Thursday, January 02, 2014
Happy New Year! Happy 2014!
It seems funny that flipping a page on a calendar should be counted as a holiday. I suppose that when people don’t recognize the holy, they have to find something mundane to celebrate. So we have New Years Day.
Certainly the observance of God’s grace to us in preserving us and carrying us through the past year into a new year is a cause for thanksgiving and rejoicing and celebrating. Certainly the changing of the calendar gives cause to pause in retrospect.
Thus people also commonly make New Years Resolutions. They examine their activities of the passing year and determine or resolve to do some things differently. They make resolutions and promises concerning their actions in the coming year. Some of these they actually mean. Some of these they actually strive to keep, at least for a week or two or three.
Soon, however, when we make resolutions to amend our lives we find ourselves unable to keep our promises. We find that we are unable to effect true change. We fall back into the same old errors again. Sometimes we manage to demonstrate these failings in different ways. Yet we still fall short of our good intentions.
Christians may fall into this trap even more so than others. I find it somewhat odd that in teaching people concerning Confession and Absolution that people are asked to promise this impossible task. In the Order of the Confessional Service on TLH pg. 46 ff., two formats are given, both of which call the person seeking absolution to state the intention or purpose of amending one’s sinful life by the assistance of the Holy Ghost. Surely this is the format of a resolution. The newer hymnals have similar statements.
Admittedly, seeing beyond this is difficult. Certainly the preaching against sin is necessary. Certainly the Law of God or Commandments are given to direct souls away from sin to the holiness of the Lord.
Yet in searching the Gospel accounts concerning the times that the Lord Jesus granted absolution to sinners, do we ever find Him calling for a resolution from the broken and contrite sinner? I cannot recall a single instance of the Lord Jesus calling for a person to resolve to do better before granting the blessed words of peace and comfort, “Your sins are forgiven you.” He does give the warning afterward that they are to go onward without adding to their sins. But He never evokes a resolution from anyone to whom He grants remission of their sins.
We do have an example, however, where He denies this making of resolutions as justifying. When He tells of the publican and the Pharisee, He says that the publican made no such resolution, but merely confessed his sinfulness and need for God’s mercy. This one, Jesus says, went home justified. The other man, the Pharisee, stated all of the ways that he had resolved to try to please God. The Pharisee listed his resolutions quite sincerely. Yet this one, Jesus says, did not go home justified.
What does this mean? What is the Lord Jesus teaching us with this example? He is teaching us that we should never look to our own works for our justification. He is teaching us that our resolutions, no matter how noble and no matter how sincere, will always fall short. In fact, our resolutions only lead us into more sins that we need to have remitted. If we make resolutions that we fail to keep, then not only have we sinned, but we also have failed to keep our word.
This is why the Lord has established for us His Church on earth. Within His Church He has ordained specific means through which He works to restore us to His Holy Communion. It is to these means of grace and remission and salvation and reconciliation and healing that He directs us to be turned. This is the repentance to which He calls us. He calls us to be turned from all of our own efforts, from all of our best intentions, from all of our resolutions, to receive the means through which His Word works all things for us. His Word and Sacraments are the means through which He does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He works regeneration unto true faith through Baptism, as He washes us with His Word with the water. In this washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit He applies the blood of the Word/Lamb to us by which we are cleansed. In this connection we are joined into His everlasting Communion, wherein we partake of His body and blood given and shed for us, to renew us in His Communion as our sins are remitted and taken away. As we hear His call to be gathered into His name to receive these things, we bow the knee and confess our need for His mercy, which He graciously bestows to us as the words of absolution are spoken over us. Then we rise up to eat and drink at His Table of renewal and forgiveness, going forth in the confidence of the good conscience into which we have been restored.
God does not call us to resolve to be obedient or to amend our lives. He calls us to walk in the Life that is in Him in His Holy Communion. The obedience of faith is not a choice. It is the fullness of living in communion with God in His kingdom. Obedience flows from the faith that the Lord works in us. Obedience flows from the trust that is generated within us concerning all that the Lord declares. When we receive His absolution and partake of His Communion, we recognize His will as that which is desirable and good. We recognize the fullness of the good life to which we have been restored so that we begin to walk in this newness of life or renewed life.
This is the difference of living by faith and living by works. Living by faith is the life that flows from the ordained means of grace. Living by works is the struggle to resolve to do better than we can hope to do for ourselves. Through His Word and Sacraments, His means of grace to us, we receive God’s goodness into our very being so that we are sanctified to live in the grace that flows to us freely by His decree.
Surely this is better than making resolutions that we know that we cannot hope to keep. Surely the way of grace, mercy, and peace is far better and desirable.
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