Philip Jacob Spener was a pastor and theologian in the seventeenth century (the 1600s). He was born and raised during the Thirty Years War, when his homeland of Germany was devastated by fighting between Protestants and Roman Catholics following the Protestant Reformation of the Church that began with Martin Luther in the sixteenth century. Spener believed that the Church needed a second Reformation, turning away from so-called “dead orthodoxy” and focused on Christ-like living. Like many preachers from other times and other places, Spener said that Christian faith should be a matter of the heart and not a matter of the head.
Here is a quote from Spener’s “Pia Desideria”: Let us remember that in the last judgment we shall not be asked how learned we were and whether we displayed our learning before the world; to what extent we enjoyed the favor of men and knew how to keep it; with what honors we were exalted and how great a reputation in the world we left behind us; or how many treasures of earthly goods we amassed for our children and thereby drew a curse upon ourselves. Instead, we shall be asked how faithfully and with how childlike a heart we sought to further the kingdom of God; with how pure and godly a teaching and how worthy an example we tried to edify our hearers amid the scorn of the world, denial of self, taking up of the cross, and imitation of our Savior; with what zeal we opposed not only errors but also wickedness of life; or with want constancy and cheerfulness we endured the persecution or adversity thrust upon us by the manifestly godless world or by false brethren, and amid such suffering praised our God.”
Spener begins well. I might add that we will not be asked to prove to the Lord on Judgment Day that we were on the mailing list of a congregation. We will not be asked to produce our certificates of baptism and confirmation or the pins we earned for perfect Sunday School attendance. We will not be asked about the boards and committees on which we served in the congregation, or what classes we taught in the church, or about how many missionary journeys we took.
But what will be said about us on that Day? What does Jesus say? Jesus teaches, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven… Many will say to me on that Day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21-23) In the famous Judgment Day parable of Matthew 25: 31-46, Jesus separates the saved from the lost “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats”—in other words, quickly, efficiently, and with precision. He will compliment the righteous, saying to them, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the beginning of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat….” Preachers love to proclaim this parable, focusing on the good things Christians should be doing. But they overlook the fact that the righteous, those welcomed into heaven, do not remember doing those good things. They were not keeping score. Only God saw their good works; their attention was upon their Savior and not upon themselves. Therefore, Jesus speaks of blessing, of inheritance, of something prepared since creation, before any of us did anything, good or bad. Likewise, the ones rejected will not remember failing to serve their Lord. They were keeping score; they thought they had done enough to be welcomed into heaven. But Jesus indicates to them that one failure in their life was enough to bar them from eternal life in his kingdom.
Jesus also told a parable in which his kingdom is compared to a wedding reception, one hosted by a king, one to which all kinds of people were invited, people hanging out on the streets with nothing better to do, people who had done nothing to deserve a place at the party. Jesus continues, “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. ‘Friend,’ he asked, ‘how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot and throw him outside, into the darkness….’” (Matthew 22:11-13)
In the days when Jesus told this story, people invited to a fancy party like a wedding reception were also given a robe or gown to wear at the celebration. The man at the party who was not wearing his host’s gift wanted to be admired for his own clothing. As a result, he was thrown out of the party. He missed the celebration and spent the night in the parking lot. Jesus wants his followers to know that no one enters the kingdom of heaven because of the good things they did for God. Not only will learning and worldly honors not be enough; our best efforts to be pure and holy, to imitate our Savior, also will not be enough. Anyone who approaches the throne of judgment saying to the Judge and King, “Look what I did for you” will be told , “Go away; I never knew you.” But those who approach God reminding him what Jesus did—how Jesus lived a sinless life, sacrificed that life on the cross, and rose again from the dead—people who offer that reason to be welcome in God’s kingdom will receive the inheritance planned for them, the blessing of God that no one can earn but that all can possess as a gift from God.
Christians are not sinless. Often, they are no better than their unbelieving neighbors. But Christians are forgiven all their sins through the work of Christ. God’s forgiveness is not license to sin. God’s forgiveness begins the work of transforming believers into the image of Christ. But Christians do not study themselves and look for signs of the transformation. Christians study Christ and put all their faith in his promises and his work.
The wedding garment distributed by the host of the heavenly party is a white robe, the sinless life of Jesus. God sees us dressed in the righteousness of his Son and calls us his children. Through Holy Baptism we are clothed in Christ’s righteousness. Therefore, when God looks at a baptized believer, he sees Jesus and he says the same words that he said when Jesus was baptized: “This is my Son. This is the One I love. With this One I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).
The Church will always be afflicted with teachers and preachers who tell Christians to look at themselves, to measure their good works, to be assured of their place in heaven through the evidence of the godly things they do on earth. Our good works are signs to other people that we belong to God’s kingdom, but they are not signs to ourselves. We know our secret sins; we know our imperfections. We know that we are unworthy of God’s kingdom. But God has changed us. The work of Jesus has erased our sins, removing them from us as far as the east is from the west (an infinite distance). If we are asked if we have a reservation at the wedding celebration, we confidently say yes, knowing that God himself has written our names in the Book of Life. Our heads and our hearts are redeemed by Christ; our bodies and souls are guaranteed eternal life in a perfect world. When we set our hearts and minds on Christ, no doubt remains that the promises of God are true for us. J.