Sermon 18


Be Clear About the Gospel

Galatians 2:14

June 24, 2007


Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you in the name of God the Father , Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.

            God cares how we talk about him and the salvation he brings. So we are not free to carry on however we wish in these matters. Instead we’re given rules, not only about what we are to say, but also on how we are to say it.


Words of Love

The best know Scriptural injunction on this matter is in Ephesians 4:15 where we’re told to speak the truth “in love.” We’re not supposed to browbeat people. We’re not to ridicule them. We’re not to hurt their feelings. Instead, we’re to tell the truth in a loving way. We’re to be “kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another,” as God in Christ forgave us (Ephesians 4:32).

This is important because the “tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire a cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell,…. a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:6, 8). So we must be careful about what we say and how we say it. For “rash words are like sword thrusts” (Proverbs 12:18). No wonder then that “a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25:11).  

Paul vs. Peter

But there’s also another rule – equally important – but not as well known. And that rule says that we must be straightforward [orqo-podousin] about the Gospel (Galatians 2:14). So in addition to be loving, we are to be clear. Now that Greek word for straightforward talk begins with the particle, orqo, which also is at the beginning of orthodontics, orthopedics and orthodoxy. In each case it denotes setting things straight – teeth, bones and teaching.

            And so we’re to do the same. In Galatians 2 St. Peter doesn’t set straight the good news of Jesus Christ. Instead, he speaks out of both side of his mouth. On the one hand he says the Gospel was free – based on grace and faith. But on the other hand, he lays down conditions – saying one must first be a Jew before being baptized Christian. So circumcision must precede baptism! This makes it sound like there are exceptions to grace and faith.

            Against this mixed message, St. Paul says No! – and he does so to St. Peter’s face! It was that important. No mixed messages here! Fuzzy sentences must go. Clarity and lucidity should instead rule [Gerhard O. Forde, The Preached God (2007) p. 244]. This was St. Paul ’s stirring rejoinder.

            So in this classic confrontation between St. Paul and St. Peter, we are to side with Paul – even though our sinful hearts are right there with Peter. Standing with St. Paul , we must fight against our sinful habit to be mealy-mouthed about the Gospel. We must fight against it with Biblical straightforwardness.


A wonderful guide in this struggle is Martin Luther, our “most eminent teacher” [The Book of Concord, ed. T. Tappert (1580, 1959) p. 576]. In his classic 300 page treatise, The Bondage of the Will (1525), he lays out three directions on how to be straightforward. The first one regards assertions. On this he writes that if we drop them from Christianity, we also “take away Christianity” (Luther’s Works 33:21). So we see that assertions are very important in maintaining the Christian message.

            For that message stakes out claims. Not everything goes. Therefore assertions must be made. Cut-offs have a place. Answers have been given. So this means that the divine revelation in the Holy Scriptures is our “only true norm according to which all teachers and teachings are to be judged” (BC, p. 504).

            But in our wayward time, assertions of any kind are suspect. And so even the church thinks it must drop them all. Rather than assertions, what we need, so we’re told, are metaphors offered up in an imaginative field for our individual spiritual journeys. No delimitations here – just the opening up of ever wider horizons of meaning and visions. So we must “leave everything… open-ended,” foreswearing the temptation “of telling everyone the answer.” Only then can we leave enough room “for hearers to co-construct the meaning” of their lives with God [Nancy Lammers Gross, “The Feminization of the Pulpit,” Academy Accents: The Newsletter of the Academy of Preachers 12 (Fall 1996) p. 3].

            But against such directionless spirituality stands the clear assertions of Holy Scriptures. These are the “words of eternal life” which can’t be found anywhere else (John 6:68). They are the one thing that is needful (Luke 10:42).


Against Evasive Subtleties

But assertions can still be twisted. So Luther goes on to say that the “very great light of certain truth [in Christianity] ensures victory over…. obscure or ambiguous words [and] all evasive subtleties [omnes argutias elusorias]” (LW 33:185-186). It is against these ambiguities and evasions that assertions must draw the line.

            For when Christianity becomes subtle, it loses its force. No longer is it clear how it stacks up. No longer can its meaning be spelled out. And so we become mumblers. We don’t speak “vigorously and confidently” (LW 21:9). We talk as if we had “a mouth full of hot mush” (LW 34:87). And so we mumble – just mumble – and thereby lose the “clear, distinct word of God” (LW 37:278, 279). We say “Jesus Christ is the savior… mumble, mumble, mumble… and I love him… mumble, mumble, mumble… you can too… mumble, mumble, mumble.” And most of this is said under our breath. Then, that’s the end of it. So ends our witness.

            Here “plain, blunt speaking” takes a holiday (LW 33:105). This makes us “stammerers” and “vain babblers” (LW 16:276, 275). We’re “empty talkers and garrulous chatterers” (LW 25:447). And so we “doubt, vacillate [and] wander about” (LW 8:212-213). At the very most, all we do is “ramble off into good-for-nothing fables” (LW 44:57), which amount to little, if anything.


