Septuagesima Sunday

February 5, 2012

“Running to Heaven”

1 Corinthians 9:24 – 10:5


Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified. Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. But with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. 1 Corinthians 9:24 – 10:5


Today’s Gospel Lesson and Epistle Lesson come together in perfect harmony.  At first they appear to be saying very different things, but upon closer examination they are two sides of the same coin.  On the one side is the parable of the workers in the vineyard.  The Christians are identified as those who did very little work, while those who labored hard and long under the heat of the sun are told to get lost.  On the other side is the Epistle Lesson that compares the Christian to a runner who gets into prime physical condition and disciplines his body for the race.  So which is it?  Do Christians work hard or do they take it easy?


Yes, they do.  When it comes to the word and sacraments by which we are justified and saved we work hard to ensure that they are at the center of our lives.  Then, when it comes to the lives we live as a result of the grace we receive in the gospel and sacraments we relax and take it easy and enjoy life.


Last week it was my privilege to give a lecture down in Plano, Texas.  The topic was, “Justification as the Center of Christian Theology.”  We’ll be going over this paper during Tuesday and Wednesday evening Bible class this week and next week.  When we say that justification is the center of Christian theology we are saying more than that justification is at the center of a system of teaching.  It is that.  Everything God says relates to this topic and if we understand this topic we will understand everything that God says.  If we don’t understand this topic we won’t understand anything that God says.


But it is more than that.  Justification is at the center of every Christian’s life.  It is the truth on which his faith rests. 


“To justify” is a courtroom term that means to declare or pronounce someone to be just or righteous.  Justice, or righteousness, is required of all people.  God has the right to expect justice from those he created in his own image.  He made us holy and sinless and upright.  He made us to be without any fault.  Sin is our fault, not God’s.  Sin is our doing, not God’s.  Sin is our problem, not God’s.  Sin is when the creature turns away from his Creator and worships the creation instead.  By nature, since the fall of Adam and Eve, no one is righteous.


How then can God justify a sinner?  It appears to be utterly unjust.  Solomon writes, “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the just, both of them alike are an abomination to the LORD.” (Proverbs 17:15)  God cannot do wrong.  He cannot do what he calls an abomination.  But St. Paul writes, “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.” (Romans 4:5)  How can St. Paul say that God justifies the ungodly when Solomon says that it is an abomination to justify the wicked?  The answer is found in Christ.


Christ is the one righteous man whose righteousness is reckoned by God to the human race.  St. Paul sets it before us in Romans 5.  Just as all fell into sin when Adam disobeyed so that Adam’s sin is reckoned to the whole world, God justified the whole world when Christ obeyed.  His obedience is credited to those he came to save.  He became a man to bring us back to God.  He took upon himself our obligation to obey the law of God and to suffer the penalty for our disobedience to it.  Christ’s obedience is our righteousness.  This means that when God justifies us he does not commit the abomination of which Solomon warned.  By imputing to us the righteousness of Jesus we are truly righteous.  It is not our doing.  It is not anything at all in us.  It is God’s reckoning.  It is God’s word.  Those who trust in his word have what his word says.  They are righteous.  They are heaven bound.


It is so easy.  But it is so hard.  It is easy in that we don’t have to do anything to bring about this righteousness that God requires we have before he will justify us.  It is Christ’s righteousness.  He justifies us simply by giving us the credit for what Jesus did.  Simple and easy.  We have it made in the shade.  We don’t have to labor under the hot sun, slaving away as if under judgment, constantly being watched by a judgmental God just waiting for us to slip up and make a mistake.  It’s rather like a one hour work day.  As the hymnist puts it, “For hours that passed lightly as birds on the wing, thanksgiving I bring.”


Faith is a different story.  What we believe is regarded by the world as unjust, absurd, scandalous, disgraceful, bigoted, and just plain wrong.  And our flesh heartily agrees!  That God should justify a wholly unworthy and undeserving sinner who has done nothing whatsoever to deserve or merit his justification is an offense to every religious sensibility of mankind. 


Consider Israel.  God proved himself.  They were enslaved.  God set them free.  What did they do to obtain their freedom? Not a thing!  God did it without their help.  As St. Paul writes in our text:


Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ.


