Is there any sense we can make of all the evil around us? It is so senseless, so meaningless. And is there any amount of legislation that can rid our culture of evil? No, the Apostle Paul “no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin” (Rom.3:20).
But as students of God’s Word, and as Lutherans, we are uniquely qualified to deal with tragedy, heartache, and struggle. One of the most precious gems handed down to us through the Reformation is a right understanding the theology of the cross. Through the eyes of faith and the light that shines through the truths of the God’s Word, we as Lutherans Treasure the Cross.
And that makes us strange to others in our world. It isn’t shocking for you to hear that we “find joy in the cross” because we find joy in Christ’s cross. For it is through that instrument of torture that God exacted full payment for our sin. The cross is little like one of those old credit card machines, the type that would take an imprint of your card by pressing it hard against a piece of carbon paper. So Jesus was pressed hard against the cross to leave an imprint of His sinless identity while absorbing the ink of our sins which were charged to His account. Now, in Jesus we have forgiveness and the promise of an eternal life of happiness. Of course we find joy in the cross of Christ. It means our salvation!
So, the cross means forgiveness for sin! The cross means God and man are reconciled! The cross means heaven is wide open for all! The cross means Satan loses! We find joy in the cross of Christ.
But it’s not just the cross of Christ that brings us joy. Martin Luther brought to light for the Church that we can also find joy in the cross that God calls each believer to carry. Jesus once said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:34-36).
Jesus said that we each must carry a cross in His name. This cross doesn’t earn forgiveness. Our own crosses are not the cause of our salvation, but our crosses are a necessary consequence of our salvation in Jesus.
But why? Why is it necessary to carry a cross? If we have faith in Jesus and through that faith we’ve been promised the ultimate prize: eternal life in heaven, why do we need to carry crosses? Because even though we’ve been promised the prize, we don’t actually hold it in our hands yet. It’s like buying a new car at the dealership. The paperwork is filled out and you hold the key to your car, but it’s not yours until you put the key into the ignition. Only then can you enjoy what the new car has to offer. Through faith in Jesus the joys of heaven are ours, but we’re not there yet to enjoy it.
To keep us from throwing away the key to heaven, or to keep us from trading it in for some other earthly, temporal joy, God fits each of us with a cross to carry. The Apostle Paul explains why when he wrote: “…we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us…” (Romans 5:2-5a). The cross that each believer must bear keeps that individual looking to and longing for Christ. It drives us to our knees in prayer. It drives us to despair of ourselves and to continually seek comfort in God and His promises, rather than in any of the many false “treasures” this world has to offer.
Consider the circumstances of Job. Job was a man who lived probably about the same time as Abraham, some 4500 years ago. He was wealthy and a believer in the true God. One day Satan came into God’s presence and God brought Job to his attention. God gave Job a ringing endorsement about what a faithful believer he was. To which Satan remarked, “The only reason he loves you, God, is because you spoil him. Take away his toys. Take away his health. Take it all away and he’ll surely curse you to your face.” “Very well then,” God replied. “Have your way with Job, only don’t kill him.”
You know what happened: Job lost everything, including all 10 children, and then even his health. Job’s friends, who knew nothing about what had led to his difficulties, figured that God must be punishing Job for some sin. So they urged him to repent. But Job’s suffering wasn’t caused by any specific sin. Yet Job couldn’t explain why he was suffering. The only thing he could do was throw himself on God’s mercy, which is exactly what he did in these words before us – words which have brought comfort to many suffering believers. Listen again to these familiar and comforting words. “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes--I and not another. How my heart yearns within me.”
Ever felt that way? Have you ever been as excited as Job about seeing God? It likely happens when we are undergoing our toughest situations. When things are easy, there seems to be no need for God. But without God, without faith in Jesus as our Savior from sin, we have nothing worth holding on to in this life because the Bible tells us that this world and everything in it will be destroyed.
In his explanation to the Third Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, Martin Luther said this about carrying the cross: “…where God’s Word is preached…and bears fruit, there the holy precious cross will also not be far behind. And let no one think that we will have peace; rather, we must sacrifice all we have on earth—possessions, honor, house…spouse and children…body and life. Now, this grieves our flesh…for it means that we must remain steadfast, suffer patiently whatever befalls us, and let go whatever is taken from us” (Luther’s Large Catechism).
But difficulty itself is not a cross. Even unbelievers have to put up with sickness, with broken relationships, financial ruin or lost loved ones. What makes hardship or tragedy a cross is how God calls us to deal with it: with faith, with patient humility, continuing to put God’s will and the needs of others before our own. If I carry my cross I deny myself: my sinful self--sinful pleasures, put aside sinful pursuits. As you know, the sinful nature doesn’t want that. It wants us to put ourselves first, to seek our own happiness. But if we live that way, we are not carrying our crosses and we are turning our backs on God and his promise of eternal life.
