Septuagesima Sunday| Rev. Rolf Preus| January 27, 2013| St. Matthew 20:16
“So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen.” St. Matthew 20:16
The topic of today’s sermon is the theologian’s cross. Now by theologian I don’t mean just the scholars with the degrees who teach at the seminaries. Nor am I talking only about pastors who are given the duty to preach and teach God’s word publicly. By theologian I mean any Christian who sincerely wants to understand the grace of God. For whenever we do, we are faced with what appears to be a contradiction. The contradiction is this. God wants everyone to be saved but those who are saved are saved by God’s grace alone. God wants everyone to be saved. This is universal grace. Those who are saved are saved by God’s grace alone. This is grace alone. Universal grace and grace alone appear to contradict each other. Nevertheless, both must be true because both are taught in the Bible and the Bible is the infallible word of God.
God wants everyone to be saved. Everyone fell into sin in Adam’s fall. By his act of disobedience the entire human race was plunged into sin and death and hell. We lost the holiness in which we were created. Instead of knowing God, loving God, and finding pure pleasure in doing what God wants us to do we became selfish and idolatrous. In the beginning, doing what came naturally was doing good because everything God made was very good. After the fall into sin, doing what comes naturally is doing what is wrong. As the Bible says:
There is none righteous, no not one;
There is none who understands;
There is none who seeks after God.
They have all turned aside;
They have together become unprofitable;
There is none who does good, no, not one. (Romans 3:10-12)
God wants everyone to be saved. He sent his Son into the world to become a man. When God became a man he took the place of every man, woman, and child who has ever lived or ever will live. He was born for them. He placed himself under the law for them. He fulfilled the law for them. He obeyed, suffered and died for them. He offered up to his Father in heaven the life of holiness God demanded from the human race and he offered it as the representative of and substitute for the entire human race and God the Father accepted his offering by raising him from the dead.
He then sent out his disciples to preach the gospel to everyone everywhere. There is not a sinful soul anywhere for whom Jesus did not live and die. This means that the gospel proclamation is for all. No one is excluded. God wants everyone to be saved. God’s grace is universal. Many are called, and there is no one to whom the call does not go out. There is no one who is excluded from God’s love. There is no sinner too sinful to be forgiven for there is no sin that was not washed away when the Son of God bore all sin of all sinners in his own body on the cross. “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Not just the sin of the chosen. Not the sin of just a select few. Not just the sin of the faithful. But the sin of the world. God wants everyone to be saved. God’s grace is universal.
This is shown by the parable of the workers in the vineyard. The vineyard symbolizes the kingdom of heaven. It is the kingdom of God’s grace. It is the Holy Christian Church. God calls people into his Church. He calls them early in the morning, at the third hour, the sixth hour, the ninth hour, and the eleventh hour. He’s looking, watching, waiting, and whenever he sees someone standing idly by he offers him work. Nobody is excluded. And everyone he hires is treated the same. Everyone gets the same. No one is favored over another. God’s grace is universal. God’s call goes out to everyone without exception.
But few are chosen. God’s grace is universal. God invites everyone to be saved. But those who are saved are not saved because of anything they did. Those who are saved are saved by God’s grace alone. They are saved because God chose them.
They are the last. God puts them first. God chooses his children. They don’t choose him. They don’t walk into the vineyard on their own. They must be invited. And when they are invited, they find the work pleasant, pleasing, and no chore at all. Jesus said,
Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
That’s how it is for those who live under grace. They work in the vineyard. But it isn’t work. That’s because they’re not working for pay. They’re working for the pure love of it. They do what they do because that’s what they want to do. Those who are working to gain God’s favor work long and hard hours under the hot sun. They resent every minute of it. They’re not free. They’re under bondage. They belong to the Church but they don’t really. They belong only outwardly. Within, they are as lost as those idling in the market place.
Those who are set free from the burden of sin and who can offer free and joyful work to God because their sin is forgiven and they know it, are living under grace. Who put them there? God did. What did they do to bring this about? Nothing. They did nothing. They were lost and God found them. They were on the outside looking in and God brought them in. They were spiritually dead and God made them alive.
Why? Because he loved them. From eternity he loved them. Before time began he loved them, and planned their salvation. From the promise to send a Savior, to the sending of the Savior, to his vicarious obedience, suffering, dying and rising again, to the proclamation of the gospel into the whole world, to their own personal conversion to the true faith, and to their preservation in the true Christian faith and their entrance into the glory of heaven – all of it was God’s gracious plan for them from before time began.
