In the name of Jesus. Amen.
I begin with a true story, a story of something of which I was a part as a pastor here in Orange County [California]. I was serving as an interim pastor at a non-LCMS Lutheran parish, out on El Toro Road years ago. An interim pastor is a temp. Called to hold things together the best he can while the congregation goes through what has become the overly-long process of issuing a call to a pastor. It's a holding things together with bailing wire and bubble gum.
One Sunday we were talking in the adult class about the call to every Christian to witness to others about the gospel. To tell the story. Before people left that Sunday morning, I gave them an assignment, for the following Sunday. The setup I gave them was this, imagine a situation where a close friend or friends asked you what Christianity was—what it was about.
I specified for them conditions that were as good as it gets. A close friendship with him or them over many, many years. Kids who played together each week. A situation where it was normal to phone one another every week about this, that, and the other thing. Maybe you vacation together as families every summer. Your friends saw you as honest, intelligent, of goodwill and so forth. He or they respected you in every way and without reservation. He or they, as Luther said, “always put the best construction on everything that you do.”
So, the assignment was to take a piece of paper and write down the answer to their question, “What is Christianity?” Then bring that paper back with you next Sunday. Got it? The following Sunday I was looking at 50 bright Lutheran Christians who attempted to set the basics down on paper and realized they couldn’t do it. 50 or so blank pages.
Now what I want to do with you in just a few short minutes is something so basic, so fundamental, that it’s almost embarrassing to say the words. And even those words are not mine really. I stole them, from whom? C.S. Lewis in his essay “The Weight of Glory.” His subject was that God delights in us whom he put into Christ. It was he (as an Englishman, remember, you don't embarrass anybody) who said that he blushed to even say the words, but he was going to defend that proposition anyway: God delights in His children adopted in Jesus.
What I want to do this morning, (embarrassingly) blushingly simple as it sounds, is walk us all through the basic Christian message in five verses. I picked five verses from my acquaintance with the Navigators, and to a certain extent from confirmation memorization. But the same thing could be done with a different half-dozen verses as well as these, and another half-dozen different verses after that.
How? Well, if you have what’s called a Study Bible, go to the ones I’m going to use and use your Study Bible. It will supply you parallel verses everywhere in the Bible. Using a study Bible this way is a skill much worth having if you’ve never done it before. Or use your doctrine textbook (Doctors Muhler and Maas chose verses even better than our standard 3 volume dogmatics by Franz Pieper).
Why do this anyway? Well, we’ve all got to have some kind of organization or map telling the story. Plus, religious discussions have a way of wandering all over the map. All too often we never get through the story because we or our curious friends follow Alice down various and sundry rabbit holes and go completely off the rails.
So,“What’s the subject of each verse?” you ask.
- That all children of Adam and Eve, primarily me and you, have sinned.
- That the penalty for sin is death: bodily first, and then forever in hell.
- That Jesus Christ paid that penalty we’ve accrued by his death on the cross, for each and every one of us.
- The justification before God is pure gift, as opposed to a matter of our works, and
- The assurance that one really is justified before God—now, and then forever.
Two caveats. This is not mechanical, thinking something like Campus Crusade's Four Spiritual Laws. There will be men or women with whom you were talking who have so heard the Law that you can completely skip the first two sets of verses. They’re already so crushed, so broken by the Law, that you doing anymore of the Law is totally unnecessary.
So skip the verses about the Law stuff. Go to Christ. His death. What His death did. What justification is. Why? Because your hearer has already gotten the bad news, but still is in need of you explicating the good news. Know beforehand that you are often going to be asked how you know this gospel is true. Not helpful. True. And for that I recommend our apologetics course here; no matter whether it is from me or from Dr. Maas, or from Dr. Francisco, we're all doing the same sort of things [Note: Dr. Rosenbladt teaches at Concordia University Irvine and he is referring to their courses].
So, let’s look quickly at each of the verses, shall we?
FIRST, that we—I first—then only the person whom I’m talking, are sinners (are sinful). Romans 3:23:
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
The Bible is addressed to rebels who hate their Creator. That’s me and you. The classic text is of course the story of the fall in Genesis 3. But there are New Testament parallels as well. For example, St. Paul’s parallel in the first half of Romans chapter 3. Dark, dark, dark stuff. And it’s about you and it’s about me. This of course is not very popular. As Lewis said in his The Case for Christianity, the Christian story begins with bad news.
Jesus said that it is only those who are sick and know it who have the need to go looking for a physician (Mark 2:17). Those who imagine they’re well and not sick unto death will ignore a physician. And I recommend that when we talk about sin, we use ourselves as illustrations. Lord knows there’s plenty of raw material. Not using the sin of those to whom we are talking. Do it autobiographically. Your hearer will connect the dots between: us, all, you yourselves, and himself or herself, without your help. So I recommend we use a lot of “I” rather a lot of “you” when we try to get sin across in a secularized generation.
