By The Rev. Sean Esterline, Messiah Lutheran
Romans 6:3-11 and Matthew 5:20-26
“Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” So says Jesus. And it is to those who believe this that Jesus offers his own righteousness as a precious gift. When you know that you must be more righteous than the most righteous people in the world you understand what Jesus is talking about when he offers Himself to you as your righteousness before God.
You have to be good. You may not be content to follow the outward demands of the law. You must do better. You must obey the spirit of the law. It is not enough to refrain from murder or doing physical harm to your neighbor. You must not rest until you have genuinely loved your neighbor in your heart of hearts. You may not even think evil of him or insult him. The scribes and Pharisees represent religious people who obey the law outwardly. That’s not good enough. You must obey it inwardly, sincerely, from the heart. They obey the law without love. You must obey the law in love. And your love may not fail or it isn’t really love at all.
They obey the law to help themselves because they think they win over God’s heart and gain His approval by what they do. They obey for their own benefit. That is no obedience at all. You must obey the law for your neighbor’s benefit. And don’t start talking about how much you love God or how willing you are to serve God if you won’t love and serve your neighbor. If you intend to give your offering to God don’t do it if you have wronged your neighbor and won’t make it right. God doesn’t want your money or your service or your praise until you have loved your neighbor. God loves your neighbor and when you hate him, you take issue with God Himself. God won’t accept your offering of love unless you offer to love your neighbor.
Sinners want to lay claim to great devotion to God while they ignore everything God says. They want to manufacture their own religion (nowadays the word is spirituality) according to their own lights. But Jesus won’t go along with that. He says not to talk about how much you love God until you are ready to treat your neighbor at least as well as you want him to treat you. Don’t insult your neighbor with the same lips you use to praise God. If you do, God won’t accept your praise. It will come out as cursing instead.
Does Jesus talk only to hear himself talk? Or is he serious when he says that if your righteousness isn’t greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven? He is serious. We must have a righteousness that is greater than that of the most religious people in the world. No possession is more precious or important than this righteousness.
We have things that we think are so very important. We have things that we treasure in our hearts more than the righteousness that Jesus offers. We lie if we deny this. We think that if we have the decent job, the good income, the nice home, a sound marriage, good health, loving and obedient children, the respect of our neighbors, and a sense of well being, then we have all we need. This righteousness talk we set aside in our affections as if it is not that important. We set out affections on the very things that Jesus says will perish with the world.
Righteousness? Well, I do my best and that ought to do. Certainly God cannot require more of me than I am capable of doing. But He does. That’s not fair! But it is. How can this be? How can a fair God demand that I be a better person than I am able to be? He must demand it. The fact that we are sinners is not God’s fault. We do love ourselves first and most and we refuse to acknowledge how sinful this makes us. We need the righteousness of Christ. We need it more than we need anything else that we treasure and love in this world.
Every religion that teaches us to make ourselves righteous by doing righteous things teaches falsely. Sin cannot produce righteousness. Sin produces sin. It may look like righteousness on the outside, but appearances are deceiving. The only way a sinner can become righteous is if God reckons or credits to the sinner the righteousness of Another. That Other is Christ. God must impute to us the righteousness of Jesus even as He imputed to Jesus our sins. By this exchange – His righteousness for our sin – we become righteous. Jesus, the Innocent, became the greatest sinner who ever lived so that we, the sinners, would become righteous with the very righteousness of God.
The standard argument against this Christian teaching that we are justified when God reckons Christ’s righteousness to us and that we do not contribute anything at all to our own justification is that we may then sin all we want without any negative consequences. The Christian gospel is denied because it is seen as a license to sin. St. Paul responds to that argument in his letter to the Romans. He reminds his readers that every Christian died and rose again in his baptism. Now this is quite literally what took place. Only by dying and rising; only by being joined to Christ’s death and resurrection, could we begin to do any good or righteous thing.
