Either righteous by faith or not righteous at all

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Sermon for Trinity 13

Leviticus 18:1-5  +  Galatians 3:15-22  +  Luke 10:23-37

What shall you do to inherit eternal life? That’s what it’s all about, the answer to that question. You think it matters how much money you have? How nice of a house? If you have a loving family? If you’re healthy, if you feel good? If the right person is in office? That could all be taken away, gone in an instant. Death could come or Christ could come. Then what? Then eternity. Judgment. Endless life and joy and peace, or endless sorrow and pain and despair. So the question set before us today in the Gospel is a vital one: What shall you do to inherit eternal life?

Some would say, “Oh, that’s easy. Be a Good Samaritan! Be kind and merciful to strangers. Be a good neighbor to everyone who needs your help.” In other words, love! In fact, I just yesterday saw this post on Facebook: “Buddha wasn’t a Buddhist. Jesus wasn’t a Christian. Mohammed wasn’t a Muslim. They were teachers who taught love. Love was their religion.”

That statement is false on so many levels. But understand, that is how many people answer the question, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? Love! Love your neighbor! Do that, and you will live! Jesus even says so. When the lawyer asked his question, Jesus replied, What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?” So he answered and said, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’ ” And He said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.

The problem is, that’s where most people stop. They hear the parable of the Good Samaritan, and they imagine that this parable summarizes the whole teaching of Jesus, that this is how to inherit eternal life—by loving your neighbor. (Not to mention by loving the Lord God with your whole self!)

They’re wrong. Fatally wrong. What Jesus teaches in the parable of the Good Samaritan is not how a person can actually be saved, but how good and loving God demands that a person be in order to be saved by the law. What He intends to communicate with this parable is not the steps you must now take to earn eternal life, but on the contrary, He wants you to see how impossible it is for you, who are born sinners, to keep the requirements of His holy law so as to be saved by it. He wants you to face yourself in the mirror of His law and see just how lost you are, if you want to do something to inherit eternal life.

See what true love for your neighbor doesn’t look like. The man who was beaten and robbed and left for dead on the side of the road was ignored by the priest and the Levite—by the very people who were teaching people that they had to keep the law in order to be saved. How ironic! The very people who were preaching “works of love” refused to show any to the wounded man. They regularly brought sacrifices to God in His temple, but they knew nothing of mercy toward their neighbor.

But what does true love look like? Here comes a Samaritan. Remember, the Samaritans and the Jews were natural enemies who lived side by side with one another in the territory of Israel. But the Samaritan sees his natural enemy, the Jew, lying in the ditch half-dead, and he has compassion on him. Not the fake compassion that feels bad for his neighbor but does nothing. His compassion shows itself as he tends to the beaten man’s wounds, puts him up on his own animal, walks him to an inn, takes care of him some more, and then pays the innkeeper to keep tending to him until the Samaritan returns from his journey.

Go and do likewise, Jesus says. That’s his answer to the lawyer’s question. What must I do to inherit eternal life? Do the things the Samaritan did. But when Jesus says, “do this,” the word He uses doesn’t just mean do it once. It means, do it continually. It’s what Moses wrote in the Law, in the reading from Leviticus you heard this morning: You shall therefore keep My statutes and My judgments, which if a man does, he shall live by them.

To keep the law of love is no easy task. It requires that your entire life be lived for the sake of your neighbor. Every day. Every moment. All the time.

That’s where Jesus ends the lesson in Luke chapter 10. But it’s not where Jesus ends the lesson. His entire Gospel and the Epistles He sent His apostles to write make it perfectly clear that His answer to the lawyer that day is not the whole story, not the full answer. As Paul wrote to the Galatians in today’s Epistle, For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

You see, the Bible actually provides two very different answers to the question, what must I do to inherit eternal life? The Law answer says, “You shall love God and your neighbor continually and perfectly, without fail.” But the main message of the Bible is that we are born law-breakers, without true fear of God, without true love for God, and without trust in the true God. That means that no one can keep the Law so as to be saved by it. The Law can’t save people who are already sinful.

But another sinful man in the Bible—a Gentile jailor in the city of Philippi—once asked the question, “What must I do to be saved?” To him the Apostle Paul gave the other Bible answer, the one that actually works for sinners: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.”

Jesus is the truly Good Samaritan—our blood-relative with regard to His humanity, but a foreigner with regard to His divinity. He saw us robbed of all goodness and beaten half-dead by the devil. And He had compassion on us and came to our rescue. He had His Gospel preached to us and tended to our spiritual wounds with His Word and Baptism. He brought us into the inn of the Church and has placed us in the charge of His ministers who continue to tend to our wounds until He returns, applying the Word of God as bandages and the Means of Grace as healing ointment.

Now, why didn’t Jesus just give that answer to the lawyer who approached Him in today’s Gospel? Why didn’t He point to Himself directly? Why did Jesus give him the law answer instead of the Gospel answer? Because of what it says about that lawyer: He wanted to justify himself. You can’t have Christ for a Savior if you want to you justify yourself. You can’t have the Gospel promises as long as you cling to your own works, or as long as you deny your own sinfulness. The lawyer in the Gospel asked the question, “What must I do…,” thinking he could actually do something. The jailor in Philippi asked the question, “What must I do…,” in complete and utter despair of his own works. Hence the different answers.

What’s more, the lawyer in today’s Gospel didn’t even understand what he was asking. How did his question go, again? What must I do to inherit eternal life? Do you “do” something to “inherit” something? Isn’t an inheritance something that is bequeathed to certain people when a person dies? You don’t work for an inheritance. You simply receive it because you had a relationship with someone who died.

That’s where the whole Bible comes together, and the Apostle Paul ties it up nicely for us in today’s Epistle. Long ago, even before the Law was given through Moses, God made a Testament with Abraham, a Testament of inheritance. The inheritance was promised to Abraham’s “Seed,” whom Paul identifies as Christ Jesus Himself. The inheritance of eternal life was bequeathed to Jesus, the Son of Abraham. And before He died on the cross, Jesus bequeathed that inheritance to all who believe in Him, to all who are baptized into Him, to all who partake of the New Testament in His blood, sealed to us in the Holy Supper. Only by faith in Christ is a person righteous before God. Either you’re righteous by faith, or you’re not righteous at all, no matter how many strangers you help on the side of the road.

But does God still call upon His righteous-by-faith people to love our neighbor? Absolutely! The righteousness of faith is always accompanied by love. If it isn’t, then it isn’t genuine faith in the first place. God teaches you in the Gospel to serve your neighbor in love, to be on the lookout for the people in your life who need your help, who need your service, and to have mercy on them. It usually won’t be as dramatic as seeing a stranger lying wounded on the side of the road. Instead, it will be moms and dads serving their children, and children serving their parents. It will be neighbors helping their neighbors, workers serving their employers faithfully and employers looking out for their workers diligently. It will be students offering comfort and encouragement to their fellow students when they’re hurting. It will be church members supporting and helping one another, and those with wealth sharing it with those in need.

And yet none of that can be done in order to inherit eternal life. Eternal life is an inheritance received only by faith. But it’s the heirs of eternal life who are also truly zealous to do works of love for their neighbor, because it’s the heirs of eternal life who know from experience what mercy and love are all about, because they themselves have received it from God. May God, by His Spirit, continue to increase your faith and kindle in you the fire of His love. Amen.

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