Septuagesima Sunday| January 28, 2018| Rev. Rolf Preus| 1 Corinthians 9:24 –10:5
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified. Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. But with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.
A Lutheran and a Baptist get into a conversation about baptism. The Lutheran confesses that baptism saves. The Baptist replies that you are not saved by your good works. The Lutheran says that baptism isn’t our work. It is God’s work. The Baptist points out to the Lutheran that many people who are baptized are not saved. If they are baptized and not saved how can we say that baptism saves?
Consider ancient Israel. All were under the cloud. All passed through the sea. All were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. All ate the same spiritual food. They all drank the same spiritual drink. They were all set free. They had been slaves in Egypt and God set them free by miraculous signs that he did through his prophet Moses.
And then what happened? They died in the desert. They didn’t make it into the Promised Land. Only two of those many thousands who were set free from Egypt actually made it into the Promised Land. God saved them all. He saved them all through his miraculous signs. They all walked across the Red Sea on dry ground and Pharaoh’s soldiers were drowned. God saved them all. But not all of them stayed saved.
To be saved is to be delivered. God delivers us from our enemies. Our enemies are sin, death, and the power of the devil. This salvation can be viewed from three different sides.
First, we are saved by what Jesus, our Savior, has done to save us. He obeyed God’s law as our substitute. Everything God commanded us to do he did and he did it for us. He suffered for our disobedience. He gave up his life as the perfect sacrifice for all sin and in so doing he took away the sin of the world. He said on the cross, “It is finished.” Jesus saved us all then and there.
Second, God gives this salvation to us. We cannot fly back to Calvary to be washed in the blood of the Lamb. God has established in and for his church means of grace, that is, means by which he brings the salvation Jesus accomplished then and there to us here and now. What Jesus did must be given to us if we are to receive it and have it. God gives us the salvation he won in the gospel that is written down in the words of the Bible. He gives us this salvation in our baptism. He gives us this salvation in the gospel that is preached to us, in the absolution spoken to us, in the Sacrament of the Altar, and in the words of fellow Christians who comfort us with the gospel of the forgiveness of sins when our spirits need comfort.
Third, the salvation that Jesus won, the salvation that God gives us in his means of grace, must be received if we are to have it. It is received through faith. Faith alone is how we receive the forgiveness of sins and salvation that Jesus won for us two thousand years ago and gives to us in his gospel and sacraments, which are his means of grace.
The children of Israel were rescued from Egypt. God set them free. They were under the cloud and they passed through the sea. That was their baptism. They ate the same spiritual food and they drank the same spiritual drink. That was their Lord’s Supper. God gave himself to them through these signs. He rescued them from slavery. He made them his own. They were Christians!
And what happened? What does Paul write? He writes,
But with most of them, God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.
Of the six hundred thousand people who were rescued from slavery in Egypt, only two of them entered into the Promised Land: Joshua and Caleb. The rest died in the desert. They were saved. Then they were lost. There’s a popular error promoted throughout American evangelicalism: once saved always saved. Those who adopt this error deny that baptism saves. They argue that since many people who are baptized end up abandoning the faith and going to hell, it is obvious that baptism does not save. Right?
Wrong! All of Israel was saved. But they fell from their faith. It is possible to be born again in Holy Baptism, be taught the Christian faith, confess it, hear the gospel and believe it, eat and drink Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of sins, and be on the road to heaven and then fall from the faith and be lost.
This is why we don’t take faith for granted. When it comes to our Christian faith, we set aside everything else as being of less importance and requiring less demands on our time and attention than to remain steadfast in the true Christian faith.
The Apostle Paul talks about this in terms of an athlete training for competition. Specifically, he uses the examples of a runner and a boxer. The athlete who wants to win the contest will discipline his body. To win a race requires physical conditioning and physical training. It requires temperance, that is, self-control. You don’t eat the junk food and you don’t drink the beer. You don’t smoke. You don’t skip the daily workout. When you are running laps and your gut starts to hurt you run faster, not slower, because you know that if you refuse to embrace the pain you will lose. No pain, no gain. If you really want to win the contest, you will discipline your body and take control over it.
