Lent Five Sermon
March 22, 2015
“Keeping the Word of Eternal Life”
St. John 8:46-59
"Which of you convicts Me of sin? And if I tell the truth, why do you not believe Me? He who is of God hears God's words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God." Then the Jews answered and said to Him, "Do we not say rightly that You are a Samaritan and have a demon?" Jesus answered, "I do not have a demon; but I honor My Father, and you dishonor Me. And I do not seek My own glory; there is One who seeks and judges. Most assuredly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he shall never see death." Then the Jews said to Him, "Now we know that You have a demon! Abraham is dead, and the prophets; and You say, 'If anyone keeps My word he shall never taste death.' Are You greater than our father Abraham, who is dead? And the prophets are dead. Whom do You make Yourself out to be?" Jesus answered, "If I honor Myself, My honor is nothing. It is My Father who honors Me, of whom you say that He is your God. Yet you have not known Him, but I know Him. And if I say, 'I do not know Him,' I shall be a liar like you; but I do know Him and keep His word. Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad." Then the Jews said to Him, "You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?" Jesus said to them, "Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM." Then they took up stones to throw at Him; but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by. St. John 8:46-59
How many legs would a dog have if you called his tail a leg? The correct answer is four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg. Saying something is so doesn’t make it so. Unless you are God. When God says it, it is so. It is so because God says it. God says, “Let there be light” and there is light. Jesus says, “Son, be of good cheer: your sins are forgiven,” and the man’s sins are forgiven. He says, “This is my body,” and the bread is his body. By God saying it is so, it is so.
This is the foundation of true faith. It is the truth of God’s word. It is God’s faithfulness in keeping his word. Jesus says, “Most assuredly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he shall never see death.” Since he says so, it is so, and faith knows so. Faith clings to Jesus and his word.
Those who belong to God hear and believe what God says. Those who do not hear and believe what God says do not know God. Jesus says:
People look for God in all the wrong places. They look to public religious opinion and adopt it, thinking that the religious crowd must have it right. They look within themselves and imagine that their religious feelings must reflect the truth. They flit from this to that fashionable creed which are usually just retreaded versions of worn out and discarded religions of the past. In their search for God they form their own gods, fashioned in their own image, to confirm themselves in their own opinions. They often despise what they call “organized” religion. They find it too restrictive. Driven by a notion or a feeling or a stray idea, they assert what they think God is like. But they don’t listen to God. Instead of listening to God tell them who he is they tell God who he is.
This is idolatry. It is a sin against the First Commandment:
There are many manmade religions. That is, there are many forms of idolatry. But a common thread is woven throughout them all. It is a consistent pattern grounded in fallen human nature. Sinners try to make themselves righteous. It is impossible. But they try. Their consciences teach them that there is right and wrong. They also have a natural knowledge of God that comes from looking at what God has made and putting two and two together. People know by nature that God exists. They know by nature that they are accountable to him. So they try to figure out how to make themselves acceptable to God.
This feature runs through all religions. Human nature is human nature and everybody tries to justify himself. Religion is how most people try to do it. Religion, as a belief system, an exercise of rituals, or a discipline of habits is how they try to gain God’s approval. This religion goes by many names and varies quite a bit in the forms it assumes. Its essence is legalism. Legalism is the teaching that we become righteous by doing righteous things. We do good to become good.
Legalism is based on a lie, whether taught by the Jewish religious leadership of Jesus’ day or popular preachers and church leaders of our own day. You cannot become good by doing good. You must first be good. Only then can you do good. Jesus put it simply: “For a good tree does not bear bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit.” (St. Luke 6:43) The goodness we need is not a goodness that we do, but a goodness that Christ does. He does the good that is required of us. He suffers the penalty for our sins. He loves actively and he suffers passively. He loves purely and suffers in silence. He brings to the human race the goodness that deserves everlasting life.
