St. Paul is an apostle of the Lord, called by the Lord himself to be his messenger and witness to the nations. Yet, in Paul’s letter to the Romans he says that he struggles with sin (Romans 7:14-25a).
This man whom we look up to as a pillar of the New Testament Church still struggled with sin in his life. In Romans 7, Paul says that he knows the right thing to do, but he has trouble doing it. And he knows the wrong things to do, but he has trouble not doing them. He says that he is at war with himself, his spirit seeking the things of God but his fallen flesh pursuing sin.
So, you see that Paul, a saint of God and an apostle, still struggled with sin and was still pursued by evil, even though he was a faithful believer. It should not surprise us, then, that we still struggle with sin, even though we are Christians. If Paul felt that he was at war with himself, we should not be surprised that we also often feel the same way. Christians are also saints of God and his witnesses on earth, yet we are still in this fallen world and so sin and evil are still crouching at our door, seeking to devour us (cf. Genesis 4:7). And at times we will fall into it, just as Paul did.
What are we to do? Who will deliver us from this body of death? “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25a). It is Jesus who delivers us. Paul continues in chapter 8, saying, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2).
Now, warfare is hard work, especially to be at war with yourself. But, Jesus wins this war for us and gives us rest. In the Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
A yoke is used to hook animals up to a plow, and the animals attached to the yoke go wherever the plowman directs them.
There’s a similar thing going on with our own lives. When we are born into this world, we are enslaved to sin and death and the devil, because we are fallen creatures. St. Paul speaks of this also in his epistle to the Romans. Another way to say it is that when we are born, we are yoked to the devil’s plow, because that is the yoke to which the sin of Adam and Eve hitched us. And where does the devil lead us? He leads us to eternal death, plowing furrows of sin and decay and disorder. The devil drives us with the frenzy of someone who does not seek the good of the yoked creatures, but only his own pleasure and ends.
But, God has declared your independence from this domination. Through Jesus Christ, He has unyoked us from the devil’s yoke. But, what happens to animals who are unyoked? They may wander off, they may die, they may drift aimlessly, they may even be re-caught by their cruel master and re-yoked to his plow of death.
So, what does Christ do once he sets us free? He brings us to himself and yokes us to his plow. You see, there are only two states for us in this world; either we are yoked to the devil or we are yoked to Christ. There is no intermediate step, there is no decision one way or the other, there is no middle ground. In our relationship with God, we are either still yoked to the devil and subject to the eternal death that he sows, or we are yoked to Christ.
And you hear Christ say in Matthew’s Gospel that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. He is as a kind plowman who plows with concern for those who are yoked to him. He leads us gently, with concern for us – his creatures – and with a light burden. He guides us along the furrows he has surveyed, and so we plow goodness and mercy in this world, because of our gracious plowman.
As Lutherans, we often talk about how our good works flow from our faith. Maybe this image of the plow and the yoked creatures helps drive that home. Those yoked to the plow go where their master leads them. So, we, as those who are yoked to Christ, go where he leads us. St. Paul says it in Ephesians, where he writes: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10). We are Christ’s and we walk in the paths which he has drawn out for us.
Yet, creatures on a plowman’s yoke sometimes stumble and sometimes stray. And so the plowman has to direct them back to their proper path. Likewise, we who Christ has yoked to himself, may stumble and stray. But, there is always Christ, bringing us back to the proper path.
He does so through the Law. God’s Law rebukes us. It reveals us as the sinners we are. It shows us that we stray from God and from His holy will for our lives. It shows us when we are off the path that God wills for us. It shows us when we are not walking as we ought.
Then, the Gospel speaks God’s word of forgiveness through Christ. It says that although we are at war with sin, the devil, and our very own sinful flesh that Christ has already won this war for us. He has already won our independence from sin, death, the devil, and even our own fallen flesh which war against us. So, now we are yoked to Christ and where he is heading. The Law shows us our errors, and the Gospel gives us Christ’s forgiveness and brings us back to the path he has laid out for us.
And where Christ is leading us is eternal life with us and eternal peace from this warfare. His is the blood of the covenant spoken of in Zechariah, the one who sets us free and brings us to himself (cf. Zechariah 9:9-12).
God himself has done all this for us. He brings us to faith in Christ and keeps us in faith. St. Paul says it in Ephesians: “… by grace you have been saved through faith… this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (cf. Ephesians 2:8-10).
And Jesus says the same thing in Matthew, that his Gospel is hidden from the wise and understanding and revealed to little children (Matthew 11:25-27). The Gospel is not something that our fallen reason can find or fathom; it must be revealed to us, just like how fathers reveal truth to their children who can not quite understand it, but take it on faith. Christians are the children of God to whom Christ has revealed God to us. We have been freed and brought to faith to that we may be Christ’s people, and he bears our burdens for us.
So, we can be sure that our salvation is certain. We don’t have to strive to earn it. We don’t have to struggle to defeat sin, death, the devil, and our own sinful flesh ourselves. Christ has already done all this for us. He’s already delivered us, just as he delivered Paul and all the other saints of the Old and New Testament with whom we are joined because of Christ.
That’s what it means to be the Church; we are Christ’s people, yoked to him and to each other, and walking in the paths in which he guides us. We are still sinners in this life and still at war with our own flesh and still stumble and fall at times, but Christ has already won the war and continually corrects and guides us. We are both saints and sinners at the same time in this life.
The enemies of God’s good creation – sin, death, and the devil – are still lashing out at God’s people, but these are lashes of desperation because they’ve already lost. Christ has won the war, and we await his glorious return when we will finally rest from the battle and receive our crowns of victory which he has won for us; and, we will no longer battle sin and no longer be at war with ourselves, but will be perfectly restored, along with the rest of creation. Christ has reconciled us to God, us to each other, us to creation, and us to ourselves as well. And when he returns this will be perfectly completed and we will just be saints forever.
(Image of St. Paul by Andrea di Bartolo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAndrea_Di_Bartolo_-_St_Paul_-_WGA00420.jpg)