And so it is with the soul. Salvation is by grace alone. Jesus wins it on Calvary. God gives it to us in the gospel and sacraments. It is received by us through faith in the gospel that gives it to us. This faith is also a gift from God. But that doesn’t mean faith is easy. If it were easy, we could believe without the means of grace. We wouldn’t need baptism. We wouldn’t need church on Sunday morning. We wouldn’t need a preacher to preach God’s gospel to us. We wouldn’t need the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood. If faith were easy, we could bring ourselves to faith, simply by an act of our own will.
But faith isn’t easy. That’s why we need to hear God’s word purely proclaimed. We don’t need to hear it taught by teachers who are devoted to false teachings. Just because it has the label “Christian” and is promoted by a Christian doesn’t make it Christian teaching. If you want to hold onto your faith you will care about the purity of the teaching you are taught and you will turn away from false teaching.
But it is not enough that the teaching and preaching be pure. You must listen. You must take it in as a thirsty soul drinking cool water. Physical training is all about getting your body under control. Spiritual training is about getting your soul under control. Not your control. You’re not in control. God’s in control. But how does God exercise his control over our soul? How does God keep us in the Christian faith?
He does so through his word, through his teaching. “Well, I don’t have the time to go to church or read the Bible at home or attend Bible class, but I pray.” Good for you! Prayer is good. But prayer is not a means of grace. Prayer is asking God. That’s what the word means. That’s why prayer and listening to God’s word always go together. But what about the one who prays to God but doesn’t attend Divine Services, doesn’t read the Bible, never attends Bible class, and never reads doctrinally sound devotional literature? Talking to God is fine, but only when you listen to what he has to say. Prayer is good spiritual discipline, but only when it is guided by God’s word. If God is going to be in charge of your spiritual life, you’re not going to put him in charge by praying a pious prayer, by dedicating your life to him, or by surrendering to him in some kind of religious act of devotion. If God is going to be in charge of your soul, he will take charge himself. He does so through his word.
Pious protestations about how you have prayed about this or that while proceeding to act according to your own will, never mind what God says, are not pious at all. They are impious prelude to apostasy. That means falling away. How many former Christians are there who continue to pray? God only knows.
God wants to teach you. Not just when you’re a child growing up, but when you’re struggling to raise a family, when you’re coping with the pains of old age, when you’re facing prosperity or poverty, or when life’s just a bore. God wants to teach you. The parable of the workers in the vineyard illustrates for us those who attach themselves to the church while despising the word of God and those who are genuinely joined to the church by sincere faith in the gospel. For those who work hard and long under the blazing heat of the sun, hearing God’s word is a chore. It’s hard labor for which they want to be paid. For those who love the gospel of Christ and desire it above all else, taking it to heart and treasuring it as the most precious possession they own, the labor they do as Christians flies by as lightly as a bird on the wing. Jesus says,
Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.
It takes the single-minded devotion of an athlete who is determined to win the race to set aside allegiance to everything that distracts from, that competes with, or that would presume to falsify the gospel of Christ to hold onto God’s word with the stubbornness of a two year old. That’s the faith of a child!
Faith in what? In the spiritual rock that followed Israel. In the spiritual food they ate and the spiritual drink they drank: the flesh and blood of the Son of Man. You cannot eat it if you are full of the food of self-righteousness. So repent. Repent every day. Admit to your own folly in setting your opinions above God’s truth. Admit to your failure to love as you have been loved. Toss aside all reliance on your good deeds, pious efforts, and fervent prayers. Claim nothing more than what that helpless baby claims: the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit he gave you in your baptism. Claim nothing but the obedience of Jesus and his blood shed on the cross for you. Name it and claim it, for it is yours. It presents you before God as righteous in his sight. We don’t rely on a bogus once saved always saved doctrine invented by men. We could fall away just as ancient Israel fell. We could. But as long as God is talking to us in his gospel and we are listening, as long as God is sustaining us by his word, that’s not going to happen. God will keep us in the faith and give to us the crown of everlasting life. Amen.