Lessons: Exodus 20:1-17, Romans 6:1-11, Matthew 5:17-26
Hymns: LSB 590, 562, 581, 696, 920
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Some think the Bible is a confusing book. Some feel the Bible contradicts itself. Many cannot make sense of the various claims found in the Scriptures concerning salvation. Some passages, like the Ten Commandments, give the impression that if you keep them, you will achieve eternal life. Other passages teach that if you do good or do certain things, then you will live eternally. Some passages say no one is righteous enough to enter heaven. And some passages teach that the only way to salvation is by grace through faith.
To make matters more confusing, we can easily see how divided the Christian church is. There are denominations teaching wildly different things. Some denominations flatly reject many teachings in the Bible. Many denominations say they teach the Bible purely and rightly, but yet these denominations can greatly differ from each other.
As a result, many wonder, “Since we all believe in Jesus, what’s the big deal? Should we really care about differences in belief? And plus, how can so many different denominations be wrong?” The problem with this logic is that it implies that we ought to simply agree to disagree. If there are dozens of different viewpoints on a particular article of teaching, then many want to say that each viewpoint is fine and that we should let each person believe what he wishes.
But God is one. And His teaching is one. Clearly, God does not want every person to believe what that person wishes to believe. Instead, God wants every person to believe what God Himself teaches. He instructs us to be perfectly united and have no divisions among us.
Then the question arises, “What does God really teach—especially when some passages of Scripture seem to contradict one another and when so many denominations contradict each other?”
Churches like Rome teach that faith and good works contribute towards salvation. Baptists and many nondenominational churches teach faith alone saves but then they turn faith into a work that they do, which basically places them in the same camp as Rome—faith and works for salvation. Lutherans teach justification by grace through faith alone as the only way to salvation. And Lutherans teach that faith is not man’s work, but it is God’s work. God the Holy Spirit works faith in us only through His Word and Sacraments.
So who is right? Dare we say that one is right, and others are wrong? If one is right, does that make the right party better than all other parties? Well, to see the truth concerning the way to eternal life, we must recognize a few things. First, the Bible is always clear. It is our own sinfulness that makes the Scriptures seem obscure to us. Second, we cannot take passages out of context. Third, it is important to examine other passages of Scripture which relate to that same teaching to get a fuller understanding of the passage in question. Fourth, it is often necessary to distinguish between Law and Gospel. Is one passage a statement of the Law while the other is a statement of the Gospel?
One more thing is also important: we must always throw our own opinions and ideas out the window—no matter how practical and pragmatic they may be. Our opinions and ideas often get in the way of God’s truth. That’s one reason why so many denominations exist—because people do not listen to what God says in His Word. Instead, people are constantly looking for others to say what they want to hear. When it comes to matters of doctrine our personal opinion, our feelings, and our own experiences are usually irrelevant and sometimes harmful. God is God. He is Truth, not us. He gave us His Word, not us. He created us, not us. He redeemed us, not us. Therefore, we listen to Him—and Him alone.
So, what does God teach us concerning eternal life? First, we have the Ten Commandments. Jesus said, do them and you will live (Luke 10:28). Keep them perfectly and you won’t have any trouble. This is the teaching of the Law. Yes, God’s Law teaches that you can achieve eternal life from your own works. But the problem is none of us can possibly keep the Law. We have all broken the Ten Commandments. None of us are righteous, no not one (Rom. 3:10-12). And plus, the Ten Commandments are to be interpreted much broadly than they first appear, as Jesus teaches in our Gospel. For example, when God said, “Thou shalt not murder,” He wasn’t just referring to the taking of a human life. He also teaches how we are to treat our neighbor. Jesus declares in our Gospel that those who are angry with their brother without just cause are in danger of judgment. Unrighteous anger is breaking the Fifth Commandment. Holding grudges is breaking the Fifth Commandment. Failing to help our neighbors in need is breaking the Fifth Commandment. Ignoring our neighbor’s bodily needs is breaking the Fifth Commandment. This means we have all broken the Fifth Commandment. Everyone, except Jesus.
Not only that but we have inherited sin. We were born in sin. And that sin condemns us. Therefore, we cannot be saved from what we do. We can’t even be saved from our best intentions. God holds guilty all who are guilty—whether they know their guilt or not.
From all of this, we must conclude that we cannot save ourselves Our works are not adequate. While the Bible does teaches that we may be saved through perfection, none of us are perfect. Salvation must come another way.
As we heard this morning in our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 5:20). These two groups were the church leaders of the day. They tried to be righteous. Their speech was clean. They dressed well. They treated others well. They were busy doing good works. They were busy showing how well they were fulfilling the Law. They were great neighbors. They were very nice people. They even added extra regulations for themselves to prove their goodness.
But they were still sinners. They held to false belief. They did not see a need for repentance. They did not recognize their actual sin or inherited sin. They felt they had no need for a Savior. They did not have eternal life abiding in them. They were self-condemned.
And if you wish to be saved, you must be better than they. Your righteousness must exceed theirs. But your righteousness in and of itself does not exceed theirs. As Isaiah 64:6 declares, your righteousness is like filthy rags. While your good works may be a huge help to someone else, those deeds adds up as debt before God—not as payment for your other sins.
But when you believe in Christ, you are credited with having something that comes from outside of you—something that you cannot create—something that you cannot muster up. When you believe, you are credited with having the very righteousness of Christ. Then your good deeds are sanctified by God and viewed by Him as truly good works. God is doing the action, not us—because God is the One who saves—through His Son who paid for our sins on the cross.
If our works could save us, we would be our own saviors. Instead, Jesus is our Savior who shed His innocent Blood on our behalf.
For Christ Himself is the Righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees. He is perfect in every way. And He credits us with His perfection. For He redeemed the entire world by bearing our sin in His Body. He reconciled the world unto Himself through the shedding of His Blood. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world by being the Sacrifice for our sin. Jesus became your sin so that you can become His righteousness.
So, do you want to know the way to eternal life? First, it does not begin with you. Stop navel gazing. Claiming your own righteousness will get you nowhere. The Law’s accusations reveal you do not measure up. But Jesus measures up, and you measure up when you are united to Him, which is already done through faith. In fact, you are united with Him in Baptism. In your Baptism, you were baptized into the death of Jesus. You were buried with Him through Baptism into death. Your sinful nature is crucified. Your sins are buried in the grave. And just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, even so you also walk in the newness of life. Paul in Romans 6 explains that the Baptized are not to continue in sin. They cannot serve sin. They have no entitlement to sin. And Jesus explains in our Gospel that when we sin against others, we are to reconcile with them. We repent and apologize to each other. And we forgive each other.
Simply put, as Christians, we live lives of daily contrition and repentance—with God and with each other. Our sinful flesh is drowned and buried. A new man emerges and lives before God in righteousness. This is all done in faith—faith worked by the Spirit through Word and Sacrament. So in faith, you cling to the promises and mercies of God. And in faith, you live the Christian life—doing good works, serving the neighbor, hearing the Word of God.
Do you want to know the way to eternal life? Look to God’s Word. He shows you the way. He is the way. You have the way when you are justified by grace through faith. Christ justifies you by declaring you innocent—declaring you not guilty. That gift is yours. What a comfort it is to know that your salvation is not dependent upon you or your own feelings. And this way of salvation is clearly taught in Scripture. The Law of God remains important. But the Gospel is greater, for it reveals Christ and the true way to salvation. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus to life everlasting. Amen.