All of them were saved together.  All of them were baptized into Moses.  All of them were saved by their baptism into Moses.  All of them ate and drank together.  They ate the manna that came down from heaven.  They drank from the rock from which water flowed.  But more than that, they ate the bread of life that was Christ.  They drank from the rock that was Christ.  They received both the word of God and the signs that God attached to his word.  They were incorporated into God’s Church, his people.  God was gracious to them.


But most of them fell away from God.  As a dog returns to his vomit, their hearts returned again and again and again to the fleshpots of Egypt, the idolatrous religious practices, the false security that comes from relying on the flesh for safety.  They abandoned the religion of grace that had them depending solely on the love and mercy of their gracious God.


And so it is today.  Christians who are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit fall from the grace of their baptism and are lost.  They eat and drink the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper and receive eternal life and then toss it away in unbelief.


The life of faith is an easy life.  We don’t need to sweat it.  We can relax in God’s grace.  But the faith, well, that’s not so easy.  It is constantly under attack, whether we recognize it or not.  That’s why the apostle Paul emphasizes self-discipline – bringing the body under control – in his spiritual life.  It is like a race.  It is like an athletic contest.  We need to get in shape and stay in shape. 


Some people love to argue against the efficacy of the sacraments by pointing out that many people are baptized and later deny the Christian faith.  Many people go to Holy Communion and then lead unholy lives.  This is supposed to be an argument against the gracious, life-giving power of the sacraments.  They should read this text.  Everyone who was baptized into Moses was redeemed from slavery in Egypt.  That’s a fact.  Everyone who ate and drank of the spiritual food provided by God in the wilderness received that spiritual life that God gives.  But then they tossed it aside in unbelief.


Faith is God’s gift.  We do not establish faith in our hearts.  God does.  But we can abandon the faith.  Neglecting God’s word and sacrament; living to please the flesh; embracing your own appetites; ignoring your need for daily repentance; these will drive the Holy Spirit out of your life.  If you persist in unrepentant sin that sin will take hold of your heart and squeeze the life right out of it and leave you spiritually dead.  And it happens.  “But with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.”


The “once saved always saved” teaching of John Calvin that is so popular among American Evangelicals is a false teaching.  We should not get our theology from a humanly constructed system of doctrine that fits neatly together.  We should get our theology from the Holy Scriptures and from the Holy Scriptures alone.  Those who teach the “once saved, always saved” teaching do so because in their mind this alone will give them the confidence that they are saved.  But the Bible makes it crystal clear that a Christian can indeed fall from grace and be lost.  Grace can be lost because faith can be lost.  The reason faith is lost is because God’s word and sacrament are rejected in place of something more appealing to sinful flesh. 


After their rescue from Egypt, the children of Israel lived under God’s constant care.  They were like children.  They relied on God for manna from heaven.  They relied on God for water from a rock.  They relied on God for everything.  They relied on themselves for nothing.  This was not just for the body.  It was for the soul.  They were Christians!  They lived under grace.


But there is within us a desire to make ourselves righteous.  The essence of sin is the desire to justify oneself.  This is done in one of two ways, both of them threats to our faith.  They are legalism and antinomianism.  Legalism is when we make the law doable so that we can then claim credit before God and man alike for our obedience to it.  We place ourselves over the law as if we have mastered it.  The workers in the vineyard who whined and complained about the generosity of the landowner were legalists.  They were working hard to make themselves better than others.  They sought to justify themselves and thus fell away from the God who justifies us by his grace alone.


The antinomian seeks to justify himself by getting rid of the law.  Instead of making it doable, he just dismisses it as your opinion.  He makes his own laws.  He follows his own spirituality.  He doesn’t need organized religion breathing down his back.  He does it his way.  And his way is rejecting the God who made him, and who washed away his sins in the death of Christ and in the washing of Holy Baptism.  The antinomian scorns Christ and the sacraments of Christ because he has devised his own way of getting rid of sins.  He gets rid of the law.


In fact, legalism and antinomianism are twin errors.  Both come from the flesh.  Both need to be attacked, put down, and buried in the waters by which we are rescued from sin, death, and the power the devil.  That is the fight of faith.  It is the fight of our lives.  Our God and Savior Jesus Christ fights this fight for us, in us, and with us.  And in him we prevail.  We keep the faith.  We run the race to our home in heaven.  Amen