2 Lent, Proper A2
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
Romans 4:1-5; 13-17 Sermon
March 12, 2017
Click here for service internet broadcast/podcast.
Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal & With One Voice):
TLH 340 "Awake My Soul, To Joyful Lays"
TLH 245 "God Loved The World"
TLH 297 "The Gospel Shows The Father's Grace"
WOV 780 "Leaning On The Everlasting Arms"
WHAT YOU DO, OR WHAT YOU BELIEVE?
TEXT: (vs. 13-16) “It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless, because law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression. Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham's offspring— not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.”
This morning, I’m going to share an Australia story with you. To lead into it, you first have to understand that I was ministering to a group spread out over four states and about twelve hundred miles, coming together in three congregations.
For the most part, it wasn’t too bad; however over time, I discovered different personal quirks amongst the people, which would cross over into areas of theology. All of this certainly served to make life interesting for me.
So here’s the story. As a fellowship activity, one of our congregations in Queensland would rent a community hall and hold the occasional bush dance. For those of you who might not be familiar with that term, a bush dance is basically the same thing as a square dance. There’s folk music and a caller, and people are instructed to do things like: bow to your partner, bow to your corner, swing your partner, promenade, and doh-see-doh. It’s a lot of fun. We used to do it in college, and I know that children will also do it as a school activity. It’s pretty harmless stuff.
Historically in Australia, this was a weekend activity in the rural areas, hence the name “bush dance.” There would be a meeting hall built out in the middle of the country. And people from the surrounding farms and such would gather there for a bush dance at the end of the week. This was entertainment for them, and a welcome social activity at the end of a busy work week. This activity was especially popular in the days before television or automobiles. And for us, it was a fellowship activity consisting of good clean family fun and entertainment.
Every year, we would have a vicar, or a seminary intern. When it came time for him to leave, we would organize a bush dance as sort of a farewell party. It was a bit of Australian tradition he could enjoy and take with him.
One year, we had our bush dance all organized. We had booked the hall and arranged for a caller. Then we put a big article about it in the Messenger, which was our monthly newsletter. Everybody was excited about it.
Several days after the Messenger had been mailed, I received a rather irate telephone call from one of our more remote members. He and his wife were absolutely appalled that we were going to host a sinful activity such as a bush dance! He contended that it was very inappropriate for a church of all places to host such an event. It was sinful! There would be drinking, and all the riff-raff from the community would be swarming in and taking it over; and in their mind, dancing of any type was not Christian behavior. He literally bombarded me with all sorts of objections.
I was shocked; but I patiently explained to him that it was not a community activity, but it was a fellowship activity amongst our congregation. Certainly guests would be welcomed, but it was not a public free-for-all. Alcohol in any form was not allowed either. It was well planned and well controlled, and nothing would be done which could be considered untoward or offensive.
I know he wasn’t really convinced; but our bush dance went ahead as planned. Nothing bad happened and everybody had a good time. I know I did.
It was this incident, coupled with a few more minor points we discussed, that I realized that this gentleman and his wife were hard-line pietists, almost like present day Pharisees. They thought that any type of dancing, card playing, and going to the theatre were sinful activities.
They were also hide-bound in tradition. Worship had to be a certain way using certain words and a certain format. To them, Christian liberty meant that you could decide on what color hat or tie to wear to church, and that you had the freedom to choose whatever hymns you wanted to sing; well, so long as they were from the “proper” hymnal. And if you presented them with a modern translation of the creed or the Lord’s Prayer, that was a serious abomination before the Lord.
Now don’t get me wrong. These were nice people, and I was able to get along well with them, so long as things went their way. They did respect me and my office, and they listened to what I had to say. But I had to be careful too. They were easily offended, and very set in their ways. If I challenged anything, or proved from Scripture where they might be in error, they took it as a personal attack. They certainly didn’t make things easy for me.
A few moments ago, I mentioned that these people were pietists; and it is because of this that I’m going to address several inter-related words we hear especially in our Lutheran circles.
If someone is a pious Christian, it means they are devoted to the one true God and the Bible. A pious Christian will take what God has to say seriously, and will have due reverence for Christ and the Gospel.
When a Christian lives a life according to his or her faith, and seeks to do the God-pleasing thing, this is called “piety.” Piety essentially deals with being dutiful and loyal to God and the Christian faith.
“Pious” and “piety” are both good and proper terms. However, there are two other terms originating from the same stem; namely “pietist” and “pietism.” A pietist is usually someone who has taken piety too far; and pietism refers to an actual school of theological thought which places a Christian’s good works at a level above a Christian’s faith. So what's more important: What you do, or what you believe? That's the question before us today.
In our Epistle lesson for today, the Apostle Paul is addressing some important issues that have arisen in the Roman congregation. In fact, he had several opposing issues regarding faith and good works going on at once.
He uses the example of Abraham and his faith. He quotes the Old Testament when he says in verse 3, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” It was by grace through faith that Abraham was saved, and not because of any good deeds or pietistic acts he had done. Verse 13 states, “It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith.”
