Romans 6:12-14

St. Paul has proclaimed sin’s tyrannical rule in our bodies overthrown. The body of sin and death has been destroyed. Now what? Was destruction the end result? No, “let not sin reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.” Before we were like a donkey, driven this way and that by the will of Satan and the passions of the flesh. Now, however, our cruel rider has been cast off, and a new Master, Jesus Christ, leads us. Not only have we been freed from sin and its horrible reign, but we have also been freed to serve, given a new will in moral matters, so that, through faith in Christ and empowered by Christ and in Christ we can now serve and love Christ in and through our neighbor. In this way, we can cease doing what is contrary to our renewal and begin doing what is in keeping with it.

St. Paul does not say this is easy. Oftentimes rebuilding after removing a tyrant takes as much or more time than removing him. Our mortal bodies have been ravaged by sin, our members knowing sin’s pleasures, our minds knowing sin’s thought processes. Thus, tearing down, building again, and then, and only then, providing service is no easy task. St. Paul tells us to present our “mortal” bodies. Our bodies are still subject to the passions of the flesh, and for this reason our resistance must be vigilant, constant, prayerful, and well fed. No one would hire a starving man to guard a priceless treasure, and Christ does not expect a starving man or woman to protect his priceless treasure, his instruments of righteousness, his living sacrifices. He feeds us with Word and sacrament, encouraging and instructing us for battle.

St. Paul gives us commands today in the first two verses of our lesson, but like a good preacher, like Christ himself, St. Paul doesn’t end without a promise. “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” We are under grace. We are forgiven, and, when we are forgiven we are empowered. Sin win its battles, but it has no dominion, it has no reign, it has been thrown off the donkey. All we need to fear is that we—not God, but we—choose to let him get back in the saddle. In Christ, through Christ, with Christ we surely never will. “Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.” Christ has presented us as righteous to the Father, taking our sin and giving us his righteousness through his death and resurrection. Let us present ourselves as righteous as well, doing what the righteous do, going where our Master leads us. 

Romans 6:1-11

And the font sits in the corner. And the certificate is somewhere in the attic. And the date goes unremembered and uncelebrated. And the concept as a whole is just plain lost even though we claim to be Lutherans who cling to Word and sacrament. And what is it but word and water, the sacrament of baptism?

Why would God give us such a sacrament, one that kills and makes alive, drowns and saves at the same time? Why would God give us such a sacrament, one that is relived daily through the confession of our sins and God’s forgiveness? Why? Because what wretched men and women we are! How quickly don’t we run back to sin and death, like a dog to its vomit and a sow to wallow in the mire! Why do we shower every day, or several times a day even? Because we get so dirty. Why must we return to our Baptism every day, pleading our union with Christ and his death through it, begging God’s mercy? Because we get so dirty. Because we are in constant need of newness of life. Because, by grace, God gives it again, just as he first did in baptism, by grace and grace alone, God brought many of you to the font in the arms of parents, without asking you beforehand, without giving you any opportunity to run away, and he made you his just like that, and he has kept you that way to this day, even though, as your legs have gotten stronger they have so often raced you away from the cross, the font, the altar, the pulpit, the Bible.

Now what? Live in newness of life. Do not sin that grace may abound, but also do not become so foolish so as to despair as if grace did not abound, because it does. The gospel is not an excuse for sin; the gospel is the forgiveness of sins. The gospel does not merely pronounce a freedom from bondage, but a new freedom to serve as a slave to the Savior and not only to the Judge. Why serve? “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”  

You have been crucified with Christ. You have died with Christ, and the death Christ died was a death to sin. Consider yourselves dead to sin. It is no longer your master. It is no longer the measure of your happiness. It is no longer the object of your addiction. It is no longer the center of your universe. It no longer sets your equilibrium; rather, it disturbs your balance and walk with Christ. Have you sinned? Be baptized. Drown your sin in those waters of salvation, confessing them to God, confessing them to your pastor, who speaks in God’s stead, if they particularly trouble you. Drown your sin, but don’t just drown your sin. Drown yourself as well, because that is what happens when the absolution is proclaimed: death. No, not a death like Adam’s death, but a death with Christ to sin, and a death that, as we heard yesterday, brings life.

