The Ninth Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf Preus| July 24, 2005
“Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.” 1 Corinthians 10:12-13
If you were to die tonight, would you go to heaven? If you don’t know, why do you doubt? How do you expect to get to heaven? If you think that it depends on you, perhaps you are just trying to be humble when you doubt yourself. Humility is good. But if it is Jesus Christ Himself who has earned heaven for you and promised it to you as a free gift of His grace, then you shouldn’t doubt that you are going to heaven. That would be doubting Jesus. We should doubt ourselves. We should never doubt God. If going to heaven depended on us, we could never be sure of our salvation. If, on the other hand, going to heaven depends on God’s faithfulness to us, we can and should be sure we are going to heaven.
A Christian can and should be sure of going to heaven. Yes, but couldn’t I fall away some day? Isn’t it possible for a Christian to fall away from grace, to deny Christ, to live in sin without repentance and so to reject the saving faith and be lost forever? Isn’t this possible?
Yes, it is possible. A popular but false doctrine promoted by many today is summed up as “once saved, always saved.” People claim that it is not possible for a Christian to fall away. There’s a story about the preacher from Scotland who was once asked by a dying man who had lost the faith how he could regain the certainty of salvation. “Was there ever a time when you did believe the gospel?” he asked the man. “Why yes,” he replied. “When I was a little boy.” “Then you have nothing to worry about,” the minister replied. “For once you believe, you can never be lost.”
But that’s just not true. Our text makes it plain that it is possible for a Christian to fall away. “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.” The Bible not only says that it is possible to fall away from the faith it also gives examples of people who did fall away. St. Paul mentions Hymenaeus and Alexander who made “shipwreck” of the faith. (1 Timothy 1:20) The parable Jesus told about the sower and the seed mentions those who believe for a while but fall away when things become difficult for them. So the “once saved always saved” doctrine is wrong. It is possible for a Christian to lose the faith and be lost.
If a Christian can fall away can a Christian nevertheless have confidence that he won’t fall way? Can you be sure that you are going to heaven when you die? After all, we may believe today and deny the faith tomorrow. Can we be sure that we won’t lose our faith? Within the historic Funeral Liturgy of the church is a prayer to be spoken by the minister at the graveside. It includes these words.
Yet, O Lord God most holy, O Lord most mighty, O holy and most merciful Savior,
deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death. Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of
our hearts; shut not thy merciful ears to our prayers; but spare us, Lord most holy; O God
most mighty, O holy and most merciful Savior, Thou most worthy Judge eternal, suffer us not,
at our last hour, for any pains of death to fall from Thee.
This prayer used to bother me because I thought that it implied that perhaps we will fall away. Why else would we pray, “Suffer us [or let us] not, at our last hour, for any pains of death to fall from Thee.” I left out this portion of the prayer because I didn’t want the mourners even to think that they might fall away. I wanted them to be comforted by the assurance of eternal life, not to be led to doubt it.
I should not have amended the prayer. It is good to say those words. We could fall away. Yes we could. Our assurance of salvation does not depend on a doctrine of “once saved always saved” as if we couldn’t fall away. Of course we could! That’s why we pray! Not just this prayer, but the prayer that our Lord himself has taught us, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” It is unthinkable that God should ignore the prayer that he himself has taught us to pray. It is impossible that God would teach us to ask for something that he refuses to give us. So we pray. We pray for God’s faithfulness.
We pray for what God has promised. That is what it means to pray, “Thy will be done.” We want what He has promised. He has promised his faithfulness. That is what we depend on and that is what gives us the assurance of salvation. His faithfulness, not our own. When Peter said that even if the whole world denied Jesus, he would never deny him, he wasn’t speaking in faith. He was boasting about his own faithfulness. That is how to lose your salvation. As our text says, “Let him who thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall.” True faith is based on God’s faithfulness, not on our own. As our text also says, “God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.”
