The Seventh Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| July 19, 2015| Romans 6:23
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 6:23
The Bible is a clear book. There is no secret key to understanding it. If this is so, why are there so many different interpretations of it? The Bible is clear, but we are not. What God says in the Bible is clear, but we don’t think like God thinks. God said through Isaiah, the prophet:
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways,
And My thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)
It’s not that we cannot know God’s thoughts when he writes them down in the Bible. We can. It’s that we disagree with them. This is the reason for the many different interpretations of God’s clear biblical teaching. Folks disagree with the God who doesn’t think like they do.
People disagree with God on the consequences of their own sin. He says, “The wages of sin is death.” People hear what God says, understand it, and reject it. They think they may do as they please without paying the consequences for their sins. They think that since they can make excuses, change the subject, point the finger at others, and in other creative ways avoid confronting their own sin that sin’s wages don’t have to be paid. They are wrong. What God says goes. They all die. They all face the judgment.
People disagree with God on how to get to heaven. They think that the road to heaven is paved by their own good deeds. They ascribe this opinion to God. He says, “The gift of God is eternal life.” They hear what he says and assume he cannot mean it so they try to figure out how to change the plain meaning of God’s words so that they will teach what they have already decided God must think before they heard what God said.
The reason people reject what God says in the Bible is not that God doesn’t clearly say it. It’s that they elevate their own reason or feelings or experiences above what God clearly says. They think they are Bible believing and they reject what the Bible says. This is why people deny that babies are born again in Holy Baptism, that the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper really are Christ’s body and blood, that a man can speak words that give the forgiveness of sins. The Bible teaches these things, but folks cannot understand how they can be true. So they deny what they cannot understand.
There is no secret key to understand the Bible. The Bible itself provides us with the key to understand it. It teaches us both God’s law and God’s gospel. The key to understanding the Bible is to distinguish between the law and the gospel. They appear to contradict each other. This apparent contradiction runs through the whole Bible. I say “apparent contradiction” because they only appear to contradict each other. God is the Author of the Bible and God can’t contradict himself.
The Bible teaches both law and gospel. The law is the teaching that we must love God with our whole heart, soul, and mind and that we must love our neighbor as we love ourselves. The law is summarized in the Ten Commandments. It is good. It is from God. It promises God’s blessings to all who obey it. And it condemns to hell all those who disobey it.
The gospel is the teaching that God, for Christ’s sake, freely forgives us all of our sins against his law. The gospel does not tell us what we must do. It points us to what Christ has done for us. He obeyed the law perfectly and suffered for our disobedience to it. The gospel gives us what it promises. It tells us that our sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake and so they are. The gospel is good. It is from God. It promises God’s blessing to all who believe it. It gives us the gift of eternal life.
God teaches us both law and gospel. We need to hear and know both of these teachings. We need to hear the law because without it we will not come to know our sin and unless we know our sin we will not see our need for a Savior from sin. One reason people think that Christ’s death on the cross is not important to them is because their own sin does doesn’t matter to them. St. Paul writes that the law is our tutor to lead us to Christ that we may be justified through faith. The law shows us that we cannot find our way to God. We need a Savior.
We need to hear the gospel because it is the means by which the Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts. The Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit works faith and the Bible teaches that God’s word works faith. The Holy Spirit works faith through God’s word. The Holy Spirit kindles faith, where and when God wants, in those who hear the gospel. That’s why we preach it, confess it, teach it, and support its proclamation. The greatest gift anyone can give anyone is the gospel because the gospel gives us eternal life.
Some people reject the Christian faith after suffering the loss of a child under tragic circumstances. How could a kind and loving God permit such a thing? But when St. Paul writes, “The wages of sin is death,” he is not ascribing cruelty to God. God is kind, loving, and full of mercy. But the wages of sin is death. People don’t die because they are without sin. They die because they are sinners. Sin isn’t God’s fault. He didn’t create us sinful. He created us in his image to know him and to love him and to be like he is. Sin comes from ignoring God’s word and trusting in lies instead.
Our text for today, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord,” comes from a portion of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans where he confronts a common challenge to the gospel that if forgiveness of sins and eternal life are freely given, this is an encouragement to disobey the law. Nobody who understands sin would make such an argument. Sin isn’t stuff you get to do. Sin kills you. It isn’t freedom to do as you please. It is slavery to your own base passions.
Our bodies are gifts from God and the Giver of the gift knows how the gift is to be used. To abuse your body by engaging in sexual immorality, gluttony, drunkenness, and other such sins is to keep your body enslaved. Enslaved to what? To death! That’s a vicious form of slavery. The more you trust in the things that pleasure the body the more you are left unsatisfied. You gain nothing. Instead, you see your body getting older and weaker. You see death approaching to pay sin its wages. The hymnist writes:
Death doth pursue me all the way,
Nowhere I rest securely,
He comes by night, he comes by day
And takes his prey most surely
A failing breath and I
In death’s strong grasp may lie
To face eternity today
Death doth pursue me all the way.
They say that only the good die young. That’s a lie. The good don’t die. They live forever. Only sinners die. What does God’s Word say? It says that God breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life. It was not the breath of death. Adam did not become a dying soul. He became a living soul. God is good and he is immortal. He does not die. Sinners die.
This is why the death of Jesus is such a wonderful event. It couldn’t have been for his own sin that he died because he committed no sin. It was for our sins that he died. He paid the wages of our sin with his innocent life. He doesn’t give us what he doesn’t first earn. He earned it. Life is not cheap. It is very expensive. The purchase price for our lives was the blood of God’s only begotten Son.
The gift of God is eternal life. But don’t stop there. The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. It was the Lord. The Lord God almighty became a man. He gave his life. He gave his life to pay sin’s wages. Had he not given his life up as the offering to take away sin, he would not have had eternal life to give to us. He purchased what he gave. St. Paul tells the pastors in Ephesus to “feed the church of God, which he purchased with his own blood.” God’s blood, God’s incarnate life given into death is the price, and the price has been paid.
You cannot buy it. To try to pay for what Christ bought for you is to insult Christ. It is to deny God. Don’t offer God your promises to do better. Don’t offer God anything you have. Take what he gives you. Believe him when he tells you that as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed your sins from you. Believe him when he tells you that the body and blood that you eat and drink in the Sacrament of the altar take away your sins and give you eternal life.
We need the law to keep us in line. Law and order isn’t just a slogan for politicians. It is necessary for us to live in peace in this world. We need the law to show us our sins. Until we know what we deserve from God because of our sins we will not know why Jesus had to die for us and why we need him as our Savior from sin. We need the law to show us right from wrong and how to please God by our behavior. We need God’s law and without it we will descend into savagery. But the law cannot make us righteous. As St. Paul writes:
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:19-20)
Jesus earned the gift of eternal life for us by his holy obedience and sacrificial death. God gives the gift of eternal life to us in the gospel and in the holy sacraments. We receive the gift of eternal life through faith in the gospel. We say Amen to God’s law when it condemns us to death for our sins. We say Amen to God’s gospel when it rescues us from our sins.
We don’t trust in the law. We trust in the gospel. The promises of the law depend on us. The promises of the gospel depend on Jesus. He’s our Savior. We’re not.