6th Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Matthew 5:20-26 (Romans 6:1-11)
July 3, 2016
“The Righteousness that Stands before God”
In the Old Testament reading today we heard the ten commandments that God gave the Israelites on Mt. Sinai. But where God usually spoke to the people of Israel through Moses, on this occasion His own voice spoke the words of the ten commandments, so that the people might make no mistake that it is God who commands that we have no other gods, that we not take His name in vain, that we honor our father and mother, that we not murder. And the voice in our hearts and minds that judges us when we violate God’s commandments is the echo of the voice of God, which tells us that we have provoked Him to anger and that He will visit our iniquities with His wrath and punishment.
But we human beings have a way of forgetting this voice of God from Mount Sinai and not remembering its thunder. Even when you hear or say the ten commandments regularly, this can happen. Then a person takes away the sharpness of God’s law so that he can be comfortable again and not tremble at God’s judgment. This happened to the Israelites. In Jesus’ day many of them, maybe even most of them, thought they were righteous in the sight of God because they knew there was only one true God and because they knew His commandments. They thought that this belief in one God along with external observance of His commandments made them righteous in His sight.
And so Jesus often preached the Law of God to His people again. In the Gospel reading we heard Him say, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20) And to illustrate what He meant, He explained the fifth commandment to them. “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be liable to judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.’” (Matt. 5:21-22)
Jesus was teaching His hearers that the righteousness that you need to stand in the presence of God is a perfect and complete fulfillment of His Law. It is not merely refraining from killing people, for instance, but a righteous man must be free from anger and the desire for revenge. A righteous man in God’s sight loves his neighbor, even his enemies, from the heart. He doesn’t wish him evil; he not only refrains from murdering him but from harming him at all, even with his words. A righteous man doesn’t even have the kinds of thoughts and feelings that would lead to harming a neighbor—he doesn’t become angry with him, much less harbor a grudge or hate him.
And when a person does violate God’s law—even in his heart and emotions, or with his lips—he is a lawbreaker. God is provoked and angry with him. Those sins which we consider unavoidable and therefore small—anger, thoughtless words or words spoken in anger, for instance—bring God’s anger and judgment. We consider them small, but Jesus says that a person who is guilty of them will not be able to enter God’s Kingdom. A person who gets angry and calls someone a fool is liable to the fire of hell, says Jesus.
In saying these things Jesus wanted, and still wants, to strip away the false righteousness we comfort ourselves with and expose us to what we really are by nature before God—guilty sinners, deserving eternal punishment, by no means able to produce the righteousness God requires for salvation. The sad thing in this world is that so many people never face this reality of their guilt and wretchedness before God, and as a result they sleep in their sins, imagining that God is not displeased with them as they drift toward eternal damnation. We think that to proclaim the harsh and terrifying judgment of God’s law is mean and unloving; in actuality it is loveless to withhold it from people who are dead in their sins. Unless they hear it they cannot receive the forgiveness of sins nor can they be freed from the slavery of sin.
But since we are not able to fulfill the Law of God, to produce the righteousness that allows one to enter the kingdom of heaven, what are we supposed to do? The answer is that we would have to despair and be damned, but Jesus and His apostles after Him always proclaimed good new to the poor and desolate people who experienced the terror of God’s law and came to the knowledge of their helplessness in sin. The good news Jesus preached (as most of you know by now) is that God freely gives the righteousness that stands before Him. To all who believe in Jesus Christ, God gives or credits perfect righteousness.
Jesus explained God’s law to those who minimized it to show that it requires the obedience of the whole heart, mind, and will, as well as our words and deeds. Unlike the prophets and those who preached God’s law before Him, however, Jesus actually fulfilled the law that he proclaimed. He didn’t murder; didn’t speak insulting, killing words; He also did not become angry and vengeful toward His enemies. He loved them from His heart. He prayed for them after they had Him murdered and while they stood mocking His death.
Jesus blamelessly fulfilled the law of God so that He deserved to have God judge Him righteous; and yet Jesus did not cling to His own righteousness. Instead, He put it aside and offered Himself to God to carry the sins of the world on His own head, to receive God’s furious, just anger against them. Because Jesus was not merely a man, but also true God, He could do this. If He had been a mere man He could not have, because a life of perfect obedience is simply hat each one of us owes God. But Jesus, true God and man, offered Himself to be judged guilty of our sins and punished for our transgressions.
So Jesus has a two-fold righteousness; He perfectly fulfilled God’s law in His life; then He made atonement for all the world’s sins, and by His agony on the cross and His death He cancelled out our sins.
This two-fold righteousness of Jesus is counted not to the person who strives to obey God—since a person who is still in his sins can’t even begin to submit to God or His law. This two-fold righteousness of Jesus is credited to the one who does not work but trusts God, who justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5)—to the one who believes the Gospel. The ungodly law-breaker, whose debt before God is so deep that he despairs of ever having a good conscience before Him, who believes in Jesus, the eternal Son of God made man, the Righteous One who was wounded for our transgressions (Isaiah 53: 5)—God counts this man righteous. God justifies the person who brings no works with him but only believes this message. He forgives his sins, and imputes Jesus’ righteousness to him—dealing with him who believes in Jesus as if he had accomplished Jesus’ perfect obedience to the law.
