What Went Wrong?

One evening I had dinner with a friend whom I had not seen for many years. There was a lot of catching-up to do in the first minutes of our conversation.

As our visit began to move into more serious conversation, he asked, “How’s your church doing? I am anxious to see your campus. From your parish paper, I can see the attendance continues to increase, and it sounds like you are enjoying your work.”

“Yes,” I replied. “My ministry has been very rewarding. If I had another life on this earth to live, I would be a parish pastor. I am always anxious to go to work in the morning, and even though the pension board and social security tell me that I can retire, this does not tempt me at all.”

My friend, who had been much more financially successful than I had been, responded, “You don’t know how fortunate you are. I wish that I could make the same statement.”

All of this talk about the church led me to ask, “How are things going at the church where you are a member?”

“I seldom attend church,” he replied.

“What happened?” I asked. “You used to be very active in the congregation.”

“That’s probably where the problem started. I had too much religion as a kid. Every time the church door was open, our family was there. I had enough of the church to last me for the rest of my life.

But that wasn’t all. Religion made our family’s life so abnormal. We had a hundred and one silly laws that supposedly controlled us. For example, mother tried to prevent me from going to my high school junior-senior prom because there would be dancing, and that could lead to adultery. That did it for me. I simply announced in strong language that I was going to the prom. I had already asked a girl to go with me, and nobody was going to stop me. Mother was crushed; dad didn’t know what to do. However, they must have had second thoughts, because I went to the prom and they even let me use the family car.”

Seeing how emotional he was, I asked him, “What is your relationship with God?”

“Now that’s a different question,” he answered. “Believe, me, I am not an atheist. I believe there is a God.”

“If you should die tonight, do you know for sure that you would go to heaven?” I asked feeling that our relationship was good enough that I could be that personal.

His answer was very clear. There were tears in his eyes. “No, I am sure that if I died tonight, I would go to hell. Look at my life. I don’t go to church. My language, even in front of my children, is not always the best. I do some drinking. I have not always been fair to my wife and kids. I gave them money, when what they really wanted was my time. I can’t recall ever having a devotion with my family. Certainly they have never heard me pray. In fact, I don’t even know how to pray any more.”

“What do you believe about Christ?” I asked.

“Frankly, I don’t give him much thought. I still remember what they taught me about the faith when I was a teenager. After high school there were tough years in the service during World War II. Then I came home and went to college. That caused me to question what we had been taught in church.”

We changed the subject and tried to enjoy the rest of the evening, but both of us knew that the conversation had been pretty depressing. As we were leaving the restaurant, he said to me, “Thanks for taking the time to be concerned about my spiritual life. I am not as far away from the faith as you might think. But one thing I cannot understand, except for my wife, you are the only person who has ever talked to me about why I don’t gp to church with my family, to say nothing about my relationship with Christ. Why is that? Don’t they care?

I squeezed his hand and said, “That’s just the way we act all too often in our congregations.”

Now let me give you another picture of a home that has had its low moments, but is having some happy times now.

Unlike the first home I described to you, this family, by no stretch of the imagination, could be called an overly pious place. The family was not burdened with a lot of man-made rules. However, the parents knew what the Gospel was all about. The children were continually told that Christ was their Savior, and he would forgive their sins if they trusted him. They attended church faithfully, confirmation was a part of the family agenda, and neither parent was ashamed to share their faith with their children.

As they left home to attend a state university, where there would be plenty of temptation, they knew their sons and daughters would enjoy the excitement of university life. The church had a low priority in their young lives, and they drifted away from the faith. Or did they?

Now they are settled in their professions and are doing well. Today the parents are rejoicing, for they see the power of the Gospel, which is bringing their children into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. They hear a clear testimony from two of their children regarding their relationship with Christ. What is happening? The Gospel that they had heard repeatedly in church and home is being used by the Holy Spirit to bring the back to their childhood faith.

The parents sent them off with a clear intellectual knowledge of God’s love in Christ, and it bore fruit in their lives.

