April 8, 2018
“The Faith that Overcomes the World”
1 John 5:4-12
Whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world; our faith. Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? This is He who came by water and blood; Jesus Christ; not only by water, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who bears witness, because the Spirit is truth. For there are three that bear witness: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree as one. If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater; for this is the witness of God which He has testified of His Son. He who believes in the Son of God has the witness in himself; he who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed the testimony that God has given of His Son. And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. 1 John 5:4-12
Confirmation is not a sacrament. Jesus instituted the sacraments and he did not institute confirmation. When we are confirmed in the Evangelical Lutheran Church we are confirming our baptism. It is good to confirm our baptism, for it is the most important event in our life.
Our baptism in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is not just a washing with water. It is the washing away of sin. It brings about the new birth by the Holy Spirit. It unites us with Christ’s death and resurrection. It makes us heirs of everlasting life. In short, baptism saves us, as St. Peter writes in 1 Peter 3:21, “Baptism now saves you.”
We are not baptized into the name of a one size fits all generic deity. There is no generic one size fits all faith. Not all gods are the same. Not all religions are the same. There is but one true God: the Holy Trinity. There are many false gods. There is but one true faith: the Christian faith. There are many false faiths. It is not possible to confess the true God without rejecting false gods. It is not possible to confess the true faith without rejecting false faiths. St. John, the author of the words before us this morning, witnessed the rise of many attacks on the true faith. His Gospel, his Epistles, and the Book of Revelation all expose and condemn false gods, false teachings, and false faith.
In baptism we are born from above. We are born again. We are born of God. Everyone who is born of God overcomes the world. What is the world? Earlier in this Epistle, John writes,
The religion of the world appeals to what our bodies desire. It looks very attractive. It promises security. But it’s all a great big lie. Only the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ can provide what we really need in life. All he gives – all of the treasures that far surpass anything the world can give – he gives to faith. This is why John writes, “This is the victory that has overcome the world: our faith.”
Faith looks easy. It looks easy to unbelievers. Believers know better. Faith sets us at war against the desires of our own flesh and blood. It brings us into conflict with the world in which we live. It makes us bitter enemies of the prince of this world, the devil, who never stops trying to destroy our faith. Faith looks easy, but it’s not. In fact, if faith depended on us, we would all die in unbelief and be lost to God and heaven forever.
Faith is a gift. God raises us to new life, spiritual life, born again life. God does this by the Holy Spirit who is God. He is the Spirit of truth. He testifies to Jesus who is the way, the truth, and the life. It is the Holy Spirit who directs us to Christ so that we can with our heart confess that he is the Son of God.
Now believing that Jesus is the Son of God is not simply acknowledging the truth of the Creed that identifies him as true God and true man. To believe that Jesus is the Son of God is to trust in him “who came by water and blood; Jesus Christ; not only by water, but by water and blood.”
Jesus came by water when he was baptized. He told John the Baptist why he must be baptized. He said, “To fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus came by water, that is, he was baptized, to do the righteous deeds we needed done. After his baptism he went into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He withstood all of the tempter’s temptations. He obeyed God perfectly. He fulfilled all righteousness.
But if he was to come by water he also had to come by blood, as John writes, “This is He who came by water and blood; Jesus Christ; not only by water, but by water and blood.” His baptism identified him as the Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He didn’t take away sins by water only. It was by water and blood. Jesus’ baptism sent him to the cross to shed his blood. Three years after he promised in his baptism to fulfill all righteousness, he offered up his righteous, obedient, spotless life to God on the altar of the cross, and became our Passover Lamb, taking away our sin.
Water and blood flowed from Jesus’ pierced side. The water and blood go together. Jesus’ baptism and Jesus’ crucifixion go together. This is what our faith grasps. How does such faith overcome the world? Jesus overcame the world by dying and rising. All of the promises of the gods of this world were displayed as rotten and useless. As the hymnist writes: “What is all this life possesses, but a hand full of sand that the heart distresses?”
