A Free People

A Free People

Fourth of July weekend. The celebration of
Independence Day. The weekend when many of our fellow countrymen declare that
they’ve had enough of the “oppression” of coming to hear God’s Word and receive
the gifts of His Absolution and of His body and blood for the forgiveness of
sins. They revolt from His kingdom by disappearing from our midst for several

Some will return after Labor Day to accept the peace
treaty our patient and loving heavenly Father always extends. He continually
holds forth the olive branch of reconciliation; that everlasting symbol of
peace which the dove brought back to Noah at the ark. It is the sign that the
sparkler-hot fire of God’s wrath has been quenched for all time by the flood of
blood and water which flowed from your Savior’s pierced side.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m certainly not cynical about
Independence Day itself. I’m as patriotic as the next person. I recognize and
deeply appreciate the freedoms this nation offers and stands for. I’m grateful
for the sacrifices—great and small—that so many have made throughout the course
of our country’s history. We stand in awe and rightly honor those who have
given their efforts, their blood, and their very lives to keep this nation
free. I cannot begin to express just what this country means to me, and you
would probably have a hard time understanding if I tried to explain. I
wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, unless it were God’s will.

Yet the more I learn about history and God’s Word, the
more I have to smile whenever I hear someone say that this country was founded
on Christian principles, or that the founding fathers were paragons of the
Christian faith, or that America and its independence and prosperity and power
are somehow linked to being God’s special, chosen nation.

High-minded platitudes aside, we’re a nation founded
on the bedrock of the almighty dollar—or rather, the British pound sterling.
Simple greed and poorly-executed economic policy had as much to do with our
founding as did any desire for human rights, justice, or representative

Defending the American colonies from the French had
been costly for the British Empire, and when Britain instituted very modest
taxes by today’s standards in order to recover some of the cost of the French
& Indian War, our noble forebears had a hissy-fit. The king and his
cronies back in England were cutting into profit margins.

A quick look at God’s Word in Romans 13 reveals:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is
no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.

Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has
appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a
terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in
authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s
servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the
sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s
wrath on the wrongdoer.
(Romans 13:1-4)

Jesus, too, made clear the obligations of citizens to obey
the governmental authorities, especially in the matter of taxes, when He told
His listeners:

“Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God
the things that are God’s.”

(Matthew 22:21)

So, then, the American Revolution which created this
nation was a rebellion against a governing authority which could exist only
with God’s allowance and which was levying reasonable taxes for legitimate
purposes under the authority it had. Was this revolution an action which was
in accordance with God’s Word, or was it a breaking of His Law—and therefore a
sinful act?

If we’re intellectually and theologically honest, we
have to admit that—in spite of the wonderful blessing it is to us today and in
many ways to the rest of the world— our beloved nation arose out of sin. Yet,
just like everything else we do, even when it’s sinful, God can make great good
come out of wrongful motives and actions.

We should therefore thank Him every day that He has
given us a free republic which operates under the rule of law, in which we can
proclaim His wonders and His Gospel with only a little interference from
secular authorities.

It’s the wonders of His Gospel that bring us together
in this place, this day and every Sabbath day. It’s that Gospel of the
atonement of Jesus Christ over sin, and His victory of the resurrection, which
offers forgiveness and eternal life to every repentant person. This
forgiveness is ours whether our sin is secret or public; whether it’s uniquely
our own, or arises out of our collective actions with others—even our whole

Free as we might be as citizens of America, we are still captive, as Paul wrote in today’s Epistle lesson: God’s Law is
spiritual; we are unspiritual. Therefore, we are at odds with God, and are
slaves to sin. It doesn’t matter that we should know better, having been
informed of our heavenly King’s Law both through its proclamation and from it
being written on our hearts. With Paul, we do what we don’t want to do, and we
fail to do what we know we want to do.

Do you see the echoes of Paul’s writing here in Romans
when you see the words of the Small Catechism, where Luther explains the Ten
Commandments? Think back upon what you remember of those explanations for just
a moment.

For all the commandments but the first—which is
clearly the basis of all the rest—Luther explains those things we are not to do
if we are to avoid breaking the Law of God, and then expands our obligation
further. He points out those things that we are expected to do if we are to
carry out the Law in love toward God and our neighbor.

We can’t do it. We know we can’t. Much as we like to
externalize blame and try to make it God’s fault or someone else’s fault when
we sin, though, that doesn’t make the Law bad. It is we who are bad,
through and through, by our sinful nature.

Paul says it himself: “Nothing good lives in
Our sinful nature wars against the pure and holy nature God
intends for us to be governed by, and we can’t even understand what it is we
are doing.

