“So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!”
–I Corinthians 10:12
Have you ever had anyone question your Christianity?
When I was in college, I was taken aback by the fervent Evangelical Christians who came to my dorm room to speak to me about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
After the visit, I was a little bit distressed because they left me with the impression that they suspected I wasn’t a true believer…
…largely because of things I said to them!
And I felt like I had failed my God… failed to be a witness to them about what I, really – deep down – knew Jesus had done for me…
Needless to say, their surprising visit shook me up and caused me to start to re-evaluate my spiritual life.
My wife had a similar experience at college, except a bit worse!
She was told by people – people from this same organization actually, not the same college – that Lutherans were not Christians.
Shocking as this might sound to some of us, in truth episodes like this can be worth not just getting upset about but reflecting on!
What does it really mean to be a Christian?
How can we identify other Christians?
How can anyone be sure about their own Christianity?
Interestingly, all of our texts this morning seem like they could easily go hand-in-hand with these kinds of questions…
First, let’s take a look at our Epistle lesson. There, St. Paul is eager to encourage those in the Church in the large port city of Corinth (in Greece) – folks who he earlier identified in this letter as believers – to not fall into sin like those God had chosen in the Old Testament.
Of the people Israel, Paul goes so far to say:
“They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.”
…but God will always provide the Corinthians a way out, Paul goes on to assure them!
Nevertheless though… nevertheless… hear the import of what Paul is saying!
Here, he is recalling the story about how when they only had bitter water in the wilderness, God provided pure drink for them through Moses.
That refreshment, that comfort, that temporal salvation if you wil, Paul tells them, was all from Jesus Christ, the second person of the Eternal Triune God, even though He had yet to be born in history, in the temporal realm!
Furthermore, the physical rock gave them physical water, nourishing their bodies to be sure….
…but Paul says that they were all eating the same spiritual food and drinking the same spiritual drink from the spiritual rock that was Christ.
All of them!
Think about this: he is saying that even though every single one of the people of Israel was given spiritual food and spiritual drink through Christ, God was nevertheless not pleased with most of them!
…and their bodies were consequentially scattered in the wilderness!
It seems that what Jesus talks about today in His parable of the fig tree in the vineyard might also apply doesn’t it? Let’s hear that from our Gospel reading again:
“Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’
“‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”
Yes! Here we see God’s patience, forbearance here in this parable of Jesus! But we also hear…
…like let their bodies be “scattered in the wilderness…”
So why was God not pleased with His people in the Old Testament?
Why did so many seemingly die as those He was not pleased with instead of dying well, dying with His pleasure?
Because they did not have fruit.
And why did they not have fruit?
Well, we’ll get to that question soon, but first let’s address this matter of fruit.
In Galatians chapter 5 we recall that the Apostle Paul speaks of the fruit of the spirit: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law,” he says.
Christians are those who show some of this spiritual fruit.
And so it is right that such matters should be of importance to us. As I have heard it put: If you were accused of being a Christian would there be enough evidence to convict you in court?
And going along with this, it is not wrong for Christians to have confidence that others they know or meet are Christians as well – even if absolute certainty about other’s status with God is knowledge that only He can have.
For example, we might take to heart what the Apostle Paul says to the young pastor Timothy,
“I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also…”
Again, this is true: Christians can have confidence that others are Christians.
And yet, we also need to acknowledge this: Things can go seriously wrong here.
This clearly happened with my wife, when people told her Lutherans couldn’t be Christians.
I think that also happened to me in college, my freshman year. When asked whether I thought I’d go to heaven when I died, I said I was 95% sure.
The people talking to me took this as a sign that I was not really trusting Jesus Christ, but considering my own good works as part of this equation. In truth, I believe I answered that way because while I did know Jesus loved me and forgave me by grace though faith apart from works, my faith was quite weak.
After my senior year in high school I begin to have more intellectual doubts about whether or not Christianity was really true. I went to the 1992 LC-MS youth gathering, hoping to get more clarity, and this only made things worse for me.
Everything seemed to me to be about emotion, the power of suggestion, and getting caught up in exciting moments with one’s like-minded group. I had more pressing questions and wanted more solid answers.