So can you be certain that you have the righteousness that allows you to enter the kingdom of heaven? You can be certain of it, and the Holy Trinity wants you to be certain of it. Because righteousness is not a result of your works, but is promised you by God on the basis of Jesus’ works, it is certain.
(How the Righteousness that stands before God is distinguished from counterfeit righteousness)
By now many of us know and understand this teaching about righteousness before God. It is called “the doctrine of justification” or “justification by faith alone.” If you know and understand it, thanks be to God—yet no one should think that they know it so well as to not need to hear it anymore. Our sinful nature is powerful, and so is Satan; and we have the constant temptation with us to misunderstand or pervert this good news so that we lose it.
We should especially be on guard against thinking that understanding the Gospel of Christ’s righteousness is the same as actually believing it and remaining in it.
The temptation to merely understand the Gospel without actually believing it has always been with the Church, and it is very much a danger with us in our congregation. Why? Because there are quite a few of us who understand the doctrine of justification, who can even talk about it; but there are not so many of us who show evidence that we believe it.
In the old days Lutherans used to have a saying: “We are justified by faith in Christ alone; but the faith that justifies is never alone.” Our works, our actions in obedience to God’s law do not make us righteous in God’s sight. We are justified before God only through faith in Jesus, without any works. But that faith is always active in doing good works; it never exists where a person is not active in keeping God’s commandments, in serving Him and loving our neighbor.
In the Epistle reading, from Romans chapter six, Paul is making just this point. In the previous five chapters He has taught justification through faith in Christ alone; how Christ fulfilled the law in our place when we were totally corrupt and unable to do anything good in God’s sight; how Christ’s obedience is credited to the person who, without works, believes the promise of the forgiveness of sins in the Gospel; how justified by faith in Christ, we have peace with God and the confidence that we are pleasing to God now, and that on judgment day we will be saved from God’s wrath. All this, Paul says, comes without our works, only through faith in Christ.
But in chapter 6 he raises the question that critics of Christianity often raise: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Romans 6:1) Since we are justified by faith alone without works, can we just sin without worrying about it and trust in God’s grace and forgiveness? Paul answers his own question: “By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” (Rom. 6:2-3)
No, says Paul. We can’t just sin freely and say “I’m justified apart from my works.” The reason is not because works are necessary for our salvation, but because a person who has the righteousness that stands before God believes and is baptized, and the Baptism we received was a baptism into Jesus’ death. Our baptism with Jesus is not just a watery picture of something that only happens in the heart or the soul. It is a means by which we are united with Jesus in His death.
Faith in Jesus is not simply that we are declared righteous through Him while we remain just as we were before, in slavery to sin. When we believe in Jesus we are counted righteous before God, but at the same time we are united to Jesus Himself. Baptism is a means by which we are justified in Christ—His righteous life and atoning death are offered to us or applied to us, and we take hold of them by faith. It is also a means by which God unites us with Jesus, so that we share in His death and life.
Jesus died once for all time; He took on our debt to death and paid it when He cried, “It is finished” and gave up His Spirit. They took His body down from the cross, wrapped it in cloth and spices, and placed it in the tomb. On the third day He rose again, leaving the tomb empty, and as Paul tells us in Romans 6, “Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death He died, He died to sin once for all. But the life He lives, He lives to God.” (Romans 6: 9-10) So when we were baptized, we died with Christ to sin and rose from the dead with Him to live before God in righteousness. Paul puts it in graphic terms: We were buried with Him therefore by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Rom. 6:4)
Jesus died once for sins, to take them away; when we were baptized, we died with Christ to our sins. Jesus rose from the dead to live before God in righteousness and holiness forever; and so when we were baptized, we were baptized to rise with Jesus and to live before God, freed from sin, gladly serving Him with our whole body, heart, mind, and strength. That will happen on judgment day, when the bodies of Christians will be resurrected in glory, free from sin. But it also begins in this life—it must. A person who has the righteousness that avails before God is united to Christ by faith, and that union with Christ means that he has died to the old life of sin and risen to live as a servant of God—because that is what “heaven” is—not to do our own thing for eternity but to see God and serve Him. Because a person who is baptized and believes has died and risen with Christ, he daily dies to sin and rises to new life. He daily drowns his old nature and does not let it rule. By faith he claims the promise of Baptism—that he is righteous before God—and lives in glad and thankful service to God.
It’s necessary to emphasize this—that living faith results in sanctification—for two reasons.
The first is that many think or say they have faith in Christ when they do not. Since a person who believes the gospel is also a person who has died to sin with Christ, it’s not possible for a person to purposely, willfully transgress God’s commandments and have true faith in Christ. A person who does so and turns in regret to Christ, believes in His pardon, and desires to do so no more may claim the promise of the forgiveness of sins. But a person who sins against God’s commandments with no repentance, no intention of forsaking his sin, shows that he does not want to be dead to sin. He wants to go on living in his sins. That is not faith in Christ; it’s an empty knowledge of the Gospel that leaves a person’s heart unchanged, still in slavery to sin, still hostile to God. A person who claims faith in Christ who doesn’t also daily “drown the old Adam by daily contrition and repentance” and “bring forth a new man to live before God in righteousness” is deluding himself.
