There are but two religions in the world – the religion of the Law and the religion of the Gospel. In the religion of the Law, you work your way up to God. In the religion of the Gospel, God comes down to you. In the religion of the Law, you earn God’s favor; in the religion of the Gospel God’s favor is undeserved. We call it “grace.” In the religion of the Law, you justify yourself; in the religion of the Gospel, God justifies you.
There are many religions of the Law that go by many names with many gods and many ways to those many gods. You may worship a false god or you may worship the true God falsely, it doesn’t matter when it comes to the religion of the Law. The religion of the Law brings death and destruction whether you worship a false god or the true God according to the Law. A natural born, dyed in the wool, sinner cannot be justified by the Law. The Law kills; the commandment condemns. The religion of the Law, though it promises grace and every blessing to all who keep the commandments, ultimately fails to deliver because there is no one who keeps the commandments. Not you, not me, not anyone.
There is one religion of the Gospel, the one that approaches God not by works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, not on the basis of what we do, but on the basis of what Jesus has done, not with commandment keeping but with promise believing. There is only one religion that works this way. It’s called Christianity, though admittedly many Christians slip into the religion of the Law and make forgiveness, life, and salvation something we do. Even if our part in it is a tiny part, just a little spark of something good, a little leaning in the right direction, a little helping God along by making the right decision, it’s the religion of the Law and not the Gospel.
Two brothers went out into the field to make a sacrifice to God. Sons of the same mother and father. They both believed in the same God, the God of their father and mother. The elder brother, Cain, worked the soil. He offered God some of the fruit the ground produced. The younger brother, Abel, was a herdsman. He offered the firstborn of his flock, and the very best portions of it. The Lord recognized Abel and his sacrifice; the Lord did not recognize Cain and his. Why? The text of Genesis doesn’t say. The book of Hebrews tells us “by faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he received approval as righteous, God bearing witness by accepting his gifts.”
It wasn’t the size of the sacrifice, nor was it because Cain offered fruit and Abel offered an animal. There is a hint in the text that Cain’s sacrifice was less than “sacrificial,” simply some of the “fruit of the ground.” A bit like the change left in your pocket, or whatever small bills might be in your wallet. Abel, by contrast, offered the best portions of the firstborn of his flock. It wasn’t the gift but the orientation of the giver that was decisive. Abel’s sacrifice was faithful, full of faith, trust in the promise of God. Cain’s sacrifice was faithless, and “without faith it is impossible to please God.”
Both men worshipped the same God. Cain worshipped God according to the religion of the Law and was rejected. Abel worshipped God according to the religion of the Gospel and was received. This precipitated a crisis, and the first holy war. Cain was angry with his brother because the Lord rejected his sacrifice. It wasn’t his brother’s fault, but isn’t that the way it is? We’d rather blame our brother then look at ourselves. And that’s where the religion of the Law will lead, to offering the blood of your brother, if necessary. Anything to justify yourself.
Two men went to the temple to pray. Both were Israelites; both worshipped the same God, the God of their fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. One man was a Pharisee, a religious man belonging to a very conservative religious party. He was respected by his community, admired for his good works. He worked hard to do the works required by God. He was proud of what he had achieved in his piety, his discipline, his religion. He fasted twice a week, every Tuesday and Thursday. He have a tenth of everything he took in, right down to the herbs from his garden.
The other man was a publican, a tax collector. He was an Israelite too, though he own people despised him. He worked for the Roman government as a tax agent. He paid the tax of his region to Caesar in return for a license to collect whatever he could from his own people. He was probably fairly well off, had a nice house, threw great parties with his tax collector friends, but he was hated by his fellow Israelites and especially the Pharisees who saw him as a traitor to God and country.
These two men, the Pharisee and the tax collector, went to the temple to pray. The Pharisee, standing off by himself, prayed according to the Law. First, he justifies himself on the back of his fellow man: “God, I think you that I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even this tax collector of there.” Then, he justifies himself on the basis of his own works: I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” And he was certain God agreed with him.
The tax collector also stood alone, far away. He couldn’t even lift his eyes, much less his face to heaven. Instead, he looked at the ground, and beat his breast, and said nothing more than “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” The Pharisee asked for nothing from God; the publican asked for nothing but mercy. The Pharisee came with the record of his good works, and the record was long and impressive. The tax collector came with his sin. The Pharisee offered a tenth of everything he had; the tax collector offered his sinful, broken life.