God is faithful. He knows the common temptations that come our way. If you look at the various sins listed in our Epistle Lesson for today that led to the downfall of the ancient Israelites, you see the common temptations we face today as well. They lusted for what was evil. We face the same temptation because our nature is just like theirs. We love what is just plain wrong. We enjoy sinning. They fell into idolatry. We are constantly facing the temptation to love and serve the creation over the Creator. They committed sexual sins. Today sexual immorality is celebrated and promoted throughout the popular culture. They put Christ to the test. Today Christ’s work and his words are discarded within the church herself in favor of a shallow humanism. They complained against God. Today, God is seen as existing for our comfort. God as the heavenly aspirin tablet is taken in doses sufficient to ward off life’s troubles and if it doesn’t work, God is to blame.
These are the things that brought ancient Israel to ruin. St. Paul brought these matters to the attention of the Church in Corinth because they were doing the same soul destroying things. They weren’t living Christian lives. They divided themselves into warring factions, ignored gross sexual immorality, denied basic teachings of the faith, and acted like a bunch of heathen. Paul warned them about losing what God had given to them. Paul warns us as well.
The assurance of our salvation depends on God alone. First, it depends on what God did for us and then it depends on what God does in us. It depends on what God did for us on the cross. Is there a sin for which Jesus did not shed His blood? Is there a debt we owe to God that He didn’t pay? Is there anything at all lacking in Jesus’ redemption of us sinners? No, no, and no. So there can be no doubt at all that Jesus has fully earned heaven for us. There is nothing at all that we need to do. Jesus has done it all for us.
Second, our assurance of salvation depends on what God does in us, that is, on God keeping us in the faith. St. John said, “Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world.”
(1 John 4:4) In other words, God the Holy Spirit is greater than the devil. God, who created faith in our hearts, is greater than the liar and murderer of souls, who is bent on ripping it out. God can and will keep us in the faith in the same way that he called us to the faith, by his gracious word and sacraments. God is faithful and his faithfulness for us is given to us so that we have the assurance is us, that is, the Holy Spirit.
Last week we saw how Jesus warns us of false prophets who would destroy the faith. Lies coming into us from the outside are like a spiritual poison to the soul that slowly destroys the faith within us. But it is not only false teaching coming from the outside that can destroy our faith. It is also the sin on the inside that is fanned into flame by temptations of the devil. The devil is a great con artist. What makes a con artist successful is his ability to identify the common weaknesses of people. He preys on a person’s vanity, greed, or pride. So when the con goes down, it succeeds largely because of the cooperation of the mark. When you are had, you have done it to yourself.
We want honor because we are proud. We want riches because we are greedy. We want pleasure because we love ourselves first and most. All of this destroys faith. Faith is born is humility, poverty, and shame. Therefore, these are truly God’s gifts. Yes, when God humbles you, he loves you and he is protecting you from the evil one. When God takes away whatever idol you were trusting in, he loves you and is saving you from idolatry. When be brings you pain, he loves you, he is saving you from yourself. If we only knew how much God loved us! We can only look at the price He paid and wonder at the depth and riches of such a love. That the One against whom we sinned would pay for the sin. That the One whom we dismissed in our arrogance and sinful pride should come to us in humility and such deep condescension; that God would love us when we are the most unlovable, and not with a grudging or conditional love; that is love! He loves us with an almighty love.
God cannot deny himself. He is faithful. This is what we cling to when we face the guilt of our own sins. This is what we hold on to when we face testing and when we have failed the test. God is faithful. His last word to us is, “It is finished,” as Jesus fully took our burden of sin and bore it, as Jesus fully faced the penalty of our death and removed it. Oh, we could fall away, there’s no doubt about that, and we would fall away if it depended on us to the least degree. But God cannot lie. And he lives inside of us as surely as he has given to us his word of absolution. He lives in us to give us complete assurance of eternal life, just as surely as He feeds us with his life-giving body and blood in the Holy Supper. Yes, we can and we should we sure that we are going to heaven. But we won’t go there on our terms. We will go on God’s terms, as we receive in simple faith his faithful promise of everlasting life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Rev. Rolf D. Preus