Turning to our text, we meet a heavy-hearted apostle. Paul was struggling with his spiritual children in the Galatian congregation. He had taught them that salvation was received by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Here are his words: “You are all sons of God through faith in Jesus Christ.” It was He who could set them free from their guilt and bring them into a personal relationship with their Heavenly Father. In Christ they became heirs of a mighty inheritance. In Christ, they came to God addressing him as Abba Father. He was a loving God who wanted the best for his children.

But then along came the Judaizers with a religion that majored in the law. “If you want God’s favor, you must be obedient to the law.” It placed a heavy burden on these Galatians, and they did not know where they stood in relation to God. God had become a burden. They were slaves to a system. Paul became emotional in seeing these people swap the Gospel for the Law, which could only put them in bondage.”

This was what my friend, whom I mention in this sermon, had experienced in his early years. He did not rebel to the Gospel. I am sure that he loved to sing “Jesus Loves Me” and still does. This message established a relationship between Jesus and the person. What put a heavy burden around his neck was being told that Jesus was watching every move he made, and the Lord would be angry if he broke the commandments. The young man did not want to be disobedient, but he was helpless. Fear was also being created in his heart when the Sunday school teacher asked her class, “What would you do if Jesus came and found you at a movie?”

It was finally too much for my friend. He left home as a young man to enter the military with a religion of laws, and it brought him no comfort. How different it could have been if the words from Jesus Ð “I am with you always” Ð had spoken to his soul when in the heat of battle.

As teachers of the young, we need to make sure that they leave home with the Gospel. If they should decide to set aside the good news of Christ and his love for a while, the day will come when they will return to their Savior. If our souls are immersed in God’s love, especially as young people, we will not be able to stay away from him for a long period of time. What is even more thrilling is to observe how many of our people do not walk away from Jesus. Look around in your worship service and listen to them sing, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” or “There is a Redeemer.” Many of these people are drawn to the church because their hearts long to hear the Gospel.

That takes us back to the second story at the beginning of this sermon. This family is rejoicing as they see their children, who left home knowing the Gospel, return to the faith. Years had gone by, and they saw that life without Jesus is lacking peace, comfort, and direction.

Paul was trying to help the Galatians separate the Law from the Gospel. Surely the law was God’s Word, too. It would show them how helpless they were to live according to God’s will. But when the Law had done its work and brought them to Christ, Paul wanted his people in Galatia to hear that God forgives, and each day they can start over. That’s grace.

If you had too much religion as a young person, why not take another look at Christianity. You will find that the Christian faith’s message centers in Christ, who daily forgives all of your sins and gives you the strength and direction to become the kind of person you want to be. In Christ, you can have the assurance of your salvation.

Too much religion! Maybe! But never too much of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, and that is what Christianity is all about.

Unity At Its Deepest Level

We live in a world that is growing smaller and smaller. As one person said, “The miles are shrinking.” In 1942 it took 18 hours to travel from Boston to Chicago on one of New York Central’s fastest passenger trains. Today it takes less than two hours to fly from Boston’s Logan Airport to Chicago’s O’Hara. A letter mailed in Westbrook, Maine, was delivered to Dana College in Blair, Nebraska three days later. Today the letter is delivered in three seconds or less.

Not long ago, people from the Mideast and far east were strangers to the average American. Today we know these people as some of the most skilled surgeons working in our hospitals and as some of the most skilled professors on our university faculties.

Once we felt the mighty oceans protected us from the enemy. Today we are told this is no longer true, and we must be prepared to intercept the missiles that could destroy our major cities.

Distance is minimized, and that makes our world seem smaller. Yet, millions of people, who were once complete strangers, are now our next door neighbors, and this makes our world seem larger. We have the opportunity to know so many more people.

What has brought us together as people of the world?

It is sad to say that one of the answers is war. Young men, who have never been more than 75 miles from home, were fighting their relatives in far away Germany or the south Pacific. Suddenly their world was smaller.

