He’s a lumbering giant of a man.
A Norwegian, Jim is 6’6 with all the girth that goes with such a hulking frame. He looks like and sounds like a clean-shaven Santa Claus in street clothes. He’s a pastor and a professor of theology.
I heard him lecture on faith and absolution at an event, and during his presentation he shared a story about how he’d been traveling long hours and many miles from conference to conference.
“I hate traveling, he said, “and I despise airplanes— when you’re my size, riding on an airplane is like doing penance. I don’t hardly fit on any of them.”
“I was flying coast to coast— a long flight,” he said, “and I got on this plane and, of course, per every airline’s policy wouldn’t you know it but the guy sitting in the seat next to me was every bit as big and fat as me. We buckled up as best we could and got ready for take-off. Sitting there on top of each other, I’m sure we looked like two heads on the same pimple.”
“Since we were practically on each other’s laps, it would’ve felt strange if we didn’t visit with each other and chat the other up. As the plane was taking off, he asked me what I did for a living. I said to him: ‘I’m a preacher of the Gospel.’ Almost as soon as I got the words out, he shouted back at me: ‘I’m not a believer!’”
“He said it loud to me too because it was take-off and the plane was noise.”
“But the man was curious,” Jim said in his presentation. “Once we got to cruising altitude, he started asking me about being a preacher. After a bit, he said it to me again: ‘I’m not a believer.’ So I said to him: ‘Okay, but it doesn’t change anything— he’s already gone and done it all for you whether you like it or not.”
“The man next to me,” Jim said, “was quiet for a while and then he started talking again and, at first, I thought it was a complete non sequitor, complete change of subject. He started telling me stories about the Vietnam War.”
He’d been an infantryman in the war.
And he’d fought at all the awful battles— Khe San, the Tet Offensive, Hamburger Hill.
“He told me— ‘I did terrible things for my country and when I came home my country didn’t want me to talk about it. I’ve had a terrible time living with it, living with myself.’”
“This went on the whole flight,” Jim said in his presentation, “from coast to coast, him giving over to me all the awful things he’d done.”
“As the flight was about finished, I asked him. I said to him— ‘Have you confessed all the sins now that have been troubling you?”
Jim used the language of confession and sin.
He didn’t just listen. He didn’t say I feel your pain. He didn’t minimize it and say Well, you were just doing your duty, don’t be so hard on yourself. He didn’t dismiss it Sounds like PTSD. He didn’t deflect and say I’m here for you.
No, he offered him absolution.
He offered him the Gospel.
“Have you confessed all the sins now that have been troubling you?” Jim said to him.
“What do you mean confessed?! I’ve never confessed.” The man replied.
“You’ve been confessing your sins to me this whole flight long. And I’ve been commanded by Christ Jesus that when I hear a confession like that to hand over the goods and speak a particular word to you. So, you have any more sins burdening you? If so, throw them in there.”
“I’m done now,” the man next to him said, “I’m finished.”
“And then he grabbed my hand,” Jim said to us in the presentation, “He grabbed my hand like he’d just had a second thought, and he said to me: ‘But, I told you— I’m not a believer. I don’t have any faith in me.’”
“I unbuckled my seatbelt and I said to him: ‘Well, that’s quite alright brother. Jesus says that it’s what’s inside of you is what’s wrong with the world. Nobody has faith inside of them— faith alone saves us because it comes from outside of us, from one creature to another creature. I’m going to speak faith into you.’”
“So I unsqueezed myself from my chair and I stood up. The seatbelt sign had already dinged on and the tray tables had been secured back in their upright positions and the seats were all back up straight and proper, but I stood up over him.”
“The stewardess then— she starts yelling and fussing at me: ‘Sir— SIR— you can’t do that. Sit down. You can’t do that.’”
“I ignored her, which meant pretty soon others around us were fussing and hollering at me too. ‘You can’t do that. Sit down,’ they said to me.”
“Can’t do it?” I said to the stewardess. “Ma’am Christ our Lord commands me to do it.”
“And she looked back at me, scared, like she was afraid I was going to evangelize her or something. So I turned back to the man next to me and, standing up over him, I put my hand on his head and I said: ‘In the name of Jesus Christ and by his authority, I declare the entire forgiveness of all your sins.’”
“You— you can’t do that.”
He whispered to me.
“I can do it. I must. Christ compels me to do it, and I just did it and I’ll do it again.”
“So I gave him the goods again. I tipped his head back and I spoke faith into him, and I did it loud for everyone on that plane to hear it: ‘In the name of Jesus Christ and by his authority, I declare unto you the entire forgiveness of all your sins.”
“And just like that,” Jim said, “the man started sobbing… like somebody had stuck him. Soon his shirt was wet from all his weeping. It was like he’d become a little child again and so I sat down and I held him in my arms like I’d hold a child.”
And then Jim, in telling his story, started to weep too.
“The stewardess and all the rest who’d been freaking out and fussing at me— they all stopped and became as silent as dead men. They knew,” he said, “something more imporant was happening right in front of them— something more important.
