Friday, January 22, 2010

“We are not saved by our ethics”: Sermon by Prof. Pless before the March for Life

The following is a sermon preached by John T. Pless for the Lutherans for Life Service 22 January 2010 at Immanuel Lutheran Church Arlington, VA.  He has given me permission to post his sermon.  Thank you Professor Pless!

"This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.  If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.  But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.  If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us" (1 John 1:5-10).

The Psalmist prayed “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” We are living in a world where the shadow of death seems to ever lengthen, casting its cruel shade over public and private existence. Last week in Haiti an earthquake shattered the land causing buildings to crumble down delivering death to thousands or even hundreds of thousands; a grime reminder that nature itself groans in travail under the burden of our sin. Even as we are here this morning the suffering that continues there is immeasurable, beyond calculation. We recoil in horror over the immensity of the casualties in Haiti but we cannot forget that whatever the body count from that devastating earthquake finally totals, it will still not come near the tally of the unborn whose lives ended not in collapsing building but in a clinic in the nearly four decades since the passing of Roe v. Wade.
Add to that the way human bodies are treated as playthings to be quietly and efficiently disposed of once they are broken or have outlived their usefulness and we perceive that that a deep darkness indeed has descended on our land. Marriage as a life-long, one flesh union between man and woman is seen as antiquated as homosexuality once barely mentionable is now openly extolled and celebrated. Luther said that a theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is, yet our culture’s theologians of glory call good evil and evil good. We call darkness light and light darkness.
In such an environment it easier than we recognize to simply accommodate ourselves to the darkness. I’m told that trout swimming in deep caverns never venturing in streams above ground finally become blind, their vision adjusted to their lightless waters. So too perhaps our spiritual sight becomes dim as the eyes of the soul can no longer distinguish between light and darkness. Like the sub-terrainian trout we become at home in the pitch black of our cultural darkness so everything becomes a drab and dull shade of gray. Like the Pharisees, shocked and offended by our Lord’s healing of the man born blind in John 9, we claim to have perfect vision and yet we become blind; insensitive to the light of God which exposes the darkness of sin.
The darkness of which the Apostle John writes is more than the sum total of your misdeeds. It is more than the sins of abortion and euthanasia. It more than the lusts of eyes and heart. It is more than our weak resignation to the evils we deplore. It is the inborn darkness of the human heart. It what Luther identified as the primal sin from which every other sin is given birth and vitality. It is the sin against the First Commandment; the failure to fear, love and trust in God above all things. It is the unwillingness to let God be God. Like our first parents we retreat into the shadows. We foolishly try to hide from the One who is Light Eternal. We fantasize that there is safety and security in to the darkness for there, we reason, we can take cover and live as though God did not matter and I mattered most to paraphrase one of our confessional prayers.
Root of the problem is that we think we are more reliable, more trustworthy than God Himself. I don’t know if God can be trusted but I can trust myself. Pro-choice is not just a political slogan; it describes the old Adam. We are all pro-choice! We insist on having our say, making our choice, and exercising our free will. We might be persuaded to deliver our lives into God’s hands, but God’s absolute insistence that He is God in all that He does robs us of the freedom to do things our way. Instead we are bound and determined make a god that we can live with, a tamed deity who knows his place and will not interfere with our precious freedom. That is darkness.
No wonder that the atheistic philosopher Jean Paul Satre once said that even if we knew the biblical God to exist, we would have to pretend He did not exist in order to be free in the way we think we want to be free! Despising the One who spoke calling light out of darkness, we want to be free to create our own light. Yet the more enlightened we become with self-knowledge the more dreary and dark human life becomes. To paraphrase an earlier philosopher, if we are own creator there is nothing to stop us from becoming our own angel of death.
There is a temptation for us here today. We might quickly conclude that the darkness is only out there in this culture of death, only out there in this God-forsaking world. We may comfort ourselves that the darkness is out there in abortion clinics or court chambers where human laws seemingly displace divine commandments. The darkness is with those benighted physicians who use the gifts of medicine to destroy life rather than to provide care and healing.
Certainly, the Word of God calls for repentance from all who practice these deeds of darkness. But there is more. You are called to repent. We are called to repent. Listen again to the Apostle: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” God calls us to repent of our failure to speak and to act on behalf of the weak and helpless who cannot speak or defend themselves. He calls us to repent of our readiness to attempt a truce with the darkness; an easy accommodation to that which God abhors. But there is yet more. God also calls us to repent of our self-righteousness – a zeal in the rightness of our cause-that too easily turns into a form of self-justification. “We are not like left-wing politicians and abortionists! Therefore God must be favorably impressed with me.”
We are not saved by our ethics. Our morality does not bring us bask in the radiance of holy light. There is no salvation in virtue no matter how upright or enlightened it may be. There is only One whose blood cleanses us from all sin. His name is Jesus. He is the Light of the world, the light that has come into the world-the light that shines in the darkness of the world and yet is not overcome or extinguished by it.
Today is for us a day of humiliation and supplication but it is not a day of gloomy darkness for our Lord’s Epiphany beams on us. The heavenly star has guided us to the manger so that the words of the Prophet Isaiah are true of us: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land f deep darkness, on them has light shined” (Is. 9:2). I am here today and authorized to announce to you that this Jesus is the propitiation for your sin by His death on Calvary and He forgives you all your sins by His blood, blood that He gives you to drink in the cup of His New Testament.
So walk in the light of His Word. Walk in the confidence that the Sun of Righteousness has dawned on us: This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. Amen.
Prof. John T. Pless


  1. " . . we think we are more reliable, more trustworthy than God Himself." I recognize that this is my old Adam at work. Well said.

  2. Yea, this sermon by Professor Pless of Concordia Sem. Fort Wayne is really great. I liked it so much I wanted to make it available here.


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