During the course of catechesis a basic truth has been drilled in our confirmands with the subtlety of a jack hammer. They have heard it again, and again and again. And as a result I am confident that it is something they will continue to remember during the coming years.
This truth is the basic distinction between Law and Gospel. Again and again they have heard that the Law is what we must do and the Gospel is what God has done for us in Christ. This basic distinction is of course a central insight into Scripture of the Lutheran Church and the Reformation. It is also the basic truth that separates Christianity from every other religion in the world.
Every other religion in the world is a religion of the Law. They are all based on what human beings must do in order to achieve salvation with the god or gods. Even Buddhism in which there is no god works in this way, because it calls upon each person to achieve the understanding that this is existence is nothingness. Only in the Gospel of Christianity do we find that salvation is based solely on what God has done. Only in Christianity is it a gift that cannot be earned.
The catechumens have learned that the Gospel stands at the center of all that we believe. They have learned that the Gospel runs the show in the Lutheran Church. And that brings us to an irony of the catechesis they have just finished. You see, something that has been about teaching the centrality of the Gospel sure has involved many things they had to do. For something about the Gospel, it sure has involved a great deal of law.
The confirmands had to come to catechesis and Learn by Heart for nine months, two years in a row. They had to learn by heart texts from Scripture and the Small Catechism and be able to say them in class. They had to read the catechesis material and prepare for class by answering questions. They had to pass quizzes. Finally last week they had to go through their pastoral examination. All of this is necessary because we are still fallen people with the old Adam in us. And so catechesis is much like the seminary, which one of my professors once quipped is “an institution of the Law in the service of the Gospel.”
There has been much that the confirmands have had to do during catechesis as they learned about the Gospel. Yet here on Confirmation Sunday, we have a text that once again emphasizes that the Gospel is not about our doing. Instead, it is about what God does. It is about the gift that God gives to us in Christ.
Our text finds Abram in the land of Canaan – the land that will eventually become Israel. Originally Abram (whose name God would later change to Abraham) had set out with his father Terah as they made their way from Ur in modern day Iraq towards Canaan. For some reason, they never made it to Canaan, and instead they settled in Haran in what is today southeastern Turkey.
Abram was in Haran, when God called him. God said, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Abram believed and obeyed God’s word. He set out for his original destination, Canaan. When he arrived there Yahweh appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” God promised to give the land of Canaan to Abram’s offspring, and then a little later God promised, “I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted.”
Yahweh made a threefold promise to Abram. He promised to make Abram into a great nation – to give him numerous offspring. He promised to give the land of Canaan to Abram’s offspring. And he promised that in Abram’s offspring all nations of the earth would be blessed.
This all sounded great. There was, however, one small problem: Abram and his wife Sarai were aged and had no children. They were far beyond the point in life when they could ever hope to have children. It did not appear that there was any way that what God said could be true. And beyond this, Abram had just had an experience that reminded him of how dangerous his world could be. His nephew Lot had been taken captive by one of the local kings in the area and Abram had to lead an armed rescue mission in order to free Lot and his household.
There was reason to fear about the future. There was reason to fear about the present. After these things happened the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision saying; “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”
However, in response Abram pointed out the problem when he said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus? Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” Abram had no child of his own, and so someone who was part of his broader household was going to be the heir – not Abram’s own offspring as God had promised.
And then God responded: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” He brought Abram outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. So shall your offspring be.” Then we are told that Abram “believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” Abram trusted God’s promise and because of this trust – this faith – God considered Abram to be righteous. God considered Abram to have a right standing before him.
God had made promises to Abraham – great and wonderful promises. He had promised him numerous descendants like the dust of the earth and the stars of the heavens. He had promised to give the land of Canaan to his descendants. And he had promised that in his offspring all nations of the earth would be blessed.
Now the thing that tied all of these promises together was the fact that Abraham could not do anything to make them happen. They were all promises about what God would do. They were all promises that only God could make happen. Abraham had only two choices. Either he could believe and trust in God’s promises or he could choose not to believe them. Either he could wait in faith to receive these blessings or he could live in fear.
As our confirmands have learned, God’s promises to Abraham were fulfilled in the nation of Israel and the One who descended from Abraham, Israel, and King David. They were fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He is the One in whom all nations of the earth are blessed because he died on the cross and rose from the dead in order to fulfill God’s first Gospel promise – his promise after the Fall to Adam and Eve that a descendent of Eve would defeat the devil.
He is the One who did it and there is nothing we can do. All that we can “do” is to receive the forgiveness and salvation through faith in Christ. In fact the apostle Paul wants us to know that faith is the opposite of doing. Paul wrote in Romans, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” Faith is, as we said in catechesis, the open hand that simply receives what God gives.
Now, it’s not as if Abraham was perfect. It’s not as if he was always faithful and trusted God. Sometimes he decided to do things in his own way instead of God’s way. In fact in the very next chapter, when Abraham and Sarah had been in Canaan for ten years and still had no child, Sarah suggested that Abraha should take her servant Hagar and had a child with her. Abraham did this and Ishmael was born. It was an action bin which Abraham and Sarah decided to do things in their own way, and the result was pain and hardship in their family.
There are times when we do this too. We decide to do things in our own way, instead of trusting in God’s way. We decide to live life in the way we see fit instead of the way that fits God’s ordering of his creation; the way described in the Ten Commandments.
As I think about this on Confirmation Sunday when I have five young people in front of me who will start high school next year, one of the first areas of life that comes to mind is sex. One of the single greatest challenges you will face as a Christian young person is the pressure and temptation to use sex in a number of ways outside of marriage. The world will bombard you with the message that sex is just something to use in any way you want, especially in the pornography that now saturates our culture. It will tell you that a virgin in high school, or college, or in the years after college is a loser – is someone to be mocked or pitied.
But you have learned that God is the Creator. He is the One who set things up. He is One who ordered how things work. And in his word he tells us how to live according to that ordering; how to live well; how to live in ways that will be a blessing. You have learned from God’s word that it is only in the one flesh union of husband and wife that sex can be the blessing that God intends and not a source of sorrow.
Like Abraham we fail to trust in God’s way. Yet during his life the foundation, the center to which Abraham always returned was faith in God’s promise. And like Abraham we do this too. We repent. We confess our sin and we return in faith to the forgiveness found in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In the face of our sin; in the face of the various challenges we continue to turn in faith to Jesus, because in him we have victory over sin, death and the devil. Paul went on to say about Abraham: “In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness.’”
This is our faith too. We believe that because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we are forgiven and will be raised up on the Last Day. We listen to our text today and hear that Abraham believed God’s promise and it was counted to him as righteousness. Yet when we hear these words, we recognize that they aren’t only about Abraham. Instead, as Paul tells us, “But the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” This is our faith. This is the faith that our confirmands confess today. And this is the faith in which we will share in Christ’s resurrection on the Last Day when we appear before the judgment seat and hear him declare the we are justified – counted as righteous before God.