In the Name of Jesus, who gave Himself as the supreme sacrifice, so that by faith alone in Him we might have the free gift of eternal joy in heaven, dear Christian friends,
How many things in this life can you point to that are absolutely free? No strings attached? Only two come readily to my mind: our bodies, and air. Now you may be able to think of other things in this life that are free, but let's be honest for a moment. If we were to draw up two columns, and on the one side list those things which are free, and on the other side list those things which have to be paid for -- the "pay for" list would be longer than the free list, I can assure you!
We pay for our water. We pay for our food. We pay for transportation and for housing. When a new baby is brought into the world, we even pay for that! Most of the things we enjoy in this life have to be paid for. And that means they have to be worked for! It means that if we want a certain something, we have to work for it and labor for it.
Now every once in awhile, we'll get something of great value for free -- and that's called a gift! It may be a microwave for your birthday, or a watch for Christmas. The watch I have on my wrist this morning is a treasured birthday gift from some years back from my wife. Most of the time we didn't have to work for these things -- someone else, who loves us very much, had to work for them -- but not us.
Now what does all this have to do with Jesus Christ, eternal life, and faith? Actually, it has everything to do with these things! God wanted lost sinners to be in heaven with Him. But He knew that as long as they were under the condemnation of sin, they could never go to heaven. "The wages of sin is death," says Paul in Romans. "The soul that sinneth, it shall die." And the Bible isn't just talking about physical death here. It's talking about the second death of hell. As we confess our sins at the beginning of our page 15 Communion Service, we admit to God that we justly deserve His temporal AND ETERNAL punishment!
You know, many times in my ministry I've made the absolutely true statement that "no sinful thing can enter into God's heaven." Just look at your Bible. Look at the Lutheran Confessions. Look at your catechism. You'll see for yourself -- no sinful thing can enter into God's presence. That's the truth! Now hopefully that absolutely true statement will get all of us asking the right question, and that question is this: "If no sinful thing can enter into God's presence, if no sinful person can enter into God's heaven, then how do we get there? I mean, we're sinners 'til the day we die, so how do we get there?"
You see, that's the right question to ask! And our answer to that question will determine whether we live out eternity in heaven or in hell! Now there's a right answer to that question, and there's a wrong answer! Tragically, most of the people in this world choose the wrong answer, because the wrong answer is easier to understand! Most people, if they believe there's a heaven at all, believe the only way to get there is to work for it! After all, as I pointed out at the beginning of the sermon, most of the things we enjoy in life we have to work for! So why should heaven be any different? That's what most people think, and they're wrong! And yet, to their mind, it seems so right!
There are some, who, when asked why God should let them into heaven, will reply, "I've kept the Ten Commandments as best as I can. I never told any big lies. I never cheated anyone. I never fooled around. I never killed anyone. I've lived a pretty decent life." There are some who will say that. But I think you'll find, especially in our post-modern, post-Christian culture, that most people are so uninformed of even the very basic teachings of the Bible, they don't even know what the Ten Commandments are, much less what order they're listed! So you'll find that many people, when asked how they hope to get to heaven, will offer short, easy statements like, "I follow the Golden Rule -- do unto others as you would have them do unto you," or, "Live and let live."
Now this is all very well and good. All people should, of course, try to follow The Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule. But we need to understand something this morning: trying to do all that will by no means get anyone into heaven! It won't even get them close!
Now some may say, "Well, I can see your point, but surely religious folks will get into heaven!" Well, not necessarily. Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims are very religious people, but if they don't find the better way, they aren't going to heaven, and I'll tell you why. They're trusting in their own works and their own goodness to get them there! Jesus Christ is totally out of the equation! Dear friends, these people desperately need to hear and believe some Good News. They need to be brought from darkness to light! And brothers and sisters, even some in Christian churches aren't going to make it, and I'll tell you why. Some church people sincerely believe that by going to church every Sunday, they can work their way to heaven. And some don't even think they have to go that far! They feel that if they just mail a check to the church every so often, that'll be enough to get them through the pearly gates.
