March 13, 2017 Pastor: Rev. Lloyd Gross
The grace of God is the only firm foundation for any penitent sinner, the only tranquilizer for an accusing conscience, the only truth that makes for peace. The blessings of grace are available to every believer; not only to those who have done some outstanding achievement, or endured particularly difficult trials, or are very religious. They are poured out even on the weakest faith. There are many such blessings, but they all boil down to two: justification, that God does not count us guilty of our sins, and sanctification, that the Holy Spirit frees us from the love and service of sin. Eternal life is derived directly from justification, since only sin could keep us from it. And the kind of life our text describes, a pure and holy people zealous to do good, is a direct result of sanctification.
God’s way of making us believers is through Holy Baptism. This is a tangible form of God’s grace; it turns a spiritual Gentile into a member of God’s new, spiritual Israel. We might call it a miracle because there is nothing in nature like it. Jesus instituted it as a Sacrament, promised forgiveness of sins through it, and told us to use it to make disciples of all nations. Peter, on the first Pentecost, called Israel to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins, adding immediately the promise that they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, described Holy Baptism as dying and rising with Jesus. In that way we are joined to Him.
No sinner could come forward to accept these blessings. First, one must be “born again,” which is the Holy Spirit’s job. The Lord said we must be “born of water and the Spirit.” Just as the sacrifice of Jesus was a one-time thing, so Holy Baptism is a once-in-a -lifetime thing. It takes effect continually, because the Spirit forgives our sins every day. Whenever we repent, the dying and rising again is repeated without the water. Only the Holy Spirit can make us hate our sin and desire to be free from it. Of course we need this very badly. Our evil nature twists the constant promise of forgiveness into a kind of carnal security, which makes us indifferent to holiness. Throughout the history of the Church it has been humanly impossible to present the Gospel of God’s free salvation without giving the devil the opportunity to twist it into a Gospel of cheap salvation. On the other hand, when the Church teaches holy living or commitment, the devil twists that into a Gospel of works, a watered-down version of the Law. Since human reason clings to the idea of works, it is better to risk presenting free salvation. Perhaps there are some among us this evening who will misunderstand that as a license to sin. Some people even took St. Paul’s inspired letters that way. But the danger of self-righteousness is worse.
Luther says that Baptism works by “daily contrition and repentance.” Why don’t we see that happen? Because we are in the kingdom of grace, not the kingdom of glory. In the kingdom of grace God looks on us with His favor, forgives our sins, and sends us the Holy Spirit. But He does not keep away temptations, or grant us exemption from the evil conditions of the world. For those blessings we have to wait for the kingdom of glory. The kingdom of grace calls us to the cross, both to look upon and to take up. He allows us to experience some of the suffering Jesus went through, to desire the good things that He desired, and even to help in the rescuing of others. The kingdom of grace is marked by mortality, vulnerability, and self-denial. Those will not be part of the kingdom of glory, but we can only enter that by dying, or by witnessing the Lord’s return.
We are not strong enough to survive the kingdom of grace on our own. But the Spirit He gave us fights an on-going battle against the flesh. When the flesh tries to drag us downward, the Spirit pulls us upward. It would be nice if we could simply resolve that we want to Spirit to win. Try it. Did that resolution last very long? What we can do is take the war seriously, call sin by its right name rather than making excuses for it, be sorry for it, and pray for forgiveness. There is a difference between being sorry and feeling sorry. Don’t be distracted by feelings. If you do get feelings of sorrow, say from contemplating the cross, thank God for those feelings. Many of the great hymn writers had them. But if other feelings are intruding, don’t think you aren’t contrite. That only means that the flesh isn’t cooperating.
Still we might be tempted to ask, how do I know the Holy Spirit is in me. Be strengthened by the Word of God. Paul, in his letter to Titus, makes it plain that we are born again by Holy Baptism, and renewed by the Holy Spirit. If your sins make you doubt your own faith, remember this faithful Word and be certain that the Holy Spirit is working in you. He leads you to Calvary, where all the works of the devil are destroyed, and the power of forgiveness is unleashed. And along with leading you to Calvary, he will lead you to the place where Simon became Peter, Saul became Paul, and you became a new person, a disciple. That was the washing of regeneration, the sacred sprinkling of Baptism. AMEN.