The Ninth Sunday after Trinity| August 9, 2009| Rev. Rolf Preus| 1 Corinthians 10, 12-13
“Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.”
Can a Christian be certain of his salvation? Yes. We have our Savior’s word on it. He said, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.” John 10, 27-28
Can a Christian fall away and be lost? Yes. St. Paul warns all Christians in our text for this morning: “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.” Jesus tells the parable about a sower sowing seed. The seed that sprang up and then died corresponded to those who believed for a while and then fell away from the faith.
Can and ought a Christian be certain of his salvation? Yes, we can and we ought to be certain of our salvation. But does this mean that it is impossible for a Christian to fall away from the faith and be lost? No, it does not mean that. It is possible to come to faith and then lose the faith and be lost. “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.”
John Calvin taught the doctrine known among Calvinists as the perseverance of the saints. Calvinism has been on the decline in America for at least a couple of centuries now, but this particular doctrine has survived. It is popularly known as “once saved always saved.” Those who teach this doctrine claim that once you become a Christian you cannot be lost.
What about those who confess the faith and then fall away from the faith they once confessed? Proponents of the “once saved, always saved” doctrine insist that such people never believed. They didn’t have true faith. They did not fall away from the faith because they were never true believers in the first place.
You can imagine the uncertainty that this doctrine engenders in Christian hearts. While it was designed to give Christians the assurance that they will be saved, as with all doctrines of men, it has harmful if unintended consequences. The “once saved, always saved” doctrine actually leads people to doubt their faith. A Christian behaves in an unchristian manner. He falls into sin. He questions whether or not a Christian could have fallen into such a sin. He knows that if he is a true Christian he cannot fall away from the faith but he also knows that he has done what no Christian should do. So where does this lead him? Perhaps he fell into this sin because he never was a Christian in the first place. After all, others who appeared to have a sincere faith have fallen away. How do I know my faith is genuine?
We teach, in accordance with God’s word, that we can and ought to be certain of our salvation. We also teach, in accordance with God’s word, that it is possible for a Christian to fall away.
But if it is possible for a Christian to fall away, how can we know that we won’t fall away? How can we be confident of our own personal salvation? How can we know for sure that we have eternal life and are going to heaven?
We don’t need a bogus doctrine like “once saved always saved” to give us this assurance. Instead, we need to learn to distinguish between our own spiritual strength and God’s faithfulness. If being certain of our salvation depended on our own spiritual strength, Peter would have stood firm when he boasted to Jesus, “Though the whole world deny you, I will not deny you.” But he denied him, didn’t he? He fell. Why did he fall? He fell because he relied on his own power.
Faith is God’s work, not our own. Jesus said: “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.” (John 6, 29) It is God, not we, who establishes faith in our hearts. The certainty we have of our salvation depends on God’s faithfulness, not on our own. But where do we turn to find it?
This is a vital question. If we become Christians by something that we do then we will look to whatever that is for the assurance that we are still Christians. Let’s assume, for example, that we become Christians by making a decision to turn our backs on sin and to follow the Lord Jesus wherever he leads us. If that’s how we become Christians, then that’s how we will be strengthened as Christians. We will turn our backs on sin and follow Jesus.
But this poses a real problem for those Christians who have fallen into sin. If they became Christians by turning away from sin and following Jesus then they will try to rid themselves of their sins by turning away from those sins. But this doesn’t work. Only when they are forgiven by God – freely by God’s grace – can they turn away from sin. What do we do when we have fallen into soul destroying sin? What do we do when we are caught in it? What do we do when we are guilty? How can we keep ourselves from falling deeper into whatever trap we’ve fallen into?
We need to know how God made us into his children. When we know that God gave us the new birth to faith and eternal life when he baptized us then we will look to our baptism for the assurance of our salvation. When we know that God’s word brings us to faith then we will turn to his word when our faith is under attack.
God’s word of forgiveness that he speaks to us in the gospel and in the sacraments is where we find God’s faithfulness. God reveals Christ to us. He shows us that Jesus was lifted up on the cross for us. He tells us that we are forgiven of our sins for Jesus’ sake. When God forgives us our sins he gives us our identity – we are saints – and he gives us courage to stand firm.
The nature of all temptations is at root the same. The devil tempts us in order to attack our faith. Now he won’t necessarily do so directly by challenging the truth of what we confess. He will go after the spiritual by means of the material. That is, he will attack our faith with what appeals to our senses.
This is how he led Eve away from God’s word into sin. He appealed to her senses. And he conned her into setting aside the word of God for the sake of her own feelings.
The devil loves to flatter the flesh. Our flesh is our sinful nature. We confuse spirit and flesh. We think that what we want and feel is what God gives us to want and to feel when what we want and feel is often exactly the opposite.
It’s not that we have no holy desires. We’re Christians! Of course we have holy desires. But we can’t know what is holy and sinful by considering our desires. We must always judge by God’s word.
People may fall into adultery because they are convinced that God wants them to be happy and they cannot be happy if they remain with the one to whom God married them. Well then, it wasn’t God’s will that they marry that one; it was God’s will that they should have married that one. “This is how I feel and since God is guiding how I feel – after all, I’m a Christian – then how I feel is God’s will for me. He wants me to find fulfillment in that person who makes me feel so much more needed that the other one makes me feel. God wants me to be happy. So I will find God’s will based on my inner feelings and desires.”
It is true that the Holy Spirit lives within us Christians. He moves us to do what is good and holy and right. But we don’t discern the movement of the Holy Spirit by examining our feelings. We discern the movement of the Holy Spirit by paying attention to what he says in his holy word. He doesn’t guide us by our feelings. He guides our feelings by his word. The conflict within us is always a conflict between what we, in our sin, feel is good and right and what God in his word teaches is good and right.
The one who lives within us is stronger than the devil, the world, and our flesh. But we need to know where to look to find that strength.
We look to Christ. The way of escaping temptation is to find our identity in Christ. When we are caught in a sin we return to Christ and we reclaim the righteousness with which he has clothed us in our baptism. When we fail we admit our failure and claim his obedience. His obedience is flawless and cannot be faulted. His suffering is perfect and lacks nothing. In him and for his sake we stand. We cannot fall. Only when we look away from him can we fall.
Jesus walked on water. The disciples were amazed. Peter wanted to walk on water with him. So Jesus invited him to do so. Peter did. He walked on water up until he took his eyes off of Jesus. When he noticed the wind and the waves and took his eyes off of Jesus he began to sink under the water. Do you remember what he said? He said, “Lord save me.” He didn’t try to tread water in the storm. He knew he could not. But he also knew that his Lord Jesus could save him. And he did.
He is always willing and able to forgive us and to deliver us from the traps we have fallen into by our own fault. He rescues thieves, adulterers, liars, and murderers. They have found confidence in Christ’s words of absolution. They have seen Jesus crucified for them. They have claimed what Jesus alone can give. They have received the assurance – the certainty – of salvation.
Can and ought a Christian be certain of his salvation? Yes! Without a doubt, yes! Our certainty is in Christ our Savior. It is confirmed to our faith by his gospel. When we, in our failure, have tossed all confidence in self aside, the gospel stands sure. It tells us that God, for Christ’s sake, receives us, forgives us, and restores us to himself. God’s own word guarantees this. So we are certain of our eternal salvation. We know that heaven is our home. We are confident that we have eternal life. And no one can take this confidence away from us. Amen