A Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity
Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity
1 Corinthians 3:4-9
by William Klock
I wonder how many of you have seen The Ten Commandments—the old Cecil B. DeMille movie that starred Charlton Heston as Moses. Do you remember the scene—the culmination of the story—when Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai with the big stone tablets with the law written on them? DeMille did an amazing job depicting the awesomeness of that moment in redemptive history, and yet as well as the movie portrays that moment, I know that reality was so much more amazing. Moses had seen God on the mountain, and even though it had only been the slightest glimpse as he hid in a rock crevice, the reflected glory of God’s holiness shining from his face was so bright and so awe-inspiring that Moses had to veil it. The people—sinners—couldn’t stand to be in the presence of that kind of holiness. Imagine that: they weren’t seeing God directly, it was only the indirect and reflected radiance of his holiness shining from the face of Moses—and when they saw it they were afraid, because it made them aware of their lack of holiness.
How often, when we think about being in the presence of God, does that story from Exodus come to mind? I think that most of us take a pretty cavalier attitude when it comes to the presence of God—and even when it comes to our lack of holiness. We’ve never truly seen holiness—not even in that reflected form that the Israelite saw in the face of Moses—and so we don’t get it. But the glow from Moses’ face wasn’t the only thing that day that showed up the people’s lack of holiness. That was the purpose of the stone tablets that God gave to Moses—the tablets with his law written on them. And even if we don’t have the glory of God shining on us visually, we still have his law written for us—still showing us his holy standard and our failure to meet it.
And that law was and still is important. Even though it condemned, God wrote it permanently on stone tablets. As we read in our Old Testament lesson from Deuteronomy, it was to become a way of life for the Israelites. They were ready to cross over the Jordan and conquer the Promised Land that God had prepared for them. As they stood on the doorstep, God reminded them of the importance of his law—of holiness. “You shall keep all the commandments I have given you. Lay up these words in your heart and in your soul. Bind them on your hands and your forehead. Teach them to your children. Talk about them when you’re sitting in your house, when you’re walking around town, when you lie down, and when you get up. Write my law on the doorframe of your house and on your gates.”
The giving of the law was one of the greatest events in redemptive history. The law itself was vitally important then and it still is today. As glorious as that day was when Moses came down from the mountain with the law, there was far more glorious day to come. St. Paul tells us in our Epistle this morning that, “if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory.” The glory on Moses’ face that was so amazing that the people couldn’t even look at it is “far exceeded” by the coming of Jesus Christ. The odd thing in light of that is how prone we are to going back and trying to live by that older and lesser glory. St. Paul had to correct people and churches a number of times, because they were trying to be Christians and live under the law instead of living under grace. We call that legalism and it’s a dangerous way to live.
Let me be clear before we go on. People throw around the terms “legalism” and “legalistic” a lot and it seem to me that, more often than not, they’re misusing them. Part of the problem is that today a lot of Christians only want to talk about grace and they want to ignore the law. And so someone says, “A Christian should do such-and-such.” And we’ve all heard the response: “Don’t be so legalistic!”
Friends, doing those things that we know please God is not being legalistic. Showing our brothers and sisters where they’re not living their lives in ways pleasing to God is notlegalistic either. As people who have been saved by God’s grace, our great desire and our calling as Christians is to live our lives in ways that are pleasing to him. Living to please God and encouraging others to do the same is not legalism. Legalism is what happens when we start thinking that we can earn our way into God’s favour by keeping the law. Legalism is when we reduce the faith to a rulebook or when we try to force others to live by our rulebook as a condition of their salvation. Legalism is what happens when we forget the purpose of the law—when we forget that it was given not to save, but to condemn. Ultimately, legalism is what happens when we stop living by grace and try to live by the law and thinking that we can be spiritually self-sufficient.
