The Last Word
This week we celebrate Reformation Day. It marks 499 years since the posting of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. Most Protestants – especially Lutherans – recognize this event as the beginning of the Reformation. We know that Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. Unfortunately, not many of us know what was written in these theses. What did Luther actually say? We’re not sure, but it must have been good if we’re still talking about it 499 years later.
In everything Luther said and wrote, he was chiefly concerned about one thing – that the voice of the Gospel would be heard. The Gospel must have the last word. This means that the clamor of competing voices in this world must be silenced. This is what St. Paul speaks of in our Epistle reading, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (Ro 3:19). The purpose of the Law, as Paul tells us, is to stop every boasting mouth that wants to have the last word. This was a problem in Paul’s day, it was a problem in Luther’s day, and it’s still a big problem today.
We typically don’t think of boasting as a dangerous sin. It’s a bit annoying to be around someone who’s always bragging about their accomplishments. It’s irritating when other people insist on having the last word. But boasting hardly seems to be a damnable sin. It’s considered bad etiquette. It’s impolite. Yet boasting is the expression, the voice, of pride. There is a reason the ancient church fathers listed pride first among the seven deadly sins. Pride is an “excessive belief in one's own abilities that interferes with the individual's recognition of the grace of God.” It has been called the sin from which all others arise. Pride is the enemy of the gospel. Pride wants to have the last word – and when it does, pride destroys faith and damns to hell.
Now, not every kind of pride is evil. If you work hard and are good at your job, you should be proud, and you should expect to get paid. If you study hard for a test, you should be proud and expect a good grade. You earned it. You deserve it. This is a healthy pride. But pride becomes evil when we think that we can in a similar way earn or deserve God’s favor. Pride is fine in the realm of grades and paychecks, but it has no place in heaven. And yet the world is full of idle boasters who trust in their own works and have no regard for the cross of Christ. The Psalmist writes, “Their pride is their necklace… their hearts overflow with follies… Their mouths lay claim to heaven, and their tongue struts through the earth” (Ps 73:6, 7, 9). This boasting mouth that lays claim to heaven will be stopped. The wagging tongue that trusts in its own accomplishments and merits will be silenced. There is no promise of heaven for the faithful Muslim, the moral Atheist, or even the self-righteous Pharisee. All of us alike stand equally condemned before God. “For by works of the law no man will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Ro 3:20).
Last year I visited a man in a nursing home who told me, “I’m pretty sure I’m going to heaven because I’m 25% better than 50% of the people. I hardly sin anymore. In fact, I quit sinning twenty years ago. So, if all this isn’t enough to get me into heaven, then something’s wrong.” Well, my friends, something is wrong, because God isn’t grading on a curve. His Law demands perfection, and “by works of the law no man will be justified in God’s sight.”
Most of us are too well catechized to say what the man in the nursing home said. We won’t actually confess, “I trust in my good works to get me to heaven.” We’re too smart to say those words, but we often think them. You might look at the single mother in front of you in the check-out lane and think, “At least I’m a better parent than her.” Or perhaps at a classmate and say, “Hey, I know I’m not perfect, but thank God I’m not as self-absorbed as him.” Sometimes we take pride in even more mundane things: “At least I have good hygiene. I take showers and wear deodorant.” But pride is a tricky thing. It begins as a seed when you compare yourself with your friends and neighbors, but pride grows until you actually become the Pharisee who looks at the tax collector and prays: “I thank you God that I am not like that sinner over there. I fast, I pray, I tithe…” And on and on we go, listing our accomplishments before God – thinking that He will be pleased, thinking that our works will have the last word. We become just like my friend in the nursing home – only he’s more honest. He says what our sinful nature has always secretly believed: “That we are 25% better than 50% of the people and deserve heaven because of it.”
But sinful pride does not get the last word, for the Law declares, “There is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Ro 3:23). Concerning heaven, there are no categories of sinners. There are no Class I felony sinners and petty misdemeanor sinners. Apart from Christ, Mother Teresa, Hitler, and you are all in the same boat. The Law is not a respecter of persons. It shuts every boasting mouth equally, so that the whole world is declared guilty before God. According to the Law, the last word concerning you is “guilty as charged” and the just sentence is eternal death.
But the Law does not have the last word. There is one more Word from God. “For the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law… the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” Ro (3:21-22). This is the promise of the Gospel. It declares that you are forgiven. It announces that you have been made righteous – not by the works of the law, but by the atoning work of Christ on His cross for you. With one hand God’s closes shut every self-righteous, boasting mouth, and with the other He gives the free gift of righteousness in Christ. Jesus’ last word on the cross, “It is finished” was spoken to you. Your striving is over. Your boasting is pointless. Your self-justifying mouth has been silenced. But Jesus’ last word also silences the accusing voice of the law. Your debt of 10,000 talents has been stamped: PAID IN FULL.
And yet, your sinful nature is not content. Pride resents being the recipient of a gift. Pride insists on always picking up the tab, on paying its own bills. Ask any four-year-old, “Do you need help?” The answer is often, “No thanks! I wanna do it.” In the same way, pride would say to Christ, “No thanks. I will stand on my own two feet. I will look God in the eyes on the strength of my own merit.” One of C.S. Lewis’ characters said: “I only want my rights. I’m not asking for anybody’s bloody charity. I just want my rights.” His friend replied: “Oh, then do – at once. Ask for the bleeding charity.” But sinful man would rather keep his pride in hell, than look to Jesus. He would rather have the last word, “No thanks!” than submit to the grace of God. This is the will of man.
This is why we pray, “Thy will be done.” In this prayer, you pray against your fallen will which seeks to refuse the gift of salvation. You pray against your sinful pride which wants to have the last word. You pray, “Not my will, but Your will be done.” And what is the will of God? He desires that none should perish, but that all should reach repentance (2 Pe 3:9). His will is to be your Father, and for you to be his dear child. And His will was carried out in your baptism. Your boasting mouth was closed. The accusing voice of the law was silenced. Every prideful mouth was stopped so that God would have the final word, so that He would be the justifier of the ungodly, so that you would be called “the righteousness of God.”
So then, is there any place for boasting in the life of a Christian? Oh, yes! Paul writes, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (2 Cor 10:17). “For far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal 6:14). The life of the Christian is a retelling of what God has done in Christ. Your good works – and you will do many good works – are not done for your own glory, but to bring glory to God. Your life reflects the light of Jesus who has called you out of darkness. And even though you remain a sinner while on this earth, you live each day trusting that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Phil 1:6). He is the author and finisher of your faith. He is the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega. The final victory does not belong to sin. The world, the devil, and your sinful flesh will not have the final say. And even when you close your eyes in death, the grave’s claim over you will not stand. For God spoke the first word at creation, and He will speak the last word, “Rise, child. Your sins are forgiven. Your debt has been paid. You are clothed with the righteousness of Christ. Enter into the eternal joy of the Lord.” This is God’s declaration to you, and He will have the last word.