This is based on Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 5:1-9. And because these topics are all the rage these days, I will add the following disclaimers. I don’t think that 2KR is a good paradigm to understand Luther. I don’t think that preaching the third use of the Law is the same thing as preaching sanctification. When you have a “defective” Lutheran like that (or is it a “gnesio” Lutheran?) try and tackle one of the great Christian-imperative texts, this is what happens. (After the jump)
Not even be named among you. That’s how much we are to flee impurity. It isn’t even an option. When it comes time to assign blame, people should say, “They can’t have done that. They don’t do those things.” That’s how pure we are to be. The sins that Paul mentions are an odd lot: Sexual immorality, uncleanness and covetousness. The first two make sense. We think of those as big sins. The third is not like the others, in that we don’t think it’s really that serious. After all, to covet is just to want something. It isn’t actually an active sin.
But then Paul is setting a pretty high standard here. This isn’t Paul saying, “Don’t do these really big sins, so you look good to others.” He’s saying, All sin is bad. And greed, covetousness, is one of the most insidious. It’s one of the most subtle and dangerous. Because it’s an internal sin, it doesn’t seem that bad. You can’t be convicted of it and sent to jail. It’s your personal business, not anyone else’s. But it can destroy you as just as surely as sexual immorality or other impurities. Scripture makes clear that greed is doubting that God will provide. “With food and clothing we will be content” says Paul. “Do not worry about what you will eat or what you will wear” says Jesus. “Mine, mine, mine. More, more, more” says the sinful heart.
Not even be named among you. It’s more than just others not speaking it about Christians. The words themselves should be considered naughty. We warn against it. But we don’t dwell on those things, we don’t joke about those things. Because where our lips are is where our hearts have already gone, and where are actions want to go. Just as a married couple should never utter the word “divorce”, so Christians should never speak of uncleanness among themselves. Greed isn’t a joke, filthy talk and crude jesting aren’t becoming. Our whole bodies have been redeemed by Christ. Our lips exist to give praise to God. Are they to then be used for naughty stories and jokes, for cynical observations that are really just belittling others to make ourselves feel better?
The worst thing about Paul’s admonition – it comes at the end of the book of Ephesians, not the beginning. We Lutherans know that sermons are Law first – we get condemned, and then the sweet Gospel that saves. Paul didn’t get the memo, because he speaks of salvation as being totally apart from works in chapter 2. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” This admonition comes three chapters later. Paul is wrapping up his sermon to the Ephesians, and he hits them with this.
Two possibilities exist: Either Paul wasn’t a very good Lutheran, or we can’t just consign the law to the before-I-am-saved part of our lives. It’s an easy temptation. During Luther’s life there were “anti-nomians” it means “against the law”. Not outlaws, but against the law. Those who thought that the Law was fulfilled in Jesus so now we can do whatever we please. Saint Paul takes care of that one already in Romans, “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may abound? By no means. How can we who died to sin live in it any longer.” And yet, from time to time – that is, when we want to do something against God’s word – this comes up. Well, I can sin now and repent later. That’s the very definition of despising the grace of God, and blaspheming against the Holy Spirit – yeah, the one sin that Jesus calls unforgivable. We reason our way right out of God’s grace. Repentance is necessary, even for the Christian.
So what do we do with this admonition to holiness?
We can’t make it. Not even named among us? Not even close. How often do we see Christian leaders fall to sexual immorality, uncleanness, covetousness and greed? To say nothing of the havoc wreaked by these sins among the “faithful.” The church is as filled with sinners as any other place. And no matter how hard we try, we are weak.
Once we realize that Paul’s words are directed to us – not as sinners under condemnation and in need of saving – but directed to us as redeemed children of God, then it gets really scary. For the timid, the tendency is to say, “I can’t do it. God must hate me.” For the secure, the tendency is to say, “You tell them pastor. Some folks really need to hear this.” Either way, from despair or from self-righteousness, sin begets sin. And our situation is worse than before.
And that’s the result of Paul admonishing us to stop with the sin. It’s no good. We can’t do it. And yet Paul’s words remain, hanging there in the air against us. If we do these things, we have no inheritance in the kingdom of God. So what hope have we?
We have Jesus. As we will sing, “Christ the heavenly lamb takes all our sins away.” He is the one who cleanses. He is the one who gives strength to fight against even our own flesh. And it is a fight. Luther doesn’t say, “Baptized, all sin gone, never worry again.” He says “The old Adam must by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die.” It’s a daily struggle. And we fall so often. But that doesn’t mean we don’t try again. We must drive ourselves to the Word of God, to his holy scriptures, to the house of God where the word is proclaimed. We must be in prayer against the attacks of the devil. We must constantly fight even against our own flesh.
We are now children of light. That’s what Christ has done for us – he has taken us out of darkness into his wonderful light. He has blessed us with forgiveness in Jesus. And he gives you strength each day to fight against the old evil foe, and against your old sinful flesh.
When the resurrection comes, all the old sin will be gone. That dies with death. We aren’t there yet. For now, we are forgiven for Jesus sake, when we grab hold of the gift by faith. It isn’t your work that saves. And as forgiven children of God, our Lord gently gets us used to this forgiveness – the holiness he gives by moving us ever closer to his word, by making us ever more aware of our sin, ever more aware of the forgiveness that is ours through Jesus, ever more aware of how desperately we need it. Not so that we can say, “Forgiven, and done!” but so that we are ever more willing to fight the fight against our flesh. To put aside the uncleanness, whether it be greedy covetousness, or sexual impurity, or filthy talk, coarse language, whatever it is that comes between us and our Lord. Whatever our flesh uses to try and separate us from Christ.
May God remove any obstacles to salvation – no matter how much we love them, no matter how much it hurts to lose them. So that every day we are more and more like Christ. More and more living out the righteousness given in Jesus death. More and more producing the fruit of the Spirit.
Not for our own gain, not because it earns us anything, but because it is the gift of God to keep us as his own despite our best efforts to mess it up. That’s what Jesus does for us.
Thanks be to God.