The mighty Lord is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Amen.
In the name of our gracious God, our Savior, dear Christians:
In his own unique way Martin Luther summarizes the Christian faith, he writes, “We believe that the very beginning and end of salvation and the sum of Christianity, consists of faith in Christ, who by His blood alone, and not by any works of ours has put away sin, and destroyed the power of death.” For as long as God has taught that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, the devil has offered an alternative that appeals to the sinful nature. The devil’s alternative is a religion of works, whereby, we can take credit for our salvation and take pride in self. Jesus dealt with this religion of works as he was hounded by the self-righteous Pharisees. Jesus said to them, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like white-washed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” Paul dealt with this religion of works. He wrote to the Galatians: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” Later Paul urges the Galatians: “Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” The Lutheran reformers fought the very same battle. The Church had drifted away from the truth of God’s Word and was teaching a religion of faith and works. So Luther wrote, “For before, being blinded with popish errors and darkness, it imagined God to be a merchant, who would sell unto us his grace for our works and merits; but now, in the light of the gospel, it assures us that we are counted righteous by faith only in Christ.” The battle continues in our day. The devil keeps tempting us to return to slavery under the law and he urges us to try to earn heaven. So today the Spirit instructs us: Celebrate the Covenant of Grace!
As the prophet Jeremiah reveals God’s plan to God’s people, he discusses the old covenant and the new covenant. In reality, the old covenant was always intended to be a temporary covenant. So we are urged – don’t return to the temporary covenant. Paul writes to the Galatians, Before this faith came, we were held prisoner by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law. Jeremiah looked forward to that day when the old covenant would be removed and the new covenant put into effect. So Jeremiah writes these words of hope: “The time is coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
The old covenant that God made with Israel at Sinai was a two-sided agreement. God said to the people: “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all the nations you will be my treasured possession” (Exodus 19). In order to receive the blessing they needed to obey. Keeping the letter of the covenant law was impossible. This was meant to show the people their desperate need for the promised Savior. The whole point of the old covenant was to point the people to the coming Christ. The covenant was in effect until Christ accomplished his work.
For us things are different. We are not waiting for the Savior to come for the first time. Christ’s work is done. So Paul writes in Colossians 2: Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. We are free from the old covenant with all its rules and regulations. It has served its purpose of pointing to Christ, but now that Christ has come it is no longer in effect. Hebrews 8 quotes this passage from Jeremiah 31 and concludes the discussion with this statement, “By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.” Jesus has fulfilled the law – he kept it perfectly for us down to its most minute detail. Jesus has paid our debt of sin by dying on the cross. He paid our debt of sin in full!
It is truly foolish to return to the old covenant – for, since Christ has come, it is useless. To suggest that we need to do even the smallest thing to receive God’s gift of salvation is to deny the gospel all together. God says as much through Paul. In Galatians 5 Paul pointedly proclaims: You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. God forbid that we fall into this snare of Satan!
Understand that throughout history the Church has constantly faced this temptation to return to the old covenant with all its rules and regulations. Our sinful nature insists that we have to do something to be saved. Whether it is insisting that Sunday is the new Sabbath or suggesting a certain level of congregational involvement for salvation, these are foolish attempts to return to a life under the law. When we try to define Christianity by the way a person acts we run the risk of returning to slavery under the law. The church of Luther’s day had placed the people under the yoke of the law with their rules and regulations, their insistence on works and penance, their offering salvation for a price. The same temptations exist for today’s church. How do we prevent such a return to the temporary covenant? Live in the new covenant. Yes, God encourages us today – live in the covenant of forgiveness!
This is truly a different kind of covenant. It is a one-sided covenant. Instead of “if you keep it, I will bless you” – this covenant is the Lord’s promise of what he will do. I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel. The new covenant is an unconditional covenant. Again, no “if you do this, I will do that”. There are no conditions, nothing for us to do. It is all promise. I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. It ‘s all about God acting on behalf of sinners. This covenant is all gospel. It declares to us that God has forgiven the sins of the world for the sake of Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection. I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.
This new covenant is sealed to us in our baptism. For in and through Baptism God makes this new covenant with each of us. Through baptism he seals and gives to us his very Spirit and the forgiveness of our sins and the faith to believe it. In our baptism we hear God’s continuing promise to each of us: I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more.
But the marvel of the new covenant does not stop there. Heaping grace upon grace, in an equally wondrous and marvelous way, our Lord shares the meal of the new covenant with us. In that communion meal he draws us to himself. He gives us the supreme gift: with the bread, his body given on the cross; with the wine, his blood poured out on the cross. With these sacred gifts he gives to us the forgiveness of sins. With them he removes all doubts that might linger in our hearts. He comes to each of us personally and gives. Everything that is his is ours.
We are united to him. But this unity goes much farther. Because we all eat of the one bread and are in him through faith, so we are joined to one another in the body of Christ, the church. This is the vision Jeremiah saw. He was overjoyed to see the day of Christ. Such is the gift we taste and know.
Dear friends, let’s not return to the temporary covenant! Rather let us remain faithful under the new covenant of forgiveness. Don’t look to yourself, your actions, or your feelings for assurance. Turn instead to God’s unfailing promise. He says you are forgiven – so you are forgiven. What great comfort! What great confidence! What precious freedom! May the Lord keep reforming our hearts daily so we don’t revert to the old, temporary covenant! Rather let us boldly and tenaciously cling to this new covenant of grace! Let us celebrate the undeserved love God has poured out on us in Christ! The law of God has its place in showing us our need of a Savior and guiding us in our thankful response to God’s love, but the law cannot save us! Christ has kept the law! Christ has saved us! Live in this assurance – It is by grace you have been saved! Amen.