On a more positive note, education has made our world larger as we travel and meet so many more people. I recently visited with two of my grandsons. One is studying in Peru; the other one recently returned from England. They have had wonderful opportunities to acquaint themselves with different countries and meet people who have a story to tell that will enrich their lives.

The business world has exploded into all parts of the world. It is not unusual to hear a person say, “I was in India this week,” or “I will be in China for a few days next week.” We are learning more about the thinking of these people and what adjustments we will have to make to win their admiration.

Much good has come from the efforts put forth by many organizations to make us a more united world. However, true unity comes only in Christ. God’s Word speaks to this point: “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”

These were shocking words for the Jews to hear. They had been taught they were God’s special people and not to associate with Gentiles. To be told now that “all who belong to Christ are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise,” was offensive to the Jews, who had been very content with their little flock. The promise God gave to Abraham Ð “You will be this blessed to be a blessing” Ð was now to be shared with all who believed in Christ as Savior and Lord. Suddenly, their little world of just Jewish people grew larger. And the Gentiles in those Galatian congregations got a lot of new brothers and sisters.

But we, who are the spiritual Israel Ð Christians Ð continue to live with the same shocking news. Our oneness is in Jesus Christ. Yet, those who belong to one denomination point their fingers at other Christians who have doctrinal differences and say, “And they are my family,God?” Can Lutherans and Baptists express a oneness in Christ when they have different understandings on baptism? What place do Episcopalians and Pentecostals have with each other when the Pentecostals have very informal worship services and the Episcopalians have formal liturgies and boast of apostolic succession? Because we have conflicting doctrinal differences, we cannot kneel at the same communion rail, nor stand in each other’s pulpits.

God is speaking to us. Our oneness is in Jesus Christ. Can we not ponder our differences and learn from each other while we rejoice in being a part of God’s family in Christ Jesus? The text does not say we are to minimize our individual convictions. However, there can be no disagreement that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God and the only Savior of the world. Brothers and sisters do not always agree in all matters, but there is never a question who their Father is.

In Christ we experience unity at its deepest level, even in a world that is growing smaller and larger at the same time. Amen.

Still Not Enough

It is difficult to deal with an issue in public that is very personal. This is true when we need to talk with the physician about a lump in the breast that might require surgery. It is next to impossible for the big, rugged man to admit he is impotent. The same problem reveals itself when a family, who presents itself as wealthy by the house they live in, the cars they drive, and the social life they enjoy, is forced to file bankruptcy. The bigger the ego, the more difficult it is to make some of our personal problems public.

It is also difficult to confess our spiritual need publicly. After all our religion is a very personal matter Ð just between God and us. Therefore, our relationship with God is not to be discussed with others, not even a spouse, children, or our closest friends. It seems wrong to express one’s relationship with God in the public square. Yet many times listeners have told me, “How I would like to believe my sins could be forgiven. I live with a bundle of guilt. My children have not had a good father. My wife would have been justified to divorce me.”

These same people who with the “boys” joke about standing before St. Peter at the pearly gates longing for the assurance of their own salvation when this life comes to an end. It is a terrible thing when there is no certainty of a place in heaven or to believe there is nothing further after this life is over.

This type of person goes to church with some regularity and enjoys the beautiful hymns and the organ. He enjoys the fellowship at the church, and he has received help from the sermon on subjects that require little or no faith. He is well acquainted with the message of the Christian faith for it has been presented to him from his youth in both church and home. Paul describes this man when he says in our text, “Before your very eyes Jesus Christ has been portrayed as crucified.”

This kind of persons once angered me, but in later years I have a burden for them. Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age, but I believe these people when they say, “We simply cannot believe this wonderful message of Jesus and his love for us. It is not enough that Jesus suffered, died, and was raised for us. The Bible says we have to believe in him, and, to be honest, we don’t believe it.”

If this is an honest confession Ð you would love to believe Ð God speaks to you in our text today. The Bible says, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:17). Then it goes on to say, “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:9). Faith is a gift. It is not something that we develop ourselves.”

