How to Overcome the World: A Sermon for Christians Only

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“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?” (1 John 5:4-5).  
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
This sermon is only for Christians, for those who have been born of God and who are His children. I know, that sounds harsh, so exclusive and intolerant in our inclusive and tolerant age, but in the verses that follow our text, St. John makes it especially clear that he is addressing Christians: “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 Law.
We’ll look at that more in depth, but first permit me a brief illustration.
A few years ago, 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, 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 curb sinful actions. The Law can prevent us from doing some really stupid things to ourselves and other people. But the Law has its limits. The Law is totally incapable of 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. Ultimately, the Law by itself will only lead to smug self-righteousness or the depths of despair.
My dear Christian friends, let’s keep in mind that the Law is good. It shows us God’s holy will. However, the Law does not save. The Law does not contain the power to convert the heart or forgive sin, for that belongs solely to the Gospel. The Law doesn’t “reform” the sinful nature; it only reveals our sinful nature. It leaves us exposed as sinners and drives us to Jesus! And that is a very good thing, for 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?” (1 John 5:1-5).
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 they are written 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. 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. Such obedience is possible for believers who have been reborn 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 that we cannot do what God requires. Paul also teaches this repeatedly: “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 16:33, 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 Jesus 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.
Sadly, many people, even many Christians who confess that we are saved by grace alone through faith in Christ alone, picture the life of a Christian once brought to faith as a gradual progression, overcoming the world, growing in holiness by pulling ourselves up the stairway to heaven one step at a time. But just as our justification is a gift from God, so is our sanctification. God not only makes us His children through His Word, He teaches us how and empowers us to live as His children by His Word as well. This is how we overcome the world.  
No human teacher can teach us about that because no human teacher can give us eternal life. Overcoming the world is not a matter of merely reflecting on our experience of God, or even of interpreting the Scriptures in the light of our personal experience. In fact, if we attempt to overcome the world on our own, we will fail miserably. Those who try to climb their own ladder into heaven will, like Satan, plunge themselves and others into hell instead.
But we have no need to climb up to heaven. The triune God has come down to earth for us. The Father sent His Son as one of us. Now He comes 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.
Surprisingly, God’s best work in our lives is often done as we undergo trials and temptations. There we discover the hidden work of the Holy Spirit in and through the Word most clearly. 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 and intellect the devil lets us be. But as soon as we meditate on God’s Word and draw on the Spirit’s power, the devil attacks us by stirring up misunderstanding, opposition, and persecution 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.
But these attacks are counter-productive. Rather than weaken our faith, they serve to strengthen our faith, driving 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. 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.
Here now, in this world, 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 as we bear our own cross for His sake. Through the attacks of the evil one we are drawn further out of ourselves and deeper into Christ. And that is a very good thing! For Christ is the One who has overcome the world for us.
Overcoming the world is not a superior way of being a Christian that is open only to the spiritually elite; it is something given to every faithful Christian. It is the ordinary life of faith in which you live in your 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 life, but you receive the Holy Spirit so that you can live in God’s presence as you deal with everyday life in this fallen world, a life filled with other broken people and thankless jobs, with sin and abuse, with inconvenience and heartbreak, trouble and tragedy, your own failures and foibles. 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, as you endure what you are given to suffer, as you enjoy what is given you to enjoy, and as you love whom are given you to love.
It’s quite simple really. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy. Many times the world, the devil, and your own sinful flesh will seem too much for you to overcome. And there’s a reason for that: They are far too much for you to overcome on your own!
But take heart; our Lord Jesus has overcome them all for you! So go out and live in His strength, trusting in His mercy and grace, rejoicing that you have been born of God, know that in Christ you have overcome the world. For Jesus’ sake, 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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