Date: February 13, 1938
Prayer for Pardon and Strength
God of all comfort and compassion:
Our faith looks confidently to Thee, beseeching Thy goodness in the name of Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Savior, not for creature comforts, wealth, and a frictionless life, not even for the removal of adversities if they, stifling our pride, help to keep us close to Thee. Instead, we implore Thee, dear Lord, by the promise of Thy merciful Son: Enter not into judgment with Thy servants, but grant us pardon through the all-sufficient grace of the Lord Jesus. We remember with sadness that we have repeatedly yielded to degrading impulses; that instead of overcoming sin, we have been overcome by its seduction; that we have often chosen selfish ease and preferred unholy ambitions. In the misery of our guilt we turn to Thee and plead: O Father, pity us! Forgive us for Jesus’ sake! Create clean hearts and renew a right spirit within us. Deliver our souls from the bondage of unchaste desires, turn our thoughts from the sinful pleasures that war against our happiness, remove all insincerity and doubleness of heart! Thus strengthened by Thy Spirit, supported by Thy guiding Word and Sacraments, reinforced by answered prayers, let us live in self-forgetting service to Thee and our neighbors, building every hope on the immovable foundation of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whose name we have come before Thee! Amen.
My grace is sufficient for thee; for My strength is made perfect in weakness. – 2 Corinthians 12:9
LAST week a Pennsylvania listener wrote an unsigned letter of protest. “Why don’t you forget the bleeding Christ?” he demanded. “It’s always the blood, the blood, the blood. Give us something besides your childish faith and hopeless superstition to meet practical needs.”
Ordinarily we pay no attention to unsigned letters; for the man who hides behind anonymity has a rodent mind. Like the rat he works in the dark and flees the light. This nameless letter, like most of its kind, bristled with vulgarities; for the farther people turn from Christ, the more nasty their thoughts and repulsive their words. However, since this unnamed Pennsylvanian, in denying that Christ offers help for the needs of our disquieted day, speaks the mind of sixty, seventy, eighty million people in this country who are without Christ or against Christ, I want to answer these charges.
Now, we could challenge those who sneer at Jesus by demanding: “Where can you find any practical help without Christ or against His Word?” We might ask these self-confident individuals who think that they know much more than the ageless, deathless truth of Scripture to produce a single ray of promise for the murk and fog in which millions are groping. The years that have witnessed the most notable social and scientific advance in our history see more broken hearts, wrecked lives, souls in turmoil and anguish than any other age.
Instead of issuing these counter-challenges, we formally serve notice that this broadcast will continue to proclaim Christ, and Him crucified. With this resolution we stand in good company. We are shoulder to shoulder with Paul of Tarsus, who answered the unbelief of his day by saying: “I determined not to know anything among you save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” We stand side by side with Martin Luther, who never began nor concluded a day in his life, a sermon in his pulpit, a page in his voluminous writings, without committing himself to Christ and without testifying to the cross and the blood. We march together abreast with thousands of Christian preachers in this country to whom we express our deep-seated gratitude for their ringing testimony to the salvation which is in Christ Jesus.
With the apostle we repeat the pledge, “God forbid that I should glory save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Before that message of the redeeming blood and the atoning death is hushed, compromised, side-tracked, let the towers high above this campus be pulled down, let this station be destroyed, let our lips be sealed forever. Only in loyalty to Christ—and I mean the true, Scriptural Christ, the Savior of the cleansing blood and the life-giving death—can we find any satisfying answer to the perplexities that today rush in to overpower us. While the blessings of Christ center in the eternity of heaven; while Christ is first of all concerned about our souls and their salvation, He also brings the practical, everyday help which many of you have vainly sought elsewhere. Speaking to those who ask: “What can your Christ give us for our discouragement and distress?” I answer:
We find that promise in these words of the Savior to Saint Paul (2 Corinthians 12:9): “My grace is sufficient for thee, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”
THE BLESSINGS OF CHRIST’S PLENTEOUS GRACE
This promise was given in a moment of great anguish, when the distracted apostle suffered in soul and in body from the thorn in his flesh. Whatever the much-discussed affliction was, malaria, as it seems to me, or eye trouble, epilepsy, or even more devastating diseases, as others have concluded, Saint Paul turned to Christ, beseeching Him that this thorn, ripping and tearing his peace, might be removed. Three times he besought his Lord, just as the Savior Himself had prayed thrice in the Garden: “O My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me.” Yet as Christ was to drink the cup of His suffering to the dregs of death, so Saint Paul’s affliction was to continue; the thorn was not to be removed; he was to live in perpetual pain.
In this continuance of His suffering we find what often seems the hardest part of Christianity. It does not do just what people want, when they want it, and in the way they want it. That is the trouble with prayer, we are told. You need God’s help, you beseech Him on bended knees; but the thorn in your flesh remains. That is the trouble with Christ, they tell us. You expect Him to say “Yes,” and He says “No.” You ask for light, but you are kept in darkness. You go to Christ for money, and you sometimes lose even the little you have.
