How Can We Be Saved?
How can we be saved? That is the question that this text answers. The problem is we answer that question with the wrong part of the text.
In a general way, let me say this. We are not saved by "how to" Christianity. The sermons that I've seen lately have all been "how to." I can give you an example of what I mean by "how to" sermons from a suggested outline for this text from our own Concordia Publishing House: "The Christian Life" is the theme. The sermon has three parts. First, Deny Oneself. Second, Take Up One's Cross. Third, Follow Jesus. Such a sermon gives plenty of information, is easy to follow, and is textual. That is, the 3 parts are indeed found in the text. The only problem is they are all Law. Besides it violates the context to make them the point of the sermon. In other words, the Lord is not in this text giving instructions on how to live the Christian life.
We must be very wary of "how to" Christianity. It can easily become an exercise in saving oneself: The very thing which Christ condemns in the text. He says, "Whoever wants to save his life will lose it. What can a person possibly give in exchange for his or her soul?" More effort? Better denying, cross-bearing, or following? To latch on to these things as the point of the text is to be ashamed of Christ and His Words.
Ah, I can see you don't believe me. Jesus plainly commands us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him. How can this not be the point of the text? Consider the context. Right before our text Peter has correctly confessed who Jesus is "the Christ, the Son of the living God." In our text, however, Peter is wrong about what the Christ does. He denies that Jesus is going to be rejected by the Church leaders and killed. Peter rebukes Jesus telling Jesus this will never happen to Him. Peter thinks he can save Jesus. Right after our text what happens? The Transfiguration which we heard about last Sunday. The Transfiguration is a magnification of who Jesus really is. The message of it is that Peter particularly is to listen to Jesus not go around contradicting His Word. The point at issue is not that Peter wasn't doing enough denying, taking up his cross, or following Jesus. He wasn't listening to Jesus.
What Peter specifically wasn't listening to is the very first sentence in our text which is the Gospel in a nutshell. Jesus must suffer many things, be rejected by the Church, be murdered, but in three days arise. There is nothing here about what Peter must do. No mention of denying, cross-bearing or following Jesus. The text says Jesus spoke plainly. Peter understood exactly what Jesus meant. And Peter rejected it. He took Jesus to the side privately and rebuked Him. Peter rebuked God! What do you think follows next? Law or Gospel?
The sharpest Law. Jesus says Peter is Satan. He doesn't say Peter is like Satan, Satanic, or speaking for Satan. No, Peter is Satan because he is ruled by human reason which says the Messiah doesn't win by suffering and dying but by making others suffer and die, by making others do things. Peter wasn't the only one who misunderstood how the Messiah was to save people. The disciples, not to mention the crowds that followed Jesus, never understood that the Messiah must suffer. Their view of Him is clearly seen on Palm Sunday. He was to have people sacrificing their clothes for His donkey to ride on, to have them cut down branches to lay before Him. Read the Resurrection account in Luke. Jesus had to miraculously open the minds of the disciples so that they could at last understand that the Messiah must suffer and be sacrificed for sinners, not the other way around.
"But Jesus clearly says, "If anyone would come after Me, he must deny Himself, take up His cross, and follow Me," you say. No doubt, but is this Law or Gospel? It's obviously Law not Gospel. It's about what we do, not about what Jesus does. And if you latch on to this part of the text as Gospel, as how you are to be saved then you are condemned by the very next words out of Jesus' mouth: "Whoever wants to save His life will lose it." It is only the one who loses his life for Jesus and for the Gospel that will save it.
Let me take a run at this from a slightly different direction. You will all agree that Jesus plainly says that the one who is ashamed of Him and His Words is the one who is lost. What words was Peter and this adulterous and sinful generation ashamed of? Jesus words about denying self, taking up the cross and following Jesus? Not hardly. Peter was always ready to do for Jesus and so were the other disciples. When Jesus was rejected by the Samaritans, James and John were eager to call down fire from heaven and smoke those people. In the Upper Room, they are more then ready to arm themselves with swords to fight with Jesus. Peter is ready to deny himself so much that He will follow Jesus right to the cross and die on one for Him. What Peter is ashamed of is the first sentence. A Jesus who must suffer many things, be rejected by the Church, and be murdered as a common criminal.
The same is true of adulterous and sinful generations of all time. Outward acts of self-sacrifice and devotion always gain attention and admiration. The Pharisees of Jesus' day were experts in this. Didn't they fast twice a week? Didn't they give 10 percent of not just their income but their net worth? Didn't they believe that true religion was suffering for God? Yes they thought true religion had everything to do with denying self, taking up their cross, and following God. What they were ashamed of is a God who denies Himself, dies on a cross helplessly, and follows the path of suffering for sinners.
