Matthew 5:17-26; Romans 6:1-11; Exodus 20:1-17
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
What is a Christian to do when the culture seems to be at odds with Biblical faith? Generally, there are three possible courses of action: Separate, regenerate, or accommodate.
Separatist Christians are easy enough to identify; they are those individuals, sects, and denominations that try very hard to not engage in the parts of culture and society they deem to contradict Biblical teaching. I am not referring to those who merely abstain from physical pleasures and entertainments (drinking, television and theater, gambling, etc.), but, rather, those who isolate and remove themselves altogether from the secular culture and society. While groups like the Amish and some conservative Mennonites have established separate, parallel societies, even more mainstream Christian groups and denominations have created their own Christian “Yellow Pages” of businesses and services that they might, as much as possible, interact, do business with, and support only other like-minded people.
Quite the opposite in approach, other Christians believe that it is their Biblically mandated purpose to actively regenerate our fallen, broken, and sinful culture and society. Perhaps, in the United States, Christians of this stripe are most represented by the Christian Religious Right and by mainstream conservative Protestant Evangelicalism. Such groups actively work in and through the secular government to create and pass laws that they believe are in accord with Biblical doctrine, morality, and ethics. Most likely, they would say that the United States is fundamentally and intentionally a Christian nation, while the most zealous might desire a theocracy (a nation ruled by God’s Law).
The third approach, accommodation, is the chief approach of mainstream liberal Protestant Christians and church bodies. Such Christians appeal chiefly to the Gospel of Jesus Christ with little or no regard for God’s Law. Jesus is understood as having fulfilled and thereby having abolished the Law so that all things are good and permissible when they are done in love, or at least not to the direct harm of another – even things that were previously forbidden by the Law of God. God’s Word, as recorded in the Bible, is understood to be the work of fallible men with particular limited understandings and knowledge about science, the world, and human development and who were often culturally, racially, and sexually biased. Therefore, the Bible is to be interpreted critically in light of thought and opinion today in order to find meaning and application today.
Now, it is my intention to demonstrate to you, from God’s Word, and particularly from the Scriptures appointed for this day, that all three of these courses of action, beliefs, and approaches to our culture and society are incorrect and are misinterpretations of God’s Word and will for Christians in the world, but not of the world.
Today’s lessons speak most directly against the third and last approach I discussed – accommodation. Once again, this approach is typically justified by an appeal to Christ’s own teaching in the Gospel about loving your neighbor, even your enemies, and doing good to all. These are indeed Jesus’ teachings, and all Christians are to strive to do this with the grace and help of God by the Holy Spirit. However, proponents of accommodation seemingly overlook many of Jesus’ other teachings, or they explain them away by an incorrect interpretation of Jesus’ Words such as we have in today’s Gospel lesson where Jesus says: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
Proponents of Christian accommodation of the culture seemingly believe that Jesus did away with all that Law-talk of the Old Testament. But, clearly He did no such thing. For, Jesus Himself says that He did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it, and that not a letter of it has passed away. What does this mean? This means that the Law of God is no longer a fearsome thing to those who believe and are baptized into Christ Jesus, because He has fulfilled all its rigorous and unwavering demands, perfectly, for all humanity. Yet, the keyword here is fulfilled, not abolished. The Law is still there, but it’s not a threat any longer, that is, to those who will repent and believe that they are saved by God’s grace, through faith in Christ Jesus, who alone has fulfilled the Law’s demands. For, when something is fulfilled, it is not abolished, it does not disappear or go away, but it is still present and active, but satisfied.
In fact, not only does Jesus not abolish the Law, but He actually expands it, saying: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder.’ […] But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” And, likewise, Jesus teaches: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Jesus even taught that, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Wham! Now, the scribes and the Pharisees get a bad rap for their hypocrisy and misunderstanding and unbelief of the Gospel, and justifiably so, but, don’t kid yourself, they were righteous in the eyes of men, and they kept the Law of God better than anyone, better than you! They prayed more than you pray. They worshipped more than you worship. They gave tithes of their income more than, and more faithfully than you do. They were the best of the best when it came to faithful Jewish practice, and everybody knew it. Therefore, if Jesus says that you must be more righteous than even them, what hope is there for you?
