Ride the High Country

That Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins, and was raised again for our justification.” (Romans 4:25)

“Now, since it is necessary to believe this, and it cannot be otherwise acquired or apprehended by any work, law, or merit, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us as….Of this article nothing can be yielded or surrendered [nor can anything be granted or permitted contrary to the same], even though heaven and earth, and whatever will not abide, should sink to ruin.” (Martin Luther, Smalcald Articles, Part II, Art 1)

As many of you know, I love to watch old western movies. Recently, one of my very favorite ones called “Ride the High Country” was on. The movie features two aging old west lawmen named Steve Judd (played by Joel McCrea) and Gil Westrum (played by Randolph Scott) who get one last opportunity for glory. The pair are hired by a bank to guard a shipment of gold being sent down from a strike in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Steve Judd wishes to use the opportunity to rebuild the self-esteem he has lost as old age has diminished his once formidable gun fighting skills. On the other hand, Gil Westrum wishes to steal the gold shipment and keep it as a payoff for years of loyal public service gone unrewarded.

The plot of the movie revolves around this basic tension: is a “good life” one that is led according to a code of integrity (represented by Judd) or one that displays the visible material rewards of success (represented by Westrun). Throughout the movie, Westrum tries to convince Judd that it would only be fair and right for them to steal and split the gold because the ungrateful world never properly rewarded their service as lawmen. Toward the end of the movie, Westrum puts the question to Judd directly and asks, “Is that [your $20 pay] all you want out of life Steve?” Judd replies, “I only want to enter my house justified.” In other words, the aging Judd wants to die as a man of integrity not wealth because that is what would make him righteous before God and save him.

As noble as this sounds, Steve Judd, like a lot people, misses the point as to what allows a person to “enter our house justified”. He assumed that eternal rewards are merited by good conduct in life. In other words, Steve Judd assumed that we are what we do. If we do good things, we must be good. If we do bad things, we must be bad. So to Judd, to die “justified” before God meant to die with a kind of personal righteousness bought by leading a moral life.

However, the basic problem with Judd’s rationalization from a Christian point of view is that it contradicts the plain Words of God contained in scripture. We are told in the Bible in Romans 9:10 that everyone is a sinner: “None is righteous, no, not one.” And that it is faith in Jesus Christ alone that makes us righteous: “For we conclude that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the Law.” (Rom. 3:28) and “That He might be just, and the Justifier of him which believeth in Christ.” (Rom. 3:26)

We must also very carefully note that we are not saved by “our faith” or “faith alone”. Yes, faith is essential. Without faith, we are like ships tossed about on the waves (James 1:6). But faith must have the proper object which is nothing other than Christ alone. We are not saved by having some generic quality inside us we label “faith” but by trusting that Jesus Christ is who He says He is and that He has the power and authority to do what He promises to do.

Saint Paul put it this way in Romans: If Christ was not raised from the dead, our faith is futile. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are essential. He died for our sins, but if He stayed dead, we remain dead in our sins. His resurrection proves His power to save, not only Himself but all the rest of us too. His resurrection shows that He is “able to do what he has promised”. Jesus is able to raise us up from the death of sin and thereby justify us with God. You and I “enter our house justified” because Jesus has come to us and promised us that He has taken our sin upon Himself and has given us all His righteousness and eternal life.

In our Baptisms, we become partakers in Christ’s death and resurrection (Romans 6). We therefore have died to sin and now have eternal life with Him. We truly are new creations in Christ. And Jesus has promised not to leave us as orphans in this life either. God has promised us that He will keep us always in faith in Christ. All throughout our lives here on this old earth, the Holy Spirit continually brings this Good News to us again and again through the Word and Sacrament of the Church.

So now you can joyfully “Ride the High Country” of this life secure in the knowledge that you will “enter your house justified” because all your sins are forgiven for Jesus Christ’s sake. Truly, your salvation is a gift from God that is far greater than all the gold the mountains!

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