By Way of Contrast

Luther also believed these assertions were reinforced “by contrast [contentionem] and antithesis” (LW 33:287). But this abstract point can elude us. We can easily miss it. Even though the famous philosopher, Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), codified it by saying that all “meaning comes through contrast [determinatio est negatio]” (Letter 50, June 2, 1674, to Jarig Jellis), we’re still puzzled by it. And even though Luther would surely have liked it, we still aren’t gripped by it. Maybe what is needed, then, are some concrete texts to offset the abstractness of this principle.

            So then, take John 3:16 as our first example – a verse many suppose is at the heart of the New Testament. It says that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Now what’s the upshot of that? It says eternal life comes through faith in Christ. But how urgent is this? What if I turn down the offer? What then?

            John 3:36 explains: “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does do obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him.” Now John 3:16 is cleared up. By contrasting love with wrath, it helps us see the consequences of belief and disobedience. Without this contrast we’re left wondering if there are any loopholes. So this contrast saves the day. For “to explain oneself by amplification and antithesis is the art of effective address” [Luther’s House Postils, ed. E. Klug (1996) 2:192].

            Next take 1 John 5:11. It says that “he who has the Son has life; he who has not the Son of God has not life.” This tight correlation between having and not having clarifies salvation – closing all the loopholes. St. Paul does the same in Romans 2:6-10, where he contrasts wrath with glory, and distress with peace.

            But this clarity isn’t for gloating over our salvation (Ephesians 2:8). For we must never ridicule those who don’t believe as we do. “Do not rejoice” when your opponents stumble, we’re told (Proverbs 24:17). Humility before God and thanksgiving to him should guide us instead (Luke 18:13; Colossians 2:6-7). And so we believe with Luther that Jesus was a man “consumed with a constant sorrow” because of his own people’s rejection of him (LW 22:236).

            Finally take the case of Adolf Hilter (1889-1945) and his persecution of the church in Germany . In his attack on the church it is surprising – but also quite instructive – to learn that he


had no objections to Christians who confessed that Jesus is Lord; but he was enraged when they confessed that Jesus is Lord and Hitler is not…. [So] if we do not have the confidence to say, “We condemn,” if we still want to indulge in innocuous, sweet-sounding affirmations that can neither give offense nor engender strong loyalties, then it is a sure sign that we are not ready to confess at all [Arthur C. Cochrane, The Church’s Confession Under Hitler, Second Edition (1962, 1976) pp. 211-212].


The Anatomy of a Mumbler

But even with this frontal attack leveled by Luther himself, our mumbling doesn’t end. We still go along with St. Peter. Why are we like this? Why do we continue to mumble anyway? We’re supposed to pray that God would help us keep the Christian faith “clear and distinct” – even though it appears to many to be “repulsive [abhorreat]” (BC, p. 139). So we should never had taken up mumbling in the first place. But we did. Now why is that?

            1. Shame. One reason is that we’re embarrassed by our Lord and his salvation (Mark 14:4-5). They look so weird and extreme to us. Being saved from death, for instance, by one man’s death (Hebrews 2:14; 2 Corinthians 5:17), is a mind-blower. And saying Jesus is the only savior, and that only a few will be saved (Acts 4:12; Matthew 7:14), seems over the top as well. And so we continue to mumble. We think it’s better  than sounding stupid by saying too much– and giving ourselves to ideas that we can’t justify.

            This trimming of the truth is pervasive in the industrialized world. Under its sway, Christianity is reduced to “a diversionary, mindless, celebrity-driven, and well-marketed” entertainment business [Dick Staub, The Culturally Savvy Christian: A Manifesto for Deepening Faith and Enriching Popular Culture in an Age of Christianity-Lite (2007) pp. 40, 4].

            But we’ve been warned that Jesus will offend (Luke 2:35; 4:28, 7:23; John 6:60-61). So we shouldn’t try to purge Christianity of its inherent offensiveness. Nor should we imagine that our conversations with unbelievers will go without a hitch! Disagreement and contention will be the name of the game (Matthew 5:11; Jude 1:3, 1 Peter 3:15; Hebrews 11:35-38; Acts 5:41; 2 Corinthians 11:23-28). We’re rightly warned, therefore, that if we’re ashamed of Jesus, he’ll be ashamed of us in the next world (Mark 8:38). So let us endure these offenses rather than trying to explain them away.

            2. Love. And we also worry about sounding cruel. Saying most people go to hell is a scorcher! Believing that following Jesus includes denying ourselves and suffering (Luke 9:23; 1 Peter 4:13) sounds pathological and masochistic. In the face of these severities we retreat into the simple platitude that God is love and we should be like him (1 John 4:19). Surely that’s enough to say, we think. Surely it will get us by. Going any further will only make trouble for ourselves. But then Luther’s contentionem is gone!

            That, however, only makes short-shrift of love. For it in fact also requires sacrifice (1 John 4:10) and so our simple platitudes won’t work. Loving, then, requires us to “count the cost” (Luke 14:28, 19:20-27). But then we’re quickly back into assertions, contestation and offense. Love won’t and must not keep us out of “the good fight of faith” (1 Timothy 6:12). For it rages on, regardless.

