The Twenty First Sunday after Trinity
October 16, 2011
St. John 4:46-54
So Jesus came again to Cana of Galilee where He had made the water wine. And there was a certain nobleman whose son was sick at Capernaum. When he heard that Jesus had come out of Judea into Galilee, he went to Him and implored Him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death. Then Jesus said to him, "Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will by no means believe." The nobleman said to Him, "Sir, come down before my child dies!" Jesus said to him, "Go your way; your son lives." So the man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him, and he went his way. And as he was now going down, his servants met him and told him, saying, "Your son lives!" Then he inquired of them the hour when he got better. And they said to him, "Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him." So the father knew that it was at the same hour in which Jesus said to him, "Your son lives." And he himself believed, and his whole household. This again is the second sign Jesus did when He had come out of Judea into Galilee. St. John 4:46-54
The biblical teaching that God justifies or forgives sinners through faith alone in the gospel of Jesus is not a popular teaching. Moralists of every religion stand in severe judgment against this teaching. It appears to make light of sin. It appears to make light of holy living. How can it be that simple faith is such a powerful thing that it can turn a sinner into a saint? Someone lives a life devoted to committing every kind of sin and then at the last moment is forgiven of all sins simply by believing in Jesus? Doesn’t this make a mockery of God’s law, true holiness, and the need for sincere repentance and Christian discipleship? The doctrine of justification by faith alone has been attacked and will be attacked.
This attack can either be direct or indirect. Sometimes people will attack the doctrine of faith directly by attacking what faith believes in. For generations now theological professors in the liberal mainline churches have denied that the Bible is free from error and have called into question mysteries of the Christian faith such as the Holy Trinity, the true deity of Christ, his virgin birth, bodily resurrection, and so forth. If these holy mysteries are not true then obviously our faith is useless.
Others attack the doctrine of faith indirectly by saying that faith does indeed save us, but it is only a certain kind of faith such as a faith that is formed by love. This is one of the oldest arguments against justification by faith alone. It says, “Oh yes, we are indeed justified by faith. But we are not justified by faith alone. Faith must be mixed with love.” At first glance this seems to make perfect sense because no Christian is going to speak a word against love.
But Christians need to be on guard against this kind of reasoning. It is one thing to extol love as the greatest of Christian virtues and to set out to love our neighbor in word and deed even as Jesus has loved us. It is quite another thing to teach that this love of ours will help to gain us forgiveness of sins as if Jesus hasn’t already won this for us by his most holy obedience all the way to his death on the cross. The reason we are justified or counted righteous by God through faith in Christ alone is because Christ alone is our righteousness. Christ really is our Redeemer who has set us free from sin, from death, from all evil, and we cannot add anything to the merits of Christ. We cannot add anything that might be lacking in Christ because there is nothing lacking. Our love is filled with bad motives, unmet promises, and betrayals. Only Christ’s love is perfect. And it is his perfect love, his redeeming love, his divine, almighty love in which we trust. We trust in the love that has destroyed death.
In Romans 3:28 St. Paul writes, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.” In Galatians 3:11, he writes, “But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for, ‘The just shall live by faith.’” Faith doesn’t justify us as a good work. We Lutherans confess in the Formula of Concord: “For faith does not justify because it is so good a work and so God-pleasing a virtue, but because it lays hold on and accepts the merit of Christ in the promise of the Gospel.” (FC SD III 13) It isn’t what faith does. It isn’t how strong faith is. It’s what faith receives. The faith can be weak or strong. It can be surrounded by foolish opinions and utterly false notions or it can be well instructed and firmly grounded in God’s word. The reason faith saves is nothing in faith. The reason faith saves is because it receives the Savior. That’s it.
Nothing more clearly illustrates this important truth than today’s Gospel Lesson about the nobleman whose son was dying. He went to Jesus for help. He believed that Jesus could help him. That was faith. He also thought he knew how Jesus would help him. He thought he could tell Jesus how to do his job. Our text tells us that he implored Jesus to come down and heal his son. He thought that Jesus would have to go to his home personally and that if Jesus were not visibly and physically present in his home his son wouldn’t be healed.
Now the man is desperate. He is filled with anxiety. He only wants Jesus’ help, and it appears as if Jesus is denying him any help. “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will by no means believe.” Here the man’s boy is at the point of death and Jesus is giving him a lecture! Why is Jesus chiding him for his faith when it certainly took some faith for the man to go to Jesus in the first place? One thinks of the prophecy of Isaiah concerning the Christ, “A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench” (Isaiah 42:3) that foretold how gently Jesus would preserve the faith of those whose faith was flickering and weak. It appears that Jesus is being harsh with this poor man.