But Christians, don’t despair, God promises help in carrying our crosses. Jesus said: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28). We also think of the rest we have in Jesus, which we do, but perhaps a better translation would be “…and I will give you refreshment.” When Jesus invited us to come to Him to find rest, He didn’t mean that we’d find an end to our troubles and pain once we became Christians. That’s a false teaching called the “theology of glory.” It’s what we hear from preachers who claim that strong faith produces a happy and prosperous life. No, God wants you to have so much more than the fading riches of a dying world. He wants you to enjoy heaven! But He also knows how Satan will use the riches and happiness of this world to distract us from what is truly important. That’s why God lets us struggle, lets us see firsthand how health is fleeting, how worldly wealth or the latest gadgets don’t bring lasting joy. And this isn’t a lesson He’ll teach us just once, but again and again. In fact, we can expect to carry a cross our whole lives with its slivers digging in at different places at different times. But we never have to bear the cross alone. We run to Jesus and His Word and find refreshment, because in His Word we learn the reason for the cross: to break our love for this world, for ourselves, and to keep us focused on the true prize of heaven.
When we fail to do so… to keep running to His Word… we only end up trying to ditch our cross. We do that in numerous ways: by ducking out of difficult relationships, by surrounding ourselves with more and more creature comforts… by stealing because we don’t want to deal with the stress of working… or by escaping through drugs or alcohol. When you’re tempted to do that, remember the example of Job. Remember the cross of Christ, and throw yourself again on God’s mercy and promises. Hold steadfast to the promise that through the blood of Christ, even though your skin will be destroyed, you will be raised to life and when you are, you’ll come face to face with your living, loving Savior. Until then keep meeting Him in His Word and in the body and blood He offers in the sacred meal.
So much tragedy on the news, in our nation, around the world, and in our own lives! How can we take it? How can we even begin to wrap our minds around it all? Only through the cross! The cross of your Savior Jesus, who has overcome the sin of the world… your sin, and mine. The cross that has redeemed this world and overcome even death itself. And what a treasure, too, then, is the cross He lays on us… As our peace and happiness is so often fleeting in this life, and even opposed to salvation, our cross drives us back to His… and to the eternal treasures He alone has won! So rejoice, dear Christians… in HIS cross, AND yours! Amen.
Albrecht Dittrich and Jack Barsky are two men from the same town in Germany. They share the same parents but they are not brothers…nor are they adopted. How can that be? How can one have the same parents and still not be brothers or at least be adopted?! That’s because Albrecht Dittrich and Jack Barsky is the same person.
Dittrich-Barsky served as a Soviet spy in the United States from 1978 until 1988. He maintained the two identities so completely that his parents didn’t even know that he was in the U.S. They thought he was doing top-secret work for the Soviet space program in southern Kazakhstan. But probably even more impressive, or perhaps more troubling was the fact that Dittrich-Barsky had two families. He had a wife and son back in East Germany, while married to another woman in the U.S. with whom he had a daughter. The two families didn’t know about each other. The spy later reflected, “I did a good job of separating the two. Barsky had nothing to do with Dittrich, and Dittrich wasn’t responsible for Barsky.”
Can you imagine…? …what it would be like to live such a double life? Actually, as a Christian, you do it all the time. As we continue our series The Lutheran Mind is a Biblical Mind, celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, we’ve been led to see we live this double life. There is a battle that rages within us. Christians are at the Same Time Saints and Sinners.
Have you ever been surprised at how Christians act or react? Two people profess to be Christians can actually shout at each other in a mindless rage of accusation. Two people who profess to be Christians unlovingly shout at each other or fighting over some ultimately insignificant point of disagreement. “These people are Christian?” you wonder to yourself in shock and disappointment. Instead of compassion and patient understanding, you heard anger and bitterness.
This should not surprise us. Paul himself admitted: “For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19). This was the confession of a man who had dedicated his life to telling others about Jesus Christ. Paul admitted he struggled with this. And not just once in a while, but all the time!
Paul and every believer struggles with sin. Paul writes, “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.” Believers continue to struggle with sin because we continue to possess a sinful nature. At first this sinful nature was in control of all our desires and actions—like a hacker who can make your computer do anything he wants to. But when we were baptized, the Word-infused-water short circuited the sinful nature’s control over us and created a new impulse within—a new nature that can and does struggle against the sinful nature’s schemes. The two now grapple with each other like opposing basketball players fighting for control of a loose ball. And you know what this grappling feels like. You want to be patient, you really do, but you keep losing it with your loved ones, and go to bed ashamed of how you treated your family yet again. You may even think to yourself, “How can I call myself a Christian? How can I say that heaven is in my future when my present actions are so evil?”
