In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Martin Luther’s spiritual journey is well-documented and well-known. He lived his early life in great and constant fear of God and of eternal punishment. He could not imagine how God could possibly love him. Because he knew he was breaking commandments. He knew he was a sinner was not worthy of God’s love. He hated God’s justice because he knew the just thing was his damnation. Luther lived in terror and dreaded judgment day.
Over the years the Lord worked on Luther. He sent him into the Augustinian order to pray the Psalms. He had him ordained into the Office of the Holy Ministry. He sent him to study the Scriptures. And He sent him wise counselors. Nonetheless, Luther did not get a Damascus road experience like St. Paul. It wasn’t a single instant that changed everything, where the scales fell from his eyes, but Luther slowly, over time, began to see more and more clearly. He say God’s mercy. He saw that God loved him despite his many sins. The Lord Jesus Christ had died to forgive his sins and risen for his justification. He had satisfied His own wrath on Luther’s behalf. The payment was made. Thus did Luther discover joy in the Word of God, in Baptism, and in the Holy Supper. For he knew he would be welcomed to heaven by grace, with open arms.
That was a real liberation for Luther. He left his severe anxiety and depression behind. He was no longer afraid, no longer sad. He belonged to God. God loved him. He was safe.
Through Luther the Lord again brought the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, that He loves us and forgives us, which had never been lost or completely unknown in the Church but which was severely darkened and in some places oppressed, to new light. Luther is the single most important theologian and preacher in the history of the world outside of the Scriptures.
But we are a long ways from Luther. And while we don’t want to fall back into the sickness of spiritual anxiety and depression that he endured, and from which he would rescue us, we must also be aware of the opposite ditch. For ours is an age given not so much to spiritual despair as it is spiritual complacency. We have lost our highs along with the lows. And we naively expect or imagine that if not everyone is going to heaven, then at the very least everyone we love or care about, and almost everyone we know, is. We simply can’t imagine God not loving someone we love. We think we have the same instincts and opinions as God, or that God should have the same as us. This is pure idolatry. We make ourselves the standard by which God is judged. But worst of all, we can barely imagine that we ourselves could go to Hell, that God could be angry with us, even that God could hate us. That it is a real threat and danger.
Repent. Hell is real. Not everyone baptized here, confirmed here, or communed here goes to heaven. There is no one here with rights or privileges. I don’t care who your mama was or what you great things you once did. The Lord is no respecter of persons. Your sins are damning. God hates sinners. Repent.
But if the membership roster and genealogy won’t tell us who is going to heaven, how can we know? Simple. Those who believe in Jesus go to heaven. Those who do not, go to Hell. But be careful. If you say, “I believe in Jesus, no problem,” you are in danger. There are problems. You have not yet arrived. The good work begun in you is not yet complete. Faith that is no struggle is not faith. It is simply vanity or delusion, false comfort against a real danger. Repent. Your sins are no small things. They deserve God’s wrath.
If you’ve lost Jesus, if you’ve gone off without Him, if you’ve assumed He trails along no matter where you go, turn back. Go where He promises to be. For even as St. Mary and St. Joseph found Him among His Father’s things so will you. He does not follow you to the website with naked women, to the under-aged drinking party, to the arms of your mistress, to your childish temper tantrums and bouts of drinking. You will not find him among your familiar sins. You will not find him in the seductive niceness of Satan. You will find Him only among His Father’s things: in His Word, in His Sacrament, in His people. For He is the Temple that was torn down. He has raised Himself up again that you might worship Him in Spirit and in Truth. He deigns to dwell in the hearts of His Baptized, to feed them with His Body and His Blood, to speak to them in His Word. So turn back. Repent. Go to Jerusalem. Go where Jesus promises to be in His grace, to forgive your sins, to strengthen your faith, and to encourage you in this life. Do not go to the war torn city in Palestine. Go to the New Jerusalem, where the Gospel is preached and the sacraments are bestowed according to Christ’s institution. For there is your salvation and the love of God for you.
Your certainty is not in your faith, in your ability to please God with faith or to believe in Jesus. Your certainty and rest, like Luther’s, are in the Lord’s promise to be faithful to you. He keeps His Word. He says He loves you and forgives you and has paid for it all. He does not cause you anxiety. But if you leave Him behind you will have it. Now, the devil loves to torture those whom God would comfort with anxiety and fear. The Lord Jesus Christ frees us from that. He loves us without end. This is not cheap grace. Jesus died for the sins of the whole world. That was costly. Sins have a real price. But He died for the sins of the whole world, He missed no one. You are included. He died for you. Be comforted in that. Learn from Luther to not despair and to trust in God’s mercy.
But the devil is a nimble strategist. He switches tactics when he senses we’ve embraced the Gospel. He tries to out-Gospel God and lead us to complacency. If the Lord forgives sins, the devil tried one better. The devil says, “There really are no sins. There is nothing to be afraid of. I am so loving that there is no Hell. No one pays. And it is is only red-necked zealots, bigots, and legalists who think Jesus is the only way to heaven or that some people die and go to Hell.”
This modern seduction is every bit as destructive as anxiety and fear. It leads to death. The devil’s sweetness is not grace. It is a lie. Jesus died for sins and suffered Hell on your behalf. Your certainty is not that there is nothing to be afraid of, that there is no Hell, but that Jesus loves you and keeps His promises. He is where He promises to be: for you among His Father’s things. There is something be afraid of, but do not be afraid, because it has no claim upon you. Jesus died and rose for you. He placed His claim upon you in Holy Baptism. He is here, by grace, according to His promise, for you. Rest there, O Christian, and rejoice. God is good and remembers you. He is doing His Father’s business on your behalf.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.
Pastor David Petersen