“I cannot by my own reason or strength…” This is how the explanation to the Third Article begins. It is a reminder that faith and salvation are works of God. Faith is a gift. Salvation is a gift. Whether one is a postmodern, a pagan, power lifter, or a polytheist, God works the same—by his Spirit, through His Word, to bring one to faith in Jesus Christ.
“I cannot by my own reason or strength…” It is a phrase that follows me around today. My vocations abound—child of God, a son of my parents, a brother, a husband, a father of three (with a fourth soon to arrive), a pastor, and neighbor. Time is always short. There is much to do.
Living in a fallen and broken world is not easy. My sins afflict me, Satan assails me, life burdens me, and tragedies test me. Not by my own reason or strength do I stay whole, healthy or hopeful. In fact, left to oneself, life can beat all the hope and all the strength right out of a person.
I used to think I was pretty strong. I played football in college. I had a 350 pound bench press, a 550 pound squat, and I ate quarterbacks for lunch.
In fact, my younger brother Matt and I played college ball together, racing each other to see who would get to the quarterback first. I was All Conference. Matt was All American.
From little on we played football, baseball, and basketball together. We hunted, fished, fought, and ate together. Only 18 months apart, we did everything together. He was my best man in my wedding, I preached at his. We even gave our parents their first grandkids on the same day, both girls—Maddie and Isabella. His wife (Lora) was late; mine (Becca) was early.
Then came December 30, 2004. Christmas was at our house. I was serving First Immanuel Lutheran Church in Cedarburg, Wisconsin at the time. My mom and dad were driving over from Minnesota. My youngest brother, Joshua, now a proud United States Marine, was coming from North Carolina. Matt and Lora (pregnant with their second child), and one-year-old Maddie, were also driving over from Minnesota. This day was also their four year wedding anniversary.
I had taken the day off from work. Becca had taken Bella to get some groceries. I was home alone. The phone rang. It was Lora’s mom. “There was an accident.” Maddie was O.K. Lora was badly broken up and loosing the baby. “Matt, didn’t make it…”
The highway was covered in ice. They spun out. The car crossed the median. They had time to say, “I love you… Goodbye…” Then Matt intentionally turned the car so he would take the direct hit from the oncoming car. He died instantly.
Not by my own reason or strength could I bear up under the absolute devastation and utter outrage. Bench presses and squats didn’t mean a thing. They gave no comfort. They offered no strength. Tough guys don’t cry. I wept bitterly. Despair set in. Not by own reason or strength did I have any hope.
Our home pastor did—not by his own reason or strength, but by the Lord’s. He proclaimed it boldly at the funeral. Family and friends gathered to listen and be “enlightened” by the Holy Spirit. I have listened, read, and reread that sermon countless times:
“When you and I realize that no human words will suffice, we turn to the Word. We turn to the Word of God on the page before us. We turn to the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. In the psalms, God lets us know that we don’t have to use any words at all: “Be still and know that I am God.” And we know that the only way we can get through this is to turn to that Word, that solid rock, that sure foundation, our King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And we must. If Matt Woodford had one thing written upon his heart, it was this, his favorite verse: “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13).
This man is a preacher of the Gospel! He went on to proclaim there was hope even in the midst of this misery and death. He was clear. This hope came through Christ. In Him there is strength, in Him there is the resurrection!
Not by my own reason or strength could I bear up under such sorrow and grief. The vocation of my pastor gave me a living hope. He spoke solace into my ears, and into all those listening—including my parents, who were burying a second child far too young. (The story of my sister’s death is for another time.)
It was not by my pastor’s own reason or strength, but “Through Him who gives us strength.” The Spirit of Christ brought comfort to our lives, just as He brought my brother Matt to the comfort of eternal life, and promises him, and all believers, the resurrection of the body.
The Holy Spirit “calls, gathers and enlightens” by the Gospel, so that we can boldly believe and boldly confess, I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, and the resurrection of the body, here in time, and on into eternity.
It doesn’t matter what age we are in—postmodern, post-church, or pagan—the human predicament is always the same. Our lives are broken by sin and our bodies are broken by death. But yet the good news is also that it doesn’t matter what age we are in—postmodern, post-church, or pagan—the Holy Spirit, through the Word of God, is always powerful, effective, and forgiving. “I cannot by my own reason or strength” speaks across time, through postmodern ears and “Google” oriented eyes, and into sinful hearts, and it resoundingly declares that it is “Christ who gives you strength.”
This, dear friends, is the mission of the church.