Sermon for October 7, 2018, Sermon Series: Apostles’ Creed

The Apostles’ Creed: A Sermon Series (Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost)

Third Article: “Not By My Own Reason or Strength”

Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT

October 7, 2018


Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

           In our sermon series on the Apostles’ Creed, we arrive this morning at the Third Article and the person and work of God the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is a person of the Holy Trinity, equal with the Father and the Son in every way. “The Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God; and yet there are not three Gods, but one God” (Athanasian Creed). God the Holy Spirit brings people to repentance using God’s Word of Law (the commands and the threats of punishment for disobedience). The Spirit brings people to faith in Christ through the Gospel in the Means of Grace. This is known as conversion or regeneration (new birth).

The special work ascribed to God the Holy Spirit is called sanctification. It means “to make holy.” To make people holy, the Spirit first brings us to the Lord Jesus to receive His gifts of forgiveness and eternal life through faith. He then sanctifies us by strengthening our faith and increasing the fruits (the results) of faith in our lives. God the Holy Spirit gives us new desires so that we strive to overcome sin and do good works.

So we confess that a person’s conversion and regeneration, their sanctification or being made holy, is the work of God Himself by the working of God the Spirit. This is the jumping off point for Luther’s explanation of the Third Article, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” Perhaps you remember the words from your Small Catechism, “I believe that 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.” As fallen, “lost and condemned” people, we are not able to find God on our own, let alone choose to “live under Him in His Kingdom and serve Him.”

Physically alive, but spiritually blind, dead, and enemies of God. That’s how the Bible describes us lost and condemned people. Ephesians 2:1, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins.” We were dead to what is good. Corrupt. Unable by our natural powers and abilities to “understand, believe, accept, think, will, begin, effect, do, work, or concur in working anything” that has to do with the things of God (FC SD: II, 7). As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14 ESV). So just as “a person who is physically dead cannot from his own powers prepare or make himself come back to life again[,]. . . the person who is spiritually dead in sins cannot by his own strength make or apply himself to acquire spiritual and heavenly righteousness and life.”[1]

          In that spiritually dead condition, people also, by that very nature, actively resist the Gospel’s call to faith in Christ. In Romans 8 we read, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Rom. 8:7 ESV). Again in Galatians 5, “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Gal. 5:17 ESV).

          Scripture truly reveals our lost condition as fallen people. Our sinful condition inherited from Adam and Eve through our parents, what we call “original sin,” has left us spiritually dead before God. As the early Lutherans put it in the Formula of Concord, “By his own powers [a person] is not able to aid, do, work, or agree in working anything toward his conversion. He cannot do this fully, halfway, or even in part—even in the smallest or most trivial part. He is sin’s servant (John 8:34) and the devil’s captive, by whom he is moved (Ephesians 2:2; 2 Timothy 2:26). Therefore, the natural free will according to its perverted disposition and nature is strong and active only to do what is displeasing and contrary to God [Genesis 6:5].”[2]

          God does not force anyone to become godly, to believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and receive His forgiveness. Yet God does draw people in such a way that their darkened understanding is turned into an enlightened one. God changes the perverse will into an obedient will. He creates a “clean heart” (Psalm 51:10) in us (FC SD: II.60). This He does by grace through God the Holy Spirit.

          The undeserved favor of the one, Triune God comes to us as Jesus, the divine Son of God became fully human and assumed our place under God’s wrath and judgment. On the cross, Jesus bore our sins as if they were His own. He paid for them in full by falling under the anger of the Father and suffering death, hell, and damnation as He bled on that cross in the hours of cosmic darkness. By His life, suffering, and death, Jesus won our release from the curse of the Law. He fulfilled God’s Law on our behalf, in our place. He purchased the forgiveness of our sins and eternal life with His own holy, precious blood shed on the cross. But how do we receive these gifts of God’s grace? How are forgiveness and eternal life applied to you personally? That is the particular work of God the Holy Spirit—sanctification.

