by Rev. Stephen Preus
My wife tells a story of her mother giving her daughters treats as little girls. Before she would allow them the sweets she would say, “Do you deserve it?” When her little girls answered, “No,” they received the goodies. With this my mother-in-law taught her daughters a valuable lesson.
Luther teaches the same lesson. He explains in the meaning of the First Article of the Creed that we receive all God’s gifts out of His “fatherly divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in [us].” He explains in the Second Article that we who are “lost and condemned” sinners are purchased from our slavery to sin and Satan not by our own works, “but with [Jesus Christ’s] holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.” Again in the Third Article he explains, “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel….”
What is the lesson we learn? Every gift God gives is undeserved. The lives and all the goodies we enjoy from the Father’s hand–the salvation and eternal life Christ won for us, the faith created and sustained by the Spirit-filled Word and Sacraments–we deserve none of it.
In the Fifth Petition Luther reminds us how this relates to prayer: We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that He would give them all to us by grace, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment. In the midst of our entitlement culture we are in danger of losing this understanding that we are undeserving. That means we are in danger of losing sight of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ. “For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy” (Daniel 9:18b). God hears our prayers because He is merciful to us for Christ’s sake.
Only the undeserving pray, just as surely as only the undeserving receive any good gift of God. So, are you deserving? Do you deserve the treats of a mother, let alone the almighty God? Do you deserve whatever good there is in your family and friends, your church and community? Do you deserve the blood Jesus shed or the faith the Spirit bestows? Learn from the little girls. The answer is, “No.”
When my wife and her sisters confessed they were undeserving, their mother would give them the treat. First, though, she would have them recite to her the Second Article of the Creed. Why? To teach them that only through God’s mercy in Jesus Christ do we undeserving sinners understand why God continues to give us any good thing. He gives to us because He is merciful to the undeserving!
While my mother-in-law had her children give the right answer before she’d give them the goodies, God doesn’t even wait for us to give him the right answer before He gives to us. Even “without our prayers, even to all evil people,” God gives His good gifts. But when we’ve received His good gifts and have been enlightened by the Holy Spirit, we see how gracious God is to give so generously to us undeserving sinners.
So count yourselves among the undeserving and find in God a merciful Father who gives to you His dearest Treasure. Count yourselves among the undeserving and find in God your Brother, God’s Son made flesh to die for your sins and rise to life for your justification. Count yourselves among the undeserving and find in God your Comforter and Advocate, the Spirit who cries out for you in the Gospel that you are God’s forgiven children, adopted through Holy Baptism and heirs of eternal life. Yes, count yourselves among the undeserving and pray to your heavenly Father with boldness and confidence through faith in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
The Rev. Stephen Preus is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Vinton, IA.