Sermons, Uncategorized

How Good Is Good Enough?

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Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

And as [Jesus] was setting out on His journey, a man ran up and knelt before Him and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:17-18).

This interaction between Jesus and the man reminds me of a line from The Princess Bride. Throughout the movie, the evil Vizzini constantly states that things are “Inconceivable!” Eventually, an exasperated Inigo Montoya looks at him and says: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

There are several words the man in our Gospel seems to misunderstand. The first is “good.” “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replies, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.” In essence, “You keep using that word, ‘good.’ I do not think it means what you think it means.” The man has a faulty understanding of what it means to be good.

It is this misunderstanding Jesus seeks to correct first. “Why do you call Me good?” He asks. “No one is good except God alone.” Jesus is not denying His divinity but wants the man to examine his own speech and motives. If this is empty flattery, it is worthless. If the man wishes to call Jesus truly good, then he will be speaking of His divinity. And that would have implications for a far different conversation if the man realizes and believes he is talking with the Son of God.

The man’s faulty understanding of good is closely related to his own understanding of himself. In Matthew’s account, he not only addresses Jesus as “good,” but asks what “good deed” he must do to inherit eternal life. He is thinking too highly of himself and what he can do and not nearly highly enough about God and what He has done, is doing, and will do on behalf of man and His creation.

Jesus changes the focus from the man’s works to who God is. The challenge for the man is to stop counting his own good works and to see the enormous demands a perfect God can and does make. Then his hope will go from Law to Gospel, from His deeds to the saving action of God in Christ.

The second word the man misunderstands is “inherit.” “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” the man asks, using the correct theological terminology that connects salvation to an inheritance in God’s kingdom. But the word does not mean what he thinks it means. And so, it is a flawed question. After all, what do you do to inherit anything? It is something that is done to you. Someone out of the love and graciousness of his heart, makes you an heir and bequests what is his to you upon his death. An inheritance is not given based upon merit. There is nothing that can be done to earn birth (or adoption) into a family which provides the inheritance.

His question tells us that this man assumes he can work his way into heaven by the things he does. What he is asking Jesus is this: “How much more of God’s Law do I have to keep in order to earn my way to eternal life? What good deeds do I have to do? Am I good enough?”

Although the man is sincere, he is far from faith. He doesn’t want to Jesus to save him from sin, but to approve of who he is and the good he has done.

Since the man asks a question about keeping the commandments, Jesus gives him an answer about keeping the commandments meant emphasize what it really means to be good. The commandments are a natural complement to the perfect goodness of God. God’s perfection is reflected in His commandments. Jesus says to the man who would be “good”: “You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother’” (Mark 10:19).

But this preaching of the Law only leaves the smug man in his sin: “Teacher (notice how he is no longer calling Jesus good), “all these I have kept from my youth.” The verb “kept,” phulasso, occurs only here in Mark. It is the careful watching of a shepherd over his sheep (Luke 2:8), the guarding of a strong man over his goods (Luke 11:21), and the fierce preserving of His own by Jesus (John 17:12). The man has not merely observed the commandments but claims that he has zealously protected them. He says he has kept the commandments since his youth. I do not think “kept” means what he thinks it means.

Ironically, while he has, in his own estimation, such a perfect record, yet he is driven to find greater security by asking what else he has to do to earn his salvation. Salvation by works drives one either to empty vanity or desperate searching. The man in our text embodies both at once. If you seek to be saved by being good, you never really know if you’re being good enough.

And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

Only Mark tells us Jesus “loved him.” Jesus does not speak harshly or out of anger, but compassionately, winsomely. He seeks to strip away the man’s self-deception about having kept the Law while He also opens the door to a true relationship with Himself and eternal life. Though Jesus knows the man’s coming rejection, He truly loves him and invites him to follow Him.

Instead of showing the many occasions when the man has broken the commandments, Jesus offers him a new path. Just as a new path has been prepared for Jesus, so Jesus offers this man a new way through one step. Charity doesn’t earn eternal life, but Jesus is talking this man’s language, speaking to his heart. Will he “keep” the commandments or his fortune? Giving away all he has will be a true test of faith, faith which alone saves.

“Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (Mark 10:22). Certainly, this is one of the most ironic verses in the Bible. The man has riches and, in his opinion, a faultless moral life. And yet, since he cannot part with his wealth or admit his failings, he leaves sorrowful. The word “disheartened,” stugnadzo, occurs only here and Matthew 16:3 where it describes the stormy sky. The man’s hopeful beginning darkens severely. How unnecessary is this man’s sorrow! For the love of him and the whole world, the Son of God is about to give up all things, even His life, and bear the sorrow that now crosses this man’s face.

The rich man walks away. And Jesus lets him go. He loves the man, but in love He will not force the man to be repentant.

Jesus will, however, go to the cross and die for the sins of the rich man. If, later on, the man repents of his sin, the benefits of the cross will be there for him. Just as it is for every man, woman, and child who turns from his or her own self-righteousness, works, or merits, and instead trusts in Jesus’ blood and righteousness for forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Those who hear God’s Law and see their sin, who hear the Gospel and see their Savior.

So…what about you? What did you hear today in this text? Did you use this story as a spiritual mirror to examine yourself? To look in your heart for your idols? If so, did those words leave you disheartened? Will you go away sorrowful? Or will you repent of your sins and self-righteousness and depart in peace?

Unfortunately, many people feel this Bible story does not apply to them. But if you don’t think the Law applies to you, you’re misunderstanding Jesus’ words. We all have our idols. We all have things we fear, love, and trust in instead of our Savior—even if it looks to the outside world like we’ve got it all together. We all have a tendency toward self-righteousness.

The man’s outward life was most likely impressive. Yours may be also. But Jesus is not interested in how the man presents his own self-righteousness. Jesus exposes this man’s true inner self by asking him to sell all that he owned and give it to the poor. This is more than the rich man can bear. “Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful…”

It’s too bad that this is the way the story ended. This is how the rich man should have begun—sorrowful. Sorrowful for his sins. Kneeling in repentance, rather than as a matter of protocol. Following Jesus, trusting in Jesus’ mercy and love for eternal life, rather smug in his self-righteousness, or burdened with the guilt of unforgiven sin that still remains in his otherwise very respectable life.

The next time you kneel down in prayer, think of the rich man who knelt before Jesus. Remember that Jesus sees you both on the outside and on the inside. Instead of saying of God’s Commandments like the rich man, “All these I have kept from my youth,” pray something like this instead: “Heavenly Father, empty me of anything that would stand between You and me, including my self-centered goals and my self-centered religion. Empty me of all sinful attempts to establish relationships with others that benefit primarily myself and my goals. By Your spiritual medicine—the Word of your Law and Gospel—heal me from the deadly disease of self-righteousness. Through Your gift of repentance, take away my self-righteousness and replace these filthy self-righteous rags with Your true and perfect righteousness…”

Or you may kneel before your pastor for private confession and absolution. Say something like this: “Pastor, please hear my confession and pronounce forgiveness in order to fulfill God’s will… I, a poor sinner, plead guilty before God of all sins. I have lived as if God did not matter and as if I mattered most. My Lord’s name I have not honored as I should; my worship and prayers have faltered. I have not let His love have its way with me, and so my love for others has failed. There are those who I have hurt, and those who I have failed to help. My thoughts and desires have been soiled with sin.”

If you wish to confess specific sins, continue by saying: “What troubles me particularly is that…” and then confess whatever you have done against the commandments of God, according to your own place in life. Then conclude by saying: “I am sorry for all of this and ask for grace. I want to do better.”

Or as you just did a few minutes ago, kneel or stand with your fellow sinners and say: “O almighty God, merciful Father, I, a poor, miserable, sinner, confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You and justly deserved Your temporal and eternal punishment. But I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them, and I pray You of Your boundless mercy and for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor, sinful being.”

As you hear Christ’s absolution of forgiveness from your pastor’s mouth—whether privately or corporately—you can be certain that his forgiveness is Christ’s forgiveness. Your sins are forgiven by Christ Himself.