And this battle rages whenever my mind or body is engaged. I want to be generous, but I end up being selfish. I want to consider others needs before my own, but I end up thinking of myself first. I want to cut bad words out of my vocabulary, but I say the same things over and over again. I want to serve the Lord, but I want to be served.
It’s comforting to know that Paul, too, constantly struggled with sin. He wasn’t a total failure. We aren’t either. While our sins should trouble us they should not send us into hopeless despair. What did Paul say at the end of our text? “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24, 25a)
Left to his own devices Paul’s future would’ve been bleak. But Paul, along with every other sinner in the world, hasn’t been left to his own devices. God has delivered us from the consequences of our sin through the work of Jesus. When a double agent’s cover has been blown, his home country will do everything to extract him from the danger he faces. The spy’s boss will even send in an elite combat team, willing to sacrifice those lives to save the spy. Likewise our heavenly Father sent in his best commando, his own Son, whose life he knew he would be sacrificing to save ours. And Jesus saved us by taking on our identity to face the firing squad, while we escaped using his identity. When God looks at us now, He really sees His righteous Son even though we are still sinners. To summarize these truths Martin Luther once wrote: “Christians are righteous and sinners at the same time, holy and profane, an enemy of God and a child of God” (Luther’s Commentary on Galatians 3:6, AE 26:232).
So while my sins are despicable, they don’t disqualify me from heaven, not as long as I continue to confess faith in Jesus—just as someone who has entered the witness protection plan is safe as long as he keeps using his new identity and not his old one. But confessing faith in Jesus is more than just saying you believe that Jesus is the Son of God and your savior from sin. Those who make that claim and really believe it won’t willingly continue to live in sin. Martin Luther correctly explained that the life of a Christian is a life of repentance (1st of 95 Theses). Paul is a good example of that truth. In our text he doesn’t shrug his shoulders at the sins he keeps committing. He’s bothered by them! He also throws himself on Jesus’ mercy for forgiveness. That’s what true believers still do today as the Holy Spirit works faith in their hearts.
I said at the beginning of this sermon that understanding that we are sinner-saints is important so that we are both warned and comforted. We are warned because we should never think that the sinful nature is going to stop making a play for our soul. Satan will continue to entice us, and the world will throw its weight behind those temptations. So I’ll always want more money. I’ll always want to put other people down to make myself feel better. I’ll always have dirty thoughts. Therefore I’ll always need Jesus and his forgiveness. I’ll also want to be wise and not expose my sinful nature to websites, movies, shows, and magazines that will excite it—just as you wouldn’t dream of carrying steaks into the enclosure where that vicious guard dog lives in your neighborhood. Why attract his attention and invite an attack?
On the other hand it is comforting to know that I’m a sinner-saint because it is not my good behavior that will get me into heaven. It is Jesus and what he has done. So I may struggle with a particular sin my whole life, but that won’t necessarily disqualify me from heaven. The key word there is “struggle.” If I’m not struggling against sin, then it means that I’ve either died and gone to heaven, or I’ve become an unbeliever.
It’s also helpful to remember that Christians are sinner-saints so that we interact better with other believers. It should not surprise us when believers do things that shock. Kind David committed adultery and murder. King Solomon had 300 wives and another 700 concubines! We have a sinful nature with which we do not want to play games. Do you know a jeep owner who thinks he can make it through any muddy bush trail because he has 4-wheel drive? But even 4-wheel drives can get stuck in the mud, just as Christians can become permanently stuck in sin so they end up abandoning the faith. When a fellow Christian does get stuck in sin, we will help them get unstuck by calling that individual to repentance in a gentle but firm way remembering how we often get stuck in sin too.
Dittrich-Barsky, the spy I told you about in the introduction, must be glad that he doesn’t have to live a double life anymore. Maybe it was exciting for a time, but he also must have known that he couldn’t do it forever. Sooner or later his cover would be blown and he would have to choose between one life or the other. For better or for worse he chose to stay in the States.
Likewise we have two identities that vie for our attention and for control. Choosing to live by the sinful nature is exciting to the sinful nature, but it will lead to eternal damnation. Living for Jesus who bought us with His own blood may lead to a more difficult life now in some ways, but in the end it will be worth it. Keep struggling against that sinful nature with His divine and ever-present help. And keep encouraging fellow sinner-saints to do the same. And when you fall into sin, because you will, look to Jesus for rescue. He will never turn his back on you. Amen.