This is all very dangerous thinking, fellow-redeemed! Let's look at our text again. It says: "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith, apart from observing the law." In other words, keeping the law and doing good works is not the way we get to heaven! We can't get to heaven merely by going to church, or sending money, or helping people out, or being nice to people, because we can never do a good enough job of it to make the passing grade! The passing grade is perfection, and all our works combined can't cut it. Now all these things are good and pleasing to the Lord, of course, and we should do them -- this is our response of love to our gracious Savior. But we don't do them to gain eternal life. Let me tell you a little story to illustrate this:
Once there were two men who went on a fishing trip, in a boat, out on the river. The man in front had told his partner in the back of the boat to throw out the anchor when they got to the spot where they wanted to fish. But the man in back didn't listen to the first man, and so they began to drift downstream. For the first hour or so the drift was hardly noticeable. But soon both men could clearly see they were heading for a huge waterfall! Tremendous amounts of water poured down onto jagged rocks below, as the water foamed and roared.
The man in the front of the boat then yelled frantically to his friend in the back to throw out that anchor! And finally, the man in the back caught on that this was probably a good idea! But believe it or not, he was afraid he'd lose the anchor if he threw it overboard! So he hooked it on one of the back belt-loops of his pants! His friend in front, seeing they hadn't slowed down, screamed, "Pull on the rope, secure the anchor!" Well, the man in back pulled on the rope, and the anchor pulled the back of his pants up a little bit! And by now the man in back could see for himself how much danger he was in, so he began to pull harder and harder on the rope! But all he did was to pull his back belt-loop higher and higher! And no matter how hard he pulled, the boat kept gaining speed as it headed for the falls.
Now you may be thinking right now, "Pastor must have gotten that illustration from an episode of The Three Stooges! How could anyone be that foolish?" Well let me tell you, three-fourths of the people on this globe are tragically, sadly, repeating the same deadly mistake. And even many who profess to be Christians might be that horrifyingly foolish! Let me explain why. The first man in the boat, the one in front, is the Holy Spirit. And He desperately urges people to throw the anchor of their faith onto the solid bedrock of Jesus Christ. He even supplies the motivation and the power to do it! In Christ, of course, a person has security -- he knows he won't be dashed to pieces in hell when this life ends.
But many people resist the calling and motivating and empowering of the Holy Spirit, and instead of throwing the anchor of faith onto the Rock of Christ, they put their faith in themselves and their own good works! They try to pull themselves to eternal safety by their own beltloops. And it never works -- because the only thing that can give us eternal life is the grace of God reaching down to us in Jesus Christ, which is grasped by Spirit-created faith. God reaches out to us and saves us through faith alone in Jesus Christ! It's a gift -- a free gift. That's the bottom line!
Think of getting to heaven as traveling from Los Angeles to Hawaii. If you try to swim out to Hawaii by your own strength, you might make it out into the ocean several miles if you're in good shape. But eventually you'll get exhausted, your body will cramp up, and you'll drown! And you'll never make it to Hawaii, will you?
What you need is something much more powerful to get you to Hawaii! You need an ocean liner or an airplane! Your own power isn't enough to get you there. You need the increased power of some sort of vehicle. You need to leave the driving to someone else!
Well, it's the same way with getting to heaven. If any of us were to try to get to heaven by our own power, by our own efforts, by our own good works and obedience, we'd never make it! We'd drown in the sea of our own sinfulness. You see, no matter how good you or I may be, we can never swim against the tide of our own sin by our own strength. There's only one kind of person that gets into heaven, as we've already said, and that's a perfect person! God demands PERFECTION, as we've seen!
"But pastor, nobody's perfect." That's right. Nobody's perfect. Just like the guy or gal who wants to get to Hawaii, the only way we're going to get to heaven is if we have something much more powerful to take us there. And that much more powerful vehicle, of course, is God's only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ. We can't take ourselves to heaven. We can't even help God along! But Jesus takes us there! All we have to do is relax in His grace
and enjoy the ride!
