The Righteousness That Saves
Trinity 6| Matthew 5:17-26| Pastor James Preus| Trinity Lutheran Church| July 24, 2022
I think a helpful way for you to follow this sermon and distinguish the Law and the Gospel is to try to answer these simple questions.
- What are the three uses of the Law?
- What are the three kinds of righteousness?
- What is the chief use of the Law?
- What is the only kind of righteousness, which save you?
Our Lord Jesus says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” These are quite daunting words from our Savior. He speaks of us being locked out of heaven forever if our righteousness does not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Righteousness means to have a right relationship with God. Righteousness is the opposite of sin. When we think of righteousness, we often think of the Law, which tells us what is wrong and what is right. Jesus has not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is not enough. Your righteousness must be better, if you are to enter heaven.
Yet, how can your righteousness be better than the scribes and Pharisees? They are experts in the Law! The scribes knew the Scriptures like the back of their hands, acting as human copying machines to preserve the Scriptures for the next generation. The Pharisees practiced the Law to the letter. Everyone could see that how the scribes and Pharisees lived was better than anyone else. They not only followed the Ten Commandments, but they followed hundreds of additional rules and regulations from the Law of Moses, plus human traditions added to make sure no law was broken. To say your righteousness must be better than the scribes and Pharisees is like saying today that you must be holier than the pope. It is to say that your life must be flawless to the human eye.
But that’s just it. It’s not the human eye that will judge you and determine whether you will enter into eternal life or not. It is the all-knowing, all-seeing, and eternally righteous eye of God which will judge you. You see, the scribes and Pharisees are concerned only with the first and lowest kind of righteousness: civil righteousness. And for that reason, they are concerned with only the first and lowest use of the law: the curb. Civil righteousness is the righteousness that man sees. It is required by governments, communities, families, and churches. Civil righteousness only regards your outward actions. This is why it only regards the first use of the law, the curb. The curb simply prevents outward outbreaks of sin. The Law says you shall not murder. If you murder, you are liable to judgment. If you do not murder, then you are not liable to judgment. If you do not murder, you are civilly righteous. Yet, being civilly righteous does not mean that you love your neighbor. The Law says you shall not commit adultery. The curb threatens punishment, being socially ostracized if you commit adultery. Yet, if you refrain from committing adultery in your body, that does not mean that you are chaste in your heart.
The scribes and Pharisees are like whitewashed tombs. They look good on the outside, but on the inside, they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. They look good to people on the outside, but it is God who judges the heart. So, at the end of the day, the civil righteousness of the Pharisees is useless. They’ve momentarily escaped the rod of men, but they fall short of escaping the punishment of God.
Jesus teaches us not to start from the outside, but to start from the inside. Not only must you not murder your neighbor with your hand, but you must go deeper. Before you can murder your neighbor with your hand, you must murder him with your mind. And before you murder him with your mind, you must murder him with your heart. You murder your neighbor with your heart when you are angry with your brother without a just cause. The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God (James 1:20). And Scripture says, “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” (1 John 3:15) So, before Jesus gets to the actions of your hands or feet, he addresses the condition of your heart.
Jesus does the same thing with the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.” He says that anyone who lusts after a woman has already committed adultery in his heart. This means that he is liable to the same judgment before God as the adulterer. It does not matter what man sees and what man judges. It matters what God sees and what God judges.
Yet, this interpretation of the Law is even worse for us than that of the Pharisees! With the Pharisees all I have to do is control my outward actions. That can be difficult, but with a little discipline surely, I can control myself. With the Pharisees you only need to worry about being judged by men. But I can hide my sins from human eyes. No one can hide from God!
Do you hate someone? Have you refused to forgive? Have you refused to be reconciled with the one who has done you wrong or against whom you’ve done wrong? Perhaps you think that you won’t be dragged to the judge and thrown into prison, because it is such a minor thing. The civil authorities don’t care. But your conscience will certainly accuse you, and your guilt will drag you to hell. Are you chaste? Have you ever committed adultery? What about with your eyes and heart? Have you looked at things you should not look at and desired those, whom God has not given you? Then you are guilty of adultery and liable to punishment.
What is Jesus’ intention with this strict interpretation of the Law? At least with the Pharisees people behave themselves outwardly. But this sort of preaching drives us to despair! How can I guard my heart at all times to keep it from sin?