“This man’s life was breaking open. Jesus Christ by his Spirit was raising this man from the dead— from being dead in his trespasses— right in front of them, and even if they didn’t know it to put it that way, they knew it was grace they were seeing. They knew it was holy.”
And telling the story, Jim looked out at the conference audience and smiled and patted his Santa Claus paunch, and he said: “After he stopped sobbing, as the plane was landing, he asked me to absolve him again, like he couldn’t get enough of the news, and so I did (‘In the name of Jesus Christ, I declare the entire forgiveness of all your sins.’), and the man laughed and wiped his eyes and he said to me:
“Gosh, if that’s true, it’s the best news I’ve ever heard. I just can’t believe it. It’s too good to be true. It would take a miracle for me to believe something so crazy good.”
“And I just chuckled,” Jim said, “and I told him: ‘Yep, it takes a miracle for all of us. It takes a miracle for every last one of us.’”
Faith in the promises of some gods come easy to all of us. Faith in the flag. Faith in tribes whose flags are the colors of our skin. Faith in the god whose altar is politics.
Our hearts are idol factories indeed— and maybe it’s because the unconditional promise God gives us is so prodigally gratiuitous that it would take a miracle for us to believe it. Maybe we’re so quick to forge idols because faith in the Gospel is impossible.
I don’t need any help at all to believe in the Law— that’s easy.
You ought to love your neighbor as yourself. You ought to forgive the enemy who wronged you. You ought to show compassion to those less fortunate than you. Every religion teaches those Commands; no one disagrees with them.
I mean— if we think Christianity is about commandment-keeping then it’s no wonder we suppose it’s the same as all the other religions. It would be the same as all the other religions.
I don’t need any help at all to believe the Golden Rule. I can believe them on my own just fine— and so do you.
The same goes for the muddled concoction the church in Galatia had cooked up. If you recall from our reading last week, the Galatians had taken the Gospel and added the demands of the Law back into it, creating a kind of Glawspel.
God has done his part (forgiving us our sins in Christ), but now, the Galatians taught, we must do our part (faithfully following his commands).
God’s wiped our slate clean in Christ, the Galatians exhorted, but now God will one day judge us based on what we do with that new slate. Christianity is about deeds not creeds, the false teachers in Galatia insisted.
By your baptism, Christ has given you— freely— the riches of his righteousness. But now— the false teachers taught— you’ve got to earn it.
The burden is back on you.
Of course, this Gospel muddled with the Law— it makes sense: God’s done his part but you must do your part. It sounds fair. It’s no wonder Paul’s churches kept falling under the spell of false teachers.
You’ve got to earn what you’ve been given— that strikes us as right and good.
You don’t require any help— not really— to believe it.
But the Gospel—
The unconditional promise that you are justified.
You are in the right with God.
By grace alone— by God’s irrevocable gift alone.
In Christ alone.
In his deed for you, not in any of your deeds for him.
You are in the right with God, always and forever— irrevocably. By grace sola. In Christ sola. And all of this is yours— everything, he has done everything already for you— through faith sola.
Trust and nothing else.
Nothing else— no matter what you’ve done, no matter what you will do, no matter what you’ve left undone or will leave undone, nothing— nothing in all of creation in fact— can undo what he has done for you.
The everything he has accomplished will always be yours through faith.
Who could believe that?
Paul says just before today’s text that if God in any way regards us relative to our obedience to his teachings and commands, then Jesus Christ came for absolutely nothing. Think about that— it’s crazy and counterintuitive.
None of the good you do matters— that’s offensive.
None of the sin you do matters— that’s immoral maybe.
The Gospel in Paul’s shorthand to the Galatians is this:
Christ + Anything Else at All = Nothing at All.
He’s taken your sins by his dying and rising.
And by your baptism he’s given you his own righteousness.
Christ + Anything Else at All = No Gospel at All.
But it’s no wonder we add all sorts of things to this Gospel.
This Gospel of Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone— who could possibly believe it?
It would take a miracle to believe it.
In teaching children about the Apostles’ Creed, the Small Catechism professes: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, nor come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called me into the Gospel and kept me in the faith.”
Faith is the Spirit’s doing, the catechism instructs us.
And that way of understanding faith— it comes straight out of today’s scripture, towards the end of chapter 3 where Paul writes: “Now before faith came, we were guarded under the Law which came until faith would be revealed. Therefore the Law was our Schoolmaster until Christ came.”
Notice how the Apostle Paul speaks of faith in the same way he speaks of the Law. Notice how Paul makes faith the subject of a verb. Notice how Paul makes faith synonmous with Christ himself.
In other words—
Just as God gave to us the Law, God gave to us Jesus Christ.
And just as God gave to us Jesus Christ, God gives to us faith.
That’s exactly Paul’s point here today at the top of chapter 3. When the Galatians received the Gospel in faith, Paul says— when they trusted the promise— they experienced what no one ever experienced through commandment-keeping.
They experienced the Holy Spirit.
When they trusted the Gospel alone they experienced the Spirit because— pay attention now— it is the work of the Holy Spirit to give faith to us.
