The Christian Faith, One Word at a Time: Righteousness

3rd Sunday after Pentecost
June 25, 2017
Lincoln Heights Lutheran Church
The Christian Faith, One Word at a Time: Righteousness


 

Dear friends in Christ,

Today we are celebrating the 487th anniversary of the presentation of the Augsburg Confession. This was the beginning of the Lutheran Church as an independent church body. The emperor asked the Lutherans for a formal statement of their beliefs and they presented the Augsburg Confession. When the emperor demanded that they forsake this confession based on the Bible and return to the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran princes refused. They stood firm on what the Bible said against the power of the emperor.

Martin Luther was not there in 1530. He was an outlaw and his life was in danger outside of his own territory. However, he had been in a similar situation nine years earlier in Worms. In 1521, Luther stood before the religious and political powers, including the same Emperor Charles V, and was told to recant his writings. Luther would not recant unless he was shown to be wrong by the Word of God.

The Lutheran princes at Augsburg showed great strength and conviction as they stood on the true Word on God. Luther showed the same at Worms. But he did not always have such conviction and confidence in the Word of God. 500 years ago, when he posed the 95 Theses he saw some abuses of the church and some of its leaders. However, he was only interested in talking with others about these things. He did not know and understand everything in the Bible. In fact Luther was still very confused over one of the most important words of the Christian faith. It was not until he understood this concept correctly that he could stand firm on the Word of God before any power of this world.

Righteousness is the word and righteousness is the next word in our series, “The Christian Faith, One Word at a Time.”

Righteousness Demanded

In the year before Martin Luther died, he looked back on his early years, the years around the posting of the 95 Theses in 1517. This is what he wrote about his own thoughts at that time:

I hated that word “righteousness of God,” which, according to the use and custom of all the teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically regarding the formal or active righteousness, as they called it, with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner.1

Luther hated the righteousness of God. It was an oppressive concept for him. He had been taught to fear the righteous God who would punish the unrighteous and Luther knew he was a sinner. No matter what Luther did, he could not become righteous enough for God. To him, God became an unloving, uncaring task master who demanded more than anyone could do. God became like Pharaoh of Egypt. When Moses asked Pharaoh to let the people go to worship the Lord, Pharaoh increased the work of his slaves. They had to make the same number of bricks but the Egyptians would no longer supply the straw to make bricks. So the Israelite slaves had to work twice as hard to keep up with the quota of bricks or face punishment. It was cruel. It was not fair. They could not do it and yet Pharaoh demanded it.

There is no truth to the claim that God is unfair, unjust or cruel. However, the righteous and holy God does demand from all people something that we can never achieve. He does demand righteousness. This means that every thought we have has to be pure, good and selfless. It means that everything we say must be true and helpful. Righteousness means that every action must be done for the right reason and according to God's law.

Can you imagine a parent demanding something like this from their child? I will be proud of you when you are a better musician than Bach. I will love you when you get a perfect score on the SAT or ACT. I will be glad to publicly call you my child when you are a better soccer player than Messi or can run faster than Usain Bolt. I'll love you when you cure every form of cancer. Wouldn't only a cruel parent demand such impossible things from their child?

Our holy God demands more from us. Jesus himself says that we are to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. Jesus tells us that our righteousness must surpass the Pharisees if we want to enter the kingdom of God. Luther attempted to be righteous as God demands and he failed completely. Therefore he came to hate God's righteousness because it only reminded him that God was waiting to punish him for his failures.

Some may still try this today and fail as Luther did. Others may try to change who God is to ease their conscience. They change God's righteousness into a suggestion, a goal to shoot for. I kinda, sorta wanted to obey God and he should be happy with my effort. I didn't curse or swear all morning. I was outwardly nice to the person I wanted to punch. I honored my parents until they were out of the room. Isn't God pleased with any attempt I make live up to his demands? No. Whether you are trying Luther's method of being righteous by being perfect or trying to change God by making him like sin filled attempts to be righteous, you are on the path to eternal death.

We must despair of our own righteousness. Throw it away. Call upon the mercy of God who sent Jesus for sinners and not for those who claim their own righteousness. God credits righteousness by faith in Christ.

Righteousness Credited

Martin Luther had missed the righteousness credited by God to sinners through faith in Jesus. He had not been taught this righteousness. However, his hatred for the righteousness of God would be changed into love when he discovered that God gives righteousness to those who trust in Christ. Instead of a demand, this righteousness is a gift of God. It always has been. Paul takes us back to the time of Abraham to explain.

Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 19 Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. 20 Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21 being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. 22 This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” 23 The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, 24 but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. (Romans 4:18–25)

Abraham did not meet the demands of righteousness that our holy God demands. The Bible clearly tells us of Abraham's sins and yet God considers Abraham to be righteous. Abraham believed God was able to do anything God promised to do. God promised Abraham many descendents and one of his offspring would be a blessing to everyone in the world. The human problem was that Abraham and Sarah had zero children and they were getting a bit old to start having children. He was almost 100 years old and she was nearly 90. But Abraham believed God's promises and God credited his faith as righteousness.

We will not see righteousness when we look at our lives. We will see our sin, our guilt, our missed opportunities to do good and our many times of falling into evil. Our life can look dead and barren of all good at times. Yet, in Christ Jesus, we have the one who blesses all nations with his righteousness. In Christ, God declares that we are covered with the righteousness of Jesus. Righteousness through faith is not just for Abraham. The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.

Believe in this righteousness. It is your gift. It is Christ's perfect righteousness. His righteousness far surpassed the Pharisees and teachers of the law. He is perfect, exactly like his Father in heaven. This righteousness is yours through faith in Jesus.

God kept his promise to Abraham and to Sarah. She gave birth to Isaac and the line of the Savior continued until Jesus was born. How do we know that God has kept his promise to us to credit those who believe with the righteousness of Christ? Paul says it twice in our text. God raised Jesus from the dead as the proof that he has kept and will keep every promise. God raised Jesus from the dead as proof that Christ did everything right, that he completed everything that needed to be done to save the world from sin and death. Since God raised Jesus from the dead, we can trust that Christ's righteousness counts for us and we will be in God's kingdom forever.

The men who stood before Emperor Charles V, 487 years ago stood confidently on the promises of God and the righteousness of Christ. They were convinced that no other righteousness would save except the gift of Christ's righteousness given freely through faith in one who raised our Lord Jesus from the dead. Therefore, they boldly confessed this faith with these words from Article IV of the Augsburg Confession, words that we will also confess today:

It is taught that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through our merit, work, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith when we believe that Christ has suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us. For God will regard and reckon this faith as righteousness in his sight. (Augsburg Confession, Art IV)


 

Amen.


 

1 Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 34: Career of the Reformer IV. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 34, p. 336). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

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