Life’s Searching Inquiry and Its Sovereign Solution

Date: October 30, 1930

What must I do to be saved? And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.Acts 16:30-31

TOMORROW, on the thirty-first of October, Christians throughout the world will pause to pay their tribute to the greatest event in the affairs of men since the days of our Lord and His apostles—the beginning of that tremendous and far-reaching upheaval which history calls the Reformation. Yet, while the new and happy order which this movement inaugurated has led recognized historians of all subsequent centuries to acknowledge in the most striking terms the civil, cultural, and social blessings which Luther helped to restore to the world; while we, as Americans, should gratefully concur in the words of an eminent modern authority in political science: “The idea of legally establishing inalienable, inherent, and sacred rights of the individual is . . . in reality the fruit of the Reformation and its struggle,” we pause tonight to remind ourselves that the real and fundamental contribution of the Reformation, which completely overshadows every other issue, the one power from which all of its political and temporal blessings have come, is this, that the work of Martin Luther reemphasized the one and only correct answer to life’s great question, “What must I do to be saved?”

It was a startling incident that provoked this question of our text. Paul and Silas, the intrepid preachers of their crucified Lord, were on the threshold of their conquest of Europe, at the very beginning of their incursion into the selfish philosophies and the destructive vices that marked the decaying paganism of Greece. At Philippi, the frontier city of Macedonia, their campaign for Christ made its inauspicious start. Attacking the superstitious and selfish practises of that city, their preaching excited a riot of such proportions that they were beaten, and, bleeding and exhausted, thrown into the public prison. In the silence of that midnight, while Paul and Silas, locked in the inner prison, their feet clamped into stocks, prayed and in the pain of that hour sang praises to God, a reverberating earthquake shook the very foundations of the prison with such force that the doors were opened and their bands loosened. The bewildered jailer, concerned about the punishment that would follow upon the escape of the prisoners, saw no other release from this catastrophe than suicide. In the crisis of that moment the two prisoners suddenly appeared before him to dissuade him from his course of self-annihilation. And then it was that the question of our text was spoken; for, overcome by this exhibition of divine power, all a-tremble at this startling phenomenon, that prison warden cried out, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”


Probably there are some in the far-flung reaches of our country who have just heard the immortal inquiry of that jailer at Philippi and who cannot agree that it is the question of questions, the paramount issue of human life. Undoubtedly there are some who object that they do not need to be saved, some who follow a lavishly publicized sociologist in the eastern part of our country, who asserts that sin is out of date and that the preaching of the message of sin and salvation is but a relic of a superstitious age by which the Church wields a tyrannical control over the lives of its followers. With this convenient philosophy of life proclaimed with increasing insistence, we can understand why there has been a pronounced growth in the number of those who live on in smug self-satisfaction, so entirely engrossed in the pursuit of money and pleasure, so completely self-centered in their desires and ambitions, that they have little time and less interest to ask themselves what they must do to be saved, especially when they entertain the very definite conviction that they do not need to be saved.

But what does the Bible say? Here is just one of a long series of indictments which come, not from man and his faulty and inconsistent opinion, but from God and His holy, infallible Word, “There is not a just man upon earth that doeth good and sinneth not.” No exceptions, no limitations, in this sweeping, unreserved statement of human depravity!

How decisively, too, does the voice of human experience of all lands and ages rise up to show this naked, ugly, damning reality of sin! How does it happen when national disasters sweep over a country, leaving death and destruction in their paths, that people who have lived on day after day and year after year, utterly unconcerned about their moral and spiritual condition, at once begin to think of their souls, of the hereafter, and of the inevitable reckoning that, they know, awaits every one of us? Why is it that, when there is a catastrophe on the high seas, men and women whose whole lives may have been expressions of careless or studied indifference toward religion kneel down and pray to God for forgiveness and for His mercy? Why is it that proud infidels and blasphemous scoffers who have delighted in standing up before large audiences and challenging God to strike them down dead have ended in the most dismal sort of despair? Why all this, if not because, as St. Paul definitely emphasizes, there is within every one of us a conscience, that silent, yet relentless monitor, which heaps up before us all the long catalog of sins with which human life abounds, the sins of greed and envy, of impurity and lust, of hatred and brutality, of anger and pride,—the conscience that reechoes into man’s innermost soul the thunder of the judgment of God’s Word, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die!”? Let the apostles of this improved and advanced age of which we read and hear so much ridicule and reject the fact of sin; every honest person listening in tonight who probes deep down into the hidden recesses of his own heart will find so much of sin and wrong, so much that is impure and selfish, so much that is black and damning, that, instead of insisting upon the alleged moral greatness of the human race, he will cry out when faced by the stem and inexorable demands of a just and holy God: “Enter not into judgment with Thy servant; for in Thy sight shall no man living be justified.”


So throughout the ages if there has been one effort and one pursuit that has been shared by men of every century, color, and clime, from the very cradle days of humanity down to the stupendous wonders of the marvelous age in which we live, it has been the quest for a soul­ satisfying answer to tonight’s question, “What must I do to be saved?” You can cross the seas and join the excavators in Egypt and find in the lavish splendor and the sepulchral glory of Tutankhamen, amid all its gold and precious stones, traces of the puny, pathetic efforts of this monarch to save himself in the eternity for which his embalmed mummy was to prepare him, by the payment of the fare required to transport his soul to the other side. You can go over to Babylonia and Assyria, where archeologists are revealing the ruins of a dim and hoary past, and in the long list of sacrifices, in the prayers even to unknown gods and goddesses, in the penitential hymns, in their almost superhuman efforts to appease the wrath of their many and conflicting gods and spirits, you will see again how humanity has been led to adopt hopeless extremes in the effort to find a satisfying solution for this insistent question. You can cross over to Palestine and here, as a tragic climax, you can find in the ruins of the old Canaanite civilization brutal and bloody evidences of that most hideous of perversions, the slaughter of innocent children, sacrificed to Moloch, in the desperate effort to secure a release from sin and the assurance of forgiveness.