Many of you are torn by a thorn in your flesh. It need not be the cutting spines of sickness, although there is plenty of that in our homes, with patients bedfast thirtyfive, forty, forty-five years, with sufferers who have undergone twenty-three operations, with broken limbs that refuse to mend, raging fevers that will not subside, greedy diseases that consume your flesh and bones. Your thorn in the flesh may be a bleeding mind, torn by quarrel and hatred, broken peace in your home, blasted ambitions in your life. Your thorn in the flesh may be the suffering that in this day of controlled production and lavish overproduction keeps 40,000,000 of our fellow-countrymen perilously poised over the chasm of complete poverty and destitution, without enough to live properly, to clothe themselves adequately, to eat the right kind of food, and to sleep in the right kind of houses. And now comes the factor in our faith that short-sighted human vision cannot see nor our limited intellect understand. Sometimes when you approach God with your sorrows it seems as though Jesus never hears your prayer and that the thorn pierces even more deeply.
It would be much easier and certainly more attractive for this broadcast to join the imposing parade of those who in the name of religion promise everything but give nothing. I have before me the prospectus of a new cult in California. It offers to answer your dreams and ambitions for health, more poise and culture, success in your work, relief from the afflictions of life. All that one must do is check the items in this catalog of your wishes, and when you pay the prescribed fee, this new cult will tell you how your dreams may be fulfilled. In the same way widely applauded churchmen, forsaking their spiritual calling, furnishing financial graphs to their listeners instead of the Bible, the one chart of our faith and life, again promise to save us and our country by regulating money, controlling dollars, altering the Federal Reserve System, and financing us into new happiness. It is all a hopeless, dangerous delusion. When these schemes fail, as they always have and always will, a mass of discouraged men and women is left who have been robbed of their trust in God, since these promises were made in the name of Christ’s religion. Even if the glib, eloquent, enticing apostles of rosy optimism could carry through their program, how would the sorrows of a sick body, wounded heart, distressed soul, be removed by changes in our money standards or cured by legislative programs? I cannot sufficiently emphasize this foundation truth of Christian faith: Jesus Christ never issued, or authorized His followers to issue, any manifesto promising that He will remove the thorn in our flesh. Since the sharp crowns of death cut into His own “bleeding head and wounded”; since He told us that “the disciple is not above his Master”; “if they have persecuted Me, they will also persecute you”; since the summons into His kingdom is still accompanied by the demand “Take up thy cross and follow Me”; since His words before Pilate still ring clear after nineteen centuries: “My kingdom is not of this world,” how can we, without becoming disloyal to every principle of Christ’s faith, use this network to tantalize and betray the sufferers in this age of thorn-bearing by promising that Christ will painlessly extract the thorns scratching through their flesh and to their very souls?
While the thorns remain, Christ, great and good God that He is, does so much more than remove these sorrows that I never feel my own inadequacy as keenly as when I stand here and try to describe the healing, life-giving, hope-restoring, joy-sustaining power that comes with faith in Jesus. That Savior told the Apostle in effect: “Paul, don’t worry about the thorn; don’t be distracted by the pain that prods you incessantly. For I have something so glorious that you can forget your bleeding heart and body. I give you My grace, and ‘My grace is sufficient for thee.’ If you have My grace, nothing else is decisive in life; all problems are solved; all burdens lightened.”
How we thank God that it is given to us to repeat for questioning, discouraged men and women across the broad reaches of America this saving pronouncement of Christ: “My grace is sufficient” for you, for every one who comes to that Christ for forgiveness. As we ask the Holy Spirit of God to implant this pledge from Jesus’ own lips on your heart, stop to think of the indescribable riches involved in the short, much-used but often misunderstood word “grace.” You can find fifteen definitions for this word in your dictionaries, but when you speak of Jesus Christ and His grace, only one all-inclusive meaning remains: the unmerited love of that Savior for us despite our sinful hearts and lives; the unending devotion that existed before the foundation of the world and that will exist undiminished after this earth crumbles to pieces; the immeasurable compassion which brought Jesus from the realms of glory and the adoration of the angels to this vice-bound earth so that He might take my place and yours and, bearing our sins in His holy and sinless body, bring us back to God and bless us with the sure seal of our salvation. This grace of Christ is not a friendly interest, a condescending smile, a tolerant overlooking of human faults and frailties; it is the mightiest power in heaven and earth—the grace of His human birth, the grace of His life of love and service, the grace of His suffering, wounding, bleeding, dying, the grace that promises our souls everything, yet for our salvation demands nothing, that is all Christ’s and in no part ours.
