The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
September 10, 2017
“The Law and the Promises”
Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
The Bible is the source and standard of what we teach because it is the written Word of God. The reason we believe the teaching of the Catechism and the other confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church is because these confessions agree with the Bible. In matters of faith, the Bible alone is our authority.
People often ask why – if all Christians claim to hold to the Bible – there are so many different denominations with conflicting teachings. The answer is that people place other authorities over the Bible. The most common are tradition, reason, and experience. These authorities are often used to “correct” the biblical teaching and thereby to lead people into error and confusion.
There can be a longstanding tradition that has stood the test of time and yet is still contrary to the teaching of the Bible. There can be a very reasonable teaching that wise people agree makes perfect sense, but nevertheless it is in conflict with the clear teaching of the Bible. And as far as experience goes, the Bible teaches us to believe in many things we have never experienced.
People pray to Mary to obtain grace from God. It is a longstanding tradition. But it conflicts with the Bible, so it is wrong. People refuse to baptize babies because they reason that babies cannot be sinful and they reason that babies cannot have faith. The Bible disagrees with their reason. Others who deny the power of baptism invent a baptism in the Holy Spirit validated by the experience of speaking in tongues. The Bible teaches no such thing, so their experience doesn’t prove what they claim.
Traditions can be good. They can preserve the truth for us. The ability to reason is a wonderful gift from God and indispensable in teaching God’s Word. Spiritual experience is a great comfort to Christians who feel God’s love in the midst of suffering and pain. But tradition, reason, and experience must bow before the clear teaching of the Holy Scriptures.
The central truth of the Bible is that sinners are rescued from their sins, forgiven by God, and given eternal life not because of good works they do, but solely on account of God’s grace for Christ’s sake. You are not saved from your sin by anything you do. Christ does it all for you. You are saved from sin, death, and hell, not by doing anything, but through faith alone in Christ.
This goes against tradition, reason and experience. The lawyer who asked Jesus what he had to do to inherit eternal life knew that he had to do something. He knew that salvation was by works. His religious tradition taught him this. He knew this because it was a reasonable doctrine. You get what you pay for in the things of this world. Why should it be any different when it comes to spiritual and eternal matters? Besides, this is what he had experienced. In order to get you must give. He couldn’t imagine receiving eternal life as a gift freely given by God.
The teaching that we become righteous by doing good works is called worksrighteousness. It makes sense. That’s why most people believe it. But the Bible clearly teaches that worksrighteousness is false. St. Paul wrote this Epistle to the Galatians to explain to them and to the church of all ages that we do not become righteous and receive eternal life by obeying the law. We are reckoned by God to be righteous by his grace alone, on account of Christ’s obedience and suffering. This is what God promises. We become righteous before God and receive eternal life solely by believing God’s promise in the gospel. Our good deeds do not help us.
The lawyer who went to Jesus and asked him what he had to do to inherit eternal life asked the wrong question. St. Paul writes:
Paul joins righteousness to life. If you are righteous, you have eternal life. If you are not righteous, you don’t have eternal life. The lawyer had that right. You must first be righteous before you can claim heaven as your home. Only the righteous will rise to glory on the last day and spend eternity in the joys of heaven. The lawyer understood that much.
But he didn’t understand how one becomes righteous. That’s why he tried to justify himself. To justify someone is to pronounce him to be righteous. But how can God pronounce a sinner righteous? A sinner is, by definition, not righteous. Righteousness is the very opposite of sin. Can this lawyer do what needs to be done to get God to pronounce him righteous?
The Bible says no. Paul writes, “But the Scripture has confined all under sin.” Everyone is sinful. It is not possible for a sinner to do anything to become righteous, because what sinners do is sinful. Jesus said,
You cannot do good unless you are good. A bad tree cannot bear good fruit. We are by nature bad. We must become good before we can do anything good.
God’s law promises eternal life. All you have to do is obey it. If you want to do something to inherit eternal life, you must do what the law says. This is why, when the lawyer asked Jesus what he had to do to inherit eternal life, Jesus pointed him to God’s law. He said, “Do this, and you will live.” We need to pay very careful attention to what Jesus is saying – and just as important – what he is not saying. He is saying that if you obey God’s law you will inherit eternal life. He is not saying that you can do it. He is not saying that you can get God to justify you by obeying his law. You cannot even begin to obey God’s law until God has mercy on you, forgives you all your sins, and pronounces you to be righteous.
The apostle writes,
You will not believe in Christ; you cannot believe in Christ; you cannot receive from Christ his righteousness and the promise of eternal life unless and until you acknowledge that you are a sinner, helpless to do anything to get rid of his sin.
To trust in the law to make you righteous is to trust in yourself. After all, the law can promise life only to those who obey it. If you become righteous before God and are delivered from your sin, from death, and from God’s punishment by obeying God’s law, you are your own Savior and you don’t need Jesus.
This is why when Jesus is portrayed in the popular culture (if he is portrayed at all) he is often pictured not as the Savior of sinners but as the exemplar of a good and virtuous life. He is that, but Jesus saves no one by his example. Jesus saves sinners by bearing their sin. He faces the anger of God against sinful humanity and bears that anger in his own body. He offers his own perfect obedience to replace our sin. He rescues us from death and makes us fit for heaven.
The law cannot help you become righteous. The law cannot get you to heaven. So then, is the law worthless? Should we toss it aside and ignore it? If we cannot gain righteousness and eternal life from it, why do we need to learn it?
About thirty years ago my brother Klemet, who was serving as the pastor of Wittenberg Chapel in Grand Forks, North Dakota, used to feature friendly debates between representatives of various religions. I was asked to debate a representative of the Mormon religion. During the question and answer session, a Mormon politely asked me if he had rightly understood me to say that the good works we do don’t help us. He thought I must have misspoken or that he had misunderstood me. I replied that he had understood me correctly. I said, “Our good works don’t help us at all.” He looked at me, clearly perplexed, and asked, “Then why do them?” I replied, “To help our neighbor.”
You won’t be concerned about helping your neighbor if you think that you are going to make yourself righteous by doing good. You will be doing your good works for you, not for your neighbor. You will do what you do to benefit you. The only way you can be free to do what is good is if you know that you are already good, not because of anything you have done, but because God has reckoned you to be good, to be righteous, not with your own righteousness, but with the righteousness of Christ. God gives us this righteousness in his gospel. Faith receives it. Faith alone receives the righteousness by which we are justified and saved.
First you must be righteous through faith in Christ. First you must be clothed in that perfect robe of righteousness that comes from his perfect obedience and suffering. Then, and only then, can you do good deeds for the neighbor. The priest and the Levite were busy doing things that they thought would make them righteous. They saw a man who needed their mercy and ignored him.
When you have received mercy from God, when you have been washed in the blood of the Lamb, when you have been forgiven of all your sins, when you know that you are at peace with God because Christ himself is your Peace, you can do good.
What is good to do? What benefits your neighbor? How do we know what benefits our neighbor? What does God’s law tell us to do? The Ten Commandments teach us who are already righteous by faith what kinds of things righteous people do. We do them, not to inherit eternal life, but because we have already have eternal life through faith in Jesus, who is our righteousness.
Rolf D. Preus