The Place of Faith
Joy. That was the theme for this Sunday in the early Church. The Introit began with the Latin word for "rejoice," laetare, and so was called "Laetare Sunday" or "Rejoicing Sunday." It's also been called "Refreshment Sunday," or "Mid-Lent." It's a rest stop half way through the rigors of Lent. It was sometimes called "Rose Sunday" because the vestments were rose colored, the purple that stood for the repentance of Lent was lightened a little with the white that comes with Easter.
There you have some history for this holy day. It's connected with joy, and just how can we who are troubled by war, by terror, and maybe by personal problems or disease find joy in this mess? Well, having joy is tied to having faith, but having faith can become such a burden, such a struggle that it saps you of all joy. Therefore, we need to understand the proper place of faith, of believing, and this text is the one for doing that. 3 times Jesus speaks about believing to the unbelieving Nicodemus. "Whoever believes in [Jesus] the Son of Man may have eternal life." "Whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life." "Whoever believes in Him is not condemned."
So believing in Jesus leads to eternal life, not dying, and never being condemned. Seems to me that a whole lot of joy is found here. What if my life on earth is plagued by wars and terror? I have an eternal life through faith in Jesus that is not plagued. What if I'm dying because of age or disease? Jesus says through faith in Him I don't perish. What if I feel condemned by my own conscience, others, or by the devil himself? Jesus says, "Whoever believes in Him is not condemned." What Jesus says carries the day no matter if there be wars and rumors of terror on the outside and disease and an evil conscience on the inside.
The problem comes when you make faith a cause of your salvation. You are doing that whenever you make the forgiveness of sins, being reconciled with God through Christ, being redeemed by the blood of Christ, being justified before God for Christ's sake as merely a potential thing. The Gospel is preached correctly in every detail: There is Christ bearing your sins. Heaped upon Him is your lust that knows no bounds, your greed that knows no limits, your doubts, worries and fears that know no solution. There is Jesus lifted up on the cross as a miserable, wretched, sinner deserves to be, abandoned by God, damned by God in your place. All of this Jesus endured and suffered so you don't have to. And now here comes the problem. Because Jesus did this for you, it's possible for you to be saved.
In one fell swoop the Gospel is sidetracked, shipwrecked, ruined. In preaching the Gospel this way, Jesus didn't really finish anything on the cross. He simply made it possible for you to be saved. You complete the deal by believing. It will quite often be said this way, "Jesus did it all. All you have to do is believe." Whenever you hear this said, you are hearing a mixing of Law and Gospel. "Jesus did it all," is Gospel. "All you have to do is believe" is Law. Why? Well Jesus couldn't have really done it all if there is still something left for you to do.
Whenever it is presented to you that faith is needed to complete your salvation, Jesus is no longer the only cause of your salvation. The words, "It is finished," are ripped out of Christ's mouth. For your salvation isn't a done deal. One more thing needs to be added namely faith. Then Jesus saves you. Then you are redeemed, reconciled, forgiven, right with God.
Do you see what has happened? You are left staring into your heart to see whether or not you have this thing called faith glowing there. If you can see it there, you conclude you are saved. If you can't see it there, if you can't feel it there, then you're toast. Then Jesus hasn't saved you, hasn't redeemed you, hasn't justified you before God. Then your security in this war, in this state of terror, in the face of your disease is no more certain than your faith. And how certain is that? Aren't we always on the prongs of "Lord I believe; help Thou my unbelief?" Our faith never stands up to the scrutiny of the Law, harsh life, or fearful times; it's always found lacking because it's found in sinful people.
All this is bothering some of you. I'm challenging what you have always believed about faith and think you've always been taught. If you grew up in a General Protestant church, you have either been explicitly taught or led to believe that your faith, the believing going on in your heart is a cause of your salvation. If you grew up in the Lutheran church, you might have been taught faith is a cause of your salvation; you could've certainly got that impression from things we've taught since the 70s. But it has never been a Lutheran teaching that faith is in anyway a cause of salvation. Allow me to quote from the book Law and Gospel which was written by the first president of the LCMS in 1883, "You may run through the whole Bible, and you will not find a single passage which states that man is justified on account of his faith. Wherever, the relation of faith to justification is spoken of, terms are used which declare faith a means, not a cause."
