After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.” But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”
Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
I wish I had a dollar for every time someone said, “Why do you have a crucifix hanging in the front of your church? That’s Catholic, isn’t it?” When I answer, “No!,” I can see the wheels turning as they try to figure it out. I assure them in the kindest possible way that the symbol of having a cross with a corpus on it doesn’t just belong to the Roman Catholic Church. Perhaps you’ve heard similar comparisons between Baptists, Lutherans and Catholics. Some think Lutherans and Catholics are alike, and they might be talking about the liturgical way we worship and have a valid point. But, when I say the Baptists and Catholics have more in common than we do, they really wonder what I’m talking about. Additionally, the radio recently announced that the Lutheran church is now the “sanctuary church” for illegal immigrants, so we might sigh in relief that we don’t have “Lutheran” in big letters on our church sign. You see, while churches may have similar ceremonies and songs, read from Scriptures, proclaim Jesus and appear to have similarities, sadly, there are still sharp distinctions that separates one church from another.
So, what is it then, that makes us distinctively Lutheran? Worship and building style, the language and liturgy we use, skin color or social standing don’t make us necessarily Lutheran. If you were to ask me what makes our Lutheran church stand out I would sum it up in one word—justified. We are justified by grace through faith. Many of you have heard “justified” hundreds, if not thousands of times. But, some here maybe not so much. So, we turn to this account of Abram to better understand what it means to be Lutheran. This account point us to the important truth that we are Justified by Grace Through Faith.
Look how God Treated Abram
When you learn about Abram you might get the impression that he was nearly perfect. He left his father’s home traveling 300 miles to a new area, shared the truth of the only true God in hostile places, was generous to his nephew Lot, was active in prayer life and earned the title, “the Father of All Believers.” Based on the evidence we’d probably agree that he was a great believer. But, you have also learned from Scriptures that Abram was a sinner just like you and me. Right after The Flood God said, “every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood” (Gen 8:21). The Psalmist said, “All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Ps 14:3). Then there was Abram’s life, for instance when he traveled to Egypt and found himself surrounded by threatening bad guys who thought his wife was a looker and wanted to take her. Abram was afraid and wanted to save his own skin so he called Sarah his sister and allowed the evil king to take her into his harem. But, God had a promise to keep and had to step in correct the situation and get Sarah back to Abram. Abram had his doubts about God being able to carry out his promises. Today Abram shows his doubt again by offering his own plan: ““Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”
We get it. Abram did not deserve any special treatment from God. For his doubting and bad behavior God should have swept him aside and said, “I’ll look for someone better who trusts my promises.” But, God didn’t treat Abram as Abram deserved. Here in this account is a practical look at the word, Grace! God appeared to Abram and said, “the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward…. This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” God didn’t treat Abram according to what he deserved.
By God’s grace Abram became rich, had a homeland, became famous and the best demonstration of God’s grace—to give him the Promise of a son and eventually a Savior! This Savior you know! Jesus came to die on the cross to pay the penalty of all your sins! Jesus is the link between the words “grace” and “justify.” Abram stood before the Lord as a guilty sinner. Jesus stepped in and took on Abram’s punishment for his sin and then transferred his own forgiveness and holiness to Abram’s account. For that reason, Because of Jesus’ work—Abram was justified—declared not guilty! Look how God treated Abram! He didn’t treat his as his sins deserved. Abram was justified by grace for Jesus’ sake.
Grace upon grace, God treats us the same way. God declares us all, yes the whole world, innocent for Jesus’ sake. Yes, we are still sinners and we don’t deserve any of God’s forgiveness, but then that wouldn’t be grace. Yes, God makes our wrong doing clear by his law. Then he graciously clears our wrong-doing for Jesus’ sake. This is the truth of the Bible upon which we Lutherans stand.
We are thankful to the Lord for all the people who are members of all the denominations who teach this central truth of the Bible. But, when we check the teachings of other churches we find things like this: “God is going to give you the power to live a good life by pouring his grace into you, and then by prayer and pious living you will attain the perfection demanded by God.” But, that’s not what we just learned from the account of Abram. Another church teaches, “God put a little good in all of us, and when that good is sparked then you can decide for yourself to let Jesus into your heart and be saved.” But, that’s not what we just learned from the account of Abram. What we just learned is that we are saved by grace through faith for Jesus’ sake. God credits our account for Jesus’ sake. Apart from Christ we are sinners, but in the Lord Jesus Christ we are declared no longer sinners in God’s eyes. Look how God treated Abraham and us! We are Justified By Grace Through Faith!
