Keeping the Faith While Looking at Death
October 27, 2019, Pastor Kurt Lantz
Dear beloved children,
“Grace, mercy, and peace, from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.”
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). These words, of the last that St. Paul wrote to Timothy, are committed to memory by many Christians who hope to bring them to mind with conviction at their last days. They seem such fitting words to remember for those who are about to die. But can we say them with conviction and with a clear conscience, not guilty of embellishment or exaggeration? Can we confidently believe them, declaring that we have been the faithful soldier of the cross, the enduring athlete in the contest of faith, the hard-working farmer who deserves to partake first of the harvest?
“I have fought the good fight.” If that means, as Paul indicated in chapter 2(:3-4), that I have steadfastly had this spiritual battle in the forefront of my mind throughout my life, and not gotten entangled with civilian pursuits, then I have not fought very well at all. There have been a lot of civilian pursuits that have occupied my thoughts and efforts. I have been distracted by many things: money, pride, power, family. I have mixed up my priorities and not kept God, faith, and salvation at the top of my mind. I did not always fight the good fight well and surrendered often.
“I have finished the race.” If that means, as Paul indicated in chapter 2(:5), that I have always competed according to the rules, then I guess I forfeit. Even in the race of faith I have turned away because of the obstacles that were in my path, preferring to take an easy route around them, out of my lane, rather than have to jump all the hurdles. I am reminded of the marathon runner who started the race and a few blocks down the road veered off into the crowd in order to take a taxi before slipping back onto the course near the finish line. We try to live our life of faith much like that. We begin with good fervor but slip out for a while in hopes of slipping back in again near the finish.
“I have kept the faith.” If that means, as Paul indicated in chapter 2(:6), that I have been a hard-working farmer, toiling through the growing season in order that a good crop may be of benefit to all, then I must confess that I have worked no harder than I thought necessary. I have not kept in mind that my toil is also for the benefit of others. So I have slacked off when I felt I had done enough for myself. I only sought to store up enough to get me through my winter of hard times, and not thought about any extra effort in order to get others through their dark days.
“I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.” Is it a bit of exaggeration, an outright lie, a death row delusion? That would be the only conclusion we could draw if there hadn’t been a reformation in the sixteenth century led by Martin Luther. Without the reformation to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ again to the front and centre of the church’s teaching, without highlighting that we saved by grace through faith apart from the works of the law (Romans 3:28; Ephesians 2:8-9), our only hope would be to exaggerate and hope that God went along with it; or lie and hope that He does not really know the truth; or confess that it is all untrue and dream up some place to go after death to give us a second chance to fight the good fight and finish the race, a place of purgatory. We could sell indulgences, and have works of supererogation, a treasury of merits of the saints that I could buy or earn. It would all have to be necessary for me to ever hope to have kept the faith.
It is the Gospel that saved St. Paul from either being a liar or from setting an impossible standard for Timothy or any of us to live up to. The Gospel saves the soldiers who haven’t always fought well. The Gospel gives the victory to the athletes who couldn’t stay in their lane. The Gospel gives the harvest to those who did not always toil to keep the faith. And St. Paul, in his dying days, could only see himself in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. His second epistle to Timothy is full of Gospel and it is only with this understanding that Timothy can find encouragement to fight the good fight, to finish the race, and to keep the faith. It is only with the understanding of the Gospel that we can do the same and not despair at the hour of our death.
Paul knew that his departure from this life was near. He saw himself being poured out like a drink offering (4:6). The wine that was poured out along with the Old Testament sacrifices was not an offering for sin in itself. It accompanied that offering of the actual sacrifice of an animal’s life. So St. Paul never saw his own life as a sacrificial offering for his sins, in order to atone for them or to pay for God’s forgiveness. He knew that Jesus’ death upon the cross was the full payment for the sins of the whole world, and so definitely for his own sins, and most definitely for yours also. His statement about being poured out like a drink offering confesses that Paul believed Jesus’ life was the only sacrifice for sin, and that his own life, his sufferings for the sake of the Gospel, were an accompaniment to the one atoning sacrifice of Christ.
It is only with this understanding of his life being conjoined to the sacrifice of Jesus, that he could say, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.” It was not because of what he had done, but because he knew what Jesus had done for him and that he was united to Christ, as he confessed in his letter to the Romans: “We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His” (Romans 6:4-5).
Paul, having kept the faith, meant that he believed he was forgiven for not always being a good soldier, and not always running the course. It meant that he believed that the Lord would award him a crown of righteousness, not because of his own performance, but because of Christ Jesus. That is the only way the victory could be awarded to him and the judge still be the righteous Judge. And therefore the victorious crown also awaits all those who have loved the appearing of our Lord Jesus, “who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man, who was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate” (Nicene Creed).
We see our sinfulness in those companions of Paul that deserted him at his first defense. They could not fight the good fight when it meant that they might be condemned as Paul’s conspirators. They could not finish the race because the threat of persecution, suffering, and death was too great for them. But the Lord Jesus proved Himself the faithful soldier, athlete, and farmer. He was Paul’s patronus in the Roman court. He alone could repel the demented thoughts that would try to convince Paul he would die condemned not only by the Romans but by God Himself, the righteous Judge.
The Lord Jesus stood by Paul and strengthened him through that trial so that everyone present might hear his testimony and see his witness to the salvation from sin and death that the Lord Jesus had secured through His death and resurrection. That trial did not end in Paul’s death, yet although he was sure that this one would result in his execution, he could still bear witness with the same confidence and power, being empowered by the same Lord Jesus. He was sure that the Lord would deliver him from every evil and take him to eternal life in heaven, to be forever in the presence of His Saviour, who never left His side.
That is what we all pray for in the Lord’s Prayer. We end by saying, “Deliver us from evil.” Luther’s Small Catechism explains: “We pray in this petition, in summary, that our Lord would rescue us from every evil of body and soul, possessions and reputation, and finally, when our last hour comes, graciously take us from this valley of sorrow to our home in heaven” (SC.Lord’s Prayer. Seventh Petition).
This was St. Paul’s prayer and it is yours, given to you from the Lord Jesus Himself, to pray in all time of tribulation, in all time of prosperity, in the hour of death and in the day of judgment (The Great Litany). It is a prayer of confidence and faith, inspired by the Gospel, the sacrifice of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, for all of our sins. He fought the good fight in the Garden of Gethsemane. He finished the race crowned with thorns. He kept the faith, being faithful unto death, even death upon a cross.
Now you can face your last days with the same confidence as St. Paul—not a confidence in yourself, not an exaggeration of your performance, not any lies about your steadfastness, but in the truth of sins forgiven in Jesus, that is, in the Gospel.
The sixteenth century reformation founded on the rediscovery of the Gospel by Martin Luther, restored this confidence in Christ to all the faithful. It eliminated the need for the false teachings of purgatory, and indulgences, prayers for the dead, the extra merits of the saints, and works of extra credit that you could apply not only to the penalties you deserve, but also to those of your departed loved ones. All of that was revealed to be false and misleading and an undermining of the Gospel, taking away your confidence in Christ as your Saviour.
But with the gospel restored we can face death like St. Paul and confess that we have fought the good fight, defeating our doubts with the confession of the forgiveness of sins in Jesus. We can finish the race in the sure and certain confidence of God’s grace extended to the repentant sinner (Luke 18). We can keep the faith, ever returning to the promise of salvation by grace through faith apart from our works. “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To Him be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
“The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you.”