Our sinful human nature, what St. Paul here calls “our old man” cannot be reformed or improved. He cannot be led to do anything that will make him righteous. So he must be killed. He must die. That is what happens when we are baptized. We are killed. We die. That is, the old man or the Old Adam is put to death. The sinner is killed. Where? In two places at the same time: in the waters of Holy Baptism and with Christ on the cross. In our baptism we are crucified and put to death with Jesus. Christ’s crucifixion is not just something we observe from a distance of great time and space. No, we are actually crucified with Christ. When we were baptized, we were nailed to the cross with Jesus. We were put to death. The sinner within, the sinful nature, the unbelieving, self-serving, hater of God and humanity was nailed to Calvary and killed dead. Just as surely as Jesus died for the world, he absorbed in his own body and soul the full and bitter reality of our sin, so that his death actually killed the sin within us and buried it in Joseph’s tomb. This is how being baptized into union with Christ’s death takes away our sin.
And then Jesus rose. What a wonderful sight it was. No longer could sin torment His soul because he had just paid for every sin of every sinner of all time. No longer could the law attack Him, because He had just met its full demands, rendering to the bar of God’s justice that righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes, Pharisees, and every one else. Look at this risen Jesus and see the One who has just destroyed sin, death, the devil, hell, and every spiritual enemy we have. Look at this risen Jesus and see the One who has opened heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father. Look at this risen Jesus and see that you are risen with Him just as surely as you were baptized by His authority in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
You died when you were baptized. You rose from the dead when you were baptized. This is history. This is the holy history of your life. The sinner died. The saint rose from the dead. It happened when God baptized you. Those who despise God’s grace and call it a license to sin and claim that they can gain the kingdom of heaven by their good works are wrong. Your baptism proves them wrong. Your sinful flesh could not be improved; he had to be killed. Now, when he tells you what to do and seeks to deceive you into hatred, pride, self-worship, and every other form of idolatry you can tell him that he is dead and has no power over you. You are baptized. That means that the old Adam is dead, drowned by the blood of Jesus.
You are baptized. That means that the new man, the Christian, the saint, is alive. You have a new life to live. It is a life of righteousness. No, you didn’t bring about this righteousness by doing righteous things. Christ brought it about. Christ brought it into being by His innocent life of pure love and his sacrificial death on the cross. Now He gives it to you. Now He clothes you in it. Now He covers your shame, your nakedness, and your sin with the spotless robe of His purity. This is what He gave you when He raised you to new and eternal life in your baptism. And nobody in this world can ever take it away from you. Your own righteousness will fall. It cannot stand. But in your baptism, God joined you to his dear Son forever. In Him you stand righteous now and forever in a righteousness that will stand in the day of God’s judgment of the living and the dead. In your baptism God has given you a new life to live.
Many Christians are confused about baptism because they have been taught to believe that baptism is no more than a symbol of a Christian’s commitment to Christ and is not the means by which God Himself makes a sinner into a saint. In other words, they look at baptism as a human work instead of as a divine work. This is one reason they deny baptism to babies. After all, a baby cannot do any kind of work, can he? But faith is not our work. It is just as much a gift from God as is the righteousness that it receives. Just as Jesus and Jesus alone gained the righteousness by which we are justified, God and God alone brings us to the faith that receives this righteousness by which we are justified. As St. Paul put it in Titus 3 – But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, which He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This is a faithful saying. (Titus 3:4-8)
When you know that you are a saint by God’s grace in Christ you know you have a holy life to live. Only saints can live holy lives. When you know what God in your baptism has given to you, you can face down the devil, the world, and your own sinful nature. You can take a stand against all false teaching, unholy living, lies, and lusts. Then, when you stumble and fall into sin, you can get right back up again because you are not living in your own strength or trusting in your own righteousness, but you are living the new life of Christ Himself. You are not a slave to sin. You died to it and it cannot claim you. Instead you are a saint. That’s what you are. God has reckoned you to be a saint, His own holy child. Reckon yourself to be what God says you are. Then you have a real life to live. You can live knowing that all your sins have been forgiven, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
By The Rev. Sean Esterline, Messiah Lutheran
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