It needs to be said specifically that this includes those who persistently despise the third commandment and do not gladly hear and learn God’s Word or receive the body and blood of Christ. How can we imagine that faith in Christ can exist in someone who stays away from Christ and His people? Not only is it disobedience to the third commandment to stay away from the Divine Service, it is also cutting one’s self off from the means the Holy Spirit uses to bring about contrition and faith. Faith in Jesus is not something we can create for ourselves or choose, and once it has been given to us, it isn’t something we can maintain by our own power. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit, created in us by means of God’s Word and sacraments. Those who have stopped attending the divine service need the love and prayers of those who believe; they also need us to care enough about them to remind them of these things that they were taught before they were confirmed (or should have been.) But they are not helped when we pretend to ourselves that true faith can live in those who despise the Word of God and the Church in which He places His Word and Sacraments and sends the ministers who distribute them.
Also those who live in fornication may say they have faith in Christ. But when a person rejects the sixth commandment and engages in sexual activity outside of marriage and turn to Christ in repentance, believing the Gospel and desiring to walk in that sin no more, that person can’t have a living faith in Christ. That includes, particularly, those who live with their partner without marriage. A person who has died to sin watches against it and fights against it. If he falls into sexual impurity, he turns to Christ for forgiveness with the intention to go and no do that sin no more. But if you have moved in with your boyfriend or girlfriend, there is no struggle against sin happening. You have let it dominate you, and in such a way that everyone can see it. People who claim to be Christians may say that you can still have faith in Christ and live in sexual impurity, just as people who claim to be Christians insist that homosexuality is not a sin. But they are deceived. The Gospel does not free us to live in slavery to sin without the fear of God’s wrath. It proclaims the forgiveness of sins, and where it is received, it frees people from the domination of sin.
In name these two sins in particular because they are so common. But the principle applies to every willful transgression of God’s commandment, whatever it may be. Such sins show that a person has fallen away and lost living faith in Christ, or perhaps never had it.
But the second reason for emphasizing the nature of the righteousness of faith, that it is active in good works, is that even those who still hear God’s word and aren’t living in obvious unrepentance are weak in good works. Faith in Christ is not meant to stand still; it is meant to increase and produce much fruit to the glory of God and the benefit of our neighbors. When faith is stagnant it begins to die, which can result in the spiritual death of an individual or God’s judgment on a congregation.
At the beginning of the book of Revelation, the Lord Jesus dictates letters to seven churches in modern-day Turkey. In these letters he commends the churches when they are faithful, when they have fought against false teaching, and when they have done good works. But he rebukes several of them for their lack of fruitfulness, in some cases threatening judgment on them if they don’t repent and do the good works that are the fruit of living faith. For instance, the exalted Lord says to the church in Sardis, “I know your works; you have the name of being alive, and you are dead. Awake, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. Remember then what you received and heard; keep that, and repent. If you will not awake, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you.” (Rev. 3:1-3) Until we are risen with Christ and are perfectly in His image, we are not yet complete in God’s sight. We are united to Christ in our Baptism; God forgives our sins for His sake and meanwhile makes us grow into His image. But if we are no longer growing into the perfect image of Christ, but are content to rest where we are, we have ceased to live in our Baptism and ceased to live by faith in Christ, and are in danger of being cut off.
Scripture teaches this repeatedly. Our Lord says in John 15, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit…I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” (John 15:1-2, 5-6)
Peter the apostle writes in his second epistle that Christians should “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge” (2 Peter 1:5) and lists five other fruits of the new man that we are to grow in, concluding with “love.” He goes on to exhort us: “For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:8-11)
So we should examine ourselves. Is our faith in Christ knowledge that does not result in a change in us? Do we hate sin, fear it, strive against it with God’s help? Are we eager to serve God, not simply out of fear, but out of love and thankfulness for what Christ has done for us? And because of the struggle to put sin to death and produce good fruit, do we eagerly desire the gifts the Lord gives to strengthen us in faith and love—His Word, His absolution, the Sacrament of His Body and Blood?
And if we find love for sin in our hearts, ambivalence toward serving God and toward His gifts?
Recognize that love for sin and lack of desire to serve God and receive His gifts is sin. It is the root of all other sin, and it brings down God’s wrath.
Let the presence of that sin drive you to seek pardon and deliverance from sin’s power. And that you will find not in your own resources, but in God’s promise in Baptism, where He said that you died with Christ and rose with Him.
If you want, then, to live to God and be dead to sin, count yourself to be what God says you are in your baptism. Then, come to the altar as the helpless sinner you are, and receive God’s help.
In the body and blood of Jesus, He pledges that you are a participant in His death and its fruits. He pledges you share in the forgiveness of sins won by His death.
Eat and drink His body and blood, believing His pledge and desiring to live no more as the servant of sin but in newness of life. Along with forgiveness, He will work in you to bear fruit pleasing to God.
The peace of God, that passes understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria
Authored By De Profundis Clamavi ad Te, Domine