It wasn’t enough that God created us and sent Christ to atone for our sins. It was not enough that God raised Christ from the grave on the third day. It is necessary that God, the Holy Spirit, works faith in our hearts that we are able to receive Jesus as our Savior and Lord.

Addressing this part of our relationship with the Lord, Luther wrote, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in the true faith.”

God, who is anxious that no one be lost, will work faith in your heart if you will live with him in his Word. Millions have heard about Jesus, but only a small percentage trust Him as their Savior and Lord. Why? It is only when the Holy Spirit works this faith in the person’s heart that he or she can receive Christ as their Savior and Lord.

“Why, then, does he not go to work in my life,” you ask. “I want to believe what God has promised.”

Do you? Then why do you not set aside some time daily to let Him meet you in his Word? It is in those hours alone with him that God does his work. There are many things we want in our lives, but we do not want them bad enough to do what is necessary to attain them. A close friend finally took this step. After making a million dollars and seeing his marriage end, he picked up Lloyd Ogilvie’s devotional booklet and learned how to have a daily time with God. Each morning this friend was up at 5:00 a.m. until one day the Savior became a conscious part of his life, and he knew what a personal relationship with God was all about.

You should have seen the look on our faces one Thursday at 7:00 when he came to our Bible study group, of which he had been a member for years, and confessed that he had been converted. This friend is a different person. God has performed the miracle. Even today some people wonder if it is really true, but those of us who have studied God’s Word with him for a long time do not question his testimony for a minute.

The same was true with the Apostle Peter. It was not until Pentecost Sunday when the Holy Spirit empowered Peter to believe that his faith was living and real. Fifty-three days before Pentecost, Peter denied Jesus and said he did not know him. This was a man who had walked with him for three years and claimed to trust Jesus, but the Holy Spirit’s work was not done in Peter’s life. Then, on that Pentecost Sunday, when the apostle was anointed by the Spirit, fear was replaced with courage, and he stood before thousands of people and pointed to Jesus as the only Savior of the world.

Paul asks the question, “Does God give you His Spirit, and work miracles among you because you observe the Law, or because you believe what you heard? His answer is clear. It is through hearing the Gospel that the Holy Spirit works faith. “Then,” Paul asks, “why do you leave the Gospel and try to have a Law religion that will not create any relationship with God?” It is Christ and the Gospel, not Moses and the Law, that changes people. The Gospel has the power to make these changes.

Time Magazine (May 9) has an article entitled “Faith and the Frat Boys”. It describes the open lifestyles of students at a midwestern university. Alcohol, drugs, and sex are a way of life for many of the students. Let me quote from the article: “At 3:30 on a Sunday morning, Brandon Straub soberly surveyed the bodies draped across the sofas in his fraternity house at the university. Two girls cuddle and exchange a languid kiss. One’s breast popped out of her low top. ÔHow will they feel when they wake up in the morning?’ Straub asks. Truth is, most of them wouldn’t be up in the morning. By the time the revelers rose, after noon, Straub, 21, who is not only a loyal fraternity member but also a leader in the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, has already gone to church and come back. As some of his frat brothers nurse hangovers and others ponder the situation from the night before, Straub pondered his situation. He walks a fine line of faith at the university. The challenge Straub says is, ÔHow can I serve God and love the guys here?'”

To confront them with the Law of God, stating that such behavior is sin, will do no good. They know this all too well. It is only the Gospel that will change their lives. Straub has concluded that for him to remain strong in the faith, it was best that he live in a communal house with other Christians where they have regular Bible studies and enjoy the Christian fellowship whereby they strengthen each other. Then they can share the Gospel with these people on campus who do not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Similar problems are found in churches where they struggle with problems of sexual behavior. What are some of the subjects that are demanding so much time and money? Here are a few:

Same-sex marriages

Ordination of practicing homosexuals

Cohabitation

Unfaithfulness to marriage vows

How do we in the Church deal with these problems?

