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).

Romans 4:9-12

The question of the salvation of the Gentiles and their place in God’s promise was a serious question for the early Church. Could the Gentiles be saved? If they could be saved, could they be full participants in God’s promise and Church in the same way that the Israelites could? Did they too have to be circumcised? Did anyone have to be circumcises, and, if not, wouldn’t they all be becoming like the Gentiles instead of things working the other way around? Keep in mind that all this came after centuries of separation between Jew and Gentile—separation commanded by God. Yes, many Jews acted out of pride, but many would have had legitimate issues of conscience and stood in desperate need of patient instruction. We see even Peter struggle with this very question in the Book of Acts.

In our reading today, the specific question was whether or not the promise God gave to Abraham was contingent upon circumcision, that is, his identification with Israel, his physical offspring and the children of the covenant from whose lineage the Messiah came. Understanding Abraham was crucial earlier in this book for understanding God’s crediting of righteousness through faith, and now an understanding of Abraham is crucial again. Abraham was declared righteous in chapter 15 of Genesis. It is two chapters before he was circumcised, which probably was a span of several decades. Clearly, if we observe the order, St. Paul shows, the promise and righteousness came long before circumcision. Circumcision did not make Abraham righteousness or create a new status for Abraham before God. Rather, circumcision pronounced what God had already accomplished and was given to Abraham’s children as a sign and seal of the same promise and righteousness God gave Abraham through faith.

It is often much easier to cling to pride in our flesh, in our lineage, in our tradition, or in any number of other things than it is to cling to the promise. Let’s not be mistaken, circumcision was a wonderful thing, a powerful sign and seal given to the Old Testament people of God, but circumcision was not the end. Christ was. May we always take care not to lose Christ in the things designed to point us to him. May we always take care to cling to God’s promise and answer any questions that arise on the basis of it. God has promised us what he promised Abraham and the Israelites: righteousness through Christ. That always comes first. Everything else is chapters later.  

Romans 4:1-8

Imagine if you went to your boss and told him you put in twenty solid hours during your forty hour work week. Would he reward you? That is what we do when we seek to present our works to God, as if he did not deserve to receive them and infinitely more (we always conveniently fail to present the many times we acted against his commands or did not carry them out when we should have). Imagine even if you did go to your boss and could rightly claim that you put in forty solid hours. Would he then have to give you a bonus? Doesn’t he already pay you for forty solid hours and have every right to expect them from you, just as you then have the right to expect to receive your due. There is no gift involved in all this. There is simply work and wages. But St. Paul says God doesn’t count righteousness as a wage, but as a gift, which is a very different thing. When we deal with God, however, we must remember that he has not hired us, he has created us, and for that very reason he does not merely deserve an agreed upon percentage of our time, but all of it in every way.

We do not labor for God to be counted righteousness, because someone who labors for a gift turns that gift into a wage. In reality, no work is truly a good work in God’s eyes, that is a work done by faith, if it is a work done in the hope of reward. Remember in Matthew 25 how surprised the sheep were to hear that they had done good deeds for which the Lord commends? These were not works done in the conscious hope of merit and reward, but rather expressions of a living and active faith.

Your salvation is a gift. Your forgiveness is a gift. You justification is a gift. Rejoice in that, because God does not give and take away like we so often do. God gives eternal gifts received by faith and lost only through unbelief. God never withdraws his gracious hand, although we may push it away through a hope in our own works or a refusal to believe his promises. God has given you a gift. Do what people do when they receive gifts: say thank you. That may seem obvious, but remember for how many years your parents had to remind you to say thank you at your birthday parties and Christmas. Receive God’s gift through faith as a gift, and don’t insult him by pretending it is anything less than a gift and that you can in any way make it more complete. Imagine how insulted your relatives would have been at your birthday party if after each present you had asked, “Now what do I have to do to earn this?” Or, “Now how can I make this gift more complete?” God has gifted you righteousness, mercy, and grace. Believe it, you blessed beggars of God.

“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” Rejoice and be thankful, for not only has God given you something, but he has taken something away as well, covering and removing your sins by placing them on Christ and putting Christ on you. He has taken what made you unpresentable to his Father and given you his righteousness to wear to the feast. All this he has done, not to receive repayment from you, but as a gift. Now do what mom and dad always reminded you to do at Christmas with Grandma and Grandpa and your uncles and aunts: say thank you, and as you grow in your gratefulness for the grace of Christ, you will be surprised how that thank you will express itself in ways you never imagined, in ways you may not even notice until someone else points them out, in ways that seek no reward because they just naturally flow from the gift you’ve received.

Romans 3:27-31

“Give me some props.” Many of you didn’t grow up saying that, but some of us did. What does it mean? Give me credit. Feed my ego. “Give me some props.” Why did I think of that now? I thought of it because St. Paul talks about boasting, and all boasting outside of Christ is illusory and shallow—props—like props on the stage of a play. It may look nice, but it is not the real thing. When the show is done, the props are thrown out or burned. When life is over, our boasting is fit for the same trash bin or fire.

“Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith.” Notice, the fact that we cannot boast in the law does not throw out the law. Notice, the fact that we cannot boast in the law does not mean the law does not indeed command God’s will which is to be upheld. Rather, the fact that we cannot boast in the law means that we have failed to keep it and cannot be saved by it. It means that for every work we attempt to boast in, there are several more that testify against us to our shame. The one who confesses this truth upholds the law, because he acknowledges the perfection of the law, his inability to keep it, and the seriousness of the threats and punishments that result from such transgression. The one who boasts in the law or claims salvation by it does not uphold it, because he inevitability robs it of its perfection, stripping it of those commands he cannot keep, pretending it is something trite and unproblematic, playing down the threats and punishments that result from transgression, denying them when he must. Such a person is like someone who claims it is not hard to reproduce a Picasso work, and then proceeds to ruin the original in order to make it easier to copy.

The law is fulfilled in Christ alone, for it is Christ alone that kept the law all his days, Christ alone who submitted as the venomous threats of the law were carried out as physical and spiritual torture on Good Friday, Christ alone who was laid in the tomb that we also might rise from it. There is no middle ground. “It is finished,” or it is not. Boast in works or trust in Christ. Revel in shallow praise or take refuge in Christ’s wounds. Be damned by works or justified by faith. Either way, the law is to be done, in the vain hope of salvation, or as a sacrifice of praise and thanks to the God who has redeemed you. The law has not been negated. It still bears God’s commands and reveals his will. For that reason, it must be kept. The flesh will keep it to avoid punishment and earn favor. Christians will keep it because they love the Lord, and thus they love his law, seeing in it an opportunity to serve their God and their neighbor, seeing in it God’s love for them as he commands the very things that benefit both us and society. The law is not excluded. Boasting in the law is. The law is not rejected. It is fulfilled, but not by us. It is fulfilled in Christ, and it is only in Christ that we can observe it with works flowing, not from pride or self-interest, but from faith and love, with hearts knowing we cannot fulfill it, with hearts knowing that Christ, however, has done so on our behalf. In him we boast. In him, we serve. In him, we offer up our sin-stained works—for even are best works still bear our sin—and in him, the Father rejoices in these sacrifices of praise, which is itself an act of grace.

Advent: New Year, New Life

Happy New Year, people! That’s right, the Christian Church doesn’t wait for the rest of the world to celebrate the new. We live in the new. We are new people. We await a new heaven and a new earth. We walk in newness of life. We have been given new birth into a living hope. I could go on, but once in a while I should try to keep these blog posts short.

We at Let the Bird Fly! are all about new life. We are about living freely in a world given back to us. Sometimes we get the point across better than others. Sometimes that focus frames what we do better than others. For all the times we’ve failed to get out of the way of that message, forgive us. For the times we’ve managed to help bring it home, we give thanks and glory to God. At the end of the day, we want to be and are about letting the bird fly, about freedom in Christ, about sinners learning to fly as saints—and we are chief of those. As the psalmist sang, so we podcast, “We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped! Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 124:7,8 ESV).

As we discussed in our last episode, Advent is about Christ’s coming, His arrivals. Christ came at the Annunciation and Christmas as God in the flesh, one of us for us. From the virgin womb He went to the virgin tomb, from the wood of the manger to the wood of the cross, from the Gloria of angels to the Alleluias of fear-fraught disciples, slow to believe, yet moved by angelic “Don not be afraid”s. Just as importantly, Christ will come again, and He will come, not in terrors for us, for we are His and He is ours, but with healing in His wings, with a new home, now long prepared, our baptismal birthright. And so we pray a hopeful prayer this new season, this first season of the church year. We pray, indeed, we plead, insist, “Come, Lord Jesus, come!”

Advent marks a new year—no need to wait for the world to catch up to us. Happy New Year! And this new year means new life. Washed daily in the waters of your baptism, relived through contrition and absolution, through daily repentance, go forth as a child of God into a world you can recognize and enjoy for what it is: filled with gifts, marvelous gifts, and yet penultimate. And in the freedom that provides such perspective, there’s no need to search desperately for a way to thank God, to serve Him. He’s already set you in such stations, plopped you on such paths. You have vocations. He has prepared in advance works for you to walk in, in newness of life, even with all the stumbling of a sinner-saint.

We don’t always get it right on the podcast. We don’t always say things as well as we’d like, or as charitably, or as clearly, or, well, a lot of things. Ultimately, though, we pray you’ll jump into this new year with us (and season two of the podcast, which starts now), into this new year in and with Christ, who is all for us. Live freely in a world given back to you, friends. Live free in Christ, crucified for sinners—and we qualify! Christ has come. Christ still comes. Christ will come again, all for you and for me, and for Ben, and for Mike, and even for Peter. Happy New Year! Let the bird fly!

