How to Overcome the World: A Sermon for Christians Only

Matthias Grunewald
from the Isenheim Altarpiece
Musee d'Unterlinden, Colmar

The text for this morning is our Epistle, 1 John 5:1-8, which has already been read.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

This sermon is only for Christians, those who have been born of God and are His children.  I know, that sounds harsh, so exclusive in our inclusive age; but it follows the text.  St. John makes it especially clear that he is addressing Christians in the verses following: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).  And the fact is the actions for which St. John calls can only be done by Christians.  They are a fruit of faith, not a catalyst for God’s favor.  They can only be motivated by the Gospel not spurred by the commands of the Law.  We’ll look at that more in depth in a moment, but first permit me a brief illustration.

This week, in his blog, Pastor Matt Richard, brought to my attention a comedy sketch that featured Bob Newhart as a psychologist who offers five-minute counseling sessions.  A woman comes into his office to deal with her phobia. “I just start thinking about being buried alive in a box and I panic,” she confesses.

“Has anyone every tried to bury you in a box?” he asks. 

“No, but it really makes my life difficult,” she says.  “I can’t go into elevators or tunnels or anything boxy.”

“So, what you’re saying is that you’re claustrophobic?”

“Yes… yes, that’s my problem.”

“Okay,” he responds.  “I think we have enough here.  I’m going to say two words to you right now.  I want you to listen to them very carefully.  Then I want you to incorporate them into your life.”

“Shall I write them down?” she asks.

“You can, if it makes you more comfortable.  But it’s just two words.  Most people have no problem remembering them.”

“Okay,” she replies.

“Are you ready?” he asks, and she nods affirmatively. 

“Here it is… Stop it!

Now the sketch went on for another four or five minutes.  But I obviously don’t have the comedic talents of Bob Newhart.  And even if I did, you didn’t come here to be entertained, but to hear the word of God proclaimed. 

So why did I bring it up?  As a reminder to us who are preachers and parents.  Believing that simply telling sinners to “stop it” (that is, that speaking Law without Gospel) carries the power to exact lasting change, is as unrealistic as a psychologist telling one of his patients to “stop it” to cure them of their fears and neuroses.  In fact, it is worse, because at least the basis for psychological counseling is found in law—natural law.

Can you imagine Bob Newhart as a preacher? 

“My friends, do you keep on sinning?  Well, just ‘stop it!’  Do you have doubt, struggle, and worry?  Well… just ‘stop it!’”  Yet the sad reality is that this is the message that is heard from pulpits across America each and every Sunday.  Pastors give principles and bumper sticker-like slogans that are essentially Law in order for people to stop sinning and live a victorious life.  And it fails miserably. 

What is wrong here?  A failure to correctly understand, properly distinguish, and appropriately apply Law and Gospel.  Jeff VanVonderen summarizes the problem this way: “The greatest misunderstanding concerning the Law comes in the area of our perception of its purpose.  Somehow we continue to believe that the Law is God’s provision for people to live victoriously.”

So, how does this all fit in a sermon entitled, “How to Overcome the World?”  Let me explain.

The Law clearly limits sin through its threats of punishment and its promises of favor and well-being.  The Law can be used to regulate society, prevent us from doing some really stupid things to ourselves and other people.  The Law can make things bearable in a sinful world.  The Law can curb external sinful behavior for believers and nonbelievers.  But the Law is totally incapable and powerless in changing the attitude and behavior of the heart, let alone saving a person.  The Law commands, but it does not give us any power to fulfill its conditions.  On its own, the Law will only lead us to self-righteousness or despair.

My dear Christian friends, let’s keep in mind that the Law is good.  It reveals sin to us and shows us God’s perfect holy will.  However, the Law does not contain in itself the power to convert the heart or forgive sin, for that belongs solely to the Gospel.  The Law doesn’t “reform” the sinful nature.  No, it reveals our sinful nature; it leaves us exposed as sinners and drives us to Jesus!  Only the Gospel can bring lasting redemption and change (Titus 2:11-12).

So, how does this fit with our text?  St. John writes: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of Him.  By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey His commandments.  For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments.  And His commandments are not burdensome.  For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world.  And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.  Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”

On the surface it might sound like John is preaching conditional Law.  “Want to be a Christian?  Want to overcome the world?  Then obey God’s Law.  Love God.  Love your neighbor.”  But if you listen closely, you’ll find that such words are not written to make people Christians, but to people who are already Christians—to those who already have been born of God. 

St. John is just telling us how this rebirth will evidence itself in a person’s life.  If you have been born of God, you love God.  If you love God, you will automatically love people.  If you love the Father, you will love His children, too.  Real faith and real love are inseparable.  They are like heads and tails on a coin—two faces of the same power.  Loving God automatically involves being willing to submit to God, to put His thoughts and ideals into your head, to let Him steer your behavior, to view obedience as exhilarating, not demeaning.  Such obedience is possible for believers who have been regenerated and renewed by the Holy Spirit. 

This may come as a surprise to young Christians, who are still fresh from the thinking process they just went through in order to understand the concept of justification by grace through faith alone.  In that context we are taught by Scripture to say “No, we can’t” in regard to human works.  A human being by birth cannot do what God requires.  Paul also teaches this repeatedly: “You were dead in your transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1); “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10); “not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:9).