But appearances can be deceiving. Jesus is showing love. He is perfecting the man’s faith. The man believes in Jesus. He knows that Jesus can help him. But his faith is clouded and confused by his insistence on seeing. He wants to see Jesus heal his boy. “Sir, come down before my child dies!” Oh, what a pathetic cry! It is as if he is saying, “Please, Jesus, teach me a lesson about faith some other time, but now I need you to help my boy who will surely die if you don’t come with me to where he is. Please consider my son!”
Jesus said, “Go your way; your son lives.” Jesus would not go to the man’s house. He would not put his hands on the boy. He would simply speak. That would have to satisfy the nobleman. And it did. St. John records, “So the man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him, and he went his way.”
Jesus is the physician of our souls! See how he leads the man to the word and then confirms him in the word. Jesus could have gone to where the boy was. He could have healed the boy in the manner his father expected. But Jesus cared more about this man and his boy than to meet only their pressing needs of the present. He cared about their future. He cares about faith remaining constant all the way to death. Jesus taught the man to put his trust in the word that Jesus spoke. Then Jesus graciously confirmed that man’s faith. He learned that his boy recovered at the same time that Jesus said: “Your son lives.” Jesus perfected the man’s faith.
We all need to have our faith perfected. The fact is that while faith appears to be a very simple thing, and in many ways it is, it is also a very slippery thing that can be lost. Faith is simple enough as to its essence. Faith is simply trusting in God’s promises. God says it. Faith believes what God says. Faith isn’t some deep or mysterious quality. Faith is simple. It says “yes” to whatever God promises.
But faith doesn’t tell God how he should keep his word. Faith doesn’t say to God, “God, here, let me tell you what I want you to do and here’s how I want you to do it.” Faith is confident but its confidence comes solely from the word of God. God cannot lie. If I believe what he tells me, my faith cannot be put to shame and there can be no doubt that I will have what he promises.
Faith doesn’t tell God how to be God. The “signs and wonders” crowd often lays claim to great faith because they “name and claim” all sorts of things God hasn’t even promised. But faith is fed only on God’s word. If God doesn’t promise it in his word then faith cannot trust in it. It’s as simple as that. Conversely, if God does promise it in his word then faith must trust in it. It has no choice. There was a popular plaque that graced many walls a generation ago that had three statements on it in this order: 1. God said it. 2. I believe it. 3. That settles it. Well, I would like to suggest that the order is wrong. It should be 1. God said it. 2. That settles it. 3. I believe it. The word of God gives my faith its certainty. My faith doesn’t give the word of God its certainty.
“The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him.” That’s what faith is. Faith is believing the word that Jesus speaks. Faith is born, nourished, and perfected by the word that Jesus speaks. All false doctrine is therefore an attack on faith. To believe false words – words that contradict the words of Christ – is to have a false faith. Nowadays the religiously correct talk about “people of faith” as if faith is a generic kind of thing that we can attach to whatever doctrine or religion suits our fancy. But that is a false view of faith. There is the true faith that comes from Christ’s true words. There are a number of false faiths that come from the father of lies. We see these false faiths wearing respectable names and their representatives are respectable people. But when faith is on the line we are dealing with spiritual matters and we must always remember the words of St. Paul recorded in today’s Epistle Lesson:
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.
When we identify and reject false teaching that goes against the true gospel we are engaged in a spiritual battle against powers far greater than mere flesh and blood. The attack on the faith by which we receive forgiveness of sins and everlasting life is an attack from the evil one who always uses human agency to advance his purposes. The rules of religious correctness say that we mustn’t ever say anything critical about someone else’s church or religion. This is the devil’s rule. He’s the author of all the false doctrine in the world! Obviously he doesn’t want his false teaching criticized. So he passes a rule that sincere but misguided Christians are convinced must be from God. Don’t criticize anybody’s religion.
But even as the true religion can bring peace to the troubled conscience by revealing to the sorrowing sinner a love deeper than his sin, false religions can bring pain, bitterness, and eternal ruin. The truth that Jesus reveals is not in dramatic displays of power or in elaborate systems of morality or in ecstatic religious experience. It is in the words of the gospel. These words are intended only for sinners who have failed and who regret their sins and hunger for God’s mercy. These words promise full forgiveness of all sins, peace with God, the comfort of the Holy Spirit, a stronger faith, and a purpose in life that extends into the eternal joys of heaven where faith will be replaced by sight. These words are the source, strength, and foundation of our faith.
We don’t ask our Lord Jesus for signs. We ask only that he keep on speaking his word to us in our need. We entrust our faith to the One by whose word it was born. As long as his voice sounds forth, our faith will be rightly formed and perfected. Amen