Those who are weakest in their faith, who are most in need of the Gospel, are the least likely to seek it out or to avail themselves of the means of grace; while those who are strongest in their faith are the least likely to let any opportunity for the Gospel get away from them. For those who are strongest in their faith rely most surely upon the Word of God, by which they know both their own sin and the grace of God in Christ; so they come freely and gladly, in repentance, to confess their sins and be absolved, to hear the preaching of the Gospel, and to receive the body and blood of Christ unto life and salvation.
There are those who, in the weakness of their faith, suppose themselves to be strong and secure, who stubbornly stay away from the preaching and administration of the Gospel because they do not recognize their need for it. Then again, there are those who, in their weakness, cower and shy away from the Gospel because they are consumed by their sin and shame and so cannot believe that the good gifts of Christ are given for them or able to help them.
Those who are strong in the faith perceive that hearing the Gospel preached and receiving the Sacraments in the name of Christ are the ways by which the Lord God grants peace and rest to His people; that these are His works, and His gracious gifts, rather than obligations or burdens. As such, the strong in faith are disappointed when their vocations and stations in life prevent them from being in church, but they do not fear that God will be angry or displeased with them, as though they were letting Him down. They will simply rejoice in their next opportunity to hear His good Word and receive His good gifts; and meanwhile, they go about their works of love in faith and with prayer.
Those who are weak in the faith suppose that going to church is a chore and a hardship, and that being in church is a favor they owe to God or the pastor, or else something to be done to keep up appearances. Hence, peace and rest elude them, and their heart is hardened with resentment.
But in noting these distinctions between the strong and the weak, I'm not differentiating between "these people over here" and "those people over there." In fact, I am describing the differences I have discovered in my own heart and life, and have discerned in the lives of others.
Ironically, and sadly, it is just at those times when I am most desperately in need of the Word of God, the catechesis and pastoral care of His Law and His Gospel, the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of my sins, that I am least inclined to hold these things sacred, to seek them out, and to avail myself of them. Then I am in danger of sinking into despair and unbelief, or else at risk of becoming prideful and callous. I may even be aware that I should give attention to God's Word and the preaching of it, but I am reluctant and sluggish to do so. I resent what strikes me as an obligation, a burden, a chore; or I may be afraid that it will help, that it will rob me of my self pity.
When I am strongest in the faith — which is to say, when I am living in the means of grace, breathing freely and fully the forgiveness of sins, regularly feasting on Christ in His Word and Sacrament — then I rejoice in the Gospel and gladly run to it; I can't get enough of it, not because I am starving, but precisely because I am well-nurtured by it, and healthy and alive. Then I can see how silly and suicidal it would be to absent myself from the means of grace, but it seems no burden at all to receive those gifts Christ freely gives as a most delightful treasure.
What I have realized and learned from my own experience of this irony, is how fundamentally important it is for a Christian to be faithful in going to church and hearing the Word of God; and how particularly helpful is the regular practice of confession and absolution. The strength of the Gospel begets the daily strengthening of faith, unto life in Christ, through the forgiveness of sins. Then Satan, sin and death have no chance of sneaking in to wreck havoc and destroy the heart of faith.
When a Christian allows the hearing of the Gospel and the fellowship of the Church in the means of grace to slip away from him, his faith becomes weaker and weaker with hardly any awareness of what is happening. Then, when it is all but too late, the heart is unwilling to seek the very help that is missing and most needed. The Epistle to the Hebrews repeatedly warns against this danger in the most fervent terms.
It is not simply the individual Christian who is responsible for guarding himself against this danger and disaster, but the congregation is collectively responsible for its members, and we are all mutually obliged to one another in love. When a member is slipping away, his brothers and sisters in Christ ought to be calling him back, both admonishing and encouraging him. And when a person is most reluctant to seek out the Word of God, that is when his fellow members should pursue him with the Word of God, both the Law and the Gospel, pointing him to his Baptism and to the Cross of Christ, speaking words of reconciliation and forgiveness in a spirit of gentleness.
Let us also pray for one another, that the Lord would take not His Holy Spirit from any one of us, but would daily bring us to repentance and restore in us the joy of His salvation.
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