          “I believe that 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.” The Gospel, the power of God unto salvation, the good news of the perfect life and the perfect death and resurrection of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, is the means that God the Holy Spirit uses to deliver to you personally the fruits of Jesus’ saving work. We speak often about “the Means of Grace,” or “the Means of the Spirit.” They are the Word of the Gospel and the Sacraments of Christ: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (which are really the Word of the Gospel, the Word of Promise, combined with a visible element, that offers, seals, and gives the forgiveness of sins!) The Gospel of Jesus Christ—His life lived in our place under God’s Law, His death on the cross in our place paying for all our sins and our transgressions of the Law, His resurrection from the dead on the third day assuring us that our sins are “Paid in Full” and that we have eternal, resurrection life—this Gospel in Word and Sacrament packages up the gifts of Christ so that the Holy Spirit delivers these gifts to you personally.

          “Out of His immense goodness and mercy, God provides for the public preaching of His divine eternal Law and His wonderful plan for our redemption, that of the holy, only saving Gospel of His eternal Son, our only Savior and Redeemer, Jesus Christ. By this preaching He gathers an eternal Church for Himself from the human race and works in people’s hearts true repentance, knowledge of sins, and true faith in God’s Son, Jesus Christ. By this means, and in no other way (i.e., through His holy Word, when people hear it preached or read it, and through the holy Sacraments when they are used according to His Word), God desires to call people to eternal salvation. . . . For the preaching and hearing of God’s Word are the Holy Spirit’s instruments. By, with, and through these instruments the Spirit desires to work effectively, to convert people to God, and to work in them both to will and to do [Philippians 2:13]. . . . God works through this means (i.e., the preaching and hearing of His Word). He breaks our hearts [Jeremiah 4:3–4] and draws us to Him [John 6:44]. Through the preaching of the Law, a person comes to know his sins and God’s wrath. He experiences in his heart true terrors, contrition, and sorrow. Through the preaching of, and reflection on, the Holy Gospel about the gracious forgiveness of sins in Christ, a spark of faith is kindled in him. This faith accepts the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake and comforts itself with the Gospel promise. So the Holy Spirit (who does all this) is sent into the heart [Galatians 4:6]” (FC SD: II).[3]

          Because of the undeserved favor of God, His One-of-a-Kind Son lived, suffered, died, and rose again to purchase and win your complete forgiveness of sins and life everlasting so that you might be His own and live under Him and serve Him in His Kingdom. Because of the undeserved favor of God, the Holy Spirit has made known Christ to you in the Gospel by means of Word and Sacrament and has given you the gift of saving faith that holds on to Jesus as “my Lord,” receiving all the gifts of Christ—forgiveness, life, salvation, and the strengthening of your most holy faith. By the Spirit’s work through the Gospel, you have been converted and given new birth so that you have spiritual life instead of spiritual death. Titus 3:5, “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Tit. 3:5 ESV).

          The focus of the Creed, the focus of the Christian faith, is always on what the Triune God does for us. God is always the One who is in control. He is always the One who initiates things. So it is with faith. We don’t create saving faith in ourselves. We don’t find it by accident. We don’t decide one day to follow Jesus. We simply cannot in our dead, spiritual condition. That’s why God the Holy Spirit must create saving faith in us using the means of the Word and the Sacraments. It’s how God has chosen to make us His own children by delivering the gifts of Christ personally to you and me. And it surely doesn’t get any more personal then when you hear the Word of Promise spoken to you directly, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And, “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And again, “Take; eat. This is My body given for you. Take; drink. This is My Blood shed for you.” “Through the Word [God the Holy Spirit] reveals and preaches, He illumines and enkindles hearts so that [we] might understand, accept, cling to, and persevere in the Word” (LC II.42).

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful, and kindle in them the fire of your love. Alleluia!

[1] Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 522.

[2] Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 521.

[3] Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 529-530.

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