“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. What does this mean? I believe that I cannot, by my own reason or understanding, believe in my Lord Jesus Christ or come to him. But instead, the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith.”
You may recognize this from Martin Luther’s Small Catechism - his explanation to what we call the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed. This is the heart of our Lutheran faith. Now, of course, in the Lutheran church we say that the heart of our faith is Luther’s emphasis that we are justified by faith. In our reading from Romans today, it says, “justified by faith in Jesus Christ,” but the Greek is a bit ambiguous, and the translation can also read, “justified by the faith of Jesus Christ.” And so as Lutherans, we say, “justified by faith, through grace.” Luther made clear for us that this justification, and the faith connected to it, come to us from God, through the grace of God. It is not our own doing. And so this is why I say that Luther’s explanation to the Third Article is the heart of our faith.
Faith is not our own doing. It is the work of God. Our faith is the work of God. Our faith does not come from us, from our own work, from our own efforts at belief, from our diligent reading of the bible, from our daily prayers, but from God, though the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit makes us holy and keeps us in the true faith. She, and Luther called the Spirit “she” in his Catechisms, gives us the faith that we need to believe that we are indeed justified––made righteous and holy––by God.
This means every good thing you do as a Christian is not because you’ve decided to do it, but because the Holy Spirit in you has decided you will do it. When you walked in the church doors this morning, it’s because the Holy Spirit brought you. When you come forward to receive Holy Communion, it’s because the Holy Spirit is bringing you forward. When you volunteer to be on a committee, it’s because the Holy Spirit has moved you to. When you help your neighbour across the street,when you donate to the food bank, or spend time with a friend who is feeling down, when you help someone find something in the store, or say something kind to someone, this is the the Holy Spirit working within you. All your good acts committed in the world are acts of the Holy Spirit, working to make the world a place that reflects God’s goodness and righteousness and care for all of God’s children––working to make the world holy.
And this is all well and good. We can all nod our heads and say, yes, of course, this is what we believe. God justifies us, God gives us faith, God makes us holy through the Holy Spirit, and not through anything that we ourselves do.
Except that deep down, we don’t always believe this. I say this because of how I often I hear, and how often I speak myself, of my faith or our faith. Things like “My faith wasn’t very strong at that time.” Or “our faith should be stronger.” Or even “their faith is strong,” or “their faith is weak.” The problem with saying this is that it’s not our faith to begin with. Our faith is not our own faith. My faith is not my faith. My faith is actually God’s faith. God is sharing it with me, through the Holy Spirit, but it is not my faith. So when I say, “my faith was really strong at that point in my life,” I really ought to be saying, “the faith God had given me was really strong at that point in my life.” Or when I say, “my faith isn’t as strong as I would like,” I really should be saying “the faith God has given me isn’t as strong as I would like.” Our faith is not our own faith. We don’t develop it in ourselves, we don’t strengthen it, we don’t weaken it. Our faith is God’s faith, given to us through the Holy Spirit. Luther himself says, “the Holy Spirit comes and preaches, that is, the Holy Spirit leads you to the Lord, who redeems you.” The faith that has carried this congregation through its years is not Advent’s faith. It is the faith of God given to Advent. The faith that has carried the Lutheran church through the last five hundred years is not the Lutheran faith. It is the faith of God given to those who call themselves Lutherans.
There are two implications here. The first is that we are no longer able to judge the faith of others. We can’t look at others and say, they don’t come to church, they don’t have faith, they don’t believe in God, and judge them for that. God gives faith through the Holy Spirit. For reasons we don’t understand, what the Holy Spirit has done and is doing in the hearts of those who don’t come to church is not evident to us, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. When we see people in the world doing good things, and they’re not Lutheran, or even Christian, we have to understand that God is still working in them through the Holy Spirit. All good and righteous things come from God, and therefore the good and righteous things we see in others come from God. We may not understand it or recognize it––Luther himself didn’t always understand or even recognize it––but our theology compels us to. Faith and righteousness and holiness are gifts that come solely from God. God makes holy the deeds of others, through the Holy Spirit. It is not our place to judge them. It is our place only to thank and praise God for accomplishing these things at all.
The second implication is that we are no longer able to judge our own faith. It is not up to us even to say that our faith is weak or strong, or that we need more faith. Who are we to judge the faith that God has given us? Who are we to judge God’s faith? God gives us the faith we need, in the moment that we need it, in the ways and to the degree that God alone deems sufficient. We cannot judge whether it is enough or not. There are times when it seems that God does not give us enough faith––when we waver in our trust of God, when we fear things we shouldn’t fear, when we betray the truths we hold to. There are times when we are paralyzed with fear, or anger, or doubt. There are times when we are simply exhausted, too tired to be God’s hands in the world, too burnt out to commit ourselves to making the world a better place. But to condemn ourselves for those inadequacies is not our place. In those moments when we feel at sea, it is not up to us to look at ourselves and say, “What a wretched person I am, what a terrible Christian, I should go to church more, I should pray more, I should read the Bible more, I should have a stronger faith.” The faith we have is the faith God has given us. In those moments, take a breath, and tell yourself that it’s okay. Not having a strong faith does not mean you are an awful Christian. Your status as a Christian is not up to you. Christ’s death and resurrection has made you holy, and it’s done, and there is nothing you can do––or not do––about it.
That being said, we can and indeed we should ask God for more faith if we need it. That is, we can certainly pray, “God, please give me more faith.” Or, as the father in the Gospel of Mark said to Jesus, “I do believe! Help thou my unbelief!” Because God will help. We can pray, “God, the faith you have given me is not enough to get me through. Please give me more.” And God will. God’s Holy Spirit, who already abides in you, who has been in you since your baptism, will strengthen God’s faith within you.
This is the heart of our Reformation faith––this is the message we are celebrating five hundred years after Martin Luther shared it with the world, this is why we thank God so deeply and profoundly on this day. Because in the end, all the achievements and the advancements of the last five hundred years pale in comparison to this profound truth that sets us free: The Holy Spirit made you holy and keeps you in the true faith. The Holy Spirit gives you the faith of Jesus Christ. This is most certainly true. Thanks be to God, Amen.