Faith is the key, all-important thing. Faith refers to what you believe. Abraham had faith in the Messiah who was to come. He believed God’s promise, and therefore was justified. And the only difference between Abraham’s faith and ours, is that Abraham believed in a Saviour who had yet to be born. We believe in the Saviour who has come, lived, died, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and will come again. The only difference between Abraham's faith and ours is the chronology of the events.
Abraham was far from perfect however, even in his faith. When God informed him that he would have a child in his advanced years, he doubted God’s promise. Instead of believing that his wife Sarah would bear him a son, he decided to take matters into his own hands. So he impregnated Sarah’s handmaiden Hagar, with the thought that the son she bore by the name of Ishmael would be the son God had promised. Of course he was wrong.
The very fact that Abraham is named as one of great faith is evidence that God forgives and restores. That’s why Abraham believed the promise; he knew the Messiah would bear his sins along with the sins of the whole world. Jesus the Saviour was the object of his faith; and because of this faith and what Christ did, it was credited to him as righteousness. That’s the very same Saviour that forgives us and gives us hope through faith alone.
The importance of faith being the very foundation of our Christianity can’t be trivialized, nor can it be made into some sort of secondary doctrine. The simple words, “The just shall live by faith” is what turned Martin Luther’s life around, which gave rise to the whole protestant reformation.
The world of pietism, even though the movement itself goes back only to the late 17th to early 18th centuries, has far deeper roots. In Luther’s day, he debated Philip Melanchthon regarding faith and good works. Melanchthon contended that repentance and good works had to come before faith, while Luther contended that faith was the very thing that spawned repentance and good works. If one held to Melanchthon’s viewpoint, it would be like saying a new-born baby produced its own mother. Melanchthon's emphasis was upon what a person did, over above what they believed.
Pietism does have noble roots. It was born because of the lack of piety amongst Christians of the day. People had the knowledge of the faith, but they were still living like heathens. So, this created a new emphasis that was placed on the Christian’s life. But like so many well-intentioned things, it went awry. Suddenly people were forgetting the doctrines of Scripture and the teachings of the church, and the key emphasis was placed on piety. It wasn’t so much what a person believed, it was what they did that mattered. The freedom of the Gospel was becoming encumbered with works of the law.
Pietism was something that people seemed to like though. Somehow it made them feel holier than the rest of the world. Other sects of Christianity, especially the Reformed, Puritan, and Anabaptist movement grabbed a hold of Pietism and ran rampant with it.
It does have its appeal, and it is something that appeals to human nature, oddly enough. The theological term for this is “opinio legis,” which is a Latin term used to describe man’s natural desire to be saved by works of the law, also known as “legalism.” Pietism and legalism are close relatives too. This was what the Pharisees did.
Some pietists will try to bind someone’s conscience where it can’t be bound, like my church member’s opinion about bush dances. Some will try to assert that playing cards and going to a movie is wrong. And sadly some will even go so far as to say that they’re a “better Christian” because they don’t drink beer or smoke or play cards. And that’s wrong. Our text for today very pointedly says, “…where there is no law there is no transgression.”
Today, we see a balance between faith and good works. Some people will go too far and say, “good works are necessary for salvation.” The correct thing to say would be: “good works are necessary,” period.
Some people will say that the message of the gospel is to “love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” But that’s not gospel at all; that’s the law. Salvation by grace through faith alone in Jesus Christ; now that’s the gospel! Pietists often get those two concepts confused.
One of the beautiful things about being a Christian is freedom. There are so many areas in our lives where we can make individual choices to suit ourselves. We can go to a dance if we want to, we can choose whatever station we want on the radio, we can play cards with our buddies, we can enjoy a beer if we want, we can order whatever we want from a restaurant menu, and we can basically enjoy our life. As long as we’re not going out and seeing how many commandments we can break, the world is pretty much our oyster. Man-made rules and humanly conceived acts of piety cannot bind our consciences. It’s like I said a few moments ago when I quoted our text: “…where there is no law there is no transgression.”
The Apostle Paul gives us a reality check however. Just a couple chapters following our Epistle, in Romans chapter 6 verse 15 we read: “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” As important as our freedom in the gospel is, Christian piety is also a necessary ingredient in our lives.
Today, Abraham has been the central figure in our service. He is frequently referenced in the Bible. As sinful as he was, yet he had a faith that we can emulate.
There needs to be a balance between faith and good works. Using Abraham as an example, James writes in chapter 2 verses 20-23: “You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called God's friend.”
On the other hand, when it comes to someone doing good works without faith, the prophet Isaiah writes in chapter 64 verse 6: “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.”
A truly balanced pious Christian will always look to Jesus Christ through the eyes of faith for full and free forgiveness of their sins. Then out of love for him from a thankful heart, the Christian will seek to do the God-pleasing thing in their life, which will bring him glory. What a person does is important, but it is begat from what a person believes. There are no man-made rules to worry about or levels of Christianity to attain; just faith in our Saviour Jesus that will keep us until death, when God takes us from our earthly life to our heavenly home.