Once you have this mercy, you know that the God who loved you and who spared not His own Son will watch over your life every minute that you live, always directing your destiny to high and holy ends. His mercy may permit that thorn to remain in your flesh,—for just as the apostle was not relieved of suffering so that he might be kept humble and untainted by self-glory and the delusion of his own importance, so God lets some of us stagger along the road of suffering to make us retain the sense of our own weakness and our dependence upon Him, to help us turn a stern face from self-applause and all thoughts of our own righteousness.
For a dozen other reasons the painful thorn may continue to lacerate you. How many have not found Christ while on their sickbeds! On New Year’s Day of this year, in the leper colony of Culion, Philippine Islands, a victim of that most loathsome disease rose to say: “I thank God Almighty for having made me a leper because in this place I found my Lord and my Redeemer. I have tried to find joy, peace, and contentment from what the world has to offer, but all ended in bitter disappointment. In Jesus I have found my salvation and real contentment.” How many there are in this audience who, when they had money and friends in the warm and reassuring days of prosperity thought that they did not need Christ, but who learned to bow before Him in the dark and bitter days! How many who, had their prayers for material gain been answered, would have joined the army of scoffers, boasting as David once did, “In my prosperity I said, I shall never be moved.”
Repeat this verse with me now: “My grace is sufficient for thee,” and believe, in spite of all unholy denials, that this blood-sealed grace is sufficient for all of us with all our sins, with all our sorrows. If you have nothing else in life; if you are destitute, sick, friendless, once Christ is yours in contrite, trusting, victorious faith, His grace is so penetrating, His companionship so unmistakable, that you will never be alone. With Him at your side who promised, “I am with you alway,” you can forget the numb, aching pain that besieges your heart and overshadows your life. If you need comfort when the doctor shakes his head, turn to the heavenly Physician! He may or He may not heal your disease-ridden body; but His all-sufficient grace will restore your soul. If you in the dust-bowl of our great Southwest, seeing the topsoil blown away from your farmlands, are filled with dread foreboding that you may be entering another year of drought, crop failure, and dust-storms, let Christ say to your hearts, “My grace is sufficient for thee,” and know that Jesus may or may not (whichever is better for you) give you a bounteous harvest this year, but that above all uncertainty His glorious grace will guard your precious soul,—the priceless treasure which will live in endless eternity after this body falls victim to the gruesomeness of the grave.
Particularly if you are troubled by sin,—and I mean the personal and private wrongs that disturb and distress you daily as they continually lash your conscience,—remember the promise of plenteous grace. No sin is ever so degrading and repulsive that it cannot be removed by the mercy of God in Jesus. Christ forgave the disloyalty of Peter when that unfaithful disciple cursed and denied Him; and today He will forgive those of you who once were His but who turned away in unbelief and ingratitude. That boundless grace pleaded on the cross, “Father, forgive them,” just as Jesus, our High Priest, will plead before the throne of eternal justice for you who by your sins and godlessness are crucifying Him anew, if only, as you hear Him call, you will come to Him in faith. That limitless love would have forgiven Judas had he sought pardon in repentance and faith. Oh, may none of you think that you are excluded, that you have sinned too often and too much, too grievously and too blasphemously, to be blessed through contrite trust in Christ. There are millions of acres beneath our feet on which all the sons of men can live and move. Our shores are washed by mighty oceans with endless seas and unplumbed depths. Above us are the vast reservoirs of the atmosphere, with air in overabundance for man and beast. Yet in comparison with the grace of Christ these pictures of land and sea and air, as limitless as they seem to us, pale into microscopic puniness. Greater than the sun or the superstars in our heaven, wider than the immeasurable reaches of the universe, with its uncounted galaxies, more inexhaustible even than endless eternity, is the mercy of Christ, assuring those who are His that for the problems of this life and especially the next “My grace is sufficient for thee.”
THE STRENGTH OF THIS PLENTEOUS GRACE
That grace shows its power in strengthening lives that are built on Christ. Jesus gave Saint Paul the added assurance, “My strength is made perfect in weakness”; and with that pledge the apostle, still bearing the thorn in his flesh, exulted, “When I am weak, then am I strong.”
To the human mind all this is a hopeless contradiction. In a day when, it seems, almost every week brings us a new dictator; when the hue and cry is for more military sea and air power, American churches must pay more attention to spiritual unpreparedness than to naval ratios, for millions of Americans are not ready for suffering. Lacking all religious foundation, they could never endure the rigors and privations that have engulfed European nations.
There may be dread days before us in which our country will be tried as never previously. This is not pessimism; for conservative statesmen have expressed this fear. If the world must pay for its sin, must we not pay our part? Is there any reason this nation should be exempted from the suffering and trials that others have experienced? Is America morally better than other nations today? In a superior court of the Chicago district a chief justice recently announced, after dropping hundreds of inactive divorce cases, that his court would have to hear 150 cases a day on a docket that ultimately would reach 15,000 trials for that area alone, a figure paralleled only by atheistic Russia. Is the crime record of the United States any better than that of other civilized nations? Our Department of Justice in Washington admits that we have proportionately twice as many murders as Great Britain. Who can face these facts without realizing that bitter, bleeding days may come upon us?
