For My Sake
+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.
The text for our meditation is from our Gospel message, specifically where Jesus tells His disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…
Ours is a faith rife with paradoxes, isn’t it? Many things which are set forth in Scripture seem contrary to what one would reasonably conclude. For example, we are, at the same time, sinners, lowest of the low … and saints, justified fully by God! How both can be true at the same time is beyond our comprehension. Israel stood condemned because of their success, their affluence … and it was their captivity, their languishing under foreign oppression, that turned out to be the best thing for them! The worst persecutor of the Church, Saul of Tarsus, the man who stood by as Stephen was stoned to death and gave his approval … ended up becoming the greatest missionary to the Gentiles, even dying for his faith in Christ!
It’s the last thing you would expect! Certainly, it’s not what we, in our humanity, would guess as to the ways of redemption and salvation. At times, our faith is downright unreasonable. We see these paradoxes, these issues that grind against the grain of our humanity and mortality, and the rest of humanity usually concludes, “Well, the Bible must be wrong. What it’s saying goes against our sensibilities, our reason; ergo, it must be wrong…” As Christians, we would do well to remember that it is not our reason that rings true in those situations. The Scripture is what is true, regardless of what our reason wants to believe. After all, human reason is … well, human. A wonderful gift from God, meant to be used in service of the Scriptures, our reason is flawed, tainted by sin, so that we can’t expect it to lead us to godly, biblical conclusions.
So in our text, when we hear the interesting and not easily explained paradox of saving the soul to lose it and losing the soul to save it, we’re tempted, thanks to our broken reason, to explain it away. That’s not what we’re going to do today, lest we wander into heresy. Instead, let’s get at this critical teaching of Jesus by pitting one side of the paradox against the other.
Let’s tackle that first side, when Jesus says, whoever would save his life will lose it. To “save one’s life,” or “to save one’s soul,” as some translations say, means that the person decides he or she has to do something, whatever it might be—to work hard enough, do the right things, not do the bad things, toe the line—so that he or she will end up in heaven. We call this pietism. We call this self-righteousness. Please note the word self, there. It means that, by some sort of criteria, one has to do or perform or complete some actions by which God will accept that person into the glories of heaven when this life is over.
If that sounds like nails on a chalkboard to you, that’s good. We, as Lutherans, should recognize – and recoil from – such false teaching! In fact, whenever we hear that phrase “self-righteousness,” the red flags should be flying up in your minds. We see it all over the place – from well-intentioned Christians who think to themselves, “I don’t drink, smoke, listen to heavy metal – I’m golden!” That’s on an individual level; you see it institutionally in the form of what’s called, “decision theology,” where you must make the decision to “ask Jesus into your heart” in order to be considered saved. You have to make the conscious effort, using your own willpower and emotions, to pray and invite Jesus into your heart so that you will be accepted by God and have eternal life. That may sound reasonable enough, but the focus, the responsibility, falls on the individual to be saved.
It’s this theology, this false teaching, that Jesus is speaking against. The harder we try, the further away we get. Luther’s Small Catechism echoes this; in his explanation of the Third Article of the Creed, we read, I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. Without the intervention of the Holy Spirit, we’d be just like those misguided Christian brothers and sisters who are missing out on the fullness of Gospel.
But that’s not a problem that we, as Lutherans, have, right? That’s just a problem that all those other denominations out there have, right? Wrong. As sinners, every one of us has the exact same inclinations, temptations, to try to save ourselves. This clinging to self-salvation, self-righteousness, self-justification, is what it means, in Jesus’ words in our text, to desire to save one’s life, or soul. We can’t, just can’t, save ourselves. Were it not for the Holy Spirit, we would all be like all the other world religions – all of which believe that to save oneself, one must do something. We would be the same way, because it’s the way every human being by nature is hardwired to think. Our sinful nature knows only this as the way of salvation, to do whatever it takes to save ourselves. It’s in our DNA, if you will, to try and be self-savers. That’s what we would be, and we would be lost. We would be damned. In the same way that a dead man cannot charge up an AED and start his own heart again, we cannot save ourselves from being spiritually blind, dead, and enemies of God.
So that doesn’t work. Now let’s take a look at the flipside of our paradox. What does it mean when Jesus says, whoever loses his life for My sake will find it? What does it mean to lose one's life, one's soul as some translations put it, for Jesus’ sake? The answer is not found in martyrdom, literally losing your life for the sake of the Gospel. That is its own thing; certainly, it’s something to be honored, but unrelated to what Jesus is talking about here. The answer for how it looks to lose one’s soul for Jesus sake is found a few verses earlier when Jesus says, If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.
Denying, disowning oneself. That means, with the help of the Holy Spirit, confessing that we cannot save ourselves. That means admitting that we are entirely reliant upon God Almighty, the very fearful Judge of our souls, for our salvation. One does the ad in denying one's ability to save on self. Recognizing that we are entirely holistically sinful, that we cannot redeem ourselves from our sinful conditions and relying entirely thanks to the gift of the Holy Spirit upon Christ. It's an air of repentance it's an attitude of repentance. It is humbling. It is intimate. It is scandalous to our reason, but it is the truth. This is why the Gospel is called a “stumbling block.” We want to do it, and we cannot. We simply let Jesus do it for us. The one who loses his soul is the one who denies himself and his own ability to save himself and rests solely upon the cross of Christ. He is the one who finds his soul, his life., or perhaps, rather, he is the one who is found.
But note the reason why one would “lose one’s soul.” Christ says, “Whoever loses his soul for My sake will find it.” Salvation can only be for the sake of Christ. Self-denial is great, but unless one trusts in what Jesus has done for the forgiveness of sins and salvation, unless one follows Him in that way, it’s all for naught. Only Christ lived the perfect life and died the sinless death. Only Christ stood in our place as the worst of sinners, even though He was holy and blameless. Only Christ made the complete and full payment for all our sins when He died on the cross so that all sin would be removed. Yes, Jesus did all that. Yes, He died and rose and gave you eternal life, just as the Spirit has brought you to believe. It all hinges on Christ.
Having come to know all this by faith, through that blessed gift of the Holy Spirit, we rejoice and rejoice greatly that salvation is indeed for the sake of Christ. Since we are incapable of doing anything for ourselves, this is an out-of-this-world gifting. An unreasonable gift, given for free, for Jesus’s sake.
+ In His Name. + Amen.