It is as St. Paul writes in Romans 8:28-30
And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.
Those who are saved are not saved because they chose God. They are saved because God chose them. Those who are called, justified, and glorified are those who were predestined by God. They were chosen in Christ before time began. Those who are saved are saved by grace alone. They are chosen.
But how can this be? How can God desire the salvation of all people and save only some? This is the theologian’s cross.
Some resolve the paradox by denying God’s universal grace. They deny that Jesus died for all, that Jesus really took away the sin of the whole world, and that God sincerely wants all people everywhere to believe in the gospel and be saved. They deny God’s universal grace. But the Bible clearly teaches it. The parable of the workers in the vineyard illustrates it. Everyone standing idly by was invited to work in the vineyard. Nobody was excluded. St. Paul writes in 1 Timothy 2:4 that God wants “all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth,” and by all men he means all men, women, and children, bar none. He goes on to say that Christ “gave himself a ransom for all,” not a ransom only for some.
Most resolve the paradox by denying grace alone. They say that the reason some people are saved is because of something they did. They worked harder. They sinned less. They resisted God’s grace less. They didn’t reject God. They, they, they – and in trying to explain why they believed (while others didn’t) they give them the credit that belongs to God alone. A Christian is a Christian because God chose him. Jesus said to his disciples as recorded in John 15:16, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you.”
Why do some believe the gospel when they hear it and remain faithful Christians until they die? Because God chose them and by his grace and his grace alone kept them in the true faith until the end. Why do others reject the gospel when they hear it or believe it only for a while and then tire of it and deny Christ? Because of their own perverse will and unbelief. If someone is saved God gets all the credit. If someone is lost it is his own fault. Many are called but few are chosen.
Grace is offensive to those who would seek credit for the good that they do. Grace is a great comfort to those who know their unworthiness and how much they need God’s forgiveness. Those who compare themselves to others to make themselves look good by comparison think of grace as supremely unfair. It treats everyone alike. That’s not fair. But only someone who doesn’t know the depth of his own sin and unworthiness would think that way. Sinners aware of their sins and sorry for them rejoice in grace.
The parable of the workers in the vineyard shows us three kinds of people. There are those who stay outside of the Church entirely. They live lives apart from Christ. They live for whatever the world can give them. They go the way of the world and their future is the world’s future. They are headed for destruction with this world. They neither seek nor receive the forgiveness of their sins. Whatever this life gives them is for this life and this life alone. They live and die without God. They are lost eternally.
Then there are those who come into the Church outwardly. Perhaps they like the structure, the order, the beauty, the human fellowship – there are, after all, many good things the Church has besides the grace of God. The history, the reverence, the sense of awe and majesty and respect – all these are quite valuable for people who want meaning out of life. The Church upholds standards of conduct that give dignity to human life in the midst of the godless inhumanity we face in the world.
But these people who come into the Church outwardly, but not inwardly, never really belong to the Church. They reject grace. They work for pay. They want God to give them what they deserve. And so that’s what they get. As the landowner in the parable put it, “Take what is yours and go your way.” Go. You don’t belong. All your pious deeds, all your generous contributions, all your religious pretentions mean nothing. You want to be treated as you deserve? Get lost. Go to hell. There is no place for you here.
Then there are those who come into the Church because they need Jesus and know they need Jesus. They know their sins and are sorry for them. They need grace and know they need grace. They want to live under the grace of God that Jesus alone can provide. They don’t work for a reward. They do the good they do not because it will gain them anything. They have already gained everything. They have been delivered from death. They have been rescued from a meaningless life bound to their own desires. All their sins are forgiven. They work because they can. They know that they don’t deserve anything good from God. They also know that God will move heaven and earth for their benefit because he loves them. They are the chosen of God. They are the elect. They were last in their own estimation. But God graciously made them first.
If you think little of yourself; if you haven’t got the self-esteem that the mental health experts say you should have; if you know and regret that you have fallen short of what God requires of you; look to your Savior Jesus. Look to him who never failed. He gives you his success. Look to him who never sinned. He took away your sin. Trust him when he tells you that your sins are forgiven. Take him at his word when he promises you eternal life. If you do, know this is God’s doing. This is God’s choice. He chose you and his choice is the only one that counts. Amen