Running the Race
Septuagesima Sunday| Rev. Rolf Preus| January 27, 2002| 1 Corinthians 9:24 – 10:5
Every once in a while I run across a religious tract written to show how a sinner can find salvation. The tracts are often rather good in dealing with the topic of sin, the need for a Savior, and the saving work of Jesus who died for our sins and rose again. But where they usually fail the test is when they attempt to deal with faith. They usually teach that faith is something that the sinner does in order to get God to forgive him. They teach that faith is a decision that we make and that God responds to this decision of faith by saving us. When they talk about getting saved or being “born again” they are talking about the decision that you make to invite Jesus into your heart to make him your personal Savior and Lord of your life.
They turn faith into something that we do.
One of the greatest preachers of the 20th century was the Rev. Billy Graham. He would often preach very good sermons in which the penalty of sin was clearly stated as well as the deep love of God in sending his Son to suffer and die for all our sins. But Billy Graham had a very hard time talking about faith without turning it into a good work that we do.
Why do popular religious tracts and preachers from American Evangelicalism insist on turning faith into a human work? It is because they don’t know how else to connect faith with Jesus. They don’t know where to find Jesus. They deny that Jesus comes to us when his gospel is preached and his sacraments are administered. After all, they reason, isn’t the gospel spoken by men and aren’t the sacraments administered by men? But men can’t give out salvation, only Jesus can. So if you say that you receive forgiveness of your sins in church when you believe the words of the absolution spoken by the minister, they will immediately object. No man can forgive sins! Only God can forgive sins! Similarly, if you say that you receive eternal life from the body and the blood of the Lord’s Supper or that you were born from above in the waters of Holy Baptism they object. They view these sacraments, not as God’s work, but as a human work. They consider going to Communion and being baptized as good works that we do in obedience to God. This is how they argue against the saving power of the sacraments. They argue that we aren’t saved by obeying the law.
Well, that is most certainly true! We are not saved by obeying the law. But the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments are not the works of men. They are the words and works of God Himself! You may see a man and hear the voice of a man, but the gospel and the sacraments of Christ are from God. Jesus sent out the eleven apostles to preach the gospel and to baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Right before giving them this command, he said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Therefore, the baptism with which we have been baptized is not from men, but from God, by God’s own authority. Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” Men who speak by Christ’s authority speak Christ’s words. Christ is speaking. Christ is baptizing. Christ is feeding us with his body and blood. Christ is here and Christ saves us here by the means of grace that he has entrusted to his church. Faith lives on the word and sacraments of Jesus.
The gospel and the sacraments don’t save us by our obeying them. The gospel and the sacraments save us by God giving us salvation through them. Our Protestant friends may mean well when they argue that only God can forgive sins. That is true enough. But by refusing to let God give forgiveness where and how God has chosen to give it, they cut faith off from its source. Faith is born in hearing the word of God, as the Bible says, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” Faith is engendered in our hearts and we are born from above by means of Holy Baptism, as the Bible says, “Unless a man is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” It is of the sacramental bread and wine that Jesus says, “This is my body, which is given for you; this is my blood, which is shed for you.” By denying that these precious means of grace really give us forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, modern Protestantism turns faith into a good work. Since they believe that neither the gospel nor the sacraments give forgiveness, they must teach that faith goes out and gets forgiveness. Instead of teaching that faith simply receives the forgiveness that God gives in the gospel and the sacraments of Christ, they teach that faith is how we get God to forgive us. God stands willing to forgive, they say, but you must put your trust in him. Faith causes God to forgive.
And of course, this is why their teaching forces Christians to focus in on their own faith, rather than on Jesus. Making the right faith decision becomes paramount because making the right decision is how you get saved. The Scriptures, however, don’t teach us that faith is making the right decision. Faith is rather believing, trusting, and resting confident in the gracious promises of God. These promises are given to us in the gospel and the sacraments of Jesus. Jesus earned eternal salvation for us when he died on the cross to pay for our sins. But he did not give us forgiveness of our sins on the cross. That is where he won it for us. He gives it to us whenever his gospel is proclaimed and his sacraments are administered. Since we cannot go back in time and space to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, God graciously brings Christ’s death and resurrection into our lives through the means of grace, the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments.
