“But God’s Word [of law] has imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” (Gal. 3:22)
I love to watch old movies. One of my favorites is an old Paul Newman film called “Cool Hand Luke“. In one of the most famous scenes in the movie, Luke (Paul Newman’s character) gets his nickname “Cool Hand” by bluffing several other prisoners out of a large sum of money in a poker game. Luke does this by repeatedly upping the bet without hesitation or nervousness until all the other players are convinced that he has a great hand. After winning the huge pot, Luke reveals that all his cards amounted to nothing. He didn’t even have one pair! When one of the other prisoners ask him why he bet so much on what is usually a sure losing hand, Luke replies, “Sometimes nothing is a pretty cool hand!”
When it comes to our status before God, we are in much the same position as old Cool Hand Luke. When it comes to righteousness, we have nothing in our hand so to speak. Scripture tells us that everything we do is sin; our deeds – even our best and brightest and most pious acts – amount to nothing more than “filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6) in the end. And unlike Cool Hand Luke, we cannot bluff our way out of sin. Now we can certainly try to be like Luke and put on a good external appearance. We can look and act pious and win the praise of the world; we can bluff our neighbors. But God is not fooled. God knows what is in our hearts (Eccles. 9:3). He knows that sinners hearts are bound to preserve self and reject God. So He has imprisoned all we do under the category of “sin” (Rom. 11:32).
Why does God do this? Why does he give us all His Commandments and Laws and demand we keep them yet also tells us in the Holy Scriptures that all our efforts to adhere to them do not help us one bit in earning His favor? Is it because God is a harsh and stern master who enjoys watching us fail? Certainly not!
God has consigned all our doings and works as sin so that He may be merciful to all. As Paul writes in Galatians 3:22; it is so that the promise of forgiveness may be given to sinners like you and I. God’s grace is for sinners only; for people who are spiritual beggars and know that they have nothing when it comes to righteousness before God. God’s Words of Law “call our bluff” so to speak and show us our losing hand. But in Christ, God speaks Words of Gospel promise to us. He tells us that we are not alone but His. Faith is created when God’s Words of Grace are spoken. The creative power of God’s Holy Spirit given in Word and Sacrament changes our losing hand, our nothingness, into trust in Christ. By faith in God’s promise, we receive the righteousness of Christ which is no bluff but the ultimate winning hand.
So it is true that when it comes to our eternal salvation, nothing really is a pretty cool hand!