Whoever Would Be Saved
Trinity Sunday, June 10, 2001| Rev. Rolf D. Preus
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered him, “if anyone isn’t born from above, he can’t see God’s kingdom.” St. John 3:3
“I tell you the truth.” So says Jesus. Jesus tells the truth. He tells only the truth. He is the truth of God incarnate. He is the way, the truth, and the life. He is full of grace and truth. His words are truth. He sends to us the Spirit of truth. And so when he talks to us that talk is always true.
What does he say? He says that you cannot see God’s kingdom unless you are born from above. You must be born again, born of God, born by the washing of regeneration that the Holy Ghost gives you in the sacrament of Holy Baptism. When you were born of your mother, you were born of the flesh and so by that birth you are flesh and you will die as all flesh dies and you will face the judgment. There is only one way of escaping the Day of Judgment and that is to be born from above and to be found in Christ, not having your own righteousness that is from the law, but the righteousness that is by faith in Christ.
You must be born from above. If not, you cannot be saved. God’s kingdom is present here on earth, but this earth is headed toward destruction. The prince of this world, the devil, the father of lies, the old serpent and deceiver, whose head was crushed under Christ’s bruised heel on Good Friday, stands condemned to eternal punishment in everlasting chains. He has blinded the children of this world and so they cannot see the kingdom of God. They assume that they can and that is part of their blindness. They create idols in their own vain imaginings. Then they bow down and worship the idols of their own making.
They assume that their inner religious impulses are basically sound. This is why they wonder at Jesus’ words, “You must be born from above.” The kingdom of God is present here below but you cannot enter into it from below. You must be born from above.
When you try to enter into God’s kingdom from below, that is, by your own efforts, you are in serious trouble. You cannot find God. It is not just that you cannot see him. Of course, you cannot see him. God is invisible. He’s a spirit. He doesn’t have a material form. No one can see God. It is not a matter of seeing God with your eyes. It’s a matter of finding him as he is, facing him in his true nature, and being with him. You cannot face God alone. You cannot be in his holy presence. You must certainly shrink in fear before him.
Consider Isaiah. He saw God in a vision. He shrank back in terror. The only true God is the Holy Trinity. This is why the angels sang, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts.” The Holy Trinity is the only God who was, is, and ever shall be. Three holies are sung for the three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is the God whom we worship because he alone is God.
And you cannot face him unless you are born from above. You cannot face him apart from being born of water and the Spirit. It is by means of Holy Baptism that God adopts you and gives you forgiveness of all your sins and everlasting life. Jesus himself promised, “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved.”
He who does not believe shall be condemned. Even if he has been baptized, he will be condemned if he does not believe. This is what we confess in the Athanasian Creed. The Creed begins with these words, “Whoever will be saved shall, above all else, hold the catholic [that is, Christian] faith. Which faith, except it be kept whole and undefiled, without doubt, one will perish eternally.” The Creed ends with the words, “This is the catholic faith; whoever does not faithfully and firmly believe this cannot be saved.”
It shouldn’t surprise you to hear that this particular creed isn’t very popular these days. It was named after St. Athanasius the Great, one of the greatest heroes of the early church. Athanasius defended the mystery of the Incarnation of God’s Son. He taught in agreement with the Bible that the Son of God was not ever created, but that he existed with His Father from eternity. Athanasius was surely one of the greatest teachers and polemicists who ever lived. He showed conclusively that the heretic Arius was wrong when he said that God’s Son was created. By God’s grace, the pure gospel teaching of St. Athanasius eventually became victorious over Arius’ heresy, effectively wiping it out until it reared its ugly head in the 16th Century among the Socinians, and of course today among the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other cults.
The Holy Scriptures teach that Jesus is true God, begotten of his Father from eternity. There never was a time when he did not exist. The Bible also teaches that the Holy Spirit is a divine person, not just a divine power, and that He proceeds from the Father and the Son. The true Christian faith is that we confess that God is three distinct persons. The true Christian faith is that we teach that God is one divine essence. That is, there is only one God. The Father is God. The Son is God. The Holy Spirit is God. Yet they are not three gods, but one God.
The Father sent Jesus into this world because he loved us. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) The Son came into this world. He says, “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” The Holy Spirit is the One who brings us to trust in the Son of God and Son of Man whom the Father in love sent into this world. Without the Holy Spirit we would reject Jesus. We would never be able to trust in him. We would instead worship false gods of human invention. We need the Holy Spirit or we remain blinded by our own spiritual folly.
This is why we must be born from above.
When we approach God from below, we change God into something he is not. The first thing to go is the central mystery of our faith, namely, the doctrine of the Trinity. When people try to fit God into their own box, they assume God’s role for him. They reason within themselves that it makes no sense for God to be only one God and yet three distinct persons. Since this makes no sense to them they reject it. This is how the Jehovah’s Witnesses reason. They attack the doctrine of the Trinity because they cannot understand it. This is also how liberal Protestants reason. They can’t figure out from below how God can be one and three and the same time. But that’s because they haven’t been born from above! When you are born from above, you don’t question that God is Triune. You don’t even try to figure it out. You simply bow down before the God whose name you bear in Holy Baptism and you claim him as your God.
You must be born from above!
When folks try to understand God from below, they not only change God into something he is not, they claim to be what they are not. They think that their religious speculations are a pathway to God. That is, they think that they are smart enough to figure out what needs to be figured out about God. They reason very cleverly about moral issues, social issues, interpersonal relationship issues, and larger ecumenical issues. They occupy the most prestigious chairs in the most prestigious theological institutions. Or they gather the largest crowds as they promote their own brands of spirituality. But they are approaching God from below and they haven’t been born from above and so they are the blind leading the blind.
You must be born from above!
No, you cannot become a little baby and be born physically. But God can and God does give you the new spiritual birth. The Father who made you sent his Son to be lifted up on the cross for you. There, in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, true God and true man, is where you see the kingdom of God. There is where you see it and so there is where you are born from above. Holy Baptism is the means by which the Holy Spirit gives us the new birth because Holy Baptism is joined – in a way that simply transcends all human understanding – to the death of Jesus. St. Paul says we are baptized into his death. Jesus refers to his death as a baptism. From the pierced side of the crucified Jesus flowed water and blood. The water is the water that gives you the Holy Spirit in baptism. The blood is the blood of the Lord’s Supper. Whoever would be saved must be born from above and saved by God’s grace alone.
Our Evangelical Lutheran Synod begins its convention this evening. We are a small synod of less than 25,000 souls. We’re not too impressive by human standards. And that’s just fine. The last thing we need is to be impressed with ourselves. The ELS was founded because a small group of Norwegian Lutheran congregations and pastors could not in conscience compromise the doctrine of God’s word that teaches we are born from above and saved eternally by God’s grace and by God’s grace alone. Whoever would be saved must be saved by God’s grace alone. What a humbling thought! What a devastating indictment of human pride! What a wonderful comfort to sinners who have nothing but sin to offer up to God! What a clear and sure foundation upon which to rest our every hope! God loves us. He sent Jesus to die for us and to rise again. He sends the Holy Spirit into our hearts to quicken there the embers of faith so that we will never fall away.
You must be born from above. Thank God, our Maker, Redeemer, and Comforter for choosing to open our darkened minds to the light of his truth and so to deliver us from this world of sin and take us into heaven to live with him in purity forever and ever. Amen.