End Times 1: Reformation

Preached: November 1, 2009

Just Have Faith! Faith in God's Promises, His Unconditional Promises
Romans 4:18-25

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The Word from God through which the Holy Spirit strengthens our faith in Jesus is Romans 4

Hoping against hope, he [Abraham] believed, so that he became the father of many nations in line with what had been said: “So shall your seed be.” Without weakening, in faith he considered his own body as already having died, since he was about a hundred years old, and Sarah's womb as dead. Yet regarding God's promise, he did not waver in unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, as he gave glory to God and was fully convinced that God was able to actually do what had been promised. Therefore “it was counted to him as righteousness.”

Now “it was counted to him” was written not only for him but also for us, to whom it would be counted, to us who believe in the one who raised Jesus, our Lord, from the dead. He was handed over because of our transgressions and was raised because of our justification. (Romans 4:18-25)

Dear friends in Christ, fellow saints washed clean in the blood of our risen Savior:

1. Describe what the world imagines faith to be.

How much he wanted a little boy, a son of his very own! Yet it seemed impossible. Hopeless! He was just too old. One night he looks up at the sky and sees the countless stars. He makes a wish. The next day his dream has come true.

Of course, I'm not talking about Abraham, but about Geppetto. After he wished upon a falling star, the Blue Fairy brought to life the wooden puppet he had carved. By the end of the movie the wooden boy became a real boy, and Geppetto and Pinocchio lived happily ever after.

That story illustrates what so many imagine faith to be. To them faith is convincing yourself that your dreams will come true, that if your heart's desire is strong enough, it could happen -- it will happen. “When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are, anything your heart desires will come to you. If your heart is in your dreams, no request is too extreme” (“When You Wish Upon a Star” by Leigh Harline & Ned Washington, referenced 29 Oct 2009 at http://www.wikifonia.org/node/1123#/cml_0/1 ). You get the picture. So even non-religious people wear shirts that say, “Believe,” with a glittering Tinker Bell on them.

They might even point to Martin Luther and say, “See what you can do if you just have faith. Only believe, sola fide, faith alone. He stood up to bishop and Pope posting the Ninety-Five Theses on October 31. He didn't cave in to the Holy Roman Emperor at the city of Worms. He survived being declared an outlaw and accomplished so much in his life. See what can happen, if you just believe in your dreams.”

How vehemently Luther would disagree with them. In his “Preface to the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans,” which was included in his German translation of the Bible, Luther wrote: “Faith is not the human notion and dream that some people call faith” (Luther's Works 35:370, Fortress Press: Philadelphia). Faith alone, sola fide, is not faith in yourself alone. It is not faith that your dreams will come true, even though nothing else says they will, so that your faith is alone, all by itself. That's not faith.

A. Faith needs a promise, an unconditional promise

1. Why did Abraham believe that the impossible would happen?

What, then, is faith, real faith? Let's have a childless man from history, not from a fairy tale, show us real faith. He, too, was old, nearly a hundred. His wife Sarah was ten years younger, but she was never able to have children at any time. Both of their bodies were as good as dead. How impossible, how hopeless to have a child!

But “against all hope, Abraham in hope believed” (Romans 4:18 NIV). Why? Did he wish upon a star? Was he just so sure his dreams would come true? Was his heart's desire just so strong it had to happen? No, it had nothing to do with his dreams or the strength of his heart's desires. Rather, remember the history.

Twenty-five years earlier the Lord had promised him that he would be a great nation and all peoples would be blessed through him (Genesis 12:2, 3), for the Savior would come from his family. But how could that happen without a son? A few years later the Lord took him outside at night and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars -- if indeed you can count them . . . So shall your offspring be” (Genesis 15:5 NIV). And now go back to Romans: “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed . . . just as it had been said to him, 'So shall your offspring be'” (Romans 4:18 NIV).

Do you see how vastly different this is from worldly faith? Abraham believed because of what the Lord had said. The promise gave him faith. God's promise. Faith needs a promise. That's why even as the years went by and his body grew older, Abraham's faith continued, even in the face of the impossible. Now faith in the impossible is certainly a blind and foolish faith, if it is built on the dreams of our hearts. But faith in God's promises is never blind or foolish, no matter how impossible it sounds. For the Lord keeps his promises.