And unfortunately, in our therapeutic culture, you and I probably have to contrast “feeling guilty” with being genuinely guilty. The Bible message is very concerned with the latter and not very much with the former. I can use the 10 Commandments to illustrate my failure, primarily the first (read Luther’s Catechism). And again, not his or her failure. Mine, in the face of God’s Law. And I’ve heard some people do the same thing using Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
Our primary problem is not that we feel guilty, at least according to the Scriptures. It’s that we are guilty. The key thing is that we get across that we are all already doomed. Already face a completely holy and righteous judge, and are presently under his righteous condemnation. And the final will not be graded on the curve. There are only two grades. One hundred percent and zero. And the standard for the judgment is His Law. And that Law in the Bible checkmates us. Each of us in his or her cell on the Green Mile. And the sentence of condemnation already pronounced.
The carrying out of the judge’s sentence of death is all we can expect, unless there is some intervener greater than we, someone who is not sick unto death, some rescuer champion greater than we.
TWO. That the penalty for sin is death. Bodily death and forever death. Romans 6:23:
For the wages of sin is death.
This sin/death/Law linkage in the Bible is a matter of the entire race’s sin as compared with my personal death, my personal sin. But regardless, it all comes down to the same thing anyway. I am a willing member of a fallen and sinful race, the one we call human. And so are you. And so is your hearer: Gentile or Jew, it makes no difference.
Rosenbladt has willingly, proudly, happily, and on a daily basis, piled up against myself, God’s altogether righteous wrath, His retributive justice. If I say I just want God at the judgment to give me what I deserve, He will. If I see myself as somehow above needing mercy or grace, if I just want justice or fairness, God will give me exactly what I’ve said I want. Now whether when I get justice it is to my joy or to my terror, it is another question.
THIRD. Christ in his death on the cross paid the penalty I and you too, owe. Romans 5:8:
But God evidences his love toward us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
We’ve already seen that we deserve nothing but execution and condemnation forever. Not just for our sins daily, but for the sin we inherited from Adam. And if one doesn’t get us, the other will. We fare badly on both counts, but amazingly, that God who is perfectly holy and just, once in human time, that is during the days of Caesar Augustus, became one of us, took our place and later dealt out his justice on himself instead of on us.
This is Christianity folks. Christianity is not about moral improvement, transformation, community, happiness, or any of the rest of that stuff. It’s about the offended king giving his life and blood in order to rescue those who hate Him. That’s you and me. “But He was wounded for our transgressions. He was bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement of our sin was upon him, and with His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray, and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:5-6). St. Paul, “God made him (that is Jesus) to be sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21). St. Peter, “He himself, Jesus, bore our sins on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24).
God was under no obligation whatever to do any of this—but he did it anyway. If you are going to some claimed Christian church and this is not the essence, the center of what is communicated to you every single Sunday, my advice to you is get out of there. Switch churches. If this amazing announcement of what God did for you one afternoon 2,000 years ago isn’t defining, isn’t central, isn’t THE message 13 ways from Friday (the old Lutheran fathers would probably say it’s probably not really a church you are attending. It’s some sort of weekly gathering, but a church it ain’t).
And I don’t care how often the Worship Leader uses the name of Jesus either. If it isn’t clearly about the Jesus who bled, died, reconciled God to you, propitiated God’s own wrath for you, adopted you as his child by the blood of his cross, or God richly and daily forgives your sin on the basis of Jesus blood and death, the Worship Leader’s Jesus ain’t the Jesus of the New Testament.
Christianity is not about moral improvement. It’s about substitution: the innocent one dying for the guilty ones. Correlatively, Christianity is not primarily about recipes for healthy relationships, better parenting, wiser dating, more intimate marriages, better financial responsibilities or any of that. By nature, I again and again return to my own perceived needs as a dog returns to its vomit, and so do you I’ll bet. And we need a pastor to placard before our eyes Jesus’ dying; to preach into our earballs, Jesus dying for us. The good news of what Jesus' death did.
Preach to us what we do not incline to: the depth of our sin, and that somehow the Jesus of the New Testament text is even greater than that sin. And that He freely laid down his life for it, somehow conquered our death for us by dying in our place. Christianity isn’t about us. It’s about Jesus, and his identity, and his work for us. Our only part is as beggar recipients of the overspill of who he was and what His cross did for us. It’s about Jesus’ death somehow putting us right with God. Very simply, Jesus and his substitutionary dying solved my real problem, sin, regardless of the fact that I imagine my real problems are any of 1000 earthly problems.
Scripture says I’m not even capable of knowing or diagnosing what my real problem is. I invent other problems; call them all my real problems. That’s why I need Scripture to tell me again and again that my real problem is my hatred of God. But as I said, not just that. I need my pastor to be telling me that Jesus’ blood and death have rescued me from the problem I didn’t even know was my problem. And it worked.
