How Then Shall We Live: Knowing a God Big Enough and Merciful Enough


The theme for this sermon series is based on 2 Peter 3:11, “Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be?” The title for this series is taken from Reformed theologian Francis Schaeffer’s 1976 book How Should We Then Live? Is the Law the secret to living? Luther said in the Preface to the Large Catechism, “This much is certain: anyone who knows the Ten Commandments perfectly knows the entire Scriptures. In all affairs and circumstances he can counsel, help, comfort, judge, and makes decisions in both spiritual and temporal matters. He is qualified to sit in judgement upon all doctrines, estates, persons, laws, and anything else in the world” (17). Luther elsewhere says of the First Commandment, "'Out of this commandment flows all the doctrine of the prophets and psalms as out of a spring and fountain, likewise all curses, threats, and all promises'" (Commandments, Peters, 114). A 20th century German Lutheran theologian put it this way: “God’s First Commandment…, confiscates the center of our entire human nature for itself” (Ibid., 118). 

Notice how this scholar says the 1st Commandment confiscates us for ‘itself’ not himself? This fits with my first point. Based on the 1st Commandment we live Kowing a God rather than the God. No, I’m not trying to say the true God is one among many. I’m pointing out that the 1st Commandment is not specifically about the Triune God. We confess the Triune God in the Creed not the Commandments. We don’t mitigate let alone dodge the force of this Commandment because we don’t bow down before idols or burn incense to them or because we confess that God is 3 Persons in 1 divine being.

Knowing that God is Triune doesn’t save us from being idolators. The 1st Commandment deals with God as all men know Him. Paul goes here to show the Romans how fallen all are. In Rom. 1:20 he says, “Since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” In the so called Book of Nature God has revealed Himself not as Triune but as eternal and divine. Every blade of grass is not inscribed with the name Jesus or Father or Holy Trinity but it is inscribed with the name God. Not man’s name either because no man is capable of creating it. And not nature-made since all things in nature have a beginning something eternal had to get them started.

Go home read the rest of Rom. 1. There you’ll find why all men, us included, found themselves censured. Verse 19 says, “ since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.” “Them” is all people. The gangbanger who grows up on the street. The half-naked tribesman in Polynesia. The Muslim, Hindu, Baptist, or Buddhist. The person who has no access to a Bible, never heard the name of Jesus or about the cross and salvation. That person is without excuse says Paul. Why? Paul answers: “because, even though they knew God, they did not honor Him or give Him thanks as God…and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human, or like birds, four-footed animals, and crawling things.”

You don’t do that. You don’t make God look like a man, animal, bird, or bug, do you? You just make Him not big enough to come to your aid and leaving you with every reason in the world to worry. You just make God not loving enough to care about you and so look for love in all the wrong places of food, drink, sex, anything to make you feel better. We don’t worship Him even according to how He reveals Himself in nature and so we don’t fear, love, and trust in Him above all things.

How then shall we live? Knowing a God who is big enough to rightly claim our fear. In Luke 12:5 Jesus says if you want something to be afraid of God is the one. He says, “I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear Him.” We need a dose of the Roman Catholic Luther who while saying his first Mass was undone with fear trembling at the Sacramental Presence of Christ. God’s presence veiled with Bread and Wine did that. Remember when the OT Church came to Mt. Zion and begged God not to speak directly to them? Remember when the whole mountain shook and smoked and they had the kind of fear that looses bowels and bladders? And don’t tell me we don’t fear as we should because we don’t see this God as they did. We don’t usually see cancer and we tremble at that. We don’t see Death but we shake and quake at that. We can’t see the past or the future but we fear past guilts and unknown futures.

We don’t live with a God big enough to rightly claim our trust. God’s big enough to make the universe we can’t find the limits of, big enough to do things in creation that we can’t mimic, big enough to make volcanoes and hurricanes with more force than our nuclear weapons. But we don’t trust Him with our problems. Ps. 136:25 teaches God “gives food to every creature.” And Ps. 145:16 says, “You open Your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.” Yet we don’t trust Him for daily bread unless we see the breadbasket filled today for tomorrow. There’s our sin. Not in physical idols or in worshipping a God who isn’t triune, but thinking that in everyday things our God is too small. 

