A Lot vs. Alone

Philippians 3:8-9

8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.

Dear Friends in Christ,

Some years ago a company released what it called the perfect cake mix.  It was perfect because all you had to do was add water to it, put it in the oven, and voila!  You’d have a nice fresh moist cake to enjoy.  The problem was nobody bought it.  So the manufacturing company went back to the drawing board, began interviewing potential buyers, and doing other research.  Finally they determined the problem.  So they reissued the cake mix with just one alteration.  Now the instructions called for one egg to be added to the mix.  Almost immediately sales skyrocketed.

Why are we human beings like that?  Why is it that we don’t feel comfortable unless we do our part, unless we add something to what’s already perfectly good?  And please understand, I’m not talking about cake mixes here.  I’m talking about salvation.

In my sermon a few weeks ago we learned that this was a problem that Paul was addressing in his letter to the Philippians.  They weren’t adding eggs to a recipe, but they were adding a requirement to the cross.  Remember what it was?  It was circumcision, that age-old tradition that had been a part of the Jewish nation ever since its beginning and that many of the Jewish Christians in Philippi were reluctant to give up.  It’s not that they didn’t love Jesus.  They did.  It’s not that they didn’t trust Jesus.  They did.  They relied on him a lot for salvation, but they did not rely on him alone.  They felt they needed to add something to what Christ had done and that something was circumcision.

And you know what, my friends?  Sometimes we modern-day Christians do the same.  Not so much with circumcision, but we do occasionally adopt what I would call a “Jesus plus” theology.  Let me give you a few examples that I’ve heard before.  How about Jesus plus evangelism?  “How many people have you led to Christ?”  How about Jesus plus contributions?  “Are you really giving everything you can to the work of the Lord?”  How about Jesus plus spiritual discipline?  “Don’t you think you could get up 30 minutes earlier each day and pray or read your Bible just a little more?”  How about Jesus plus spiritual gifts?  “You mean you don’t speak in tongues?”  How about Jesus plus tradition?  “When you were baptized, were you immersed, poured, or sprinkled?”

Now there’s nothing wrong with any of those things that I just mentioned, but you see what can happen in those examples if we’re not careful?  We can ever-so-subtly take the emphasis away from what Christ did and instead place it on what we do.  So even though we might trust in Christ a lot, we don’t trust in him alone for salvation.

The technical term for this way of thinking and living is legalism.  Legalism is the practice of trusting your work (or at least part of your work) for salvation – taking God’s promise of eternal life and turning it into some sort of legal exchange:  “If I do this, then God will do this for me.”  The problem with legalists is that they look good.  They smell good.  They’re well behaved.  They pay their bills.  They take an active part in their church.  And because they are such decent, upstanding citizens and human beings, it’s easy for us to look past them and to focus more upon the uglier parts of society, the more evil side of humanity.  But Paul did not do that.  He knew the danger of legalism and so he deals very strongly and forcefully with the legalists in Philippi.  Remember this verse from a few weeks ago:  “Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh.”

Why the bared fangs?  Why the red hot ink?  Paul doesn’t speak of others this way.  He doesn’t approve of adulterers, but he doesn’t call them names.  He’s certainly not tolerant of homosexuality, but he doesn’t blast them with a verbal blowtorch.  He strongly encourages people to not get drunk, but he doesn’t call those who do “dogs.”  What’s gotten into Paul?  Why won’t he tolerate this teaching of legalism?

I can think of at least 3 good reasons.  First of all, legalism is inadequate.  Some of you may remember the tragedy that took place on Aug. 12 of the year 2000.  For the captain of a Russian submarine that was to be a red-letter day.  The nuclear submarine he commanded was the pride of the Russian navy.  Five high-ranking officials were aboard to see what this vessel was capable of as it performed maneuvers in the Arctic Sea.  But what was to be a day of triumph turned into a day of tragedy.  An explosion that registered 3.5 on the Richter scale rocked that sub and the 14-ton ship sank 350 feet to the bottom of the seabed.  Most of the 118 sailors on board were killed instantly.  A few survived, but for probably only a few hours.

Now, there’s a similarity between our plight and the plight of those sailors who spent their last hours on the bottom of the sea.  For apart from Christ, are we not equally hopeless?  Are we not equally helpless?  Are we not mired, not at the bottom of the sea, but in the muck and mud of our sins?  According to the Bible we are.  Need a few reminders?  How about Rom. 3:10:“There is no one righteous, not even one.”  Or Isaiah 53:6:  “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.”  Then back to Rom. 3:23:  “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

So what do we do about our plight?  Well, suppose one of the surviving sailors on that sunken sub came up with a solution.  Suppose he said, “Let’s all put our hands on the ceiling and see if we can push this thing to the surface.”  14 tons?  350 feet deep?  Gravity working against you?  The other sailors would say, “You don’t seem to understand the gravity of this situation.  We don’t need muscle.  We need a miracle!”