It’s the work of the Holy Spirit to give us faith.
I know it’s popular nowadays to pit Paul against Jesus, but Christ says the very same thing about the Holy Spirit. He says it on the night we betrayed him.
Right after washing our feet, Jesus promises to send us the Holy Spirit, and he promises that the work of the Holy Spirit will be to convict us of our sins and to convince us of righteousness— his righteousness reckoned to us as our own.
The Spirit is Jesus Christ’s answer to the grieving father who begs of him “Lord, help my unbelief.”
Faith is not another work of the Law because faith is not our work.
Faith is not even our response to God’s work in Jesus Christ.
Faith is the work of the Spirit of the Crucified Christ upon us.
Whether your faith is the size of a mountain or a mustard seed, it doesn’t much matter because you didn’t muster it up.
How much faith or how little faith you have matters not at all because you are saved not by the amount of your faith but by the object of your faith, Jesus Christ, whose very Spirit gives you the faith to receive him.
So whatever sized faith you have to receive this promise, you’re sitting on a miracle.
I know what some of you are thinking:
In 4 months worth of sermons, Jason, you’ve not handed out any homework. You’ve given us zero Go and Do marching orders. You’ve offered up not a single exhortation about what we ought to do as Christians.
And now— you’re telling us our faith isn’t even something we do?! It’s all God’s doing?!
And I think it reveals the extent to which we’re all captive to civil religion that when we hear the Gospel of justification in Christ alone by grace alone through nude faith— when we hear the promise that everything has already been done by Christ’s bleeding and dying and rising for you— it’s odd that when we hear the Gospel promise of grace, we rush to the conclusion that there’s nothing for us now to do.
Why do we assume that the Gospel message that everything has already been done means that there’s nothing for us to do?
Why do you think the promise that Jesus did it all leaves you with nothing to do?
How could there be nothing to do?
NOBODAY BELIEVES THIS CRAZY PROMISE! FESS UP— YOU DON’T EVEN BELIEVE THE GOSPEL MOST OF THE TIME! I ONLY BELIEVE IT HALF OF THE TIME!
HOW COULD THERE BE NOTHING FOR YOU TO DO?!
YOU HAVE ONE VERY BIG THING TO DO!
Bear witness to the absolution that is for all by grace through faith. Bear witness— this one thing could keep you busy for the rest of your life. All you need to do this one thing are sinners— people who’ve screwed up their lives or screwed over people in their lives. All you need to do this one thing are sinners— people with heavy hearts, people carrying a burden of shame and a yoke of regrets. All you need for this one thing to do are sinners, and— guess what— they’re everywhere and there’s danger of them becoming endangered.
And (just as an aside) as a pastor I can tell you—The difficulty is not in getting people to confess to you; the difficulty is in learning how to listen so you notice they’re trying to unburden themselves to you.
This one thing is the first thing you promise to do whenever you witness a baptism. At every baptism, we promise that “With God’s help, we will proclaim the Good News.” With the Holy Spirit’s help, we will bear witness to the absolution that is in his blood. At every baptism, you’re promising to be party and accomplice to the Spirit’s faith-making miracle.
This one thing—
It’s actually the one and only thing the Risen Christ commands us to do.
Whenever Christians talk about doing the things Christ commands us to do, we usually mean feeding the hungry or clothing the naked or lifting up the lowly.
we’re usually talking about the good things you need not be a Christian to agree are good things.
But the one and only thing the Resurrected Jesus comands us to do is to bear witness.
It’s the one thing.
On Easter Eve, Jesus finds his frightened faithless disciples hiding behind locked doors. Peace be with you he says and says it again, Peace be with you.
And then He breathes his Holy Spirit out upon them.
And he says to them: Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, by my authority, they are forgiven them.
The Easter Jesus commissions us, and the Holy Spirit conscripts us to bear witness to the absolution that is for all through faith, and to do it over and over and again— drilling it into sinners’ earballs— until, by the Spirit’s miracle-making, they have faith.
When we thought Jim’s airplane absolution story was over, he started to cry all over again and he said:
“After the plane had landed, we were getting our bags down from the overhead compartment. I pulled my card out of my briefcase and I handed it to him. I told him: ‘You’re likely not going to believe your forgiveness tomorrow or the next day or a week from now. When you stop having faith in it, call me and I’ll bear witness to you all over again and I’ll keep on doing it until you do— you really do— trust and believe it.’”
And then Jim laughed a big, deep laugh and said:
“Wouldn’t you know it. He called me every day— every day— just to hear me declare the forgiveness of the Gospel. It got to be he couldn’t live without it. And I bore witness of it to him every day right up to the day he died.” I told him: In the name of Christ Jesus I forgive you all your sins.
He said and paused, before adding through his tears:
“I wanted the last words he heard in this life to be the first words he would hear Jesus himself say to him in the next life.”
This is what you can do even though everything has already been done. You can bear witness, offering the world the promise of forgiveness that Jesus himself will speak when this world passes away. With God as your Helper, give them the goods of Gospel absolution again and again and again…until, by some miracle, they believe it.