Here Jesus intends to employ the second use of the Law, the mirror. The mirror is different from the curb. The curb seeks to prevent you from breaking the law outwardly. The mirror seeks to show you that you have broken the law. The mirror reveals what you really look like in God’s eye when you are judged by God’s Law. And you don’t look good. You look like a murderer, an adulterer, and worse, because that’s what you are. “No one is righteous, no not one,” declares the Lord God (Psalm 14:1; Romans 3:10). For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). The purpose of the mirror is to rob you of any confidence you may have in your own civil righteousness, so that you trust in the only righteousness that can actually save you: the righteousness of Christ Jesus.
Few people in history can claim the exceptional civil righteousness of the Apostle Paul. As far as anyone could see, he was blameless. Yet, to this he said, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” (Philippians 3:7-9)
Your righteousness is not good enough. By your own works, your righteousness can never be good enough. But Jesus’ righteousness is and always will be good enough. Jesus, the true Son of God, became a man, so that he could live under the Law and fulfill the Law for us. Jesus is the only man who ever lived, who obeyed the Law not only in his outward actions, but from the heart. He loved perfectly. Yet, the iniquity of all was laid on him. The Righteous One died for the unrighteous ones, so that we might become the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ the righteous (1 Peter 3:18).
This is why the second use of the Law, the mirror, is the chief use of the Law. It is the most important use. When Jesus says, “You shall not murder” or, “You shall not commit adultery,” he is telling us that we must be born again. Governing our outward actions are not enough. We must acquire a new heart, for that is where sin or righteousness, hate or love flows. A bad tree cannot bear good fruit. But a good tree will bear good fruit. We must become good trees. That is what the mirror tells us. And Jesus can do this.
The mirror cannot save you; it can only diagnose your problem. Only the Gospel can save. Christ Jesus has paid for your sins. He died for them. He is righteous and he gives that righteousness to you as a free gift to be received through faith. This is why this second kind of righteousness is called Alien Righteousness. The righteousness, which saves is not our own. It is foreign. It belongs to Christ. Yet, God gives this alien righteousness to us as a gift to be received by faith. Only the alien righteousness of Christ can save you.
What then, is that all that the Law is good for, to show us our sins and need for a Savior? And since God gives us Christ’s righteousness as a free gift, do we not need to worry about whether our own actions are righteous or not? No and no. We Christians still have use of the Law in our daily lives and we most certainly should be concerned with avoiding sin and living righteous lives. St. Paul explains it by pointing us to our Baptism. “Do you not know that all who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him 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.” If you are baptized into Christ, you are baptized into the Christian faith, which confesses that Jesus died for all your sins and rose again without sin. Baptism joins you to Christ’s death and resurrection. This not only means that God declares you righteous for Jesus’ sake and that you too will rise from the dead on the Last Day. This also means that you will die and rise again every day.
St. Paul says, “We know that the old self was crucified with [Christ] in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing.” Having been baptized into Christ, you have been joined to him. He is the vine; you are the branch. Apart from him you have no righteousness. But through him, you also produce a righteousness from the heart, which has been reborn after Christ’s image. Through Christ you put to death what is sinful in you.
So, as a Christian, you still need the Law, because until you die or Christ returns and transforms the living and the dead, you will still be a sinner. Although the curb should be unnecessary for Christians, public shame and threats of punishment can keep sinners in check. Christians need the mirror, so that they continue to repent and turn to Jesus for his alien righteousness, which alone saves. And Christians also employ a third use of the Law, called the guide. This use is only for Christians. Because Christians are joined to Christ as a branch is to a vine and have a new heart born after the image of Christ, they desire to do what is right. So, you as a Christian use the Law as a guide, a rule to live by. Yet, this guide cannot make you righteous. Rather, the alien righteousness of Christ, which you receive through faith, produces a righteousness, which truly does good by loving your neighbor and seeking to do good before it is demanded of you. This third kind of righteousness is called active righteousness, because whereas you receive Christ’s alien righteousness passively as a gift, you produce this third kind of righteousness actively from an honest and good heart.
Yet, only the righteousness of Christ saves you. And this righteousness is received through faith alone, when you believe that God does not count your sins against you for the sake of Jesus’ suffering and death for your sins. And through this alien righteousness of Christ in you, God will produce an active righteousness, which will serve your neighbor and glorify God in heaven. Amen.
If you were answering those questions during this sermon and would like to know if you go them all right, here are the answers: The three uses of the law are the curb, mirror, and guide. The three kinds of righteousness are civil, alien, and active. The chief use of the law is the mirror, because it shows you your sin and need for a Savior. The only righteousness which saves is alien righteousness, because it belongs to Jesus and is given to you as a gift.