The font should never sit in the corner. In fact, you should never see or pass this fountain of grace thoughtlessly. The certificate should not be packed away in the attic; it should be more prominent than some trinket you bought at a garage sail or a painting of a barn. The date shouldn’t go unremembered or uncelebrated, because it is your better birthday, the date you were born with Christ to new life rather than born with Adam to die. No, it should never be just a concept you learned in catechism class or heard pastor wax eloquently about in bible class. Concepts are abstract. Water is concrete, and water with the Word hits the old Adam and the hardened sinner like concrete, knocking the old way of thinking out of their ears and proclaiming a new Life, a new Way, a real Truth. In short, it shouldn’t be any of these things listed in the first paragraph, because it should be baptism, and baptism is never just a place or certificate or date or concept, baptism is death with Christ and life in his resurrection. Baptism is freedom from slavery and freedom to serve. Baptism is the voice that every morning cries into your ear: “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Tune down all the distractions and hear it, because baptism is Christ and Christ is in your baptism.

Romans 5:12-17

Therefore is an important word. It tells us to look back, because what follows goes with what precedes. These verses explain the significance of Christ dying for the ungodly, of Christ reconciling lost sinners to the Father. These verses make it clear that Christ’s death and resurrection are the single most significant events in human history. Before Christ came, the most significant event was the fall into sin, which brought death into the world. The lingering impact of that event was clear, because all died, whether slowly or quickly, after leaving the womb. The very same womb that brought forth life in essence brought forth death. But a better, greater, more significant event would come, as God promised, through the more blessed womb of a virgin.

Christ came. God became man. Did you stop to think about those two short sentences, those five words? Probably not, because we speak of these things as if they were old news or run of the mill events, but they are not. Christ came. God became man. Life was sown through death so that through dying we now enter life. Christ has done what no man can do: he has cured death. Christ has done what no man can do: he has restored paradise. Christ has done what no man can do by undoing what man has done. Christ has done what no man can do by becoming man.

Grace abounds. Undeserved love abounds. Grace and love abound because Jesus Christ was shown no grace and was stripped of his Father’s love on Calvary. Christ drank the cup of God’s wrath down to the dregs so that the cup of his grace may never run empty, always flowing with his blood as the widow of Zarapheth’s oil jar once flowed with oil. Sin abounds, but grace abounds more. Death abounds, but life abounds more, for no longer do we Christians die, but rather sleep to awake at our Lord’s return. The Seed of Adam was placed in the ground and died, as seeds do. But the Seed did not stay dead, but rather brought forth what Adam could not: a harvest of life. We too like him will die, but we will not die Adam’s death. We will die the death of our Savior, the Seed, which is no death at all, but a new birth into life. Grace abounds.

Romans 5:6-11

Weak—what does that mean? We might think it’s cut and dry, but it’s not. Pistons fans know Ben Wallace was “Big Ben.” Yet, imagine if the first time you saw “Big Ben” he was standing next to Shaq. He’s not so big then. Back in the day, I often had to chuckle when I saw “Big Ben” guarding O’Neal. Think about what life must be like for a basketball player. All week they’re giants—even most guards—and then they show up for the big game and are little men—little men!—that is, until they stand next to a fan. Big and little, strong and weak, depending on the task and setting.

Because I like to lift weights (I should get back into that habit more regularly now), Nicholas, my son, liked to lift weights as well in our basement when he was little, so we got him some tiny iron to pump. My wife joked that we were Hans and Franz. It was rather humorous. We’d finish a set, grunt, because he liked grunting, and then look at our muscles. I’d tell him, “Oh, you are so strong.” And he felt strong, because he didn’t realize that his weights are much lighter than mine. But then he’d show how endorphins affect the brain, because, with adolescent testosterone flowing, he’d go to pick up Daddy’s weights. You should have seen the shock on his face when he couldn’t lift them. He just went from being strong to being weak, because his weakness was measured according to the feat of strength he attempted. So also, St. Paul tells us what task we were and are too weak to accomplish, no matter how strong we may feel in other matters. We are too weak to achieve reconciliation with God.

Paul writes, “For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Christ died for sinners. The word “sinner” means one who misses the mark or falls short of a standard. The archer sins when he misses the target. The piece of clothing sins at Hanes when inspector #246 deems it unsatisfactory and throws it out. Christ died for sinners. Christ died for us. aViewed through the eyes of a perfect, holy, righteous God, we were hardly up to par. We missed the mark in numerous ways. We fell way short of his standards. Yet Christ not only risked his life to save us; he gave his life. The strong saved the weak, which is not so common in our world.

