Cruce Tectum

Cruce tectum, hidden under the cross, a blog for Epiphany Lutheran Church, Dorr, Michigan

Location: Moscow, Idaho

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Second Sunday in Lent

Second Sunday in Lent (A)
March 20, 2011
Text: John 3:1-17

Justification by faith alone. It is the article by which the Church stands or falls. It is the central article of the Christian faith, the center of all Christian doctrine. We are justified, pronounced righteous before God, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, without works, works rather coming as a result of our justification, which happens apart form such works. Consider how the Church confesses this truth in the Augsburg Confession: “Our churches teach that people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works. People are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. By His death, Christ made satisfaction for our sins. God counts this faith for righteousness in His sight (Romans 3 and 4 [3:21-26; 4:5]” (AC IV, McCain p. 33). And of course, John 3:16, memorized by countless Christians and even many non-Christians is a golden text from which we learn this precious article of doctrine: The redemption of Jesus Christ is received by faith alone. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (ESV).

That we may obtain such faith, God has given us the ministry of Word and Sacrament (AC V). Through the means of grace, the preaching of God’s Word and the administration of His Sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Spirit is given, and through these means He works faith when and where it pleases Him in those who hear the Gospel. Jesus insists that the means of grace and faith are inextricably related in our Gospel reading this morning. We see this in his conversation with Nicodemus. Nicodemus, a man of the Pharisees, a strict Jewish group who believe they will be saved by stringent observance of the Law, comes to Jesus by night so that no one will see. Naturally Nicodemus believes that also faith is a work by which he will please God. And he has decided that he will now believe in Jesus. After all, he admires Jesus for His teaching, and especially for the miraculous signs He performs. He even tells Jesus so: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (John 3:2). But of course faith is not a good work that you do by which you are saved, and Jesus calls Nicodemus out for thinking that even by faith he can save himself. Faith must be God’s gift. And God gives such faith in a very particular way. He gives faith in an act of re-creation. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (v. 3).

Born again. The Greek word translated here as “again” can also mean “from above,” so perhaps the better translation here would be “unless one is born from above,” born of God, “he cannot see the kingdom of God.” In any case, because the word in question can mean either “again” or “from above,” Nicodemus takes it to mean a literal reentry into his mother’s womb to be born a second time (v. 4). But Jesus is not talking about a physical rebirth. He is talking about being born anew, born from above, born of the Holy Spirit. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (v. 5). He’s talking about Baptism. Water and the Spirit, that’s Baptism. Born again, born from above, whichever translation you want to use, that’s Baptism. The only born again Christian in the Scriptural sense of the term is a baptized Christian. Nor is there any other baptism that comes later, such as a so-called Spirit baptism. Your Spirit Baptism is one and the same Baptism as your water Baptism. For the Holy Spirit comes to you, as Jesus says here in the Gospel, as you are born of the Spirit in Baptism. The water in Baptism is just plain water, to be sure. That is, until it is combined with God’s Word. Then it “is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul says in Titus, chapter three: ‘He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying.’ [Titus 3:5-8]).”[1]

Nicodemus, who believes that faith is his work for God, cannot believe this talk about a new birth in Baptism. “How can these things be?” (John 3:9). This teacher of Israel simply cannot wrap his mind around the means that God uses to bring us to faith and grant us salvation. And that is because, as Paul says, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). So much for making a personal decision for Jesus. So much for free will in spiritual matters. So much for faith being our work for God. No, faith must be God’s work for us and in us. And He does it through Baptism as Jesus says here. Beloved, you must never think of Baptism as your work. It is God who does the baptizing. It is all God’s work. He washes your sins away. He gives you His Spirit. He gives you faith. And that faith is counted as righteousness (Rom. 4:3-4). You are justified by faith alone, the very faith given to you when God baptized you into Christ. This is also why infant Baptism is the greatest example of grace alone without works. The baby doesn’t ask to be baptized. The baby doesn’t know what Baptism is. Often the baby is born from above of water and the Spirit kicking and screaming, wholly against the baby’s corrupt and bound will. But in reality, so is the adult who is born from above by water and the Spirit. Baptism is when the Lord takes a dead man by the hand and raises him to new life. You were dead in your trespasses and sins. In Baptism, God grabbed a hold of you to be His own, baptized into Christ, crucified with Christ, raised to new life with Christ, sins covered by the blood of Christ, God’s own child. You have new life now. You have eternal life now. Because you’ve been given faith by the Holy Spirit. And that is the promise. “Whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (3:16).

For such faith given in Baptism is always directed to Christ crucified, to receive the benefits of His cross. That is why every sermon and Bible class is ultimately about Christ crucified. St. Paul writes, “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23)! That is why we spend so much time especially during the Season of Lent meditating on our Lord’s suffering and crucifixion. Faith must have an object, that to which it is directed and that in which it trusts, that to which it clings. Too often we think of faith as simply this ambiguous quality of optimism that everything will eventually work out for the good. That’s not faith. That would once again make faith our work instead of God’s work in us, because faith would be a quality intrinsic to us. No, faith is simply trust in Christ Jesus and Him crucified for the forgiveness of our sins and our eternal salvation. That faith is a gift that God gives us in Baptism and in His Word and in His Supper. That faith is directed by the Holy Spirit to ever behold Jesus Christ lifted up upon the cross. For “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). Just as Moses lifted up the bronze serpent on the pole so that any Israelite who had been bitten by a fiery serpent could look at the bronze serpent and live, so Jesus is lifted up on the pole of the cross, so that we who have been bitten by the deadly serpent Satan, we who have the poison of sin coursing through our veins, we who are otherwise staring death and hell in the face, may look upon the Savior thus lifted up for our sins, and so be healed and live. Behold, the Son of God, crucified for you. Here is your salvation. This is utterly contrary to fallen and bound human reason. No one would make a decision for this. This must be revealed from above. And it is. The God who sheds His blood, suffers, and dies, He is our Savior. He is our God. We believe in Him. We worship Him. We are baptized into Him. It is He who is risen and speaks to us and declares that we are forgiven, righteous, justified. We eat His pierced body and drink the blood He spilled for the life of the world. We are born from above and nourished from above. By grace, not by works. Through faith. Whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

It is not recorded in Scripture how and when it happens, but Nicodemus eventually gives up his silly notion that faith is his work and receives the gift of faith from God. He, along with Joseph of Arimathea, performs the burial rite for our Lord (John 19:38-42). He believed, and so he received eternal life. Beloved in the Lord, you are baptized into Christ. You are God’s own child. You have received the Holy Spirit. You have received the free gift of faith. And so this promise is for you, unshakable, unchangeable, guaranteed by the very blood of Christ: You have eternal life. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Catechism quotations from Luther’s Small Catechism (St. Louis: Concordia, 1986).


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