It is no different today. You'll have no trouble convincing the world that you are religious, pious, and saved if you practice self-denial, cross-bearing and following Jesus. Haven't you seen this guy dressed like Jesus in a white robe dragging his cross behind him? I've seen him on 290, and I saw him or, another like him, in the back bayous of Louisiana one time. Let me tell you. I was impressed, and so is the world. My father sent me a clipping from his paper about one of these cross-bearing guys in the East. Everyone is impressed by such devotion, dedication, and suffering by a sinner.
No one is ashamed of a sinner who suffers. No one is ashamed of instructions from God about how to live, are they? No, it is popular to place the 10 Commandments, the most complete instructions on how to live, in classrooms, court rooms, and town squares. But you never see a crucifix in these places, do you? In fact, most Christians in the United States shy away or bluntly want nothing to do with a crucifix. That depicts a God who dies helplessly, miserably, and weakly. A God who suffers is shameful. Americans love number ones not twos and below much less a God who is a worm and not even a man as Psalm 22 says Jesus was on the cross.
It makes sense that God should give instructions to sinners, that God should tell sinners that the only way to Him is the path of self-denial and self-sacrifice. The Lodge, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and every other ism you can think of all teach this. What does not make sense is a God who is rejected by the Church who claims to worship Him. A God who is executed by the government along with common criminals. What does not make sense in this works righteous world, which only rewards effort and results, is a religion that teaches sinners can only be saved passively. Christ suffers for their sins; they don't. Christ is rejected by the Church so that sinners can be welcomed by Her with open arms. Christ dies alone and forsaken by God, so God never has to forsake sinners on their deathbed.
Friends, you know what I'm saying is true. You've heard people say or even thought yourself. Christianity is too easy. Salvation cannot be that simple. Surely I must suffer and sacrifice and deny to get into heaven! It is true that Christians do suffer and do sacrifice and do deny, but never, ever do they do these things to get into heaven. The answer to "how can we be saved" is only and always by Christ denying Himself, by Christ taking up His cross, and by Christ following the sinners path to hell.
When we hear these commands to deny self, take up our cross, and follow Jesus, our reaction should be the same as when we hear any command of the Law. Not, "I can do this." That's what Peter said on the night Jesus was betrayed. Not, "'ll do better." That's what the rich young man said who wanted Jesus to tell him what he must do to go to heaven. No, the only response a sinner can have to the Law is, "Be merciful to me." The Law spoken in this text was to drive Peter, the disciples, the crowds, and us back to the opening sentence. I can't be saved based on my self-denial, self-sacrificing, and following. I need a Jesus who suffers what I deserve to. I need a Jesus who is rejected by the Church so that I might be accepted. I need a Jesus who goes to hell in my place, so I can go to heaven.
Friends, ask yourself, "Where would Peter be if Jesus was giving him "how to" instructions?" Peter didn't deny self but Jesus, all of his promises, efforts, and good intentions notwithstanding. Peter not only didn't take up a cross and follow Jesus to Calvary, he wouldn't be arrested with Him. He couldn't stand outside the court room, and didn't even show up at the cross at all.
And how about us? Sure we might be able to dress up like Jesus and drag a cross around. But I would be like the other cross-draggers I've seen. I would need a wheel on that cross. And I can't look in the mirror and say of the person there what Peter said of Jesus, "I know not the man." I can't even deny the opinions, reasonings, lusts, fears, and worries of my self let alone my "self." I'm no better in the following department then I am in the self-denial and self-sacrificing departments. If I can only go to heaven if I follow Jesus, I will fare no better than the apostles. They all fled when Jesus was led to the judgement hall. There will come a place for me too that I won't be able to follow Jesus. It might be a hospital room, a funeral parlor, a sick room or an accident scene. Sooner or later Jesus will lead where I'm too weak to follow Him.
Jesus must deny Himself because I can't deny my self. Jesus must take up His cross because I can't take up mine. Jesus must follow my sinful path because I can't follow His holy one. In what Jesus does there is salvation. This is the part of the text to latch on to. When Satan asks, "How much have you been denying yourself lately?" Answer, "Not enough, but Jesus denied Himself enough for both of us." When Satan asks, "How's that cross-bearing coming?" Admit that it's sinful and imperfect, but Jesus' was perfect. When Satan accuses you of not following Jesus, all you can say is, "You're right, but I'm not saved based on how well I follow Jesus. I'm saved because Jesus followed me till He caught me in my Baptism and sent my sins away by Absolution." Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lent II (3-19-00) Mark 8: 31-39