From little on, we human beings learn the value of strength. We learn that the strong win and the weak lose. Thus, the strong boy bullies the weak one in grade school, and then the weak boy gets revenge when he uses his mental strength to start a business, delighting while the bully struggles in the real world. The strong nation conquers the weak one. The strong team not only beats the weak team, but trounces them, stopping only when the ump intercedes with a call for mercy. Even in our familial relationships, we use our strength to our advantage, throwing out another’s sins to beat them into submission, using financial leverage to control each other. Yet Christ did not use his strength that way. Christ used his strength to save the weak.

“Don’t say sorry unless you mean it.” How many times did mom say that? Maybe you really did mean it, but your parents wanted you to suffer a bit. Maybe you didn’t mean it but just wanted to get them off your back. The fact of the matter is that when it comes to repairing, that is, reconciling broken relationships, sorry is a powerful weapon, as we refuse to say it or say it even though we don’t mean it. Even worse, sometimes “Sorry just doesn’t cut it,” as you may have been told.

God could have said to us “Don’t say sorry unless you mean it” and “Sorry just doesn’t cut it.” As weak, ungodly sinners and enemies of God, even if we did say sorry, we certainly couldn’t fix the damage we’d done. So Christ came. He not only said our sorry but fixed our damage, even though he didn’t have to. He became strong in weakness, dying to save us, to reconcile us to God and restore for us a right relationship with him—a relationship made possible through Christ alone and sustained through Christ alone.

You have been reconciled to God. By entering our human weakness and bearing our human sin, Christ has brought us a new strength and free forgiveness. Rejoice in this reconciliation, as St. Paul says a Christian will, reflecting it in your relationships with others. Be strongest in weakness as you use your strength for the weak and work forgiveness where sin has reared its head. Serve each other even when you think the other doesn’t deserve it and falls short of your standards. Realize that, no matter how strong you may feel at times, you are always weak standing before God, as “Big Ben” is little next to Shaquille O’Neal. Like Nicholas with his weight, imitating his father, be spurred on by Christ’s strength, and grow in your own by looking to Christ, watching what he’s done, imitating it, and, most importantly, making his strength your own, letting him lift your weight when your weak little arms can’t bear as much as you imagine they can. You are weak, but Christ is strong, and thank God for that, because in Christ’s strength you have a strength you yourself could never muster; you have reconciliation with God.

Romans 5:1-5

“We have peace with God.” “We rejoice in our sufferings.” Which one is it, Paul? Or is this just another time when the Christian says yes to what seems to be two irreconcilable situations? Yes, because the irreconcilable is reconciled in Christ, man to God, peace to suffering, etc.

We tend to think of peace in the negative, don’t we? Peace means no war. Peace means no conflict. Peace means no tension. We think of the peace of the hippies. But God’s peace is infinitely more than the cessation of something. It is the giving of something. The Hebrews in the Old Testament did not only say “peace” to each other, but “shalom.” St. Paul was schooled in the Old Testament, and the New Testament springs from and fulfills the Old, and, for this reason, much can be drawn from St. Paul’s use of the word “peace.” The peace St. Paul talks about is wholeness, a renewal in our intended relationship to God and in his image. This relationship with God through Christ and renewal in his image in Christ cannot be taken away or compromised through suffering. Rather, through suffering we are able to identify all the more to the Suffering Servant who identified with our suffering by experiencing it as no one else ever has or will, by taking our place under the wrath of God, by severing his relationship with the Father, being forsaken, that our relationship with him might be repaired.

We not only have peace, but “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” This peace has brought us where we could never stand on our own: into God’s grace, having been given access through faith. No matter how our human relationships may suffer, no matter how our standing in this world may shift, our relationship with God has now been made whole and we stand planted firmly in the grace of God. When depressed, we have access to God. When confused, we have access to God. When overwhelmed, we have access to God. When broke, we have access to God. When betrayed, we have access to God. In all these situations and more, we have access to God, and not only access to God, but access to the God who has given his Son that we may have access to him, not in his wrath, but in his grace, who uses the trials and temptations of this life, brought by Satan, for our own good, strengthening the muscles of our faith as they are stretched and tested through earthly trouble.

