There is hardly another Word of God that so clearly and completely turns the world and all its “wisdom” on its head, and so utterly contradicts the world and everything that it believes about itself, as does the Word of our Lord Jesus this morning.
He reveals the painful truth of what belongs to our fallen human nature, and to all the children of man, apart from the Word and Spirit of God. He thus reveals what you are like apart from Him, and what you are capable of doing and accomplishing on your own. It is not a pretty picture.
From out of your heart — from within yourself — come evil thoughts, and sexual immorality; theft, murder, and adultery; sensuality and wickedness of every kind; envy and jealousy, coveting (which is idolatry), slander and deceit, and finally pride and foolishness. “All these evil things come from within.” That is what your heart does and accomplishes, unto death and destruction.
You cannot save yourself from who and what you are. You cannot escape yourself and your sinful inheritance. For the wickedness of Adam’s sons and daughters following the fall into sin is great upon the earth, and you also were conceived and born in the darkness of that legacy; from your mother’s womb you were dead in your trespasses and sin. And it remains the case that, of yourself, you are a poor, miserable sinner, for which you rightly deserve nothing else but punishment.
What the Lord speaks to you this morning is therefore a sobering but necessary Word. Not only does it expose the truth of where you stand apart from Christ, but it thereby also exposes the lies that you otherwise cling to in your sinful ignorance, stubborn disobedience, and selfish pride.
For example, to begin with, the Lord Jesus contradicts the very common notion that most if not all people are basically good — the false idea that, given the right environment and opportunities, most people will naturally make good and right decisions. That is quite simply not the case.
The Lord thus resolves the dilemma of where all wickedness comes from and how such evil things can happen in the world. It’s not just a bad seed here and there, or a black sheep in the family. The problem is deeply rooted in the heart of the old Adam, in the entire human race of sinners.
Jesus also contradicts the popular and prevailing notion that whatever seems good to a person is good for that person — the false belief, in other words, that everything is relative and subjective.
And Jesus pulls the rug out from under the idea that your actions are only bad or sinful if they hurt another person or impinge upon another person’s freedoms. You’ve all heard that excuse before; you’ve probably used that excuse for yourself on occasion. But the truth is that whatever proceeds from out of your heart of sin is sinful, even if it may not harm anyone other than your own self.
Consider that the Lord Jesus includes envy and coveting, foolishness and pride, in the same breath as theft, murder, and adultery. Those sins that eat away at your heart and mind on the inside — where you can hide them from others, but not from the Lord — may actually be more deadly to your Christian faith and life (and to your eternal salvation) than those sins that you and everyone else can see on the outside, which you and everyone else know to be sinful and wrong.
Here’s the deal: The Lord Jesus is not just talking about those really vile people out there, as the world tends to measure things. He’s not just pointing His finger at the serial killers, rapists, and pedophiles. Of course, He’s not excusing any of those people, either. He’s really taking aim at everyone, including you. He’s talking about your old Adam and your sinful human condition.
The real problem, then, is far deeper and more perverse than anything you can see with your eyes. By the same token, it is such a common and pervasive problem that even the evidence — within your flesh and all around you in the world — just looks like so much “normal,” and maybe even good and right. That is the charade of temptation and sin, which masquerade as angels of light.
But again, the Word of the Lord Jesus contradicts all those lies and deceptions of Satan.
So does He also contradict the notion that people are capable of finding their own way to God. They cannot. And He contradicts the notion that people are capable of determining the truth for themselves, as though their experiences, feelings, perspectives, and logic were decisive. On the contrary, there is one true God, the Maker of the Heavens and the Earth, and not only does His Word reveal what is true and false, what is right and wrong; His Word determines everything that is. And His Word exposes all that comes out of your heart as evil, wicked, mean, and nasty.
It is not possible for you to determine for yourself what you ought to be doing, not apart from the Word of the Lord and your God-given callings and stations in life. You have freedoms, to be sure, but all genuine righteousness is elusive and well beyond the grasp of your heart, mind, and spirit, until the Lord reveals Himself and gives Himself to you by His Word and Holy Spirit. Neither can you come to Him or believe in Him by your own reason or strength, but only as He breaks your heart of stone and makes of it a heart of flesh by His preaching of repentance and forgiveness.
In contrast to all of those false notions and opinions that arise and emerge from within your sinful heart, the forgiveness of your sins, the righteousness of Christ, and His divine, eternal life and salvation, all come to you from outside of you. These good gifts of God, which are the remedy and solution to the problem, come to you from Christ the Crucified, and they are given to you by His Ministry of the Gospel, by His Word and Holy Sacraments, within His Holy Christian Church.
Not only does His Word expose and contradict the darkness of your sinful heart, but His Word of the Gospel shines the Light of the revelation of the Glory of God into your heart. By that free gift and divine good work of the Gospel, He recreates your heart and mind, your body, soul, and spirit, into His Image and Likeness. It comes from outside of you and makes all things new within you.
Apart from His Word, you are not capable of knowing or doing anything good. But you are not apart from His Word, because it is spoken to you from the Lord. Even now it is entering into your ears, and through your ears into your heart and mind, that you might have life instead of death. That you might be no longer subject to the sin you have inherited from Adam, which dwells within your fallen flesh, but governed and guided by the mercies of the Lord your God in Christ Jesus.