Think about it. How many of you would say, "I'm saved on account of my believing in Jesus." You my friend are in a most miserable state then. If you are saved on account of your faith, then your life in the midst of this war and terror depends on your believing. Your salvation, your not going to hell to be burned and tormented for eternity hangs on the thin thread of your believing. If you are saved on account of faith, then the joy of this day and all the rests of your days in this fallen frightful world depend on how much, how hard, how well you believe
My dear, dear friends, I know when you are caught in the jaws of this horrible error. When talking to me you will continually assert how much you believe, how strong you believe. That's because to you your faith is a cause of salvation. Your life is only as secure as you believe it to be. Those not caught in this error will assert how much Jesus believed in their salvation so much so that He went to the cross and to hell itself to redeem them. They will assert how strong Christ is to save not how much they believe. Furthermore those caught in this error come to Church when they feel like it. When they feel they don't believe hard enough, time to go to Church to get a recharge. But when they think their faith is glowing brightly, what need do they have of Church.
People caught in the error of thinking their faith is a cause of salvation also don't go to the means of grace for comfort. Baptism, Absolution, and Communion are only potential places for forgiveness. They aren't anything without your faith, and lets face it there is not much in Water, Words, Bread and Wine to get faith excited, stirred up. The ceremonies associated with Baptism, Absolution, and Communion are quite frankly unimpressive; they're about as unimpressive as a bronze snake hanging on a pole. So people who hang everything on the certainty of their faith or their feeling of believing tend to gather around things that stimulate their feelings: music with a beat and swing, words that pluck their heart strings, and prayers that "just make them feel that Jesus is so big and awesome."
The Bible nowhere teaches that faith is a cause of salvation. It everywhere teaches that faith is the mode of salvation. Faith is like the extension cord you use to get power to that light in the far corner of the room. The extension cord doesn't cause the power. If it did, you wouldn't need to have it plugged in, would you? Faith merely transmits the power from the plug to the lamp. When thinking about the problem of getting power to the lamp, you didn't focus on the extension cord but on the plug, the power source.
The power of your salvation, is God's grace in Christ. St. Paul says explicitly in the Epistle, "For it is by grace you have been saved." But if you're going to see faith as a mode of salvation and not a cause, you need to back away from you for a moment, you need to zoom out. God's grace is not located in your heart; it's located in God's heart and it's for the whole world. Everyone who believes in Christ has eternal life, shall not perish, and is not condemned because Christ died to win eternal life, deliverance from death, and freedom from condemnation for everyone. To put it more bluntly: Forgiveness, reconciliation, redemption, justification are accomplished facts for all people.
When Jesus said, "It is finished" on the cross, He declared the sins of the whole world, the payment due for the world's sins, paid in full. On Easter, the Father declared the sins of the whole world forgiven. Jesus declared, "God so loved the world," and that He sent His Son into the world not to condemn the world but to save the world." Before anyone believed in Jesus, God did this. Think about it. On Good Friday and Easter morning who in the whole world believed in Jesus? Not a person. The total unbelief of the disciples did not stop God from putting Christ to death to pay for our sins and raising Him again to declare our sins forgiven. Therefore, faith cannot be a cause of our salvation; it is the mode. Faith receives what Christ first did for the whole world.
People who see their faith as a mode of salvation and not the cause, don't focus on their faith. It would be like focusing on an extension cord rather than on the power source. People who see their faith as the mode the salvation Christ worked for the whole world becomes theirs focus on Christ. So they focus on where He has promised to be present for them: in Church, in Baptism, in Absolution, in Communion. They don't gather around what makes them feel good but around what brings them Christ. Sometimes they have great feelings about Jesus and salvation, sometimes they don't, but that doesn't matter. Christ is not Puff the Magic Dragon. He doesn't slip into the purple haze when little Jackie Papers like us cease to believe in Him.
Christ is stronger and surer than our faith. He is stronger and more sure than war, than terror, than disease, than death itself. You see dear friends, their are crises in life where Christians do feel undone. They don't feel one single DNA strand of theirs believing; they just feel fear and terror. They can't look inside and see faith glowing in their hearts, so panic starts to rise in their throats. The only hope, the only cure at times like these is Christ. He says that He joined you to Him in Baptism, so He is with you even though you don't feel it. Christ says that whoever hears the words of their pastor hears Him, so Christ is there in the Absolution even though you get no sense of it. And Christ says that Communion is His body and blood, and that remains true even when your body is shaking and your blood is curdled.
Friends, joy is not found in believing per say but in what Christians believe, Christ. Johann Gerhard, a 17th century Lutheran pastor said that rather than seeing a thing called faith dwelling in heart, he saw Christ there. And how can you know Christ is there? Not because you believe for people are wrong all the time in their believing and believing is fickle in sinners. You can be sure Christ is in your heart because you've had Him poured on your body in Baptism, put in your ears by absolution, or placed in your body by Communion. And there is joy in the presence of Christ: even here, even now. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lent IV (3-30-03), John 3:14-21