“But Through the Righteousness of Faith"

Lent 2
March 12, 2017
Romans 4:16

Poor Nicodemus.  First, Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God,” implying that Nicodemus was not born again and, therefore, far from the kingdom of God.  But then the Lord rubs salt into the wounds by saying, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?”

Any sure footing upon which Nicodemus assumed he was standing, as a Pharisee and as a ruler of the Jews, was suddenly pulled out from underneath him.  With one swift stroke, Jesus had placed the certainty of Nicodemus’ spiritual life into doubt.  And you can practically see him scrambling for his life as he searches for clues in questions like, “How can a man be born when he is old?  Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”  He desperately wants to understand.

And we know what that feeling is like; for so often our own spiritual confidence is placed into question when somebody backs us into a corner, interrogating us about why Christians believe what they do.  To paraphrase our Lord’s words, “Are you a member of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, but do not understand these things??”

But, even more so, we understand that desperation whenever we are overcome with the guilt of our sins.  We know are to behave like the children of God that our heavenly Father has declared us to be, but when our actions betray us we begin to doubt if we are truly Christians after all.  And we begin to wonder if we’ve only been fooling ourselves in thinking that our standing with God really is as secure as we have imagined it to be.  In the words of today’s Collect, “O God, You see that of ourselves we have no strength.”

No matter how long we have been Christians, no matter how far we think we may have progressed in our spiritual walk, it can all come crashing down upon us when our own self-created foundation crumbles; when we realize that we are not the wise, teachers of Israel, so to speak, that we imagined ourselves to be.  Between our fumbling for the right defense of our faith and the words and actions that have betrayed our faith, we can feel quite far from the kingdom of God indeed.  And it is a frightening revelation.

Dearly beloved, it is at moments such as these that we need to listen carefully to the heart and soul of the Gospel promise—the promise that is captured so beautifully in that most familiar of Biblical passages, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” This is when we need to be reminded that Christianity is not about progress that we make but, rather, about the salvation that Christ already has achieved fully for us.

And in our first two readings today, the Old Testament patriarch, Abraham, is held up as an example of this faith.

Abram, as he formally was known, was seventy-five years old when the word of the Lord came to him—not only telling him to take his family and all his possessions and move to a place that was unknown to him—but also assuring him that all nations on earth would be blessed through his offspring.  It was a strange promise, indeed, since he and his wife Sarai were childless.  It was a blessing that defied human reason or strength.  Elsewhere, the Scriptures go so far as to refer to Abraham and his wife in their old age as “good as dead.”  So, if God was going to accomplish this miracle—as any conception of life indeed is His miracle, let alone in regard to Abraham and Sarah, who would be 100 years old and 90 years old, respectively—then everything necessarily would have to depend upon God.

And so it does—and not just in the miracle birth of their child Isaac but also in the miracle of rebirth experienced by all those who are blessed to see the kingdom of God through faith in Christ Jesus.

Listen carefully to the words of St. Paul from our text as he quotes from the Psalms of King David; Paul says that, “David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”

Note two things in particular.  First and foremost, the Christian faith is all about the forgiveness of sins.  What makes that obvious thought such a profound thought is that too often we want to turn Christianity into a matter of our own good behavior.  It is our human nature to think that being a follower of Christ means patterning our life after Jesus’ life.   And while there is an element of truth to that notion, inasmuch as we have born again by water and the Spirit—namely, we have been baptized into Christ and put on His life—it is still only the life of Christ that counts!  It is on His perfect life, death, and resurrection that our salvation rests.

But when we take our eyes off the cross, and focus in on our own spiritual accomplishments, we fall into the temptation that Satan first used against Adam and Eve—the one which says, “you can be like God, knowing good and evil.”  Oh yes, we certainly know good and evil—and sometimes it seems we know much more of the latter than the former.  But to be like God???  That is something we cannot claim in this world.

Even though we do try to walk the path of the straight and narrow by the power of God’s own Spirit; we try to succeed at the good that God expects of us.  But, sometimes, it appears our motivation is so low that all we care about it tending to our own needs and wish that all of the other demands upon us would simply disappear.  And when it comes to repenting of our sins, we find ourselves so addicted to our own self-satisfaction that we begin to wonder if we really are nothing but hypocrites.

Yes, we know all too well the sense of uneasiness that Nicodemus experienced; for it is a never-ending battle within each one of us. 

But woe to anyone who is so self-assured that they find themselves either bored or even irritated by the mere mention of such inner turmoil.  Those are the individuals who truly cannot see the kingdom—because they refuse to see themselves, first and foremost, as those who “deserve nothing but temporal and eternal punishment.”  Those are merely artificial words, forced to be recited in public worship, rather than humbly spoken in sincere repentance.

But for those who are heartily sorry for their sins and sincerely fear God’s just condemnation, our Lord Jesus invites them to find salvation in His cross.  For, His blood cleanses us of all sin.  Jesus is the One Who is able to bring eternal life out of something as dead as our sinful nature; with the assurance that, not only will God grant us the faith that we need, but that He also will regard that faith as though it were pure righteousness itself!

“For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it [namely, his faith] was counted to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.  And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.”

We are the ‘ungodly’ that St. Paul is speaking about.  There is no question about it.  And if it were up to us to earn our salvation, then we would all be lost.  But God was willing to do the unthinkable.  He was willing to pay the price for us.  He was willing to cancel the insurmountable debt that our sins had amassed.  And even if it meant sacrificing the life of His only begotten Son to do it, He would—so that we would not have to perish but could be assured of everlasting life.

How can we receive such an incredible blessing?  By believing, that’s how.  And our faith is counted as righteousness.

Fear not, dearly beloved!  Do not doubt your salvation!  Truly, truly, I say to you, you have been born again in the waters of Holy Baptism.  God has granted to you the life of Jesus to claim as your own.  So that, even in the darkness of our deepest guilt, you are still able to see the kingdom of God—of which you most certainly are a member by the grace of God through Jesus Christ.

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.  “Blessed are [you] whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed [are you] against whom the Lord will not count [your] sin.”  Blessed are you to be so dearly loved and so completely forgiven through Jesus Christ!

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