Look at our Epistle lesson. In 2 Corinthians 3:4-6 Paul says:
Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
Where is your confidence as a Christian? There were apparently people in Corinth who were placing their confidence in their ability to live up to God’s standard—people who were living legalistically and who thought that when Judgment Day came they could simply show God their scorecard and show him how well they’d done and he’d be obligated to let them into heaven. And Paul says, “No. It doesn’t work that way.” If you try to get into heaven based on your own merit and on your own good works, you’ll never get there. We are not sufficient in ourselves. If we put our confidence in our works, we really have no confidence. As Paul says, we are not sufficient on our own. Our sufficiency comes from God. Even the good works we do as Christians, Paul says, we do only because God has enabled us to do them—he’s given us his Holy Spirit, who lives in us, who changes our hearts from a desire for sin to a desire for righteousness. In light of these people who were still trying to live by the old covenant, Paul stresses that we who are in Christ live by—are ministers of—a new covenant. The old covenant was under the letter—under the law and under the rulebook. The new one is under the Spirit. The old covenant killed—it condemned, because it showed a standard of holiness that God required, but it also showed us that we can never reach that holy standard. Under the old covenant every one of us stands condemned and worthy only of death. But he says, the new covenant gives life. In the new covenant, God gives us a way to overcome the condemnation of the old—through Jesus and his sacrifice at the cross—but Jesus didn’t just pay the penalty for our sins, he also gives us his Spirit, who gives us life and makes us able to do the good things that are pleasing to God.
And Paul goes on. Maybe these people recognize the glory that was even in that old covenant of condemnation and death—and there was glory there; the people saw it on Moses’ face—but the glory of the new covenant is so much greater. Look at verses 7 and 8:
Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory?
Why do we have such a great tendency to fall into legalism—to fall back on living under the law and back into the “ministry of death”? Yes, there was glory in the law. It shows us the holiness of God and that’s a glorious thing to see. Yes, the law, in showing us that we cannot meet God’s standard, points us to Jesus—the one who can and does meet that standard for us. But why live under that fading glory when we could live in the life of the Spirit of Jesus Christ—when we could be living in the fulfillment of that old and fading glory? Paul says:
For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory.
Brothers and sisters, love and good works are the fruit of real and saving faith in Jesus Christ. We should be loving and doing good works. We should be, as the author of Hebrews tells us, exhorting each other to love and to do good works. But we do those things because we are already saved—not to earn our salvation. We love and do good works because we’ve been confronted by the law—we’ve seen Moses come down from the mountain and we’ve had that glimpse of the amazing and inconceivable holiness of God that leaves us cowering in fear because of our unholiness—because of our sins. We’ve seen the glory of God’s holiness and been condemned by it. But, friends, the greater glory is that God has not left us condemned in our unholiness. The greater glory is that he sent his Son to die on the cross—to suffer the condemnation that we deserve—so that through faith in his sacrifice for us, we can stand in the presence of God’s holiness and not be condemned and not cower in fear of his righteous judgment. Because of that glory found in his Son, who gave his life for us, instead of being condemned we are counted as sons and daughters of our holy God.
It’s vitally important we remember the grounds on which we stand before God. The moment we start trusting in our works; the moment we start keeping score; the moment we start thinking that God loves us because of the things we’ve done, friends, that’s the moment we stop trusting in Jesus having done it for us. You can’t trust in Jesus and yourself at the same time.
In his vision of heaven, St. John saw the saints standing before God’s throne and before the Lamb. Friends they knew how they got there. As they stood there they weren’t singing songs about their own good works or about their own love or about their own holiness. No, John says they stood there praising God, praising their Saviour, and singing, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Brothers and sisters, that’s what we’ll be singing in heaven, but unless it’s also our song on earth, we will forfeit that heavenly glory.
Please pray with me: Heavenly Father, without Jesus and his sacrifice we stand condemned by your holiness. Let us see the glory in that condemnation that vindicates your holiness, but let us never stop there. Let us always live in the greater glory of your grace. Let us never trust in our own works; let us never think ourselves holy apart from the work of Jesus; that as we praise him on earth for the saving grace he offers, we might one day sing those same praises before your heavenly throne. In his name we pray. Amen.