We are not only engaged in that battle, we ourselves
lost it, and with it the war and the kingdom. We were taken captive—prisoners
of war, as it were. Our bodies were taken away, no longer under our own
control, and sold to the devil as slaves to sin. We would be left to work out
our days as the spoils of war, achieving the purposes which the prince of this
world and our own evil desires choose for us.

No wonder Paul cries out: “What a wretched man I
It is a cry of despair, of fatigue, of frustration. It is my
cry. It is your cry.

It is the plea of every human being who has heard the
Law of God, recognized his or her own guilt at the many crimes that he or she
has committed against it, and collapsed inwardly in fear at the knowledge and
expectation of the wrath and punishment to come. Wretched sinners that we are!

It sounds like a lot of gloom and doom, and if this is
all we take away from Paul’s message, it is. He grasps that the Law is good in
calling his attention to the impropriety of his actions. He recognizes his
inability to do that which is right and in accordance with God’s Word. He
knows that his sinful nature does everything contrary to the will of God. He
knows that it is only God’s will, working within him, that accomplishes any
good, but Paul also knows that he is unable to move that will to overcome his
own evil tendencies and desires.

Wretched man that he is! Wretched man that I am!
Wretched man, woman, child, husband, wife, worker, boss, and citizen that you
are! Compelled to sin, unable to do battle, captive and enslaved are we all.

Who will rescue you from your body of death? Who
will commute your death sentence? Who will free you to be a free person?

You know the answer, because you heard it already when
the Epistle lesson was read earlier. It’s all summed up in the final sentence
of that lesson: “Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

While it’s completely true that nothing good lives in
your sinful nature, thanks be to God, that’s not all you are. Jesus Christ has
come to you, and His righteousness overshadows the shadow of death under which
you would otherwise live out your days. The Holy Spirit which He has poured
into you at your Baptism has also taken up residence in your sinful, mortal

When you don’t work against Him, the Holy Spirit
crushes your own unrighteousness down into a tiny pellet and squeezes it into a
small corner of your being, until His power is seen shining through in all that
you say and do.

And when you start your own revolution once again, as
you do each and every day, Jesus Christ your Lord and King is there to put your
insurrection down. He brings you all the weapons you need to do battle with
your own sinful nature and the unjust one who would stir you up and lead you to

And when you stumble in this battle and are wounded,
He binds up your injuries with the sweet and tender words, “I forgive you all
your sins.” He strengthens you with His Word, and restores you to spiritual
health with the medicine of immortality: The nourishment of His holy body, and
the transfusion of His precious blood.

Here at the end of chapter 7 of his letter to the
Romans, Paul rightly confesses the essence of the Christian faith: His own
wretched sinfulness; his desperate need for a rescue from the condemnation to
death which holy justice for that sin demands; and the wonderful means by which
God has provided this rescue and the greatest gift for which we thank Him:
Jesus Christ our Lord.

Paul goes on in the early part of the next chapter to
elaborate on this rescue, and the new life which God provides to us through
Christ and the Holy Spirit. Those who are in Christ Jesus have no
condemnation, because through Him we are set free by the Spirit. Rather than
having to wallow in misery at our inability to keep the Law and achieve our own
salvation, God achieved everything on our behalf in sending Christ to be the
full payment for our sins, an offering completely adequate in God’s sight.

Jesus’ death was the condemnation of all sin. It
fulfilled the law in us and for us, an accomplishment which we
have no hope to achieve on our own.

The Spirit of God is put in our hearts, guiding us
toward life everlasting and bestowing all His gifts. Renewed by the Spirit,
our minds are set on God’s desires, not those of our sinful flesh. In Him, we
have life and peace. Even though our flesh may be dead in sin, our spirit,
Paul writes in Romans 8:10, is alive because of righteousness—the righteousness
of Jesus Christ, given for you, given to you; is now your
righteousness, now and forever.

This same Spirit is the one who raised Jesus from the
dead, and His promise is that you, too, will be brought to eternal life in a
glorified body, to dwell evermore with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

God bless America this Independence Day weekend, and
let us rejoice in all the wonderful freedoms we so richly enjoy in this
life—freedoms paid for with the blood of courageous but sinful men and women.

Yet let us also bless the name of the Lord through His
beloved Son, Jesus Christ—that we might continually rejoice as His dear
children. Through the blood of the unblemished Lamb, we are freed from sin,
from despair, and from the body of death. We live free from the tyranny and
fear of eternal condemnation; we live in the hope of everlasting life before
the Lamb upon His throne.

Long live the King! Amen.