His Word of the Gospel is your Light and your Salvation, by which He rescues and delivers you from that evil coalition of the devil, the world, and your own sinful heart. And His Word to you, His Law and His Gospel, is also a Lamp for your feet and a Light for your path. So does the Lord call you daily to repentance, unto faith and life in His forgiveness of all your sins. And by His love for you, in and with His Word, He teaches you to love and serve your neighbor in His Name.
Even so, although you are given such a life to be lived in Christ — and even though the Law of the Lord is to be feared and obeyed as the revelation of His good and acceptable will — nevertheless, it remains the case that your righteousness is found, not in yourself or in your works, but in Christ Jesus, in His good works on your behalf, in the Atonement of His Cross and the righteousness of His Resurrection, all of which is credited to you and given to you by the Ministry of His Gospel.
That Gospel of Christ is not found inside of you, neither in your heart nor in your head. It cannot be known intuitively, nor can it be obtained or held onto by any effort of your own. It is a divine Mystery, above and beyond all human wisdom, knowledge, intelligence, or experience.
As such, the Gospel is always being given to you — by the Lord your God through the Ministry of His Word within His Church. And it is received by faith alone, which is not your own work but is itself a gift of the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Word of Christ Jesus. Consequently, you are always on the passive and receiving side of the Gospel, which comes to you from God in Christ. From outside of you. From outside of your heart, your head, and your hands, and quite apart from your feelings, your intellect, and all of your own works and efforts.
The Gospel comes to you, and it is given to you — freely, by the grace of God, for Jesus’ sake — by and with His Word of forgiveness: in this very preaching, here and now, and in the spoken Word of Holy Absolution. It has come to you, once and forever, by and with the washing of the water with His Word in your Holy Baptism. And even now, as you journey through the wilderness on your way to Paradise, as you live within the Church on earth in the hope and expectation of the Resurrection, the Gospel of Christ Jesus comes to you and feeds you by and with His holy Body and His precious Blood, which He gives to you again in the Liturgy this morning.
These means of grace are not the traditions of men or mere formalities, but the very gifts of God. They come to you from Him, from outside of yourself, in order to give you life in Christ, in body and soul, here and now and hereafter forever. It is in the hearing and receiving of the Gospel, in the remembrance of your Holy Baptism, and in the eating and drinking of the Body and Blood of Christ, that you are justified, forgiven, and reconciled to God through faith, unto life everlasting.
To be and to live as a Christian is not an exercise or achievement of your thoughts and feelings, your own opinions or convictions, your own determination or sincerity, or your own sacrifices and contributions. It is certainly not a matter of merely being nice and polite. All of these things may well be a fruit of faith in Christ and an exercise of love for God and your neighbor. But only after the fact, as a consequence of the life that is given to you in Christ Jesus. To be and to live as a Christian is to receive and trust the Gospel as it comes to you in preaching and the Sacraments.
It is in fact the Ministry of the Gospel of Christ that determines real Christianity and makes for real Christians, that is, disciples of Christ Jesus, who are the children of His God and Father, anointed by His Holy Spirit. It is not at all a do-it-yourself, go-it-alone, independent-contractor enterprise or operation, but the gracious activity and blessed gift of God Himself, who comes to you by these ways and means in order to pull you out of your own heart and head and save you from yourself.
It is indeed true that, as a Christian, because you are given new life in Christ, you do live in faith and love toward God and in loving service toward your neighbors, all for the sake of Christ Jesus and to the glory of His holy Name. But that Christian faith and life are the fruits and the produce of all that God has done and given and accomplished by the means of His Gospel. It is only as Christ and His Spirit have thereby come from outside of you to live and abide within you, within your heart and mind, within your body and soul, that you now live and abide with God in Christ.
It is only insofar as you are living by faith in the Gospel — which is to say, by hearing and relying on His Word, by returning daily to the significance of your Holy Baptism through contrition and repentance, confession and Absolution, and by regularly receiving the Sacrament of the Altar — that the fruits of the Holy Spirit are brought forth in your body and life from a brand new heart that rests and resides in the Body of Christ Jesus, in His flesh and blood and His forgiveness of sins.
Despite the fact that you so often fail to live as a child of God, as a Christian disciple of Christ, He continues to come and do and give and accomplish what only He can do and give and accomplish. By continuing to serve you with His Gospel–Word and Sacraments, He daily and richly forgives you all of your sins, and He thereby renews your faith and life in Him, unto the Resurrection of your body and the Life everlasting of your body and soul in His own crucified and risen Body.
That is the special beauty of the Gospel, namely, that it never does depend on you; it is nothing that you could ever do or accomplish for yourself. The Gospel, which is the blessing of God and your Life and Salvation in Christ, does not come from inside of you, but only from outside of you. So does it remain forever sure and certain in Christ Jesus, and it continues to do what He does for you, graciously and freely bestowing upon you all of His righteousness, His forgiveness of your sins, and His divine, eternal Life in body and soul, here in the Liturgy within His Church on earth, and hereafter when He comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead in His own righteousness.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.