Even if all these calamities are averted; if our statesmen could plan and control the yield of our farms and orchards; if they could secure for us an ever normal supply of food and a permanently profitable price for our commodities; if capital and labor could join hands in cooperation instead of competition, all this could never answer the soul problems of our lives and solve those difficulties for which there is no human solution—the discouragement of sin, the distress of adversity. It is the glory of the Christian creed, on the other hand, that, while it does not offer ease, wealth, comfort, success, popularity, culture, exemption from life’s paralyzing hardships, Christ’s strength, made perfect in weakness, grants us the power to meet and defeat adversities, to find spiritual advantage in affliction.
Once you are Christ’s, your weakness, your disavowal of all power or ability in yourself, and your complete trust in Jesus proves to you how unlimited is God’s power. When we are nothing, when we empty ourselves of our pride and pretenses, then, through faith, Christ becomes everything and fills us with His grace, His glory, and the strength that can overcome all opposition as completely as a glacier pushes a pebble in its path.
On the campus of our Seminary the students have helped build a replica of the log-cabin seminary erected one hundred years ago by the Saxon pilgrim fathers of my Church. Exiling themselves from their homeland to worship God according to His Word and their Christian conscience in the New World, they were warned that there was no room on the North American Continent for the Christ and the Cross they preached; but God mightily proved His promise “My strength is made perfect in weakness.” That humble log cabin, a symbol of human weakness, developed, under God, into our present theological seminary, one of the largest of any denomination in the United States. It has a teaching staff of men who believe in the same Christ that I bring to you, with thousands of graduates throughout the United States living and working for the same Savior, all ready to help you come closer to that Jesus who works mightily in our weakness. Should not this graphic demonstration of divine power be a mighty challenge for all you messengers of the Word to preach Christ and the fulness of His grace? Even though you work in weakness, in small, unnoticed buildings, off the main street, with unapplauded loyalty, Christ can mightily bless your testimony.
Four hundred years ago, under the reign of Bloody Mary, John Hooper, bishop of Gloucester, England, was led to the stake because he had adhered loyally to Christ. When he mounted the faggots, his executioners brought iron chains and would have fastened him to the stake to prevent his running away when the flames would leap high to blacken his body. With heavenly heroism John Hooper told the soldiers, “God will give me power and strength to remain in the midst of the flames without these iron fetters. For although I am only weak and human, I trust in the Savior, who told me, ‘My strength is made perfect in weakness.’” If you have burned a finger, a hand, or an arm, think of that martyr for Christ, standing unshaken in the midst of those excruciating flames, strengthened in his weakness by the powerful grace of Christ, and praying confidently, “Lord Jesus, be merciful to me.” Think by contrast of the cowardice and suicide that makes a man of wealth destroy his life because a popcorn machine refuses to function. You want the faith of Bishop Hooper, do you not, the faith that leads us with all our weakness to the Christ of heavenly strength?
Because our young people especially face this problematic future, in which the greatest need is not human strength but Christ’s power “made perfect in weakness,” I appeal to the youth of the land, especially our Christian college students, who have unusual opportunities, under God, to exert a far greater influence than they may believe. At the beginning of the last century, as a consequence of fashionable unbelief in American intellectual life, only five students at Yale professed to be Christians; the rest glorified atheism and unbelief, calling each other “Voltaire,” “Rousseau,” and by other names of brazen infidels. Two years later, in 1802, a revival swept over Yale, and one third of the students were converted to Christ and one half of this group entered the ministry. Similar occurrences shook other schools, and the awakening spread from the colleges throughout the countryside. If only in these critical years the spirit of God will awaken in our universities leaders and trained minds that know and accept the message of the cleansing blood with its mighty power perfected in human weakness! If only we would take God at His word and all of us find in His grace the all-sufficient answer to our questions, the solution to our difficulties!
Yesterday’s anniversary reminded us that Abraham Lincoln, splitting rails in the backwoods of Illinois, is human weakness; but Abraham Lincoln as the President of the United States, molding the history of human freedom, declaring: “I am right, for Christ teaches it, and Christ is God,” is Christ’s strength perfected in that weakness. That power can be operative in your heart and life, so that without money, without great educational advantages, without far-reaching influence, you may be used mightily for the high purposes of our heavenly Father.
May God turn our hearts day by day in increasing love to the comfort, strength, peace, and usefulness that is ours when, kneeling in faith before Christ, He pledges us, as He now promises every one of you who come to Him: “My grace is sufficient for thee.” God grant it for the Savior’s sake! Amen.
Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.