The Faith that Overcomes the World
Quasimodogeniti Sunday Sermon| April 7, 2013| Rev. Rolf Preus| 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
Christianity is based on fact. Things happened. A man died. The man who died rose from the dead. Had you had a camera you could have taken a picture of it. There were many witnesses. All of the apostles that Jesus sent out to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments were eyewitnesses of his resurrection from the dead. As many as five hundred people at one time saw Jesus alive from the dead. As an historical event, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead is firmly established. It is fact.
The resurrection was not a “faith event” occurring in the hearts of people who loved Jesus and wanted him alive so they believed he was alive and thus established the Church’s teaching about the resurrection. This sort of foolishness has been taught for years by men who want to pretend to be Christians while denying the historicity of that historical event upon which our faith rests. They upend faith. Instead of making faith dependant on the testimony they make the testimony dependant on faith!
Thomas wanted proof and Jesus gave it. While telling Thomas that those who believe without seeing are blessed in their believing, he didn’t deny Thomas what Thomas asked for. Thomas said he wouldn’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead until he saw and felt the scars that the nails left in his hands and that the spear left in his side. Jesus showed Thomas his hands and his side. Then he said, “Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” Thomas believed.
We weren’t there. We didn’t see. We didn’t see John the Baptist baptize Jesus in the Jordan. We didn’t hear Jesus preach. We didn’t witness any of his miracles. We didn’t watch him die. We didn’t see him after he rose from the dead. We didn’t touch the scars in his hands or in his side. Yet we believe in him who came by water and by blood. We believe in him who was baptized in the Jordan, died on the cross, and rose from the dead.
We rely on witnesses for what we believe. Our faith isn’t based on itself. Faith in faith is no faith at all. It’s nothing but religious imagination. People believe all sorts of foolish things that have no basis in any credible testimony at all. If faith is to be more than self-delusion or wishful thinking it must be grounded in solid testimony. There is a threefold witness that testifies to us Christians and establishes our faith for us. It is the testimony of the Spirit, the water, and the blood.
We call them the means of grace. They are the means through which God gives us his grace. God’s grace is his favor toward us. It is love we don’t deserve. God’s grace is revealed in Christ’s suffering for us. Through the means of grace we are brought to faith. The faith that God engenders in us through the means of grace is the victory that overcomes the world. The threefold witness that testifies to us Christians, calling us to faith and keeping us in the true faith is the Spirit, the water, and the blood.
The Spirit is the preaching of the gospel of the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake. Jesus said to his disciples:
“Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
The Spirit testifies. He testifies to the crucified and risen Lord Jesus. He testifies through the preaching of the gospel. He testifies through the absolution. The Spirit speaks and gives what he says. The gospel is the preaching of the Holy Spirit. The men who do the talking are just instruments. They don’t give the gospel its power. The testimony of the gospel is the testimony of the Holy Spirit. The gospel is God forgiving us our sins for the sake of Christ’s obedience, suffering, and death for us. The Spirit testifies.
The water testifies. The water of Holy Baptism is not mere water, but it is the water comprehended in God’s command and connected with his word. As such, it is the washing of rebirth and renewal of the Holy Spirit. Just as surely as water and blood flowed from Jesus’ side – and St. John was an eyewitness of this event – so surely the washing of Holy Baptism is a cleansing of sin, washing us clean, filling us with the Holy Spirit, placing the name of the Holy Trinity upon us, and making us children of God.
The blood testifies. St. Paul writes, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ?” It most certainly is. The Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood is not something we offer to God as a sign of our sincerity. It is a gift from God to us. It is the body and blood of Jesus, given up on the cross for us once and for all to obtain for us everlasting life. When we eat and drink the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper we are receiving the testimony of God himself. We hear, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” We take into our bodies the body and the blood of Jesus. The testimony of the gospel penetrates our ears and enters our hearts as the body and blood of the Savior enter into our own bodies.
This threefold witness is unassailable! God testifies to us. This testimony is greater than any mere human testimony. It is the testimony that the Father gives of his Son. We who are born of God, who by the power of God believe this testimony, have the witness within us. This is the faith that overcomes the world. It is the faith that constitutes victory over the world.
Faith lies within us. But it comes from outside of us. Apart from the threefold testimony of the Spirit, the water, and the blood we remain blind inside, unable to see our way to God, to heaven, or to true goodness here on earth. We remain blinded by the prince of this world.
Christianity is not a natural religion. It doesn’t arise from the natural abilities of human beings. It isn’t the result of human contemplation or study. It isn’t the application of principles of success. It is a supernaturally revealed religion. Jesus told Nicodemus that he had to be born again. To be born again or to be born from above is to be born spiritually by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit works through the threefold witness of the gospel or absolution, Holy Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.
The faith he works in us is our victory over this world. St. John explains what he means by the word “world” earlier in this Epistle where he writes, in chapter two verses 15-17:
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.
The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life are vain, temporary, and, in the end, deeply unsatisfying. That’s because it is ultimately selfish. It seeks its own. As everyone seeks his own against others conflict is the result. The world cannot provide true peace. The pleasure it promises brings pain, disappointment, and finally death.
To be born again of God is to be born to eternal life. To believe in the Son of God is to have eternal life. Listen again to the inspired words of St. John:
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.
God has given us eternal life. He hasn’t sold it to us. He hasn’t lent it to us. He doesn’t hold it out as a reward for our achievements. It isn’t the carrot driving us toward good behavior as if he is saying, “Do this and you will have it.” Note the tense: “has given.” God has given us eternal life. We already have it.
This life is in his Son. Where else could it be? Jesus Christ is the only one who has conquered death. He bore sin in his body on the cross and he rose from the dead after dying for the sin of the world. There is no life anywhere but in Jesus, the Son of God. If you have the Son you have life and if you don’t have the Son of God you don’t have life.
This is simple. It is not difficult to understand. All those and only those who trust in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as their Savior from sin, death, and hell have eternal life. As simple and clear as this is, it denied even by many who think they are Christians.
People object to this teaching. They say that faith makes salvation too easy. It isn’t easy. He who came by water came by blood. That wasn’t easy. Jesus bore the sin of the whole world. That was hard, not easy.
Faith isn’t easy, either. Only God can grant it. Nobody can establish his own faith. Self-made faith is not faith. It’s a lot of nonsense. There are more ridiculous religions out there than you can shake a stick at. The true religion, the one to whom the Spirit of truth testifies, is not easily believed. It requires the almighty power of the Holy Spirit to believe it. That is why we need the threefold testimony of the Spirit, the water, and the blood.
Another objection is that this teaches that we can go out and commit any kind of sin we want to commit and it won’t matter because as long as we believe in the Son of God we will have eternal life, regardless of how we live our lives. That objection is based on a false view of faith, as if it is merely an historical knowledge and assents to the facts and nothing more. Faith trusts in the forgiveness of sins. Faith yields the fruit of a new spiritual life. It is a life lived under God’s grace. We will never be entirely rid of sin in this life because until our bodies die our sinful nature clings to us. But the life of faith is a life of repentance.
The threefold testimony of the absolution, the washing, and the blood of the New Testament confirm us in the true faith. We don’t have to wonder where we stand with God and where we will spend eternity. We are children of God. We have eternal life. We are on our way to heaven where there is no sin or suffering or death.
To deny this is to call God a liar. Our confidence that we have eternal life and are heaven-bound is not confidence in our flesh. It is confidence in the clear testimony of the Holy Spirit concerning Jesus, the Son of God. We have eternal life in God’s Son and we know it. This is our victory over the vain promises of a dying world. Amen