Pastor James Preus
Trinity Lutheran Church
June 23, 2019
On June 25th 1530 in Augsburg, Germany, a number of princes and cities presented a confession comprised of twenty-eight articles before Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, which articulated the teaching of what would later be known as the Lutheran Church. These twenty-eight articles are known as the Augsburg Confession. The fourth article is the most important, because it deals with how a sinner is accepted by God. It reads, “Our churches teach that people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works. People are freely justified for Christ’s sake through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. By His death, Christ made satisfaction for our sins. God counts this faith for righteousness in His sight (Romans 3 and 4).”
To be justified before God means that God finds you innocent of all sin. It means that you are saved. There are basically two teachings on how a human being is saved: 1. by doing good works, and 2. by grace through faith. The Lutherans came down decisively on that second option. Lutherans believe that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone, apart from our works. We are accepted by God and declared righteous through faith when we believe in Jesus Christ, not on account of our own works.
This is the clear teaching of the Lutheran Church. It is also the clear teaching of the Bible. St. Paul under inspiration of the Holy Spirit writes in Romans chapter 3, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” In fact, St. Paul goes on to discuss our Old Testament lesson in the next chapter, “What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” (Romans 4:1-6)
So, it is clear from both the Old and the New Testament that we sinners are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and not by works of the law. But this does not mean that works of the law are bad or that we Christians should not do them. What are works of the law? Well, the law is summarized in God’s command to love: to love the Lord God with all your heart, soul, and mind; and to love your neighbor as yourself. Scripture plainly says in Romans chapter 13, “love is the fulfilling of the law.”
And so, the law is good. It is good to love. Then why can’t the law save you? Because all the law can do is tell you what is right. But the law cannot give you the ability to do what is right. The law can’t make you love God. The law can deter you from hurting your neighbor physically or from stealing from him, but the law cannot make you love your neighbor from your heart. We are by nature sinful and incapable of loving God. Yes, even unbelievers can do outwardly good works according to the law, but no one can love God with all his heart, soul, strength, and mind. And that is what the law demands of you.
The law demands perfection and threatens punishment if you do not obey. Well, how can a sinner fulfill the demand to love when God’s righteous wrath hangs over him? Can I make my children love me by threatening to punish them if they don’t? Can a husband gain the affection of his wife by demanding that she love him? Of course not! And so, it is with us and God. As long as the threat of punishment from the law hangs over us, we can never truly love God from the heart, even if we perform outwardly good deeds. Our works will always be stained with sin and hate and fear, and we will remain in doubt of God’s love for us.
The Gospel is different from the law. The Gospel does not demand works of love on our part, but rather reveals to us the love God does for us. St. John writes, “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:8-10) And again we heard in our Epistle lesson, “We love because he first loved us.”
This is why we love God. He, out of love for us, sent his Son, Jesus Christ to die for our sin in our place and to rise to give us new life. Jesus out of love for the Father and for us left the comfort of his throne and suffered for sins he never committed. And it is through faith in Jesus that God plants true love into our hearts. The threats of the law are as effective in creating love as a farmer is commanding a thorn bush to bear apples. But it is God, who plants love into our hearts through the message of Jesus Christ. God takes the fear out of our hearts by revealing to us his love for us. We are justified before God when we believe God’s promise to forgive us for Christ’s sake, just as Abraham was justified before God when he believed God’s promise.
And so, it is not our works of love that cause God to accept us, but rather God’s work of love, which makes us accepted through faith. Yet, Scripture still says, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this command we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” (1 John 4:20-21) The same apostle writes, “whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.” (1 John 3:10) and, “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” (1 John 3:15)
Scripture makes clear that Christians must love. The apostle teaches us to consider those in the family of God as our own brothers and sisters. It is popular for people to talk about their own personal relationship with God. God is their close friend. “I may not be religious or go to church, but I have a close relationship with God.” Well, that’s not the way it works. You cannot have a close relationship with God while you hate your fellow Christians. 1 John 5:1 states, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.”
True saving faith produces love. Faith is not simply knowledge about God. Faith is trusting in the love God has revealed to you in Jesus Christ. And the love God has revealed to you is the same love he has revealed to the whole world. We have no business to hate those for whom Jesus shed his blood. And especially for those who share the faith in Christ, we must have a tender heart, knowing that the same love that has been made manifest to us has been made manifest to them. It is our duty to forgive one another. God had to cover many more of your faults in order to love you than you could possibly need to cover to love your neighbor.
The rich man was an unbeliever. I know this, because he hated his brother, Lazarus. Jesus doesn’t tell us that the rich man was a thief, or an adulterer, or a drunkard, or any of the popularly condemned sins. The rich man seemed outwardly pious. Yet, he was a murderer. He had so little love for Lazarus, that he let him starve outside his gate. St. John again writes, “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17) And indeed the love of God did not abide in the rich man.
Again, this is not to say that you obtain the love of God by loving your brother. No, the rich man did not have the love of God in him, because he did not have faith in the love of God. If he actually felt sorrow for his sins and believe that he had a gracious God who forgave his sins and on top of that provided him with all he needed for his body, he would have loved Lazarus and looked out for his brother. But he gave no thought to God or his love. He thought only of himself.
Christians love. Yet, this word has been so greatly abused, that in the name of love Christians do the very opposite of what God commands. Love is thought to either be the pursuit of sexual desires no matter how against nature they are or how clearly the word of God condemns them, or love is thought to be the acceptance of any behavior. You are loving if you celebrate everyone’s free choice to behave how they want. Yet, that is not what love is. “Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.” (1 Corinthians 13:6) And St. John writes, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments.” It is loving to confront sin and speak the truth in order to lead others to repentance and to experience the true love of God. In addition to looking out for the physical needs of our brothers and sisters, we should also look out for their spiritual needs.
Scripture makes clear that the Christian Church is a family. As Christians we ought to love one another. This is emphasized in the Divine Service where we receive the love God has for us through faithfully hearing and believing his word and receiving his Sacrament. We confess our common faith. We pray, “Our Father” together as one family and we pray for each other. We hear the common Gospel, which is intended for all. We share in the same body and blood of Christ. It is impossible to benefit from this meal while hating another who receives this meal in faith.
Yes, Christians still sin against each other. And in the Christian congregation there will be conflict. It is common for Christians to be angry at other Christians. Yet, Christian love teaches us how to address these problems. We are to confront those who sin against us with the desire to reconcile through the blood of Christ and forgive those who do us wrong.
This lesson teaches us Christians how we should behave. The law is not useless to us Christians, just because we are saved apart from our works. The law teaches us to do what the love of God in us makes us want to do. And when we see that we have failed to love our neighbor as we ought, we are driven to repent of our sins and ask God for forgiveness, which he willingly does for Jesus’ sake as often as we repent. And being forgiven we continue then to love. This is the Christian life on earth. We will never be perfect, but our salvation does not depend on us being perfect, it depends on Jesus. We are saved by the perfect love of Jesus. And as long as we cling to Jesus’ love, hearing and believing his word, we will do works of love for our neighbor. God will make sure that his love works in us. And we believe that the day will come when his love will be perfected in us for all eternity. Amen.