Last week we confessed as a congregation the Athanasian Creed for Trinity Sunday. There is a line in that creed that often causes Lutherans to be uncomfortable. "At His coming all people will rise again with their bodies and give an account concerning their own deeds. And those who have done good will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire." How can we Lutherans confess this? Don't we believe that we are saved by grace through faith apart from our works? Doesn't this sound like we are confessing to be saved by our works?
Well, we confess this in the Athanasian Creed, because it is in the Bible and it is true. St. John records our Lord Jesus saying, "Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment." (John 5:28-29)
So if we are going to hold to the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, we cannot then in good conscience reject the afore-quoted passage from the Athanasian Creed. However, neither the Athanasian Creed nor the Scriptures teach that a person is saved by his good works. First of all, Scripture clearly teaches that a person is saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and not by his works. St. Paul writes in Ephesians 2, "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is a gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast." (vs 8-9).
Rather, good works are the necessary fruits of saving faith. Your good works do not save you, but God makes clear that his Christians will do good works, as St. Paul wrote immediately after his statement that we are saved by grace through faith, "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." (Ephesians 2:10) And Jesus just a couple verses before he said that those who have done good will enter into the resurrection of life stated, "Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life." (John 5:24) So if you read Scripture in context you will see that we are not saved by our works, but those who are saved do good works!
To do good works is to love. Love is the fulfillment of the Law. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind and love your neighbor as yourself. Those who are of God love and they have no fear of judgment, as St. John taught us in our Epistle lesson, "So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world." (1 John 4:16-17)
Christians love. And the love you show as a Christian gives you confidence for the day of judgment. It shows that you are a disciple of Christ. But you do not become a disciple of Jesus or become "saved" by loving your neighbor or even by loving God! St. John writes in this same chapter, "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. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another." (1 John 4:10-11)
God didn't wait for you to love him for him to show love for you. In fact, it was impossible for you to love God or your neighbor unless God first loved you and you knew that love. As St. Paul writes, "But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:8) It is Jesus' death on the cross that shows us what true love is. You do not know how to love your neighbor or your God unless you know how God loved you in sending his Son to die for you. This is sacrificial love. Love that hurts. Love that suffers. Love that is patient, kind, and forgiving.
God's love is also unconditional. God so loved the world, the whole world. This means that he loves your neighbor. And so it makes sense that St. John writes, "We love because he first loved us. 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)
And here we have the story of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man didn't love. He hated. And so he proved that he was not born of God. He hated his neighbor. And so he proved that he hated God.
But the rich man didn't see it that way. In fact, he probably would have given a great defense, "How did I hate Lazarus? I never spoke anything bad about him. I never stole from him or struck him. This is unfair to say I didn't love him. I left him alone!" Here the rich man showed his hatred not by what he did, but by what he didn't do. The rich man had plenty to eat every day. He had a nice house and nice clothing. There was nothing that he didn't have more than enough of. Yet Lazarus had nothing. There was nothing that he didn't lack. And he desired even to have the left over scraps from the rich man's table, things you wouldn't even put into Tupperware, but would throw in the trash. And what is worse, Lazarus is lying right at the rich man's gate and he did nothing to help him! Could you imagine gorging yourself, having that third slice of glazed ham, even though you were full after the first slice while you can see outside your window a sick and starving man lying in your driveway? Yes, the rich man hated Lazarus.
They both died. Lazarus was carried by angels to heaven. The rich man was buried. And while the text speaks very un-ceremonially of the rich man's death and very gloriously of Lazarus' departure to heaven, what was seen by people on earth was the exact opposite. The rich man likely had an extravagant funeral with the finest casket money could buy. There was a long line of important people giving lofty eulogies and the preacher made every attempt to preach the rich man into heaven. Lazarus meanwhile was wrapped in a cloth and dropped in a hole. Yet it was Lazarus, whose soul was escorted by angels to Abraham's bosom and the rich man who landed in hell.