Then properly prepared, come forward to the rail and silently kneel to receive the love of your Savior in His Holy Supper. Don’t promote yourself. Don’t excuse yourself. Don’t say anything but “Amen.” Just open your mouth and receive Christ’s very body and blood given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of your sins. Receive His blessing and depart in peace, even as the rich man would have, had he not gone away sorrowful that day.

Jesus has laid up an eternal inheritance kept in heaven for you. Go in the peace and joy of the Lord. You are forgiven of all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sermons, Uncategorized

Receiving the Kingdom of God Like a Child

10261_1521254229736Click here to listen to this sermon.“Let the children come to Me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:14-15).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Dear friends in Christ, in the last few weeks, you have heard what a place of honor Jesus affords to little children. You have heard that one who receives a little one in Jesus’ name receives Jesus. You have also heard the warning against leading a little one astray, both through false teaching and failure to teach. And our Lord takes it one step further in our text this morning/evening. Jesus declares in that little ones can believe in Him, and are, in fact, models of faith.

People are bringing their children to Jesus. They have heard of Jesus’ miracles, and may have witnessed some of them personally. They desire the spiritual blessing associated with Jesus laying His hands upon them, to receive His benediction. And these are not just little ones who can already tell you that Jesus loves them. St. Luke’s account of this story indicates specifically that the people were bringing infants—their newborn babies—to receive Jesus’ blessing.

And when the disciples, for some unknown reason, rebuke the people, Jesus grows indignant against them and says, “Let the children come to Me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.”

The kingdom of God belongs to little children, including infants. Put this knowledge together with other teachings of the New Testament, such as “whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved,” and “by grace you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves—it is the gift of God; not by works, lest any man should boast,” and you get a powerful proclamation of God’s kingdom that goes against the conventional wisdom of man.

The conventional wisdom of man goes according to the Law that is written on his heart. From that, man concludes that salvation is contingent upon one’s works and deeds in this life. “If you want to go to heaven,” the sinful heart says, “you do these certain things. You jump through all the hoops. You decide to follow Jesus. You get yourself baptized. You do good works to get a reward.”

But while Jesus does speak of the necessity of good works and bearing good fruit, nowhere does He ascribe one’s salvation to one’s own works. His blessing of the infants here in Mark 10 is undeniable proof of this. What works are infants performing toward their salvation? What good deeds are they doing in order to gain God’s favor? None, absolutely none! Why, these little ones could not even come into Jesus arms, if someone else did not bring them!

And lest anyone here respond with the notion that little children are exempt from God’s Law and they are not responsible for sin until reaching an age of discretion or accountability, the Scriptures clearly declare otherwise. St. Paul writes to the Romans: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). King David laments in the 51st Psalm “surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” And St. Paul also says without question that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). So, while an infant may appear innocent and pure to us, the child still has the original sin that infects us all. And this original sin is a terminal illness, as is evidenced by the tragic fact that even babies can die.

Knowing, therefore, that little children need the forgiveness of sins and the blessings of God’s grace, we understand the gravity of Jesus’ command not to hinder the children. But we also learn an important lesson about our own Christian lives as those who have grown up and confessed our faith. If a little child receives the forgiveness of sins and the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit—that is, receives saving faith and the promise of eternal life—it is fitting and right for us to recognize how God works to save all of His people.

If a little child is promised heaven through God’s work in the washing of the water and the Word, it doesn’t speak well for our man-made opinions regarding faith and good works. For we brought nothing into this world, and we will take nothing with us. But our sinful nature seeks to glory in our own works and behavior, as if it were scoring points with God and earning a seat at the eternal feast in heaven. Our sinful heart says to us, “I’m a good person, or at least better than many. I give to my church. I love my children. I do my best to love my neighbor, and when I sin, it’s not really a big deal because it’s nothing really bad or serious. I’m a good Christian, and that is why God will save me.”

But dear friends, if God looked at your own works and deeds, as you do in this instance, and considered you righteous because of them, then Christ Jesus died in vain. Repent of all of the self-righteousness that continually creeps into your heart from your Old Adam. For although your Old Adam has been drowned in your Baptism, he’s still a good swimmer. The depravity of the human race manifests itself not just in the awful things people do to one another—in their sins against another, but, even more so, in the hardness of our hearts toward God Himself, in our unwillingness to receive everything from His grace.