Paul is saying the same thing to legalists in our text.  “You don’t understand the gravity of your sin problem.  Your little religious works and good deeds that you do are simply not enough to save you.  You don’t need muscle.  You need a miracle.”  And thankfully God has provided that miracle for us in the person of his Son Jesus Christ whose perfect life and sin-atoning death and victorious resurrection were enough – were sufficient – to take us from the muck and mire of our sins to the glory and beauty of heaven.

But not only is legalism inadequate, it is also irreverent.  And by that I mean irreverent to God.  Who among us would dare to suggest that da Vinci’s Mona Lisa needs a little more pink in her cheeks?  Who among us would gaze at Michelangelo’s statue of David and say, “That’s pretty nice, but he should have made that nose just a little bit longer.”  Who among us would listen to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and say, “That’s good, but ol’ Ludwig could have used a few more strings in that 36th measure.”

In a similar way, who among us would look at the cross of Christ and say, “Great work, Jesus!  You almost finished it, but not quite.  That’s ok though because I’m going to help you out.”  Who are we to say that? Who are we to dare think that Christ needs our help?  Remember, we’re the ones at the bottom of the sea.  We’re the ones who are like a bunch of lost sheep.  Can you see then why I say that legalism is irreverent?

And if that’s not enough to convince you to count on Christ alone, then consider this:  legalism is exhausting.  I mean, it is exhausting.  Nobody knew that better than the great reformer, Martin Luther.  Before he properly understood the Gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, he felt he had to do something – no, he felt like he had to do a lot – to add to what Christ had already done.  So he’d fast for days on end, he’d whip and torture himself, he’d spend hours in the confessional booth confessing his many sins and shortcomings, he’d make pilgrimages to Rome.  And yet in spite of all he did, he never felt peace.  He never felt he’d done enough.  He was exhausted.  But on the night he finally discovered that salvation comes not through what we do, but through what Christ has done for us, he said it was as if the gates of Paradise had swung open before him and he’d been transported into heaven.  The burden of having to do it all himself was lifted from his shoulders and for the first time in his life the exhausted Luther had peace.

Well, if legalism is so exhausting and inadequate and irreverent, then why do we do it?  Why do we trust at least partly in ourselves and our own works to save us?  I can think of 2 answers.  First, because we can’t imagine we are that bad.  After all, we’ve never murdered anyone.  We’re not running from the law.  We’re not on death row.  We look around at everyone else and say, “Hey, I’m not that bad.”  And maybe compared to the rest of the world we’re not.  But remember what I said in my sermon a few weeks?  The rest of the world is not the standard by which God measures us.  Rather, Christ is the standard, and compared to him we all fall short, way short.

But in all honesty, I don’t think that most of us here today have a problem with thinking that we’re not all that bad.  As Lutherans, I think we have a pretty healthy understanding of our sinfulness and imperfections.  And so the 2nd reason we may sometimes adopt an attitude of legalism is perhaps more common with us.  And that is we can’t imagine God is that good.  How he could ever love a sinner like me? How he could ever forgive my many faults and failures? How he could ever want someone who is so imperfect to live with him forever in the glory and perfection of heaven?  That’s what’s tough for us to understand.  But it’s true.  And if you would just take this Holy Book in your hands and read it, you would discover that the very pages of Scripture are stitched together with one reminder after another of just how much God loves you.

God’s love for you is like the love that one elderly husband had for his wife.  She had a terminal illness for which the doctors had ceased all treatment.  They’d basically given up on her.  But the one thing she had going for her was a husband who resolved that he was going to make her last days as comfortable and pleasant as possible.  Not being a nurturer by nature he sought advice from nurses on how to care for her and clean her and give her her medicine.  He did everything you could imagine.  But what he did 2 weeks before her death, no one could have ever imagined.  He called for the chaplain to come to the room.  He set up a video camera to capture the moment.  He invited the children and grandchildren to come.  And when they arrived they saw that she had been dressed in her bridal gown and he had put on a coat and tie.  He asked the chaplain to renew their wedding vows that they had taken so many years before.  Taking the thin, frail hand of his dying wife as she lay in bed, he said, “I still do.  I’m still committed to you.”

What kind of love is that?  What kind of love is it that reaches out and takes the thin dying hand and says, “I still do”?  You know what kind of love that is?  That’s the exact kind of love that your Heavenly Father has for you.  It’s the kind of love that sees beyond your worst mistakes, your most evil thoughts and deeds, and takes your thin, frail hand and says, “I still do.”

What do you do with a love like that?  I’ll tell you what you don’t do.  You don’t try to add to it.  You don’t diminish it by trying to complement it with your works.  You know what you do with a love like that?  Here’s what you do.  You say with a heart full of gratitude:  “Amazing grace!  How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.”  What do you do with a love like that?  You simply receive it by faith and you trust it and it alone to save you.