We sweep over the centuries tonight, and we see that in spite of all the remarkable and God-given advances that have made modern life so attractive and our existence so pleasant, humanity of itself still answers this question, “What must I do to be saved?” by dedicating its hopes and its efforts to the impossible, the delusion that it can and must earn its own salvation. To illustrate that, I need not direct your attention tonight to the misguided millions in India, who think that they can earn a blessed hereafter by holding up their right arm until it withers in its socket or by reposing on a bed of piercing nails or by crushing out their lives beneath the car of Juggernaut; I need not picture to you the anguish of China’s millions who hasten to temples of five hundred decaying gods, shoot off firecrackers, and ring bronze gongs, so that these sleeping idols may rouse themselves from their stupor long enough to tell the worshipers just what they must do, what penance they must perform, and what ceremonies they must undergo in order to secure the remission of their sins.

We can pass by all this and come to the more tragic, if ever so much more refined, situation of those in our own enlightened country and in this superintellectual age who still think that some effort on their part is necessary, that some sacrifice, some contribution, some ceremony, some form of what we call “good works,” is imperative to meet God’s demands and to quiet an insistent conscience. And so, avoiding the stupidity of heathendom and the brutality of their sacrifices, we find that today “salvation by character” is the suave, modern form of this age-old delusion; we find that for the blood of rams and bullocks people are substituting donations and bank checks; that for penances and self-inflicted punishments men offer an act of charity here and the support of some commendable enterprise there, so that the conscious or unconscious answer to our question, “What must I do to be saved?” is, “I must save myself.” Even church-members sometimes like to lull themselves into a false sense of security by thinking that their very acts of worship and their support of the Church’s activity is something which, as it were, is to be credited to their account in the ledger of the Book of Life. The result is that “Deeds, not creeds!” is the watchword of uncounted multitudes in our country today—multitudes that are destined to experience in their own lives that dark and dismal failure of every attempt to purchase heaven with human effort and accomplishment to which Micah of old testifies as he asks: “Wherewithal shall I come before the Lord and bow myself before the high God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams or with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgressions, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

Micah leaves this series of questions unanswered, for they answer themselves and tell us with deadly finality that all that we can do and say, the most lofty sentiments that we can express, the most arduous tasks that we can perform, the most signal services that we can render humanity, all of these together, accompanied by a lifetime of remorse and penance and self-inflicted punishment, cannot atone for a single violation of the rigid rule of right. For in humanity at its best there is not only a tragic inability to win the recognition of God, but also is a natural inclination to sin and wrong.


No wonder, then, that the Church will pause tomorrow to pay its tribute to Luther’s restoration of the one and only complete answer to this supreme question and to tell the world that today, after nineteen hundred years, it is only the immortal answer given to that conscience-stricken, light-seeking jailer at Philippi, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ,” that holds out to us the ever-satisfying, never­disappointing solution to the problem of sin and the terror of resultant death.

Remember, as Luther has repeatedly emphasized, God does not tell you who are troubled by your sins that your salvation depends upon anything that you of yourself can do or say, pledge or promise, pay or perform. He does not tell you to earn your salvation, to purchase its bounty, or to acquire its blessings by fastings and pilgrimages, by flagellations and self-inflicted tortures. He does not hold out heaven as a reward for the best that you can offer, as a compensation for the most austere and self-effacing penance to which you may subject yourself. But, thank God, in the highest and holiest love of which men have ever heard or can hear, Heaven’s answer to this universal plea, “What must I do to be saved?” is still the same free, unreserved, unconditional o:ffer of merciful compassion, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Accept Him as your full and complete Savior. Trust Him as the Friend of friends, who in that dark, dismal God-forsakenness of Golgotha laid down His divine life for you.

It was this assurance that dawned in the heart of the great Reformer when he read these words of golden truth: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the Law,”—the assurance that, if you and I today “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ”; if you and I confidently rest our assurance for time and for eternity upon the all-sufficient atonement of our Savior, whereby He, the Holy One, “who knew no sin, became sin for us”; if we thus believe that He took upon Himself in His own holy body all the sins that have disfigured the lives of humanity’s billions,—then we have the assurance that we are saved and that, though our “sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool,” through the inestimable, immeasurable love of the Christ of God, who died that we might live and who rose again to seal unto us the assurance of this forgiveness.

Tonight, then, as these words are wafted out into the ether to all sections of our nation and as we hear this question, “What must I do to be saved?” may we answer:

My hope is built on nothing less

Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;

I dare not trust the sweetest frame,

But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;

All other ground is sinking sand.

It is only this firm assurance that we are saved by grace, pure, free, unlimited, all-embracing grace, and not by any contribution on our part, be it ever so small and insignificant, that offers the secret of a happy and satisfying existence. If among those who hear these words tonight there are some who have thoroughly assimilated the spirit of our age and believe that the world is quite all right as it is and that they themselves are probably just a little better than their fellow-men; if there should be some who feel the restlessness and insistence of a prodding conscience; some who are troubled with the failures and shortcomings of their lives and want something fast and firm and unshaken upon which they can rebuild and reshape their careers; or again, if there should be some who are definitely troubled by the conviction of special, repeated, and depressing sins; some who in the torment of their souls cry out in the words of the great apostle, “O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”—may they not let this night pass without coming before their God with a full and unreserved admission of their own unworthiness, but with the courageous conviction that we are “justified freely by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Amen.

Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.