Listen to it:
“Faith and Forgiveness”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The 18th chapter of Matthew is a fitting text for the beginning of Sunday School. With all of these little ones gathering to hear and learn more about their Lord, God is continuing to nourish the faith that He created in them at their baptism. And the promise and warning of Jesus apply to His whole Church: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:5-6, ESV). “The little one believes. That means: the high majesty of God dwells in him, and God’s hand is on him. To tamper with that faith is to invite the dread vengeance of almighty God: That vengeance Jesus will not even describe, so terrible is it; He only says that sure death by drowning in the deeps of the sea would be a preferable fate” (Franzmann, Follow Me, 152). These twenty verses, which we cannot come close to exhausting this morning, are a description of what it means to have the faith that God gives to His little ones. The child is an example of one who has been given faith. Jesus is not saying that a child is naturally innocent, or that if death should claim a child before some artificial age of accountability, salvation is automatically granted. Only someone who does not have children could think that children are innocent! I love my children, but believe me: not only did they learn how to sin, it comes naturally to them. Original sin is real, and it is just as real and condemning in the newborn infant as in the elderly, dying person. Jesus is holding up children as an example not because of their innocence, but because they show us our real position before God: one of absolute need and complete dependence. Young children depend completely on their parents; they must be taught everything; they don’t know why they should eat fruits and vegetables rather than candy and popsicles. Leave a few four-year olds alone in a house and you would see very quickly how dependent they really are. What can an infant do for itself? Left alone, it cannot even feed itself; it literally would not be able to live. This is why infant baptism is really the pattern for adult baptism: because infants show us that we stand naked before God, with empty hands and an empty heart. Adult baptism is exactly the same as infant baptism, but we think that because the adult answers for herself, she is in a better position. No, the adult is just as dependent and helpless before God as the infant, and the grace of God is just as undeserved. We are offended at the baptism of an infant because we are offended that salvation is really free. God cannot really give salvation to someone who can’t do anything about it, can He? Yes, He can, and yes, He does; in fact, to prove it, He gives salvation to you and me! To those who think that they have to do something, or who think they can do something, God will give nothing. “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3, ESV). “God gives His gifts only into empty hands” (Franzmann, 152).
It is to such as these-undeserving, empty-handed, weak, and little ones-that God gives faith and forgiveness. He forgives the sins of those who don’t deserve to be forgiven. He grants faith to those who have no strength to believe. He saves those who cannot save themselves. And it is for such as these that God reserves a place in His presence. The angels responsible for them come and go from before the face of God. As the letter to the Hebrews puts it, “Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” (Hebrews 1:14, ESV). Do not look down on them. Parents-especially fathers-do not despise the faith of your little ones; don’t just send them, bring them, to the services of God’s House where their faith can be fed and they can see in you an example for their faith and life. These little ones, and those like them, will inherit salvation! Do not think that the God who sends angels to serve the heirs of salvation will take it lightly if someone causes one of His children to stumble or to sin. Yes, temptations to sin will inevitably come, but Jesus says woe to the one from whom those temptations come. Woe to the one who causes a believer to trust in some other Jesus than the Son of God. Woe to the one who prevents a child from receiving the baptismal forgiveness Jesus would give. Woe to the one who murders the childlike faith that trusts in Jesus Christ alone for full and free forgiveness. Woe to the one who obscures the face of God by teaching falsely or requiring an intellectual declaration or a decision or some other payment in return for salvation than the blood of Jesus. That one will answer to God.
It is so serious, in fact, that it would be better to cut off an arm or a leg, or pluck out an eye, than to be the source of a believer’s sin; it would be better to be drowned by a millstone so heavy it has to be pulled by a donkey, or to enter eternal life maimed, than to cause another Christian to lose his salvation. That is the negative command: God says, Do not disturb the faith of My children. But there is a positive command as well, and that is the command to forgive. It is a command, because God is a forgiving God. He is the seeking Shepherd who does not desire that a single sheep be lost and perish. The members of God’s Church must seek out the one who has sinned in order to restore him to the fellowship of believers. The point of going to your brother or sister when sin has been committed is to gain your brother or sister. The point of taking others with you is so that the one who has sinned might see the seriousness of his sin, repent, and be restored. The point of telling it to the Church is not to embarrass someone but to bring her to repentance and forgiveness. Sometimes we take verse 20 out of context and say that two or three believers together means that church is going on there. That’s not what Jesus says. He is saying that wherever two or three have been gathered into His Name, made part of His Body, He is there among them to forgive sins. If two or three are gathered, but not around the divine means of forgiving sins, then it is not Church. It might be Christians gathered to do something together, but it’s not the Church, because the Church exists so that the Lord of the Church might forgive the sins of her members.
And so you are here today, as always, to have your sins forgiven. If you don’t have any sins to be forgiven, then you don’t need to be here. We may learn things, we may have our faith fed by God’s Word, we may study the Scriptures together and be taught what God requires of us as His people, but above all you and I have been gathered by God’s Holy Spirit to hear His absolving Word. It is a life-giving Word, a life-sustaining Word, a promising Word that actually, here and now, forgives your sins. “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18, ESV). Faith and forgiveness: God the Father, by the power of the Holy Spirit, has given you faith to trust that Jesus alone is your hope and salvation. This is the faith that brings you in holy sorrow before the altar of God. This is the faith that has been given to little ones, little both in age and heart. This is the faith that the Church feeds as it teaches the baptized to keep everything that Jesus commanded. And it is the faith that receives in full confidence the Jesus who gathers His people into His House week by week, year by year, generation by generation: His House where He has promised to be present among you, His people, in order to forgive your sins. He has loosed you from the devil so that He can bind you ever closer to Himself. So turn, empty-handed ones! God will fill your emptiness with the life of His Son! You can cut off both your hands and both your feet, pluck out both your eyes, but it is your heart that needs to be new. Come to your God, and He will put in you a new heart: a heart of flesh and not of stone! Come, He has gathered you here; your sins are forgiven; go and do likewise.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 9/3/08