No, we are not carried away to a trouble-filled and fluffy world of ease, but we are also never abandoned to the struggles we face. In our depression, we remember that God has pulled us out of depths before—out of hell itself—giving his Son for us to show how much he values us. When confused, we know that we don’t have to know all the answers, but that God does and has promised to work things for our benefit. When overwhelmed, we rejoice to know that there is no burden that Christ, who carried the sins of the world on his shoulders, cannot help us shoulder until its time has passed. In financial troubles, we know that we have treasures no moth or rust can destroy that no one can take and that our Lord himself walked this world with no home or wealth. When betrayed, we know that our Lord was betrayed as well, that he knows what we are feeling, and that he himself will never leave us nor forsake us. We can rejoice in suffering, because in suffering we have peace, not the peace that passes when conflict arises, but the peace that means the most precisely when conflict comes. We can rejoice in suffering, because, while suffering wears the unbeliever down, suffering builds the believer up, because we believe upon Christ, who is strongest in weakness, won his greatest victory in suffering, who uses our trials to teach us trust and build up the muscles of our faith.

Romans 4:18-25

This devotion is a revision of a sermon Wade gave earlier in his ministry, which is why it is longer than most of the others. 

We love to appropriate what is not ours. From little on, we learn to declare that things that aren’t ours are ours. The toddler claims everything is hers. The sports fan uses “we” when his team has won, as if sitting on the couch drinking beer got the team through the crucial fourth quarter. Most of you drove “your” cars here. How many of you will go home to “your” house? Do you own those things? Perhaps you own the bedrooms and bathroom, but the living room, dining room, and kitchen are the bank’s; yet, we call them “ours.” 

We learned earlier in Romans about righteousness and how you don’t have any of your own, but that you have Christ’s, applied to you through faith. Well, guess what? We are in a new chapter of Romans and St. Paul is still stressing that same point. Why? Because we sinful wretches, in this case, need to be determined to claim what is not ours as ours.

God gave Abraham God’s promise, which was God’s to keep. How did Abraham know he had to trust God’s promise and not help it along? He had tried to help it along already. Abraham twice lied about Sarah being his wife when in foreign lands for fear that the foreigners would kill him for his wife, because she was beautiful, failing to trust that God would keep him alive long enough to have his promised son. Abraham had heeded Sara’s advice about having a son, impregnating her maidservant Hagar, thinking he would fulfill God’s promise for him, which backfired big time. Abraham had tried helping God’s promise and failed, and so he was left with two options: despair or believe. By God’s grace, he believed, even when every human experience, thought, and emotion contradicted what God said.

That is what faith does. It sees God as God and lets God be God. It sees me as me and, contrary to every instinct, admits I am me. It clings to God’s promise as the only thing that can bridge God as God and me as me. Faith is not convenient. In fact, faith often travels the most inconvenient of routes. Faith does not declare, “I can’t believe God would want this for me.” Faith declares, “If this is what God wants for me, I will trust him.” Faith moved martyrs to lose their head to win a crown. Faith blinds its eyes when challenged by human wisdom and clings to God’s folly. Faith rests on God’s unchanging promise and says, “Let shifting feelings and shady thoughts be damned. God is God and I am me.” And that is why faith is precisely what we fear most.

But we must stop here now, lest you get the wrong impression. We live in a culture that cherishes faith. Everyone has it, to some degree, in some people and things. The logical question is: faith in what? Faith is not powerful because it is faith, but because of its object. For instance, many retirees had faith, even strong faith, in the companies they retired from to supply their pensions. Ask retirees hit by the last big economic downturn about the power of that faith. No, faith is only as strong as its object, and the object of Christian faith is Christ.

Christ was the real foundation of God’s promise to Abraham. Christ was the Seed to be born of Abraham, to be a blessing to the nations as the Savior of all men and women. St. Paul writes in Galatians (3:16), “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his Seed. It does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your Seed,’ who is Christ.” Faith is only the faith of the Bible when it is faith in Christ. Other faith may look like real faith and sound like real faith, but a toy gun can look and sound like the real thing too. Wouldn’t you hate to learn the difference in the middle of a battle?

So what happened with this faith God gifted to Abraham through his promise? It was credited to him as righteousness. It was credited, and this is important. In bygone days, this might have been a harder concept to understand, but not anymore. We have an economy fueled by credit. When you go to Meijer or Kroger and give them your MasterCard, you are credited whatever you charge. You don’t buy it. MasterCard does and, until you pay them back, you continue to have it on loan. So also, God credited righteousness to Abraham. It was not Abraham’s. It was credited to him, only God doesn’t expect to be paid back, because we can’t pay back righteousness. We can’t pay back what we can’t produce, and at best we can produce only counterfeit righteousness, which would be like sending Monopoly money to Discover. God has credited righteousness to us in the same way fathers often loan money to their teenagers, knowing it isn’t really a loan.

