Sermon audio here.
Christians never have a problem with the idea that Jesus is a great Savior. We’re only too happy to magnify His glory and sing His praise. But true praise of God is only possible once you’ve done the painful work of repentance. Singing about how good God makes you feel isn’t praise at all. Praise is singing about how Christ has rescued you from hell. The more you realize how desperately you need Christ, the sweeter the Gospel will taste.
God is gracious in that He doesn’t allow you to know the full extent of your sin (Psa. 19:12). Such knowledge could only lead you to despair. But even with the limited knowledge you have, it’s easy to wonder, “Could God really love so great a sinner as me?” Even if you only know 1/10th of your wickedness, that tenth you know is bad enough.
Sin is like cancer. These things aren’t fun to think about. But they are serious problems, and the consequences of ignoring them are deadly. Sometimes you might not even know you have them. They don’t always hurt, certainly not right away. But sin and cancer don’t fight fair. They don’t wait until you know you have them to start killing you.
God is gracious in that He doesn’t let you feel the full extent of your sin. Nobody can discern the full extent of his errors, and this is a good thing. But like the faithful doctor with the unwelcome lab report, God holds nothing back in telling you how serious your condition is.
Holy Scripture diagnoses your sin by comparing it to some of the most grotesque and offensive things there are. Isaiah likens your righteousness to menstrual rags (Isa. 64:6), and St. Paul uses the harshest language possible to describe it (Phil. 3:8). What the apostle calls skubala in Greek, King James translates as “dung” and Wycliffe “turds.” Neither one convey the full force of the original language.
It would be better to leave skubala untranslated than to water it down. Then Philippians 3:8 would sound something like, “For the sake of Christ… I regard [my own righteousness] as a pile of skubala.”
When you lose the offensive language, you lose a sense of how offensive your sin is before God. St. Paul doesn’t speak this way for the purpose of offending; he speaks this way to correct. We’re tempted think we’re pretty good people; the apostle wants you to regard your works as skubala. And the truth is, not even skubala fully conveys the vulgarity of the human heart.
As offensive as it is to have your works compared to skubala, the remedy for your sin is probably the only thing Lutherans find more offensive: telling them to go to confession. But to reject confession is to reject Christ. St. John says:
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us,” (1 John 1:9–10).
In the Small Catechism, Luther says we should confess those sins which we know and feel in our hearts to the pastor. Private confession is a good spiritual discipline, maybe even something to practice this Lent. If you’d ever like confession and absolution, let me know and we can arrange for that.
Confession won’t earn you God’s favor, but it does promote awareness of sin, and it’s a cure without equal for the troubled conscience. Where else can you go to name specific sins and hear Christ forgive them with absolutely no fear of retribution?
But admitting you have a problem isn’t enough. It’s not just that sin causes you trouble on occasion. When it comes to overcoming sin, you are powerless. Jesus says whoever commits sin is a slave to sin (John 8:34). To sin is not just to slip up on occasion; it’s evidence of a deep-seated hatred for God.
The blind man desperately begging Jesus for mercy in today’s Holy Gospel is a picture of all true Christians. Everyone is blind, but Christians are those who realize this and beg Christ for mercy.
One of the things that makes confession so difficult is that you actually like your sin. Part of you doesn’t want to break with it. You sin because you enjoy it. The desires of the flesh are strong. You’d much rather insist on your own way than deny yourself in service to others. You’d much rather gossip about someone else’s sin than confess your own. If people came to confession as often as they gossiped, there wouldn’t be enough pastors in the world to hear them all.
The problem with liking sin as much as you do is that it’s also evidence of your hatred for God. If you loved God the way you should, you’d never have so much as a sexually impure thought, let alone act on it. Repent.
Faith isn’t just believing that Jesus exists, or even that He’s really nice and loving. Faith is confessing that Christ is your Savior, which also means confessing that you are desperately wicked. Luther said, “When I urge you to go to confession, I am simply urging you to be a Christian,” (Tappert, 460:32).
Satan wants you to believe in yourself, that you’re a good person. Christ wants your goodness to be found in Him, not having a righteousness of your own that comes from the law, but the righteousness of God that comes through faith in Christ (cf. Philippians 3:9).
The Twelve were no different than us. They were in denial about their sin. That’s why when Jesus talked about going to Jerusalem to be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon, to be flogged and killed before rising on the Third Day, they couldn’t understand why. They didn’t realize that their sin was just as responsible as anyone’s for the mocking, the flogging, and the killing of Jesus.
Scripture uses harsh imagery and language to describe your sin, but we’ve yet to talk much about the harshest, most graphic depiction of all: the crucifixion of our Lord. But Jesus’ death is more than just a manifestation of your sin. It’s also the irrefutable testimony of God’s unfailing love for you.
Terrors striking the conscience on account of your sin is a godly sorrow, but Christ would not leave you in despair. The Holy Spirit works through the proclamation of the Gospel to create faith. This faith clings to the promise of God’s love on account of Jesus’ suffering and death and brings healing to a wounded conscience. As St. Paul says: “Being justified by faith, we have peace with God,” (Romans 5:1).
Such faith was the difference between David and Saul, Peter and Judas. All four were guilty and filled with sorrow, but Saul and Judas couldn’t see past their sin to Christ. They thought more of their sin than their Savior. Both were left in despair and ended their own lives (1 Samuel 31:4; Matthew 27:5). This is where works righteousness leads you. When you finally realize you can do nothing to please God, all hope is lost.
But when you realize that God is pleased with you on account of Christ’s work for you, there is nothing but hope and joy and peace. As great as David’s and Peter’s guilt was, they knew their Savior was even greater. They clung in faith to the Gospel, that God made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him, sinners might become the righteousness of God.
The other day my oldest son compared our ability to overcome sin to trying to build the Lego Death Star—an almost 4,000 piece set—blindfolded, in the dark, with the wrong pieces, and no arms. In other words, it’s impossible. The only way it’s going to get built is if someone else does it for you.
Salvation is no different. The only way to the Father is through Christ and the cross. You can’t get there own your own, and you contribute about as much to that salvation as the armless, blindfolded guy trying to build the Death Star with the wrong pieces.
While overcoming sin and death on your behalf meant bitter sufferings and death, it’s a task Christ endured gladly (Hebrews 12:20). One of the great Lenten hymns describes our Lord’s attitude toward His suffering and death by saying:
“Yes, Father, yes, most willingly
I’ll bear what You command Me.
My will conforms to Your decree,
I’ll do what You have asked Me.”
O wondrous Love, what have You done!
The Father offers up His Son,
Desiring our salvation.
O Love, how strong You are to save!
You lay the One into the grave
Who built the earth’s foundation.
“A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth.” (Stanza 3; LSB, 438)
Soli Deo Gloria