On the one side we change our policies, which are biblically based and have guided the Church through the years, and now condone what is happening. All of this is attempting to be done to prevent a split in the church body. On the other side, we dismiss these people from church membership or deny them the right to attend the Lord’s table.

What would the Bible tell us to do? Confront those involved with the Law. Sin is still sin. Then preach the Gospel assuring them that Christ will forgive them and empower them to forsake the past and become new people in Him. As the Gospel is proclaimed, the Holy Spirit will be at work and the changes might just take place.

Such a position will give you new labels Ð legalists, pietists, unkind, judgmental, ignorant of scientific fact. It is in this culture that we are challenged by God’s Word to remain faithful to that Gospel that has been given to us and continues to work in us. For who of us will not admit that God still has many changes to work in our lives?

What’s the Purpose of the Ten Commandments?

What good are the Ten Commandments? This is a much discussed question that solicits many answers. Let us consider some of the answers.

A popular answer in this post-modern culture is, “The commandments are of little or no value in our society where people think everything is relative. There are no absolutes for all situations. It is astounding to hear someone say, “Stealing and lying are not always wrong if these acts benefit a good cause.” Unfaithfulness in marriage might not always be wrong if the relationship between the husband and wife is already gone.”

Because this is the conviction of millions of people in our society, we have a very confused society.

A second answer to the question, “What good are the Ten Commandments?” comes from the more moralistic or legalistic religions. Live obediently with God’s rule and you will win his favor. “The golden rule is my religion. What a world this would be if only people would live with the ethic Ð Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

While the Golden Rule does not summarize the Christian faith, many people prefer Matthew 7:12, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you,” to John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whosoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”

Since the Law was given by God, what does his Word claim is the purpose of the Ten Commandments? Paul raises this question. He writes, “What then is the purpose of the Law?” (19). God had established a covenant with Abraham that he would bless him and make him a blessing to many. From Abraham would come the Jewish people and from these people would come the Savior who would offer salvation to all in the world who would believe in him. The relationship between God and his people would always be built on faith and not the obedience to the Law.

However, four hundred and thirty years after God had given the Covenant Promise to Abraham, the people in His Kingdom were so rebellious that he gave to his appointed leader at the time, Moses, the Ten Commandments. This Law revealed what God’s will was for their lives. This was the way the Almighty wanted them to live. These were the absolutes, the rights and wrongs. But the Law had another purpose. Paul writes, “So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ, that we might be saved through faith.”

According to the Bible, the law reveals who I am. I am a sinner. I cannot keep these laws. I need a Savior to forgive my sins. This Savior is Christ, who is my only hope. When I trust Christ and his grace takes over and builds a relationship between God and me, I am saved and am his child forever.

If we examine our lives in the light of society’s behavior, we fair pretty well. However, examine our lives in the light of God’s Law, and we are in spiritual trouble. The Golden Rule is fine, but the problem is, I cannot live by it. My selfish nature does not permit me to be as concerned about another person as I am about myself. Therefore, in a destitute spiritual condition, we cry out to the Lord for mercy and through faith in Christ, the Savior, we are forgiven. Then we seek to live out of love for this Savior, who is also my Lord. We used to sing a chorus in Bible school:

Open mine eyes, O Lord

Open mine eyes.

Into my darkened heart let thy light arise.

Show me myself, O Lord. Show my Thyself, O Lord.

Show me thy truth, O Lord.

Open mine eyes.

This song pretty much says it all.

Now that we live in a relationship with God through faith in Christ, there are other questions that Paul answers.

Is the Law opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not. It is simply that our salvation is not dependent on the Law. The law shows us how God wants us to live. But it is the relationship with Christ Ð not the law Ð that gives us the power to live by these commandments.

As Christians, we thank God for the Law of God. It shows us what is right and wrong. We lament that our culture thinks it can live with some semblance of order without the law. But seeing our sinfulness as pointed out by the Law, we praise God for the Gospel.

Is there a patriotic use of the Law? Maxie Dunman writes, “The law becomes the code of conduct by which the social structures are ordered and by which we order our lives in relationship to God and others.”