The sinful heart does not want to believe that the work of salvation is complete already, and that all are in need of it. This is the sin the disciples committed when they hindered the children from being brought to Jesus. And the children had to be brought into God’s kingdom. They could not bring themselves.

In the same way, you must be brought into the kingdom of God—you cannot bring yourself. You cannot trust in your works to bring you there because your works in and of themselves are nothing but filthy rags. They might look good to you and your fellow man, but they earn nothing with God. “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.”

The faith of a little child is faith that trusts in Jesus. It is the purest and strongest of all. If you ask a little one who believes in Jesus why they get to go to heaven, they’ll tell you it’s because Jesus died on the cross to take away their sins. That’s as good an answer as you can give. “To such belongs the kingdom of God.”

But the child will grow up, and as an adult becomes dissatisfied with the Sunday School answer, and looks for a more “educated” answer to the question. And eventually the concept of being a good person sneaks in. Even one who answers with “I am going to heaven because I believe in Jesus” already has taken the merit of Christ and replaced it with his own believing. He’s turned the gift of faith into his own work. And Jesus warns against this when He says: “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.”

Children receive the kingdom of God because God gives them faith in their Savior Jesus and He regenerates them in their Baptism. Adults receive God’s kingdom only when they despair of their own works and righteousness, and they possess a childlike faith.

A little child does not add to the Word of the Lord and supplement God’s work with his own. A little child does not tell others that he is going to heaven because he’s a good kid. A little child receives God’s blessing and the promise of eternal life before he can even speak, because God attaches this powerful promise to His chosen means of Baptism. It is God’s work, not the child’s.

Dear baptized, the promise of the forgiveness of sin and eternal life is yours as well, only because of God’s continued work in your earthly pilgrimage. For you have been justified by the faith which God Himself has given you, and which He feeds and sustains. He has declared you righteous in His sight, and draws you continually to His house. Here, He strengthens you and equips you to continually drown your Old Adam through repentance of sin, and trust in Christ Jesus to forgive you. Here, He comes to you with His mercy and grace.

When the people were bringing their children to Jesus, they didn’t just want Him to speak a blessing. They wanted their little ones to receive Jesus’ touch. For He was no mere priest of the temple or eccentric preacher. He was God in the flesh, who Himself had become a little child. Listen to how the Epistle to the Hebrews explains it in this morning’s reading:

“At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to Him. But we see Him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting that He, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why He is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, ‘I will tell of Your name to My brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing Your praise.’ And again, ‘I will put My trust in Him.’ And again, ‘Behold, I and the children God has given Me’” (Hebrews 2:8-13).

The Savior had to become like His people in every respect, and indeed He was even tempted as we are, yet without sin. The eternal Son of God became flesh to suffer and die in order to atone for the sins of the whole world. Thus, He, too, had to be an infant. The one, for whom and by whom all things exist, was made for a little while lower than the angels, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for every one. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the virgin’s womb and was born a child so that He might redeem all children from sin and the power of death. His whole life—from conception to death—was lived out in perfect obedience and holiness so that it might be credited to us by faith.

Christ death and resurrection conquered the devil, hell, and all their power, opening the gates of heaven to all who would believe in Him. This includes little children, and, in fact, places them at the front of the line. Theirs is a simple, trusting faith that receives God’s grace and doesn’t try to replace it with something else. Theirs is a faith that is in the Incarnate Lord Jesus, who promised to be with His people unto the end of the age.

Therefore, do not hinder the little children. Bring them to the Lord Jesus and encourage others to do the same. Teach your children about their Savior, and instruct them in the Christian faith, that they may examine themselves to be admitted to their Lord’s altar, when the same Jesus who touched the children to bless them now touches the lips and mouths of the faithful with His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.

Furthermore, approach the altar of your Lord this day in repentance and childlike faith, despairing of your own works of righteousness, and trusting in the love and mercy of Christ alone, trusting that you, His servant, may truly depart in peace, “For to such belongs the kingdom of God”—children and those of all ages who hear and believe these marvelous words: “You are forgiven of all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.