And our sin is shown in that we don’t regard every good thing as coming from God. Evil things come from God; good things come from hard work, discipline, luck, chance, or others. Judging by our use of luck, chance, and destiny, what we really fear, love, and trust in is luck, chance, or fate. But as someone said: “If the gods be subject to fate wherefore the gods?” Those people who have a deterministic view of events: i.e. everything – particularly bad things – had to happen just that way are subjecting the True God to fate. When we say, “luckily”, “coincidently” or “by chance”, we are confessing that our God is not big enough to control all things.

How then shall we live? Knowing the one true God who has revealed Himself in the Book of Nature as big enough to handle whatever worries us. But how do we know Him in nature as loving above all things? I told you that the 1st Commandment is not about the Triune God but God as He is revealed to all men in the Book of Nature. But can your know from nature that God is love? Even though He opens His hands and satisfies every living thing, in fallen nature this happens while lions are eating gazelles. Snowcapped mountains may speak of love till an avalanche thunders down them. 

Luther did not insert Christ’s work of salvation in the 1st Commandment. In fact, he omits the name of Christ all together there, and describes God only as the ‘”eternal well-spring’” (Ibid., 128). But in his Genesis lectures he says, “But those who despair also sin against the 1st Commandment and blaspheme God, for they maintain that He is not compassionate, and they deprive Him of the foremost glory of His divinity” (LW, 4, 68). And in His Personal Prayer Book he says, “Nature shows us that there is a God who grants every good thing and who helps in all trouble” (LW, 43, 14). Nature shows us this? Merriam-Webster agrees. In part its definition of God is,  “1 God: the supreme or ultimate reality: such as a: the Being perfect in power, wisdom, and goodness who is worshipped” ( 29 Nov. 2023)

I struggle with this. But it’s part of our agreed upon confession. We say in the LC: “We are to trust in God alone and turn to Him, expecting from Him only good things” (I, 24). Again, we are to “have the kind of heart that expects from Him nothing but good, especially in distress and want” (I, 28). If by definition God is good, then it would be sinful to expect even from the God of Power and Might revealed in nature anything bad. So when I have this fear of what is God going to do next, or brace myself so I won’t be too disappointed in how God answers my prayer: I’m sinning. I’m expecting evil or bad from a God who is only Holy and Good. I can only relate this to how I as a loving father would feel if my children expected anything from me other than good things, other than help. How much worse to treat the God who is holiness and goodness itself like that?

But we in Christ have to reckon with that we don’t only know God from the Book of Nature but from the Book of His Word and by extension His Word incarnate. We don’t just say, “Love came down at Christmas” because it’s a warm-fuzzy holiday thing to say. This is reality. This is Holy Scripture. And we do our theology as Confessional Lutherans as Paul does in Titus 3:4-5. He goes from the God whom no man can see, to the revealed God in Christ, to the Holy Spirit saving us through Baptism. “When the kindness and love of God our Savior toward mankind appeared, He saved us—not by righteous works that we did ourselves, but because of His mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and the renewal by the Holy Spirit.”

If all we only knew God from the Book of Nature, we would still be wrong for not fearing, loving, and trusting Him above all things. But we know Him in the Person of Jesus as the God who forgives sins, whose mercy endures forever, who does not reward us according to our sins. We know Him as the God who would rather give up His perfect beloved Son to Sin, Death, and the Devil than give us up. We know Him who incarnates Himself in a Virgin’s womb to reach us in time and who gives us His Body and Blood through human words, water, bread and wine to minister to us for eternity.

The Lord Himself introduces His Commandments to the OT Church the second time with a Gospel note. He says in Deut. 5:6, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Then in Deut. 5:7 the Lord launches right into: ‘”You shall have no other gods before Me.’” He gives His OT Church the Commandments based on the fact that He rescued them from slavery. And we no less than them. We can live not only knowing this but based on this. Amen

Rev. Paul R. Harris 

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Advent Vespers I (20231129); First Commandment