You see, Jesus did all those perfect things we can't. He obeyed The Ten Commandments. And He didn't just obey them in words and actions, He obeyed them in thought! Have you ever tried to control your thoughts? It's very difficult and, although we can take evil thoughts captive more and more as we grow in grace, still, we can never completely stifle the old sinful self on this earth. There's not a one of us who can totally keep thoughts of lust or hate or greed or whatever out of our minds. But Jesus did, you see! Jesus always went to worship, and He always went for the right reasons, with the right attitude of heart! Jesus was perfectly kind to everyone. Jesus gave perfectly from the heart, and His whole life was one of purity and sacrifice. Jesus did all things well, and He did all things in perfect LOVE! And He did it all for us, in our place.
And then, of course, He paid the ultimate price. He died on the cross. We hear that so often, perhaps we really don't realize what it was like to die on the cross of the Romans! Think of the most painful situation in which you've ever been, physically or emotionally, and then multiply that by thousands! That's a lot of pain! And yet, there may be many people who've lived on this earth who've gone through just as much physical pain as Jesus did -- but no one, in all the history of the world, has gone through the agony of soul and spirit Jesus went through for us!
Can you imagine how horrible it would be to be rejected by your own parents -- to have your own parents tell you they don't love you anymore? Many in our world today have experienced this very thing. Multiply that feeling of rejection by more than a million and you'll only begin to know how Jesus felt when God the Father forsook Him on the cross!
And why did the Father forsake Him for a time? Because my sins and yours were put on Him! At a specific moment in time on that cross, all the words that you or I ever spoke to our loved ones in anger were put on Jesus. That lustful thought a few days ago was put on Him. Those times when we've cursed our enemies were put on Him .. we may not have said it out loud, but we thought it! And all those sinful thoughts, words, and deeds we committed in 1999 and 1989 and 1979 and on and on and on, were put on Jesus. All our original sin was heaped upon Him, too!
And you know what? He took them -- voluntarily, willingly. He suffered the rejection of His own Father, and all the punishment of our individual hells, for sins He'd never even committed! He took them in infinite love so we wouldn't have to be punished for them. And we know the rest: all we need is Spirit-created trust that Jesus took our sins on the cross, and we're free! Faith is all we need -- but not merely faith that He did it. We need faith that He did it for us! Again, the faith we need is not faith that He did it, but faith that He did it for us -- totally, completely, with nothing to be added on our part! And if we have that kind of faith, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we're pardoned, and we're free!
If we have that kind of living faith, we never have to be afraid of God. We know God's not angry with us, because we're covered with the blood of Christ, and God sees us as being perfect. We're not perfect because we never do anything wrong, of course -- no, we're perfect because Christ is perfect -- and His righteousness covers over all our imperfections. We're declared to be innocent! When God looks at a true believer in Christ, He doesn't see the sin; He sees the HOLINESS OF HIS SON!
And one more thing -- if we have that kind of faith, eternal life is ours, right now! We hold it in our hands. We've got it in the bank! And as we keep in touch with the promises of forgiveness, life, and salvation in the Word of God and the Lord's Supper, and remember our baptisms, the Holy Spirit makes sure that not even the armies of hell can take heaven away from us!
Eternal life in heaven is ours as a free gift. It's our inheritance! So we don't strive to obey The Ten Commandments in order to earn heaven. We strive to obey them because heaven is already ours! We don't go to church to earn heaven. We go to thank God for our salvation, and to grow in our faith. We don't give unto others in order to earn heaven. We give out of love, because Jesus, out of love, has so freely given all things to us! His love, our response!
We're free! We're forgiven! We're clean! We have eternal life right now as a free gift -- and all because the Holy Spirit brought us from death to life by planting faith in Jesus in our hearts -- the One who did it all. Let's take that secret of faith, and share it with someone we know! May God grant us the grace, so to do! Amen.