But what is impossible for an unbeliever is not only possible, but essential in the life of a believer.  In each reborn Christian, God has forever forgiven all sin, changed the clothes from filthy rags of sin to righteous robes, snapped the power of sin to control, implanted the Holy Spirit, and changed the mindset.  The goal of saving us is not merely negative—to get us out of hell, but positive—to transform us into men and women who think and act like God.

Here’s another surprise: God’s commands now become joyful to obey, no longer burdensome.  The Law of God is indeed bad news to people without faith in Christ.  But believers love to hear God’s will and do it. The faith and obedience that connect us to Jesus enables us to share in His triumphs.  In John 16, Jesus tells His disciples: “I have said these things to you, that in Me you may have peace.  In the world you will have tribulation.  But take heart; I have overcome the world.”  Several hours later, as He dies on the cross, He crushes the head of the serpent for us and gives us His victory.  But like Christ’s overcoming the world through the cross, our overcoming the world is for the time being not readily apparent to anyone but those with the eyes of faith. 

What does this life under the cross look like?  In his book, “Grace upon Grace,” Dr. John Kleinig describes this way of life as receptive spirituality, a practice which presupposes that we are Christians, that we have been reborn of God, that we already have been given the gift of eternal life, and that we enjoy it now here on earth. 

No human teacher can teach us about that because no human teacher can give us eternal life.  Nor can we gain eternal life for ourselves merely by reflecting on our experience of God, or even by interpreting the Scriptures in the light of our personal experience.  In fact, if we attempt to gain eternal life with God through our own will and obedience, we will commit spiritual suicide.  Those who use their own reason and intellect to make a ladder for their devotional ascent into heaven will, like Satan, plunge themselves and others into hell instead. 

But we have no need to climb up to heaven on our own.  The triune God has come down to earth for us.  His Son has become incarnate for us.  He is now available to us through His Word and Sacraments.  The Holy Spirit uses these means of grace to teach us the things of God and to bring us to the Father for Jesus’ sake. 

But surprisingly, God’s best work in our lives is often done as we undergo and endure trials and temptations.  Luther makes the point that we discover the mysterious power of God’s Word, the hidden work of the Holy Spirit in and through the Word, most clearly in temptation and trial.  In temptation and trial we morel fully experience the Word of God at work in us. 

While this experience begins with the conscience, it touches all parts of us and integrates the whole person, mentally, emotionally, and physically.  The Spirit-filled Word attunes us to God the Father by conforming us to His dear Son.  It is not that we internalize Scripture and assimilate it to our being; rather, the Word assimilates us and makes us godly; it remakes us in the likeness of Christ.

Temptation reveals what is otherwise hidden from us.  It tests the authenticity of our faith and proves our spiritual health.  Though trials are unpleasant, at times even painful, they ultimately refine and purify us. 

As long as we operate by our own power, with our own intellect and our own too-human notions, the devil lets us be.  But as soon as we meditate on God’s Spirit-filled Word and draw on the Spirit’s power, the devil attacks us by stirring up misunderstanding, contradiction, opposition, and persecution.  He mounts that attack through the enemies of the Gospel in the Church and in the world.  The purpose of this attack is to destroy our faith and undo the hidden work of God’s Word in us, to drive out God’s Word that has been planted by the power of the Holy Spirit.

But paradoxically, these attacks are counter-productive.  They serve to strengthen our faith because it drives us back to God’s Word as the only basis for spiritual life.  We discover that we cannot rely on our own resources in the battle against Satan and the powers of darkness.  We realize that if we rely on our own wisdom and power, we will fail, and that our only hope is in Christ and His Word. 

Our spiritual weakness makes us trust in the power of the Holy Spirit and the wisdom of God’s Word.  Through temptation we learn to seek help from God in meditation and prayer, rather than rely on ourselves, our own abilities and resources.  We walk with Christ on the way of the cross.  We do not experience the splendor of union with our heavenly Lord, but we share in His suffering and pain.  We bear the cross together with our Lord as we suffer with Him.  Through the attacks of the evil one we are drawn further out of ourselves and deeper into Christ.  And He is the One who has overcome the world for us.

Overcoming the world is not something extraordinary.  It is not a superior way of being a Christian that is open only to a more advanced stage in spiritual life.  It is something given to every faithful Christian.  It is simply following Jesus.  It is the ordinary life of faith in which you receive Baptism and live in that Baptism through daily contrition and repentance.  You overcome the world as you attend the Divine Service, participate in the Holy Supper, read the Scriptures, pray for yourself and others, resist temptation, and work with Jesus in your given location here on earth. 

You are not raised to a higher plane above the normal, everyday, bodily life, but you receive the Holy Spirit from Christ so that you can live in God’s presence each day of your lives as you deal with people and work, sin and abuse, inconvenience and heartbreak, trouble and tragedy.  You are not called to become more spiritual by disengaging from earthly life, but simply to rely on Jesus as you do what is given for you to do, as you experience what is given for you to experience, and as you enjoy what is given for you to enjoy. 

Yes, many times the world, the devil, and your own sinful flesh will seem too much for you to overcome.  They are far to much for you to overcome on your own.  But take heart; our Lord Jesus has overcome the world for you!  He has fulfilled all of God’s Commandments for you.  He made Himself your human Brother, that through Him you might become the children of His Father and share in His great family of love.  He has given Himself into death on the cross, so that you might have forgiveness of sins, salvation, and eternal life. 

Indeed, in Him, you are forgiven for all of your sins.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


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