which God commands. Rather, it upholds the law. Christ did not abolish the law when He came to earth. He fulfilled it. He restored it and built it back up in our lives in its proper sense so that we could serve God by faith. Faith gives us what God commands because it blesses us with Christ’s merits. His righteousness becomes ours. His keeping of the commandments is placed on our record. Jesus destroyed the curse, by upholding the law.  

Perhaps most important to state about Martin Luther is that he understood true faith alone, regardless of his translation of Romans 3:28 suffers. Luther wrote elsewhere, “A Faith without love is not enough; it is in reality no faith at all but only appears to be faith. Just so a face seen in a mirror is in reality no face but only appears to be a face.” Faith that is based on us is hollow and unstable. If we boast of this faith “alone” we are in a miserable spiritual state of life. Boasting of this type is excluded, as Paul said.

But faith alone in Jesus is the one, true foundation. It is the rock upon which the wise man built, which withstood the storms of sin. And it is the absolute boast of the Christian’s confidence, for through Christ we have died to the world and we live in Him. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.