This is how Jesus can say, “If anyone keeps My word he shall never see death.” Jesus binds himself to his word. The word that we hold onto in faith through which we receive eternal life is not the word of God’s law that tells us what to do. It is the word of God’s gospel that presents Christ to us as our Savior. He is the way, the truth, and the life. His words are spirit and they are truth. They bestow eternal life. Faith receives what Christ’s words give.
What a wonderful claim he makes! He sets us free from the law that hounds us all the way to the grave. The strength of sin is the law. This is why we don’t trust in the law. To trust in the law to lead you to heaven is to trust in your own sinful flesh. Nobody ever found eternal life by trusting in the law. Only Christ has kept it and only Christ has eternal life to give.
Every legalist must distort God’s law to keep it from exposing his sin. This is why moral relativism is so popular. Those who defend such sins as fornication and homosexuality like to present themselves as more accepting and Christ-like than those who still hold to what God’s law says about these sins. They have a personal stake in falsifying God’s law. They don’t want to repent of their own sins. They twist the law so that it no longer requires their neighbor to repent in order to keep it from requiring them to repent. Shut up the voice of God that exposes our innate selfishness, self-centeredness, and sin. Redefine selfishness and self-centeredness as self-esteem and call it a virtue!
Jesus says, no. No, you are sinners, fallen and headed toward hell. Bodily death is only the beginning. You are condemned to an eternity of miserable separation from the Source of life. Keep my word and you won’t see death. You won’t feel it. I have overcome it. Trust in what I tell you, for I have the approval of my Father in heaven.
Jesus is not just a great and holy man. He is the eternal Son of God. He doesn’t call the Father “our Father” as he teaches us to do. He calls him “my Father.” He is begotten of his Father before all worlds. He is God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. He doesn’t honor himself. He receives honor from his Father. He doesn’t see his own glory. His Father glorifies him. He identifies him as his beloved Son in whom he is well pleased. His Father tells us to hear him. God the Father does not want anyone to seek him, to worship him, or to serve him except through his beloved Son, Jesus Christ.
Those who would claim God as their Father and reject Jesus as their God and Savior do not have God as their Father. Those who claim to worship Abraham’s God but deny that Jesus is his only begotten Son and their Savior from sin do not worship the God of Abraham.
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob appeared to Moses at the burning bush. When Moses asked for his name he said, “I am who I am.” He identified himself as “I am.” This is how Jesus identified himself. He claimed to be Abraham’s God. Abraham trusted in Jesus. This is what Jesus teaches. This is why the Jews who insisted that they could claim Abraham’s God as their God while rejecting Jesus as their God and Savior became so infuriated and tried to kill Jesus. They would not acknowledge Jesus as their God. To do so would require them to admit that they needed eternal life given to them as a gift or they would never have it.
Legalism is the spiritual deceit that infects all sinners. Sinners presume to set the agenda and make up their own rules for how to become acceptable to God. Legalists deny Christ. The Jews slandered and insulted him, calling him a Samaritan, a member of a heretical sect, and accusing him of having a demon. They expressed their unbelief openly and Jesus openly said they were children of the devil, not of God.
But in our day, Jesus as a religious brand name is quite popular, even as his doctrine is denied, his person is rejected, and his offering of eternal life is despised and spurned. The religious traditionalist relies on his religious pedigree, his relationship to religious people, and he claims a status he thinks he was born with, not reckoning with the fact that he was born in sin needs a Savior. The religious free thinker is equally bound by Satan’s lies as he trusts in his own goodness, presuming that if God exists he won’t hold him accountable. Legalism is legalism whether highly refined and packaged in respectable religious covering or as the constant in one’s ever evolving religious sentiment. And legalism is deadly in whatever form it take.
Sinners cannot make themselves good enough for God. Only God, by becoming one of us, taking on our flesh and blood, and doing as our brother what he as our God required of us, can give us eternal life. So we keep, we hold onto in firm faith, the word that presents Christ to us as our Savior from sin. Believing God, we have what he says. What he says is so is always so because he says it.
Rolf D. Preus