Everyone who was baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea was set free from the slavery of Egypt. Everyone. And everyone ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink. That is, they drank of Christ, the spiritual Rock. So they were rescued from Pharaoh’s cruelty and they were nourished by God. But what happened to them? What happened to those who were indeed saved by the baptism of Moses, set free, and brought into communion with Christ? All but two of them – Joshua and Caleb – died in the desert and did not enter into the Promised Land.
The sacraments most certainly do give us what they promise. They are indeed powerful means of grace through which God gives us the salvation that Jesus won for us on the cross. But just as most of those who were baptized into Moses perished in the Sinai wilderness, many of those baptized into Christ perish and are lost forever. Many children of Israel who drank from the Rock that was Christ later fell away. Many Christians, who kneel at God’s altar to promise that they will continue faithfully in the true Christian confession and faith and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it, suffer little before walking away from the altar without a second glance. They eat and they drink the body and blood of Christ – not a mere symbol of Christ as in the manna or the water given in the wilderness – but they reject the faith and they die without Christ.
Just as surely as baptism and the Lord’s Supper give us the forgiveness of sins, just so surely there are many who are baptized and who have eaten and drunk Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper who are lost, unforgiven, and condemned forever and ever.
We don’t need those who deny the saving power of God in the sacraments to tell us that it is possible to be baptized and to be damned. Jesus said, “He that believes and is baptized shall be saved. But he that believeth not shall be damned.” Notice what Jesus said. “He that believeth not shall be damned.” He could be baptized. He could have heard the gospel preached every Sunday of his life. He could have eaten and drunk the body and blood of Jesus in the Supper. But if he doesn’t believe in that body and blood, he is lost forever.
And so St. Paul compares the Christian life to the running of a race. He is running towards a goal. The course is long, the lungs become tight with pain, the legs become so heavy you think you cannot lift them, and you just want to stop running. But you don’t stop. You keep on running. The more it hurts the harder you run. You don’t quit. You don’t give up. You know that the goal at the end of the race will come soon enough and that quitters have nothing to show for their efforts. So you run.
One thing I know is that you can do the very best you can do and still lose a race. I’ll never forget an invitational meet at Clayton High School in the spring of 1968 at which I ran the two mile – that’s eight times around the track – as a freshman student at Clayton High School against some of the best two-milers in St. Louis county, Missouri. I ran at the shoulders of the fastest runner and I stayed with him for six and a half times around the track until I just couldn’t keep up and he left me behind. Then from second, I fell into third, and then into fourth place by the time I crossed the finish line. I took twenty seconds off of my best time. I beat sophomores, juniors, and seniors, and I was only 14 years old. But I didn’t win. I did my best, and I couldn’t win. There is no way I could have won that race. When you are watching a race you cannot understand this. Only those who run the race can understand. You can do the best that you can do and still lose.
So we run the race given to us to run. And we know that if we do the very best we can do we will lose. Our love will fail the test. But we run anyway. And we lose. And we run some more. And we lose some more. But we never give up, we never quit, we never let the pain in the lungs and the legs and the gut keep us from running. Because – and here is the wonderful thing about being a Christian – even when we are losing, falling behind, getting passed, even lapped, we are winning. We are winning because we cannot lose.
We do the best we can. The best is never enough. But even as we fail, the One who has already won the race for us is carrying us on to victory. This is what it means to compete as a Christian. We are running a race that Christ has won for us. So we lay hold on him who came to us in the speaking, the washing, and the bread and wine. We try and we fail and we listen to his words, we return to our baptismal rebirth, and we eat and drink the Sacrament of his body and blood. And so we cannot fail. This is why we run so hard. The pains that come to the Christian because he is a Christian are easy to bear because the Christian has Christ. Christ comes to us when we fail and he picks us up and keeps us going. He offers us the crown of his victory and we are honored far above any honor we deserve or could win. And this is why we run and fight. When we face our losses and our failures (because we have not loved God with the singular devotion he requires and we have not kept our hearts pure and we have not been content with what God has given us) we neither lose nor do we fail. We are Christians. We have Christ.
“Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” 1 Corinthians 15:57 Amen