Audio from the evening service.
In the name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Lutherans, for your whole lives, have always been going on about works. That we are saved by grace alone through faith, apart from works. (Eph. 2:8-9) It has become so repetitive a refrain that we almost drown it out in our minds. Its so common, so banal, I don’t know if we always know what it means that we’re saved by faith not works. But there are some risks for us Lutherans: that we lose track of what works are, what their role is in the life of faith is. Thus: that we despise works and fall into antinomianism or that we turn faith into our work.
I’ll get into that in a second, but first ,what is saving faith? It is fear, love, and trust in Christ Jesus as your saviour from sin and death. (Rom. 3:22-25a) And those words are important. For not only are they the words used in the Small Catechism, but they are also words used in Holy Scripture. For the Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. (Ps. 111:10) Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. (Matt. 22:37; Deut. 6:5) O Lord of Hosts, blessed is the one who trusts in you! (Ps. 84:12) And all these words which describe what faith is are not things that you work in yourself! You do not merely walk along the street and say to a random person: “I choose to fear you." No, by the nature of someone’s power, aggression, or sense of danger around them they are worthy of fear. Fear is response within you to that which is threatening. And your first encounter with the Lord (apart from His Sacraments) is fearful. For He is the all powerful, almighty, maker of heaven and earth. That sense of awe you have at a sunset or mountain vista is recognition that He holds heaven and earth, life and death in His hand. And He will judge all souls. It is foolish not to fear such a One.
In the same way, trust is not something you choose. Trust is born in you by experience as you realize that that Almighty fear inducing God is indeed good. Compassionate. And He wants what is best for you. He wants to save you from own sin and failure.
And love is the same. You don’t merely choose to love something. You simply do. By virtue of what it is. We love the good, the beautiful, the righteous, the innocent, the defenceless, etc. This is a general truth of existence. It is how God molded and fashioned us. (Ps. 139:13-14) And I’m not talking about the surface level infatuations and flights of fancy that strike us from time to time. I am talking about the inward recognition of truth and beauty. Moreover, He has knit us together is such a way that He births in you a in us a desire to love and care for own flesh and blood. Even the hardest hearted criminal loves his own child. He may not be capable of doing anything right by that child, but he has compassion and a desire to protect and care for such a child, so long as mental illness, addiction, or a background of abuse do not render such a one completely unable to act on that desire to love their own child.
So that since faith is fear, love, and trust in the Triune God who saves it is something that is granted to you. Given to you by virtue of who God is. He interacts with you by His Word and calls you to faith. (Rom. 1:16) He creates fear of Himself in you by His power, trust of Himself in you by His gracious providence and saving actions, and love of Himself in you by granting you a new heart which loves Him. So that faith is not your work, but merely a result of who you are, because you have encountered the Triune God and been changed by that encounter.
Faith is not your work. It is a passively received thing, because you did nothing to create it, nor do you do much to sustain it (except receive His Word and Sacraments). It is a work of the Holy Spirit in you which trusts in the Father because you love Him on account of Christ’s self-sacrifice to save you.
And faith in His promises of unmeritted favour is your assurance of salvation. Though when you look at faith as your action then faith can’t be trusted. For your actions, your works, on this side of heaven are tainted by sin. They are not perfect. Thus, if you view faith as a perfect work, or something that must be perfect, then you are viewing faith as your work. And it will fail you. It will give you no comfort. No assurance that you are saved.
However, faith is not your work. For the Gospel, that good news of salvation in Jesus, is the power of God for your salvation. (Rom. 1:16) It is the power that created faith in you. That sustains faith in you. And faith is like pregnancy. There are stages of pregnancy where it does not show and where it is obvious to all, but if you are pregnant, you are never “a little” bit pregnant. You either are or aren’t pregnant. It is the same with faith. You never have little bit of faith, or a lot of faith. You either have it or you don’t. So whether it is obvious that you are full of faith or not, doesn’t matter. It is there, or it isn’t. Even the desire to believe in Jesus is faith. For a bruised reed He will not break, and a smouldering wick He will not snuff out. (Isa. 42:3) Rather, He will fan into flame that which about to die. (Isa. 42:3-4; 2 Tim. 1:6) For faith is faith. He is its source. He is its sustainer. Our faith hopes in Christ’s blood shed for you. (Rom. 3:22-26) And the fact that you have it, the fact that it draws forth from you a confession of trust in His blood shed for you is evidence of things unseen (Heb. 11:1) of that salvation which is yours on account of Christ’s cross.
So works—your good actions in accord with God’s Law—are not your assurance of salvation. Rather the Law and your failure to keep it, which we preach constantly, upholds the Law and its goodness. (Rom. 3:31) But pointing out that you do not measure up to the Law shows that you need a saviour. That it is not your works of the Law which will save you, but faith in Christ Jesus whom the Father put forward on your behalf as the sacrifice—that which propitiates your sins—paying for them on your behalf. (Rom. 3:24-25a) So that there is no more boasting: (Rom. 3:27)neither in your ability to keep the Law, nor in your freedom from it. For it is all granted to you graciously apart from your works and received by you in faith.
Which brings us back to one of our Lutheran temptations: that we fall into antinomianism. Antinomianism is a teaching that the Law is not necessary and that works are detrimental to your faith. Often times young passionate Lutherans discovering God’s grace for first time will stagger around drunk on God’s grace, making proclamations that works are not necessary. In fact, even harmful to faith! (Which they are if you trust in works, for then they become your God.) But we who are saved by the Father’s grace in Christ received in us by faith apart from works realize that all is gift. That good works which truly flow from faith are a gift too. That when we love one another as Christ loves us, when we fulfill the callings God has given each one of us, so that we each have what we need in this world despite its sin, that this is a blessing of His grace to us. Received by faith.
In +Jesus’ name, Amen.
—Pastor David Haberstock
Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church