Thanks be to God, in Christ, there is every hope for you, for, in Christ, your righteousness does indeed exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. And, that is precisely Jesus’ point. That is what it means that Jesus has not abolished, but has fulfilled the Law and the prophets, for you. You are free! You are free from the impossible burden of having to fulfill the Law of God perfectly as it demands – a task that neither you, nor any Christian, nor even the scribes and the Pharisees in all their righteousness could ever do! Jesus has done it for you, and He has set you free, not from the Law, which is still in force, but from the burden of having to do it in order to be righteous before God. But, the Law has not passed away, and you have been freed, not from the Law, but you have been freed to do the Law in love for God and for your neighbor in and through Jesus Christ.
That is why a Christian cannot simply accommodate the culture in which he lives. Jesus did not abolish the Law of God, nor did He override it with the Gospel, and neither did He lower the bar on the Law of God, but, rather, He fulfilled it for you. Jesus has freed you from the fear and curse of the Law that you may do it freely, and boldly, in love. What this means is that, as you strive to do God’s Law faithfully, knowing fully that you will at times fail and at all times fall short of the perfection it demands, you may do it, nonetheless, without fear of judgment and condemnation, for Christ has perfectly fulfilled it for you, and even your weakest good works, God the Father looks upon as holy and righteous through His holy and righteous Son.
You see, you, as God’s child of His own creation, you were made for good works. This is why the first approach I named earlier, separation, is incorrect. God’s people are not to separate and isolate themselves from the world, society, and culture, but they are to remain distinct within it and for the benefit of it – that is to say, we are to live in the world while remaining not of the world. You do this through your God-given vocations, callings, in which you serve your brother and neighbor and glorify God.
Similarly, under the same dictum, “in the world but not of the world,” the second approach I named, regeneration, is also incorrect, for you do not, and cannot, regenerate anyone, or anything, but the Holy Spirit alone regenerates where and when He pleases through the proclaimed Word of God and the Blessed Sacraments. Moreover, Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, therefore, though He will work to provide for and to protect His people through vocations in government and bureaucracies, He will do this even through unbelievers and despite any godless or wicked intent or purpose they may have.
Therefore, the answer to the question, “What is a Christian to do when the culture seems to be at odds with Biblical faith?” is, negatively stated, none of the former mentioned approaches – not separation, not regeneration, and not accommodation. But, rather, positively stated, what you are to do is love, by living in the love and life-giving freedom of the Law of God fulfilled by and in Jesus Christ. While, being free in Christ may be different than the kind of freedom the flesh, our world, and culture values and desires, it is, nonetheless, the greatest and the only true freedom. It is not a freedom that permits you, or anyone, to do whatever you want, even in contradiction to God’s Law; nor is it a freedom that comes from all things being permissible. Rather, the freedom you have in Christ is the freedom to live a new life, a baptized life of daily dying to sin and living to God in Christ Jesus. For, when you know that the Law no longer judges and condemns you, then you are freed to no longer judge and condemn others, but, rather, to show them the love, mercy, and forgiveness you have received, whether they receive it or reject it.
However, as St. Paul writes, you are not freed to keep on sinning as if the Law of God was no longer in effect – that is the way of the old man who has died. The way of the new man is to do the works of the Law without fear of judgment and condemnation, but in the spirit of love to the glory of God in Christ Jesus. For, the truest and only freedom is to be a slave of Christ. Thus, St. Paul writes, "For freedom Christ has set you free." "Therefore, stand fast in your freedom. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, to pursue its sinful lusts and desires. But live by the Spirit, in Christ, in fervent faith toward God the Father, and in fervent love for one another."
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, your Christian vocation is not to separate from, to regenerate, or to accommodate to this world and culture, but you are to be the hands, heart, ear, and voice of Christ in this world, but not of this world. As St. Paul wrote, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” For, the Law of God has not passed away, but it has been fulfilled. Therefore, you are free to obey the Law and to do the Law in love, without fear – in love for your brother and for your neighbor, to the glory of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.