I think what I actually needed to hear is that God’s word is trustworthy, and that He even invited me to test that, like Thomas sticking his hand into Jesus’ side…
But the men in my dorm room that day didn’t know any of this, and I think they mis-diagnosed me.
…as many often misdiagnose other Christians.
Perhaps rightly concerned that Christian faith must be living and active, they, unintentionally, might do exactly what Jesus said He would not do: snuff out the flickering wick or break the bruised reed…
…snuff out the flickering wick or break the bruised reed…
I’d submit here is actually a long history of this kind of thing in America. Many American Christians, again, fall down here. While they are rightly concerned to honor what we heard in our Psalm this morning:
Restore us again, God our Savior,
and put away your displeasure toward us.
Will you be angry with us forever?
Will you prolong your anger through all generations?
Will you not revive us again,
that your people may rejoice in you?
….that [God’s] glory may dwell in our land.
…Americans Christians often lose the biblical context of today’s Psalm and create one of their own making in which to understand these words…
For example, historically, besides many thinking that Americans are “God’s chosen people,” many American Christians have tended to equate things like large numbers, powerful music, strong emotions, and the appearance of power, influence, attraction with true spirituality… true spiritual success…
“We need revival!” they might say, and it will look similar to this.
Have you ever heard of the first and second “Great Awakenings” in America?
The first featured men like the American Calvinist Jonathan Edwards and two highly impressive Englishman, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism who worked tirelessly to travel far and wide preaching his message, and George Whitfield, a fiery Anglican preacher who preached to thousands upon thousands in open fields (without a microphone, of course). The second great awakening was dominated by the American Presbyterian evangelist Charles Finney, who promoted “new measures” like the “anxious bench” (where one sat if they were thinking about their sin and becoming a Christian…) to bring spiritual awakening…
Here, in general, there were concerns about a “dead orthodoxy” that was cold and stand-offish, concerns about an emphasis on liturgy and creeds, creeds, creeds instead of deeds!… and also a real skepticism regarding the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, thinking of the traditional understandings as being “too Catholic”…
After all, they might point out, even if the Lord’s Supper really was Christ’s true body and blood – which is “too Catholic”! – note what Paul says in I Corinthians 10: even though God’s chosen people Israel spiritually ate and drank from the rock that was Christ…
…God was not pleased with them!
How many fill our churches, Whitefield would often say, who do not actually know God!
Now even though we certainly know Jesus speaks about this… about the tares among the wheat, many take things further, going in very disturbing directions in fact…
Even in our times, as we have heard, some professing Christians think (I’m sure much to the devil’s glee):
Those non-emotional and doctrinally obsessed Lutherans?
Where is their really joyful song?
How can they really be Christians? Where is their fruit?
Where is their concern for the evangelism of the lost?
Where is their concern to fight corruption and injustice?
Where, perhaps today, is their desire to fight racism?
Where is their concern about good methods and measures, taking practical steps to reach the culture they live in where it is at – not where they insist the culture should be?
Again, as harsh and unfair as all of these sentiments might be, we must of course recognize that there is a very important grain of truth to all of this.
And that grain of truth is this: human beings are meant to really live, to really embrace all that they participate in…. To live our lives with conviction and gusto!
And so, for Christians, it is good that our hearts would be overwhelmed with thanksgiving. And that, alive in God, that those hearts would ever be enlarged to not just walk, but run – and run more fully and faster all the time! – in God’s commandments, producing God-pleasing fruit!
But again, these American revivalists get things wrong not only because they downplay simple good works in favor of more impressive accomplishments, but because they take no heed to not snuff out the flickering wick or break the bruised reed…
Unlike our wise and strong Savior.
Again, we hear our strong Savior in our Gospel reading this morning:
“Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
This message from Jesus is jarring.
What he is saying is that when bad things happen to others, we should not think that God is punishing them because they were worse sinners!
Instead, here is what we can know: We should take such distressing signs – and yes, distressing signs which rightly make us think of Divine Judgment – as a call for all to repent, for us to repent as well.
Even us as Christians.
Actually, especially us as Christians! You see, this is the kind of message that we continue to need to hear throughout our Christian life!
At the beginning of the Reformation, the 16th century friar, pastor and professor Martin Luther penned the 95 theses, the first which was: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
True Christianity always lives in repentance, and does not live apart from repentance!
