In his book The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel, Lutheran theologian C. F. W. Walther stated that a pastor’s sermon, while proclaiming God’s Law and His Gospel, must allow the Gospel to predominate. In other words, you need to hear God’s Word point out to you that you are a sinner worthy of death but are redeemed through the blood of Christ and now possess the promise of eternal life with Him in heaven. If all you hear in the sermon is that you’re a poor, miserable sinner, then the sermon has failed in its purpose. But when you also hear and remember that Jesus died to take away your sins and rose so you would have eternal life, the sermon has delivered the goods to you.
The apostle Paul warns the Corinthians against false preachers, those who believe they can come in, preach nothing but God’s Law, and package it in such a way as to entice people away from the Gospel. Too many false preachers (even one is too many) came of their own accord to preach to the Corinthians a different way than what the Lord through Paul gave them. They gave the people the Law; Paul gave them Jesus. They gave them threats of eternal condemnation; Paul gave them the promise of eternal life. They gave them their own message; Paul gave them a message from God.
Even today we aren’t willing to hear the fullness of God’s Word. We don’t like to hear it any more than the Corinthians did in the first century. We don’t like to hear God’s Law because we don’t like to hear that we have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We’re guilty of sin, fearing, loving, and trusting in ourselves above God. We want to do what we want and say what we want without considering the consequences. Forget God…I’ll do whatever I want. I don’t care about the Ten Commandments… I care about me! We like to forget that God also clearly says that the soul that sins shall die — not merely a physical death but an eternal one in hell.
We don’t like to hear the Gospel, either. We don’t like to hear there is nothing we can do to earn God’s favor. We still think we have to do something to appease God. That’s why, though we despise God’s Law, we still turn to it because we like the Gospel even less. We want to hear we can still do something to be saved… something other than simply believing in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. We want to pat ourselves on the back, but all we can do is sink further into our own despair. God tells us to be holy, for He is holy. So we keep working on our own holiness. We strive to keep the Ten Commandments, which in itself is truly good right, and salutary.
But we want to do and be more than that. We try to go the road of salvation on our own. We turn to other sources than the Bible. We turn not to Scripture but to self-help books and to false prophets who tell us to work things out ourselves because God wants us to be happy and that we have the power within ourselves to become better people. We ignore that God wants us to be forgiven and that the power to be better comes from outside of ourselves, from the Holy Spirit working in us. We can’t do it by ourselves. We can’t make ourselves holy. We can’t achieve the perfection God demands of us. We can’t be that better person. We are on a road that leads to hell. We get misled into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. We can’t turn to ourselves for rescue because we got ourselves into this mess in the first place. To whom shall we go?
We aren’t saved by the power of positive thinking but by the preaching of the cross, for it’s in the cross of Christ that our true glory is found. It was on the cross that Jesus took away your sins and gave you His righteousness, where He gave you His holiness in exchange for your filthiness, where He died so that you would have eternal life.
What is more is that Jesus Christ, your Lord and Savior, did not stay dead on that cross nor remain buried in the tomb, but He rose again on that first Easter Sunday. He lives victorious over sin, death, and hell for you! Jesus lives so that you would not face condemnation because He did it all for you. Jesus shed His blood on the cross to be the Atonement Cover for all your sins, restoring your relationship with God. He has redeemed you, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won you from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death. He has risen to give you His victory, so that you may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.
That’s where true happiness — true joy — is to be found: in Jesus and in Him alone.
Mark Schlamann is pastor of First Lutheran Church in Tooele.