How do I know that it worked? God help me, not by its making me somehow more moral or somehow better each day. Or happier either. Or experiencing Jesus, whatever that means (I don't have a clue). I’m to know that the cross actually did what Jesus said it did by the fact that the Father raised Him out of the grave three days after you and I, by the way killed Him, on that dark Friday afternoon.
FOUR. That justification or the more general salvation is utter gift and does not involve any good works on your part or mine. Ephesians 2:8-9 (this one you know):
For it's by grace that you’ve been saved through faith, and that faith not of yourselves: it’s the gift of God, lest anyone should boast.
The only righteousness that opens the gate of heaven for sinners is the righteousness that belong to someone else. Christianity is basically about what the Father was doing for me and for you in the death of His only begotten Son one afternoon. What’s our part in this deal? Our part is sin.
And when we’re talking to someone about grace we’re speaking about the old Fathers called the “favor dei propter Christum”—the favor of God on account of Christ. The Law obeying life He lived for us, but especially about his cross, blood and death in our stead. Grace is the opposite of earning. The one is pure gift. The other is wages. We saw above that what you and I have earned is death. That’s our deserved wages. But not so is the gift of free life. Deliverance by another so that in Him we are part of God’s gratuitous favor.
God found a way to be both just and the justifier of those who believe in Jesus (Romans 3:26). The key Bible word here is imputation. Adam’s sin was imputed to us, says the Bible. But then what we could never have seen coming, God imputed our sin to His Son instead of to us. What Jesus was and did is imputed or reckoned to our accounts by the great judge. And what we are and have done, the judge imputes or reckons to Jesus’ account. Our sin, the judge announces, was accounted, reckoned His instead of ours.
Luther calls it “the happy exchange.” The righteous Judge declares those in Christ as if righteous. Bang goes the gavel in the heavenly courtroom. And the judge’s voice booms out, “I declare you innocent.” And I whisper to myself, “But I’m guilty as all get out, still, really, palpably.” The judge hears me whispering and he nails it.
“I am the judge of this courtroom and my judgments are unassailable by anyone, including you Rosenbladt. I declared you innocent and mine is the final law of this land. You are reprieved now and forever. Your sentence is commuted as of now. When I reckoned my son’s innocence to you and declare you innocent then I see you as if innocent. We aren’t talking about morals here, unless you mean the morals of my Son. His morals and death are now counting for you. Are the basis of my judgment, so there.”
Christianity is about imputed righteousness. His: Jesus’ righteousness imputed to you and to me as if ours. Correlatively, Christianity is not about our imagined improved morals and sanctification. Again, if you are at a church talking constantly about your improvement go find another church. One that talks about your failure to improve and about Jesus’ real righteousness imputed to you on your account. A pastor who does it now, next week, next month and forever. Why? Because your church is killing you.
FIVE. The assurance that we—I, you—are really justified before God. 1 John 5:12-13:
Whoever has the son has life; whoever does not have the son does not have life.
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God you may know that you have eternal life.
Can an individual be sure possession of this great present and future gift imputed to him or her? You bet. And the primary reasons we can know this are: 1. That it has absolutely nothing to say about us and our moral state, but only about what Scripture says the death of Christ did that afternoon; and, 2. Because looking to that and only to that, as what justifies us before God means that God has himself put a wooden stake through the evil vampire heart of our looking at our supposed virtue as a way of earning our way in.
It's admittedly roughly what the Bible means by the word repentance. He has repented you. It’s 100% the righteousness of the Son and 0% any false righteousness of mine. The man or woman driven by God’s Spirit to have given up on Plan A, that is, “I’ll get sixty or better on the final and God will grade it on the curve,” and has fled to Plan B, “God has justified sinners linked to Jesus by simple faith in Jesus’ death,” can know that he or she is in, not out. The God who never changes, (Malachi 3:6 promises that to you), in Jesus you’re in, not out.
Now, and when you face the final judgment, what will you hear the final judgment? A public recounting of all your sins? Nope. God long ago forgot them. And He promises he has. He can’t even bring them back to his memory. You will hear, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21 & 23). I tried to get this across in an address I gave here at Space Mountain. It went public a while back. It was called “The Gospel for Those Broken by the Church.”
We’ll find ourselves in heaven. We’ll probably say something like, “You mean it was all that simple? Just Jesus and His cross and His blood? Well I’ll be damned!”
But of course that’s the point, isn’t it? Not one of us God haters whom God has repented and “faithed” into Jesus’ death, blood and cross will ever be damned. Not a single one, ever. And then, as C.S. Lewis put it, “The term is over and the holidays have begun.” Forever. The great marriage feast of the Lamb in the body (Revelation 19:6-9) and feasting on the finest of meats and the choicest of wines. Welcome child. Welcome. Amen, amen, and amen.
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