2. Why do God's promises give faith sureness and certainty?

Note how Abraham's faith is described in Romans: “being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised” (Romans 4:21 NIV). Yes, dear Christians, faith is sureness that God keeps his word, certainty that his promises do not fail, confidence that relies entirely on what the Lord has said. That's why faith needs a promise, an unconditional promise of grace. Otherwise, how could faith be sure and certain? Luther described it this way in his “Preface to Romans,” “Faith is a living, daring confidence in God's grace, so sure and certain that the believer would stake his life on it a thousand times” (Luther's Works 35:370, Fortress Press: Philadelphia).

Faith alone, sola fide, trusts only in God's promises. It does not trust in the desires or dreams of our hearts. It does not trust in the works of our hands. It does not trust in the good intentions of others. The only faith that saves is the faith that trusts God's promises alone. Sola fide. Faith alone.

Saving faith and God's saving promises, his unconditional promises. See how they go hand in hand. In fact, it is God's promises that ignite faith in our hearts and feed its flames. They are the Holy Spirit's faith-creating and faith-sustaining tools. God's promises give faith its sureness and certainty. That's why Luther wrote in his “Preface to Romans,” “Faith, however, is a divine work in us which changes us and makes us to be born anew of God” (Luther's Works 35:370, Fortress Press: Philadelphia). A divine work done by God's promises. Just have faith, dear friend, faith in God's promises, his unconditional promises.

B. So go to his promises, his unconditional promises

1. How do his promises come to you?

So go to his promises, dear friend. He speaks his promises to you through his Word and Sacraments. In Baptism you, yourself, were born anew of God as faith was kindled in your heart. The Lord's Supper feeds you the body and blood of your Savior for your forgiveness. What a promise! Hold on to his promises.

When faced with the impossible, when burdened with hopelessness, go to his promises. They will not fail you. When your dreams disappear and your desires are dashed, go to his promises. They are more sure than reality itself. For you see, heaven and earth will pass away, but God's Word, his promises, will never pass away (Luke 21:33).

Even the tiniest faith clinging only to God's promises will withstand the fiercest storms. For no wind of trouble, no thunderbolt of pain, no downpour of grief can damage God's promises. But even the strongest, surest faith that's holding on to something else will be blown away. For everything, outside of God's promises, fails.

2. What do his Word and Sacraments promise you?

Go to his promises, his unconditional promises. For they bring you Jesus, born from Abraham's family. For you see, God did kept his promise and gave old Abraham a son, Isaac. Through him the Savior came, the Savior you and I desperately need. For how hopeless our condition was! Born dead in sin, powerless in our unbelief, headed for hell. Guilty and damned. Impossibly lost.

But Jesus our Lord “was delivered over to death for our sins” (Romans 4:25 NIV), as Paul writes in Romans. Jesus died on the cross in our place. Your sins were counted against. He carried your guilt. So your faith confesses: “He did this for me, even for me!” He died for you, dear friend, for you. You were baptized into his death. Remember these words each time you receive the Lord's Supper: “He was delivered over to death for our sins,” for you and for me.

And he “was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:25 NIV). God raised him from the dead, for we have been justified, declared not guilty, in his courtroom. Now when the day of our death and the Last Day comes, God will judge us by whatever record our faith pleads. Anyone without faith in Jesus will be condemned on the record of their own works, no matter how strong their faith in something else was. But your faith, dear Christian, your faith in Jesus already now pleads: “Lord God, you have promised that you freely credit Jesus' righteousness to me, guilty sinner though I am. You have promised that his right record counts as mine. You raised him from the dead as the verdict that he has paid for all sins, including all of mine. You bid me to believe this with all my heart. You even give me his body and blood so that I may be sure that he did it for me, yes even for me. Your promise of forgiveness will not fail me.” Each day, dear Christian, plead Jesus before God's throne. Plead Jesus with the full confidence of faith.

Don't wait for a falling star; rather, continually hold on to the God's promises. Go to his Word and Sacraments. No matter how impossible God's promises may seem, they will not fail. Be fully convinced. Believe his promise: He justifies even you through faith in Jesus, through faith alone, sola fide. Just have faith, dear friend, faith in God's promises, his unconditional promises. Amen.

The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Pastor Gregg Bitter

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
859 5th Street
Hancock, MN 56244
(320) 392-5313