Hell is real. Our text says that the rich man was in torment and in anguish in this flame. And this is consistent with other descriptions of hell in Scripture as the outer darkness where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched (Matthew 8:12; Mark 9:48). Hell is real. Real people go to a real hell where there is eternal punishment. And we should consider this a most serious warning.
And so it is important for us to know why the rich man went to hell and why Lazarus went to heaven. Abraham answered the rich man, "Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things, but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish."
Now this does not mean that all rich people go to hell and poor people go to heaven. Abraham was very rich and heaven is described as being at Abraham's side! Nor does this teach Karma or that those who have good lives will all go to hell and those who have difficult lives will be rewarded in heaven. Rather, the rich man went to hell, because he regarded his wealth in the wrong way. He worshipped it! He worshipped a false god. He loved his house and clothes and food and his own pride more that God. So he didn't listen to God's word or repent of his sins or believe in Christ. And because he did not have the love of God, neither did he have love for his neighbor, Lazarus. So he went to hell.
Why did Lazarus go to heaven? Jesus' story doesn't mention any of his good works. And it wasn't his poverty that earned him the pearly gates. At least not material poverty. Rather, Lazarus was the poor in spirit spoken of by Jesus, "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Lazarus had nothing to offer God, but he hungered and thirsted for God to fill him. Lazarus was a beggar. He begged from God and God made him rich.
It wasn't simply that Lazarus had nothing, but that Lazarus didn't consider anything on this earth as true wealth. True wealth is communion with God, the forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life. As Jesus says, "For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?" (Matthew 16:26) The rich man exchanged his soul for the world. Lazarus, however, gave up the world and gained his soul and the kingdom of heaven.
Lazarus was a man of faith. This is proven by the fact that the angels carried him to the man of faith, Abraham. Abraham believed God and God counted his faith as righteousness, as we heard in our Old Testament lesson. And so God justifies the ungodly not on account of their works, but through their faith. Therefore, St. Paul writes to the Galatians, "Know then that it is those of faith who are sons of Abraham." (Galatians 3:7) Lazarus had faith in God's promise of mercy. He trusted in the Christ. And so he was saved apart from his works, just as Abraham was saved apart from his works. Lazarus did not help himself, but he trusted in God's help, living up to his name, which means, "God helps."
The rich man in torment in hell begged that Abraham would send Lazarus from the dead so that his five brothers would repent and not join him in the flame. Abraham said, "They have Moses and the prophets, let them hear them." But the rich man quite presumptuously disagrees with Abraham, "No, Father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent." Abraham replies, "If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead."
"Moses and the Prophets" refers to the Holy Scriptures. Abraham is telling the rich man that if his brothers will not listen to the preaching of God's Word from the Holy Scriptures, that is the Bible, they will not be convinced even by a dead man rising.
The Holy Spirit creates saving faith through the preaching of the Scriptures, because the Scriptures show you the love of God. They tell you how God sent his Son to die for you. They tell how Jesus suffered the punishment of hell in your place for your failure to love. They tell you that Jesus rose from the dead securing your own resurrection. And the Scriptures tell you that you receive this salvation not by works, but by faith, as St. Paul writes to the Romans, "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 4:3-5)
To listen to and believe the Scriptures is to love God. Just as neglecting your neighbor means to hate your neighbor, so to neglect to hear and believe God's Word is to hate God and his word. Heaven is communion with God. In heaven we will hear God's Word and glory in it forever. And so we should enjoy hearing and glorying in God's Word now. In heaven we will love God and our neighbor forever. So we should strive to love now.
Scripture shows us the love of God. That means it is always loving to speak God's Word. The world doesn't think so. It thinks it is unloving to tell your children when they are sinning against God through sexual immorality or by neglecting God's Word. But it is always loving to say what God says. God is love. And while God's Word does condemn sin and even threaten hell to those who won't repent, God's Word also offers free forgiveness and eternal salvation to all who repent and believe in the Gospel. This is the love of God that is revealed to us. And when we believe it we too are given the power to love; a love that will be perfected in us when we are raised from the dead and given eternal life for Christ's sake; a love that we will show toward God and our neighbor forever in heaven, even as God has shown this love to us. Amen.