Look How Abram Trusted God
God is so good. He sent his Son to pay the penalty for all our sins. But, how does all this goodness become our own? That leads us to talk about “faith.” You hear this word used today, “Abram believed the Lord.” God worked out his salvation through his Son. This work Jesus did on the cross. Faith is the pipeline, or the channel through which all the righteousness, all the holiness, all the perfection Abram needed was given—by grace through faith.
You have probably heard all sorts of stories and illustrations how faith works. I’d like to try this one. Let’s say your car quits working while you’re driving down the highway. You merge onto the shoulder and find out your brakes quit. Then your steering quit. So you skid off the roadway into the ditch, hit and guard rail and total the car. It was an older car and you didn’t have collision on it, so you simply leave the car there and walk away. A little while later Big Bass Towing sees the car and tows it to their garage fixes everything. And because you had left information in the glove box, they find your address and drop it off at your home. They ring the doorbell and say, “I’ve fixed up your car. I did it for free. Here are the keys.” Your jaw drops, but you believe what he says. You have the keys, walk over to your car that looks and smells like a brand new car and enjoy driving it. Now think about this: Your believing the message didn’t fix your car. Your having the keys didn’t fix the car. It just allowed you to enjoy it. If you didn’t believe the mechanic’s message, the car would still be fixed, but you wouldn’t be driving it. Do you see? Faith receives what God has to offer!
Does this resonate with you? This is how Abram’s faith worked. Abram heard God’s promise about a Savior who would forgive all his sins. The object of his faith and your faith are the same. You just happened to know his name—Jesus. If Abram didn’t believe the message it would still be true, but Abram would not have enjoyed all it’s benefits. He would have no lasting joy, peace or happiness. But Abram had faith created by the Word through the power of the Holy Spirit to believe the promise. His believing didn’t make the promise come true. It made the Savior’s work his own personal possession. Through faith Abram had peace of heart, comfort and joy. Abram trusted God. That’s the fact. He was justified by grace through faith.
Dear Christian friends, our faith works the same way. We were not there when the angels sang to the shepherds, when Jesus healed the sick, walked on the water, raised the dead, prayed in Gethsemane, crucified, died and was buried. We were not there to see his grave clothes folded up after his resurrection, when he appeared to Mary, the women, Peter, the disciples and more than 500 witnesses. It all happened long ago. Yet, all of this gracious work of God, won for us by Jesus, and brought to us through the gospel in Word and sacrament—all of this goodness became our personal possession through faith.
Compare this to some churches that teach that our faith is our work, a condition to be met before we get forgiveness. That teaching of faith is most recognizable when you hear people ask, “Are you saved?” That question drives some people to look into themselves and wonder, “Have I done enough to be saved?” It would be better to make the statement as Scripture does, “You are saved,” which causes us to look to the cross and see when Jesus saved us. Or again, if you hear someone say, “Jesus wants to be your Savior. All you have to do is open up your heart and accept him. Make your decision for Christ.” These statements can lead one to think that Jesus’ forgiveness is out there, but only comes through their action and decision. That robs God of his grace. That would be like me putting a $20 in the back of all your service folders and saying, “It’s all yours.” But, then someone says, “It’s not yours until you accept it.” Friends, it’s already in your hands. I made the bulletin. It was given to you by an usher. I put the $20 in the bulletin already. All you can do is reject it! So, we’ve learned from Abram that we are Justified by Grace through faith.
Sadly, not all churches teach what the Bible teaches. And saying you’re teaching what the Bible says does not mean one is doing it. That is why you need to read your Bibles, come to worship and Bible Class to hear the Word. You are blessed by God’s goodness when you do. History has recorded the Christian Church being split up and falling apart. But, that isn’t God’s fault. When you study these sad events the common threat most often is the departure or the watering down of this glorious teaching that we are justified by grace through faith. This isn’t being snooty. It’s just being honest. And if Lutherans depart from the truth of God’s Word that we are justified by grace through faith, then they shouldn’t be called Lutherans anymore. Why? Because Luther said, “Nothing in this article can be given up or compromised, even if heaven and earth should be destroyed. On this article rests all that we teach and practice.”
So, whether we have a cross or a crucifix, sing the liturgy or speak the liturgy, use organ or guitar and drums, have an hour service or four hour service, these are not the important things of a church. The most important thing is how a church answers this question: How does one get right with God? When someone asks that questions remember the account of Abram. Tell them you go to Divine Peace because our church teaches what the Bible teaches, namely, We are Justified by Grace through Faith. Amen.