Faith in the Son of God overcomes this world because the Son of God has overcome this world. His righteousness exposes as counterfeit all of the goodness and glory of the highest and holiest people in this world. His blood, offered up to the judgment seat of God, truly turns away God’s anger against sinners. All other offerings offered to God to turn away his anger just make him angrier. To trust in our own flesh and blood, our wealth, our standing, our intelligence, our good deeds, or our spiritual struggles, is to trust in sinking sand. For the answer to our failures, and sins, our weaknesses and death itself is in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and in him alone.
We need Jesus. That is what we confirm when we are confirmed. We need Jesus. We need him because he alone reveals God to us. We need him because he alone takes away our sins and sets us before God as dear children, beloved by God. We need him because in him is life and without him there is no life. We need Jesus because in him our lives have a future – an eternal and joyful future in fellowship with God and the saints in heaven – and without him we are stuck in our sin and our fear of death. We need Jesus, not just when we are little children, but when we are in the prime of our youth, when we are facing death, and every moment in between. We need Jesus. In him is life. “He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.”
God knows, if we are prone to forget, that we need his grace to nourish our faith. Faith doesn’t produce faith. Only God can. Only God does. How does he do it? Not by what you do, but by what he does. To look for faith in what you do is to consign yourself to a slow spiritual death that will leave you empty.
Many Christians make a good confession when they are confirmed and then forget what it is that will keep them in the faith they confessed. They get self-confident. Self-confidence is the opposite of faith. Consider Peter who said he would never deny Jesus and a few hours later had denied him three times! God has not left us on our own to keep ourselves in the faith by our own power. He has provided us with three witnesses: the Spirit, the water, and the blood. These three witnesses agree with each other. They testify to us. By their testimony we are kept in the true faith that we confess when we are confirmed.
The Spirit, the water, and the blood testify. The Holy Spirit testifies in the words of the Holy Scriptures. Men put the words down in writing on velum and papyrus, which is what the human authors of the Bible used for paper many years ago. But the words were not the words of the men who wrote them. They were and are the words of the Holy Spirit who is the Spirit of truth. Listen to what David, the human author of most of the psalms, said about the Holy Spirit inspiring the Bible: “The Spirit of the LORD speaks by me; his word is on my tongue. (2 Samuel 23:2)
The Spirit testifies in the Bible. The very heart of the biblical teaching is the teaching that God forgives us all our sins freely for the sake of Christ’s suffering and death for us and that we receive this forgiveness through faith alone. The Spirit teaches this gospel. Jesus stood before the apostles’ on that first Easter Sunday evening and said,
Jesus exercises the authority to forgive and to retain sins in and through his church. He gave the church the Holy Spirit. This gives the church the authority to forgive sins. When you come to church on a Sunday morning, confess your sins to God, and Jesus’ minister pronounces God’s absolution, it is Jesus Christ himself doing so. The Holy Spirit speaks through the preaching of Christ’s preachers. This is his testimony. This testimony keeps us in the true faith.
The water testifies. Baptism provides God’s grace and forgiveness, not just when we are baptized, but throughout our lives. When we gather together and invoke the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we appeal to our status as God’s children, a status given to us in our baptism, to call on God and know that he will be with us and bless us. Your baptism is for you a river of life, flowing through your life from the time you are baptized until the day you die, washing away your sin and presenting you before Christ as spotless and pure. Returning to our baptism every day, dying to sin and rising to righteousness, claiming the promises God gives us in this washing keeps us in the true faith.
The blood testifies. When we eat and drink the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper, we are eating and drinking the body and blood of Jesus that were given and shed for us for the forgiveness of sins. The blood testifies. We are forgiven. We are God’s dear children. And we testify. By communing at the altar we preach a sermon. We preach in agreement with the church. We proclaim Christ’s death until he comes. Eating and drinking the body that bore our sin and the blood that washed it away keeps us in the true faith.
If left to our own devises, we would lose our faith, deny Christ, and call God a liar. We would have no life in this world or the next. Sustained by the faithful witnesses: the Spirit, the water, and the blood, we will keep the faith, overcome the world, and inherit eternal life.
Rolf D. Preus