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Making Promises You Can’t Keep!


“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:3-5).

One thing you certainly learn as a parent, if not from other areas of life, is that you shouldn’t make promises you can’t keep. I’m not saying promises one doesn’t intend to keep, but promises one simply can’t keep. Often we do this without realizing that we are doing it. Other times we may be living in a bit of denial; we hope to keep the promise, we think maybe we could figure something out so that we might keep the promise, but in actual fact we simply are not able to keep the promise that we made. So it is that we learn a hard lesson in life, and may even warn others who promise to do things for us, “Don’t make promises you can’t keep!”

And yet that is what we witness every confirmation Sunday. We watch as young people walk up to the front of the congregation and make some very serious promises, promises before Almighty God that they are not able to keep. We have been instructing these young people rather thoroughly, maybe even intensely, to prepare them to make these promises they can’t keep. Even as they make them, the rest of us sitting in the congregation are reminded that not only are these young people incapable of fulfilling these promises, but each and every one of us in the congregation is in the same position. We, too, have made these promises to God; and we, too, all lack the strength and the innate spiritual integrity to be always faithful to God and His truth and always faithful in our use of the means of grace, even unto death!

Is it then all just a charade? Is it something that we just do, going through the ceremony as a rite of passage in the church, without actually taking it seriously? By no means! These are very important questions we answer, very important and serious oaths before God in heaven! With the congregation as witness, we are willingly and knowingly promising fidelity to our Savior God and His truth until the day we die! How can this be possible?

We acknowledge how it is possible even in the wording of the questions and promises. It is “Yes, with the help of God!” This is no minor concession, as though we might merely need a little assistance from the Lord from time to time in things spiritual. Rather, it is a full admission that apart from God the Holy Spirit we can do nothing. “It is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). 

Even as it was according to His abundant mercy that we were called to faith and born again by the working of the Holy Spirit, so it is also by the work of God the Holy Spirit that we are kept in the true faith until we are received by our Lord into our heavenly home. “Being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).

This reliance upon the powerful working of the Holy Spirit will lead us to seek out the Word in our lives. It will lead us to search the Scriptures in our personal devotions, to gather with our fellow Christians around the Word in worship services and Bible classes, and to receive the sacrament at every opportunity. It is the deception of self-reliance that leads so many Christians, young and old, to feel little need for the Word or sacrament—to their own harm. Some mistakenly believe that when they have “graduated” from their catechism studies, they then know enough to make it into heaven and have no more need of God’s Word. When tempted by such false ideas, remind yourself, “I made promises, promises concerning my own spiritual life and salvation, promises that I can’t keep!”

“Come, oh, come, Thou quick’ning Spirit,
God from all eternity!  May Thy power never fail us; Dwell within us constantly. Then shall truth and life and light Banish all the gloom of night. 

Guard, O God, our faith forever; Let not Satan,
death, or shame Ever part us from our Savior;
Lord our Refuge is Thy name. Though our flesh cry ever: Nay! Be Thy Word to us still Yea!” 

(The Lutheran Hymnal 226:1,8)

Theodore Barthels is pastor of St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Austin, Minnesota.