Sometimes Christians – like many of the Christians we have been talking about who might not understand that Lutherans are, or at least, can be, real Christians – have and give the impression that repentance is something that is only meant to start the Christian life.
I was a sinner, but then I repented and now I am a saved.
This is not a clear picture.
Why? Because as I’ve often pointed out, the Apostle Paul speaks very clearly about how a war – a war! – takes place in the believer.
In Christ we are a new creation indeed! But in Galatians 5 we see that there is always a war in us between our new man and our old man.
God’s Spirit which drives our spirit against our fallen flesh, often energized and encouraged by the devil’s lies…
This is why Paul also writes as he does in Romans 7 and 8:
“We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.[c] For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature[d] [my fallen flesh, my old man,] a slave to the law of sin.
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…”
Again, American Evangelicals, for instance, are right to talk about how a true and living faith is a sign of a Christian.
But this, as Paul’s words should suggest to us, is not wholly straightforward, or easy to understand.
True, when we suppress the fear of God, not having a care about intentional sins – or even when we tell ourselves that our sins are rarely intentional and so they aren’t a big deal…
…we are in danger at the heart of our spiritual life. God is never under any obligation to pull us out of the pit of our own self-destruction.
That said, also take comfort in Paul’s words here about the two natures of the Christian and how he directs even the failing Christian – even the failing Christian! – to Christ’s mercy in the midst of his struggles!
So don’t ever let anyone convince you that Romans 7 is not that important for Christians?
Saying, remarkably, this is only Paul speaking about his life before coming to Christ!
Paul is writing as a Christian.
Again, fruit is important, no doubt. One is right to insist that good works provide evidence one is really a Christian.
Did you see how fruit was also important in the Old Testament reading today?
For example, God says through Ezekiel that if a righteous person trusts in their righteousness and does evil, none of the righteous things that person has done will be remembered and they will die for the evil they have done.
In like fashion, if a wicked person does what is just and right, and gives back that which they took in pledge for a loan, returns what they have stolen, and follow God’s decrees, for example, they will live.
But also notice, at the same time, how important in that text repentance is as well…
Again, and again, we see the emphasis on turning from sin to the Lord and finding life.
So, where does the true fruit come from?
True fruit is born of repentance.
And just what is it that makes for effective repentance, that is Christian repentance?
Repentance that will allow us to truly live as those who might have a sure and secure hope?
Faith in a good and strong Savior.
Faith in the Savior who says
“As surely as I live…I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?’”
Faith in the God who loves all people so much that He would even hold his own children accountable for the blood of others who die in their sin…
God will hold them accountable when their own love fails to reflect and to proclaim His love…
When they would not care enough to warn their neighbors that the wages of sin is death and that hell is real and that Jesus alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life….
-Again, the most important thing when it comes to true revival is not to try to be “fruit police,” always judging the fruit of others.
-The most important thing when it comes to true revival is not to dig down deep, reach into one’s self to try harder, do better, be more sincere, etc…
-The most important thing when it comes to true revival is not to obsess and worry about how false Christians really can spiritually partake of Christ in communion, and hence eat His true body and blood to their damnation (true as that one might be!)
The most important thing when it comes to true revival is simple faith in Christ – to acknowledge our sin before God and look to His Son on the cross for mercy!
When God’s Holy Spirit breaks through and convicts us of our objective guilt before Him…
When God’s Holy Spirit then shines the spotlight on Jesus as the answer to that problem…
That is always a new beginning of sorts!
That is the beginning of true revival, as faith lives in repentance!
And sure – please God let our faith in our crucified and risen Lord be strong and grow stronger still! May our roots go deep…
Go deep, that we may continually be enlightened, revived, reformed, transformed in Your beloved Son!
But do you see clearly?
Faith in Christ, a mustard seed of faith in Christ, is the key.
And even this is His gift for you, even now!
We spoke earlier about how Christians can not have absolute certainty regarding the status of another professing Christian’s faith…
What, however, should Christians believe about themselves? Can they have absolute certainly they are God’s?
Should you have absolute certainty God is at peace with you?
Call your sin “sin” and call grace “grace” and believe the Lord Jesus Christ when He forgives you
…all your evils…
…all your doubts…
…all your worldly fears…
For He is Strong and Good, and He will hold you forever in His hands.