Preached during the week of Epiphany 4, 2014
Romans 4:16-25 + Matthew 14:22-32
Let’s begin this evening by talking about faith for a moment, as St. Paul did in the first reading you heard from Romans 4 and as the Gospel paints for us a beautiful picture in the second reading.
Abraham had faith in God; he believed that God would do what God said He would do, namely, that He would give Abraham a son, even though, humanly speaking, it was impossible for his wife Sarah to conceive. Faith in God meant not relying on his sight or on his reason or on the probability of Sarah conceiving. Faith in God, instead, meant being assured in his heart that he would have a son.
Where did that faith come from? It came, not from Abraham, but from God. It came from the Word of God, who spoke to Abraham, had him look up at the stars in the sky and said, “So shall your offspring be.” Those words of God caused Abraham to believe that what they promised would surely take place.
Or take Peter, whose faith led him to step out of his boat, onto the stormy sea, and begin walking toward Jesus, who was walking toward him—something that’s impossible according to the laws of nature. And yet faith meant being convinced he could do it.
Where did that faith come from? It came, not from Peter, but from God. It came from the Word of Jesus, who spoke to Peter that one word, “Come!” That Word was like a hand reaching out from God, and faith was like Peter’s hand, holding onto God’s hand. The Word of Jesus, “Come!”, was the hand that held Peter up above the water. It held him up and would have held him up until he had walked all the way to Jesus. But then Peter took his faith off of Jesus’ word and placed it back on his eyesight, back on his human reason that told him the wind and the waves and gravity itself must surely cause him to sink. And he began to sink, until faith found Jesus again, causing Peter to cry out, “Lord, save me!” And Jesus did, of course, but not without a rebuke. “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Faith is important. Faith is essential. Faith is a necessary component of salvation. Faith, as we confessed in Article IV of the Augsburg Confession, is that which God counts for righteousness in His sight, because faith is the hand that lays hold of Christ, who is our righteousness before God. So the very relevant and very important question that we’re addressing this evening is, Where does faith come from? As we saw in the example of Abraham, as we saw in the example of Peter, Scripture reveals one and only one source of faith: “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.”
And that’s exactly what we confess in Article V of the Augsburg Confession:
That we may obtain this faith (the faith that saves, the faith that justifies), the Ministry of Teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Ghost is given, who works faith; where and when it pleases God, in them that hear the Gospel, to wit, that God, not for our own merits, but for Christ’s sake, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake.
They condemn the Anabaptists and others who think that the Holy Ghost comes to men without the external Word, through their own preparations and works.
Article V is a very important article, because it’s so rare to find this teaching in modern Christian churches. The idea that God works through instruments, through means—what we call the Means of Grace—is completely foreign to American Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism, which may speak very highly of the Bible as being the inspired Word of God, but then they come right out and deny that God uses preaching and the Sacraments as His chosen instruments to create faith in men’s hearts. And yet, this is an integral part of the doctrine of Christ. The Holy Ghost works through the instruments, the means of preaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments. This is how He stirs up faith in the hearts of men. This is how He nourishes and strengthens and sustains faith in the hearts of men. Everything depends on the Word.
This is the same thing Jesus taught His apostles when He told them the Parable of the Sower and the Seed. The seed that sprouts into faith in men’s hearts is the Word of God, according to Jesus. And when Jesus gave His apostles the great commission, He said, Go into all the world and preach the Gospel. Or, Go and make disciples of all nations. How? By what means? By reasoning with them? By doing miracles? No. Baptizing them…and teaching them.
Paul says to the Romans in chapter 1, For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes.
How does the Holy Spirit regenerate a person and give new birth? Jesus says that a person must be born again of water and the Spirit. Peter says, Love one another fervently with a pure heart, having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever. Or as James says, Of His own will God brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.
The Holy Spirit uses instruments. He has bound Himself to those instruments, at least as far as He has revealed His will to us, so that we should not imagine that God creates or sustains faith in any other way but by the ministry of His Word.
He works faith where and when it pleases God in them that hear the Gospel, to wit, that God, not for our own merits, but for Christ’s sake, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake. The simple but powerful Gospel is just this, that we cannot justify ourselves before God or earn our justification, but that for Christ’s sake and only for Christ’s sake, God justifies those who believe that He does what He says, that He receives sinners into His grace when they believe in Christ. It’s the Word of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. Nothing else can bring a person to faith. This simple Gospel is the Holy Spirit’s only tool. When people come and visit our church, they hear this Word of God every time. Sometimes they come back to hear more. Sometimes they don’t. If they come back, it’s because the Holy Spirit used His Word to create faith in their hearts, and faith keeps them coming back to Jesus’ Word like a newborn baby to his mother. If they don’t come back, it’s because they resisted the working of the Holy Spirit in the Word. It’s just that simple.
Because this teaching of the ministry of the Word, the Means of Grace, is so vital to Christianity, our Lutheran Church does not hesitate to condemn those who reject this Christian doctrine: They condemn the Anabaptists and others who think that the Holy Ghost comes to men without the external Word, through their own preparations and works. The Anabaptists at the time of the Reformation and most Evangelicals today think that the Holy Spirit comes to men without the external Word, that He moves around and puts burdens on their hearts without the Word, that He brings people to faith without the Word, in some other way, through their own prayers, through their feelings and emotions. We condemn those false teachings and those who teach them, because God’s Word condemns them.
Why? Because false doctrine kills. To teach that the Holy Spirit is given apart from the Word, would be like telling Peter as he is sitting in the boat, before Jesus tells him to come, “Peter, go ahead and jump out. God’s Holy Spirit will hold you up!” You will cause Peter to drown if he listens to you. It’s only the Word of Jesus that sustains his faith and holds him on top of the water. Or it would be like telling Peter as he is walking on the water, trusting in Jesus’ word to him to “Come!”, “Hey, Peter! Can’t you feel the Spirit in your heart? That’s what’s keeping you up, Peter! The Spirit in your heart! Feel the Spirit, Peter!” You will cause Peter to drown if he listens to you, because you will be taking his faith off of Jesus’ Word and placing it in his own heart. Instead, this is what Peter needs to hear, if you would tell him anything. “Peter, Jesus said, ‘Come!’ Listen to Him! He will not lie to you. ‘Come!’, He said. He will not let you fall. Keep your eyes on Jesus, Peter. His Word will sustain you!”
Instead, Jesus allowed Peter to sink for a moment to teach him and us how faith and His Word go hand in hand, and to warn us and encourage us to use the instruments of the Holy Spirit, to abide in His Word and to find comfort and strength in it. God requires only faith in order for sinners to be justified in His sight. And through the preaching ministry, God the Holy Spirit continually provides the very faith He requires, so that it’s never about us doing something for God, but always about us receiving everything from God as a free gift, even faith itself. This is what we confess in the Fifth Article of the Augsburg Confession. Amen.