Normally credit comes with a high price. How many news stories have we seen about college students racking up huge debts because they realize this too late. They make credit cards out of plastic for the same reason casinos use chips instead of dollars: because then it doesn’t seem like real money and, therefore, people spend it like it’s not real money, that is, until the time comes to pay up. Yet God’s credit does not come with a high price. It comes with no price at all. It is free. It is grace, placed into the open, beggarly hand of faith. Imagine if all credit worked that way. How many of you would be living in larger homes with fancier cars? Yet that is how God’s crediting of righteousness works.

Using Visa’s credit liberally results in bankruptcy, but using God’s credit liberally, that is, believing his gospel promises, results in salvation. Use God’s credit of righteousness, his promise, to cover your debts, to cover your doubts, temptations, and transgressions. Don’t worry, you won’t run out of credit, that is, unless you cut off your credit line by neglecting God’s promise in Word and Sacrament and rejecting God’s righteousness by persistent, willful sin.

If your bank told you not to bother paying back your mortgage, you probably would be skeptical. It would run counter to everything you had ever heard and experienced. Banks don’t just forgive tens of thousands of dollars in debts. God, however, does forgive debts that way, just as we forgive our debtors. Just as you would doubt the bank’s sincerity, so also we are tempted to doubt God’s promise, especially when it runs counter to what we hear and experience. Yet if the bank forgives your mortgage, it is forgiven. If God forgives your sin, it is forgiven. All there is left to do is believe it, and, through Word and Sacrament, God leads us to do just that. God has credited your faith, given by him and pointing to him made man in Christ Jesus, to you as righteousness. Believe it, for in believing, like Abraham, you honor God, while unbelief dishonors him and calls him a liar. Believe, no matter what your thoughts, feelings and surroundings may say, because God is not a man that he should lie, nor can he do so. Your debt is forgiven. Your redemption is paid. Don’t try to pay it back.

Romans 4:13-17

“For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.” As I started to study the Bible more seriously before joining the Lutheran Church and then at Martin Luther College, I always found Romans to be a rather intimidating book, but I recognized its importance, and so I would often stumble through it, struggling to follow St. Paul’s line of thought. To be honest, there are still plenty of places in this book where I wrestle and wrestle to understand St. Paul more clearly. This verse is a prime example, but, although it took me a while to get it, I am glad I did, because it is one of the most beautiful verses in the Scriptures. 

“All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18-19). If we reject Christ, we stand before God with the law as the sole standard for our judgment, and the law brings wrath, because we have transgressed its commands. Yet God does not judge his faithful based on the law alone, because the faith he has worked in the faithful clings to Christ, and Christ has removed the law as a standard for our judgment. Yes, the law still brings wrath and judges, but its wrath and judgment has been visited upon Christ and not us. The promise to Abraham did not come through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. So also, God’s gospel promises to us do not come through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. Where there is no law, there is no wrath, no transgression to be judged. “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:13-14). Apart from Christ, there is law, there is transgression, there is wrath before God’s judgment seat. In Christ, there is the promise that comes through the righteousness of faith, based not on works, but resting on grace, so that it may be guaranteed, not only to Abraham, and not only to Israel, but to all the sons and daughters of Abraham who share his faith and thereby have become his offspring. There is no law, not because the law has been nullified, but because it has been fulfilled in Christ, and it has visited its wrath upon Christ, and what is done in Christ and upon Christ is done for the benefit of Christ’s brothers and sisters, the Father’s children through the promise.

Perhaps St. John Chrysostom said it more clearly that I can, “Now if [the law] worketh wrath, and renders them liable for transgression, it is plain that it makes them so to a curse also. But they that are liable under a curse, and punishments, and transgression, are not worthy of inheriting, but of being punished and rejected. What then happens? Faith comes, drawing on it the grace, so that the promise comes into effect. For where grace is, there is a remitting, and where remitting is, there is no punishment. Punishment then being removed, and righteousness succeeding from faith, there is no obstacle to our becoming the heirs of promise” (Homilies on Romans, Homily VIII).