            3. Mystery. And mumbling also seems justified because God is mysterious and we don’t know as much as we think we do about him. For our minds fall short of completely comprehending the divine. God, after all, is beyond us, being the great “mysterium tremendum” [R. Otto, The Idea of the Holy (1917, 1958) pp. 12-40].

            Well, this indeed is true, as far as it goes. The New Testament doesn’t wipe away all mystery (Romans 11:33, 1 Corinthians 13:10; 2 Thessalonians 2:7). But that fact alone doesn’t leave us in the dark (John 1:5). Enough is still revealed for us to be able to believe in Christ as the Savior and be saved (John 20:31; Matthew 11:25-27). This revelation can still makes us certain (1 Corinthians 15:58) – but never because of our own insights (2 Corinthians 3:4-5). What we rejoice in, then, is a mystery, “hidden for ages” alright, but a mystery, mind you, that has now been revealed to us “through the church” and its message (Ephesians 3:9-10).


Christ is Our Righteousness

So can we be clear about the Gospel is spite of all these road blocks? Can we side with St. Paul against St. Peter? Can we be straightforward about “such a great a salvation” (Hebrews 2:3)?

            Well, yes we can – if only we believe in the “source” of that salvation, Christ Jesus himself (Hebrews 5:9). We must not look to ourselves to set things straight. For we can’t save ourselves from the mess of obfuscation into which we have slid. Only Christ can heal our sin-sick souls (Mark 2:17).

            Remember that the sinful woman in Luke 7:50 was saved by her faith. And so we must be like her. Just as she didn’t have to set all past wrongs right, neither will we have to find ways to tell the hard truth of the Gospel at every turn. For we are not saved by “works of the law” (Romans 3:28). Our salvation is not based on our own “exertion” (Romans 9:16). “Our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30) are instead in Jesus. So when we believe in him, we’re set straight. What twists us up is when we “drift away” from this great salvation (Hebrews 2:1).

            While we feel badly about this mess we’ve made for ourselves, we can still believe in spite of it all. For faith doesn’t need a perfect place from which to operate. It can lift us up right from where we are. For faith “has its existence in penitence,” and is “strengthened in… afflictions,” rather than hampered by them (BC, p. 126).


Saved From the Wrath of God

The power faith has comes from the One in whom we believe. And Jesus is that One. He was steadfast and righteous (Philippians 2:8; Hebrews 5:8) and so all who believe in him can be the same – albeit imperfectly. For indeed, when we believe in him we share in his righteousness (2 Corinthians 3:18, 5:14-15).

            His righteousness is that God loves him – and he does so because he died for the sins of the world (John 10:17). When we believe in Christ, God extends his love even to us (John 14:21).

            Now for all of this divine love to flow our way (Ephesians 1:8), Jesus had to die in our place on the cross, being punished for our sins (1 John 4:10). By so dying, Jesus saves all who believe in him from the wrath of God (Romans 5:9). This is the only possible reason for his dying in our place (LW 52:253). For it was God’s will to strike him in our place (Isaiah 53:10; 1 Peter 2:24; BC, p. 292). By so doing Jesus satisfies God’s justice and pays what he owed, “with his own precious blood” (1 Peter 1:19; BC, p. 414).


Freed From Guilt

All this force in Jesus’ crucifixion lifts the guilt from our backs for the wrongs we have done and continue to do. Now we aren’t any longer consumed with that guilt (2 Corinthians 5:15; 1 John 3:20). And this is a monumental gift – being set free from guilt. It’s not something we can do for ourselves – try though we may. “Nowhere else” can we find it, than through “God’s grace for the sake of Christ’s vicarious satisfaction” (LHP 2:86).

            And so we sing glory be to Jesus! What a relief he is! This is because guilt is so troubling. St. Augustine (354-430) expressed this well [Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (1991) §8:18-20]:


I was gnawing [rodebar] at my inner self. I was violently overcome by a fearful sense of shame [pudore horribili]…. What accusations against myself did I not bring? With what verbal rods [sententiarum verberibus] did I not scourge my soul?.... The only thing left… was a mute trembling [trepidatio]…. I was deeply disturbed in spirit, angry with indignation and distress that I was not entering into my… covenant with you, my God.


Rodebar! – eating on ourselves like a rodent – that’s how hard guilt – pudore – is on us. No wonder then that the faithful sing praises to Christ! Be done with sententiarum verberibus! So we gather around the altar and receive Christ’s body and blood – in the Lord’s Supper. For it’s our great blessing and thanksgiving!


Righteous Indignation

So fight for the clarity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And basking in the glory of it all, do works in Jesus’ name (Colossians 3:17).

            Today let your good work be the anger of David, which was “greatly kindled” against the oppression and violence, told him by Nathan the prophet (2 Samuel 12:5). Let his righteous indignation be an example for us all to follow. Don’t, therefore, be ironic, indifferent and blasé – thinking life is a joke. Know that anger has its place. Keep an ethical fire burning deep in your soul. Set out to make the world a better place (Genesis 2:15; Psalm 72:4; Romans 12:9). Do so knowing you’ll never fully succeed. Do so, then, with an eager longing for eternity (2 Peter 3:12; Hebrews 9:28)! Amen.


(printed as preached, but with a few changes)