“I tell you, this man, the one who could not lift his eyes to heaven, the one who prayed for mercy, the tax collector, this man went down to his house justified. Declared righteous. Not the religious Pharisee, but the sinful tax collector. He went home justified by God. The big Lutheran word. By grace, God’s undeserved kindness. Through faith, trust in the promise that God justifies the ungodly solely on the basis of His promise of mercy delivered for Christ’s sake. The publican worshipped God in the way of the Gospel, through faith in God’s promise, and God justified him.
If you exalt yourself with the Law, you will be humbled. You will be revealed to be a sinner, the chief of sinners. No matter how religious you may be, the Law will always accuse you, always humble you, always shut your mouth, amplify your sin, and ultimately kill you. That’s what the Law does to sinners. If you attempt to worship God according the Law, to earn His favor with your commandment keeping, your piety, your good works, your religion, you will not be justified but condemned. Even if you worship the true God, it doesn’t matter, because to worship God in the way of the Law is to treat God like an idol. Not good.
That means it is pointless to argue whether Jews or Muslims worship the true God or not. It doesn’t matter. They worship according to the religion of the Law, seeking the righteousness of God through works rather than trust. It also means that even those who call themselves Christians, and that includes you and me, slip into the same religion – the religion of Cain and of the Pharisee – whenever we seek to earn God’s favor by way of the Law instead of the Gospel, by what we do instead of what God in Christ has done for us.
If you are humbled under the Law you will be exalted. Like the tax collector who went home justified; like Abel whose martyr’s blood testified from the ground to the promise of God. God justifies the ungodly, not the already godly. He forgives sinners, not saints. He acquits the guilty, not the innocent. Don’t hide your sins. Don’t compare yourself favorably to others. Don’t boast before God of what you’ve done for Him lately. And by all means don’t attempt to justify yourself before the cross of Jesus. Confess your sins. Own them; they’re yours. Come to God not with an arm load of good works over which to brag, but with empty open arms, like a beggar, eager to receive.
Notice what the next thing is in our Gospel. What happens right after Jesus tells this parable? Luke tells us that people were bringing infants, yes infants, tiny babies in arms to Jesus that He might touch them and bless them. What did those squirming, crying, helpless infants have to offer Jesus? There is nothing more “useless” than an infant, if you are are concerned with “doing.” It’s a waste of Jesus’ precious time. He’s got a kingdom to build and people are bringing newborn babies to Jesus. When the disciples see it, they rebuke those parents for wasting Jesus’ time.
But you see, it’s the infants, the helpless, that worship in the way of the Gospel. They can’t do the Law. They can’t speak, they can’t move on their own. We can’t do the Law either, and in truth, we are in no better shape than those helpless babies who have to be brought to Jesus. But Jesus says, “No, let these children come to me and don’t get in their way, for to such helpless ones as these belongs the kingdom of God.” Infants!
If you didn’t before, you now understand “infant Baptism.” Infants are the perfect targets for Baptism. They are ready-made beggars, utterly helpless. Everything has to be done for them. They even have to be brought. They can’t bring themselves. It’s adults who have to be taught into infancy so that they can be baptized as infants too. In fact, you might say that all Baptism is infant Baptism, even when it happens to an adult. It’s not that infants are inherently good, they’re not. They’re infected with Sin like the rest of us. It’s that they are receivable, utterly giveable to. “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” That’s why Luther said that the baptism of an infant is a perfect picture of our salvation – the child does nothing, God does everything.
Baptism is precisely how believing parents bring their infants to Jesus for a blessing. Where else are you going to go? Where are you going to bring your babies so Jesus might touch them? To the font, to Baptism.
You have been baptized into the religion of the Gospel. You have been declared dead to Sin and dead to the Law and its religion. Yours is the worship of Abel who offered the faith-full sacrifice in view of Christ’s sacrifice. Yours is the religion of the publican, who could not lift his eyes to heaven but sought the mercy of God in Christ. Yours is the religion of the tiny infant in the arms of Jesus, receiving the kingdom.
And in this religion of the Gospel, of trust in the free promise of life in Christ, you go home justified.
In the name of Jesus,