Wade Johnston

For more content like this, check out the podcast, blog posts, and devotions at www.LetTheBirdFly.com.

Romans 3:19-28

Note: This devotion and the next are revised from past sermons Wade preached, so there is some crossover in the verses covered and some themes. 

A conscience can be a dangerous thing. A conscience can bring horrible questions into peoples’ minds. A conscience is what got the Reformation started: a conscience that took the words seriously that there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Someone read this and believed it, because their personal experience confirmed its veracity all too well. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

Our Savior taught in the Sermon on the Mount: You must therefore be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Not you must be pretty good, or you must be better than that other guy, but perfect. In that same sermon, He said: I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Outwardly, the Pharisees were the most righteous people of all, but Jesus here says He expects something even more: real, perfect righteousness of thought, word, and deed, righteousness that does all the right things all the time for all the right reasons and with all the right thoughts. Who can do that? Our text answers that: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

The Greek for “sinned,” simply put, means to “miss the mark.” This implies that one may indeed be aiming at the right thing, intending the right result, but nevertheless missing the bull’s-eye. It is impossible to do any perfect work that measures up to what God deserves. We cannot woo or bribe God. There is nothing we can give Him that isn’t His in the first place. As sinners, we cannot do a perfect work because we are not perfect people. A murderer may buy his victim flowers for their grave, but he remains a murderer and his relationship with his victim remains severed by his previous evil act. Manure painted up nicely is still just painted manure.

The Greek for “fall short” means “to come too late, to miss, to fail to reach, to be lacking, to come short of.” All of our works come too late. We are born enemies of God, heirs of original sin, and, for that reason, have already missed our chance at perfection and a relationship with the Father. That is why we need Baptism from the moment we leave the womb. A poisoned tree may produce beautiful fruit, but the fact remains that its fruit will bear its poison. The difference between the fruit on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and on the other trees in Eden was not necessarily its appearance, but what it bore.

“Almost only matters with horseshoes and hand grenades,” it’s been said. We recognize that in the real world almost doesn’t cut it, yet when it comes to spiritual matters, we often expect almost to be good enough for God. An old black and white television wit rabbit ears is good enough for getting the news and the football game, but how many of us sport such a picture box in our living rooms? Yet, many individuals and church bodies are comfortable making good enough the standard God will use with us on Judgment Day. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. You have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. How? I think you already know how. I know God already knows how. A conscience can be a dangerous thing.

But there is something that can be even more dangerous than a conscience. It doesn’t look dangerous. Most dismiss it as harmless and outdated, but it is the most dangerous thing of all. If you need proof, look at how the world has sought to discredit it for the last two thousand years. In our Holy Gospel, Jesus says, If you abide in My Word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. Luther got a hold of that Word, and something happened. Before he was tempted to hate God, this arbitrary Judge who was going to damn him no matter how hard he tried to be saved, who had given him commands no one could possibly keep perfectly. Rule after rule, sermon after sermon, book after book, demanded righteousness, but none could bring that righteousness into grasp, at least not for the honest conscience and the thoughtful mind. Luther writes:

“That expression ‘righteousness of God’ was like a thunderbolt in my heart. When under the papacy I read, ‘In thy righteousness deliver me’ [Ps. 31:1] and ‘in thy truth,’ I thought at once that this righteousness was an avenging anger, namely, the wrath of God. I hated Paul with all my heart when I read that the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel. Only afterward, when I saw the words that follow—namely, that it’s written that the righteous shall live through faith—and in addition consulted Augustine, was I cheered. When I learned that the righteousness of God is his mercy, and that he makes us righteous through it, a remedy was offered to me in my affliction.” (LW 54, 308).

This book, the Bible, is a dangerous thing, I tell you. Men and women do crazy things when they discover the grace of God in Christ. That God would become man for me, that God would die for me, that God would rise for me, that can make a heart explode with gratitude and joy. We fall short, but Christ does not. Yes, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, but looks what comes next: and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. You are justified. The word means you have been “declared righteous.” What you could not be by your own works, God has declared you to be in Christ. Your sin became Christ’s and His perfection is now yours, through Baptism, Absolution, Communion, and the Word. You have been saved by grace through faith, and now, now you can do what you could never do before: you can live for God, as His workmanship, doing what He has divinely prepared for you to do.

A conscience can be a dangerous thing, but the Bible is a dangerous thing, too, and in the best way. For me. God was crucified for me. Forget the all for the moment. You have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But, my brothers and sisters, you are also justified by His grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward for you as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by you by faith. You’ve got a conscience. You’ve got a Bible. Your conscience is clean. The Bible is full of “for you”s and “for me”s. In that we have life. In that we have freedom. In that our sins are gone and we are righteous.