(Note: I preached a version of this sermon on October 25, 2015 (Reformation Sunday) at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois.)
I promised to share some bad religious advice today. There is a lot of it available, especially online. I find it easy enough to ignore. But this one really stuck out. It was from an item called “7 Ways to Discipline Your Wife.” I’m not going to tell you where it’s published, but it’s an explicitly Christian website. There is plenty of stuff like it if you really want to look for it.
The writer—a man, in case it needs to be said—is clear that he does not believe in physically disciplining wives. Good for him. Seriously. There are people who don’t agree. But he recommends discipline for wives who fail their husbands in certain ways: by talking disrespectfully to their husbands, by spending too much money, by neglecting the home, by denying their husbands sexually.
So fellas, if your wife fails to care for the children, or contradicts your authority with the children, give this a try:
…perhaps you might put off buying that new car for her and have her continue driving her older car for a while as long as it is safe for her to drive. If you have to purchase another car – you could downgrade the type of car she will be able to get or buy her a used one instead. Maybe you put off the purchase of that new dishwasher she has been wanting.
And if your wife is not motivated by the prospect of a new dishwasher, you may be out of luck.
Now advice like this is very earnestly meant, even if it is wrong and destructive. I don’t mean to ridicule it. The author is some anonymous guy, not a big public figure like Pat Robertson or whoever.
And, you know, I do believe that people should work out their marriages on their own terms. If you have a clear understanding that the husband provides cars and dishwashers in exchange for certain tasks and attitudes, may it provide great happiness.
People give advice all the time, after all. What I found so objectionable about this was the insistence that this is the way to be a good Christian. It’s not just that I take it a wee bit personally when someone says that an equal marriage between partners who work together is un-Christian, though I do. It’s something more than that.
I’ve come to think of these things as the Christian-Branded Lifestyle. How you organize your household, how you dress, how you raise your kids—all of these things become a test of your faith. They become the content of the Gospel itself. Are you living the way God commands you to live? Are you attaining the righteousness of God?
Christ may have lived, died, and risen from the dead for you; Christ may have made you his own in baptism, the Holy Spirit may daily forgive your sins but it is all in vain if you don’t submit cheerfully to your husband.
But that’s all wrong. Totally wrong. Dangerously wrong.
Paul the Apostle says something very different in today’s reading. It can be challenging to follow, so I’ll read it again:
Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For ‘no human being will be justified in his sight’ by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.
Paul is saying here that the law of God—the good and righteous Law that God gave to the people of Israel in the Bible—does not make people righteous, or justified. In fact, it does the opposite: the commands of God show us what sin is. It makes us accountable to God. It silences our boasting that we are the ones who know God, who love God, who are good in the eyes of God.
He goes on:
But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.
But now, Paul says, but now the righteousness of God—that righteousness we’re supposed to attain by living the Christian-Branded Lifestyle—the righteousness of God has been disclosed in a new way. The Law and Prophets of the Bible looked forward to it, but now it was here: the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.
This verse is like an explosion. How do we get right with God? How do we attain that righteousness with which God judges the world and condemns the wickedness of humanity? Do we have to humble ourselves before our husbands? Do we have to lord it over our wives? Do we have to follow “Biblical life principles”? Do we have to pray an hour every day? Will that get us to the righteousness of God?
Paul says: No it won’t. The righteousness of God has been revealed, and it comes through faith in Jesus Christ. It comes in an instant. It comes as a gift. It comes to the sinner who clings to Christ. And this clinging, this faith is what opens the doors of heaven all at once. It doesn’t come to the one who is busy pleasing God with a Christian-Branded Lifestyle. It comes to the sinner who believes. Period. End of story.
For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.
Today is what we in the Lutheran church call Reformation Sunday, a day when we come back to this insight of Paul’s, this frantic insistence that Christ gives us not just a bit of righteousness, not just a bit of God that we complete with our good behavior, but the whole thing.
And we do this not just because we want to sing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” and pull out the red paraments. We do it because we are always tempted to want more than faith in Christ. We are always tempted to say that his death and resurrection, and his baptism, and his body and blood, and his words shared and prayed over together are not quite enough. Surely our decisions and our morals and our lifestyles add something. Surely God needs us to do our part.
Martin Luther, the 16th-century German monk who kicked off this whole thing, wrote very movingly about this passage. “I hated that word, the ‘righteousness of God,’” he said. He had been taught that the righteousness of God was the righteousness with which God judged the world. And it was a righteousness he didn’t ever seem to be able to reach.
We live in a very different world than Martin Luther did. But I think I get what he was saying. I would hate the idea too if I’d been taught that being righteous meant disciplining your wife or doing only manly-man stuff or whatever else the Christian-Branded Lifestyle requires. I’d have hated the idea of righteousness if I grew up believing that God wanted me to ignore science or look down on people who aren’t Christians.
But in this passage, Luther finally saw something different. The righteousness of God wasn’t what God demanded of us. It was what God did for us. It was God making us righteous through faith. “All at once I felt as though I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates.” He searched his memory for other words in the Bible: the work of God, is that which God works in us; the power of God, by which God makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which God makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.
That’s what all this stuff is about, “A Mighty Fortress” and Psalm 46 and the Gospel where the Son sets you free indeed—God for us. And it’s God for us regardless of whether our lifestyle is stamped with the “Christian” seal of approval. It’s God for us not when we think we’re doing everything right, but when we know we’re doing everything wrong. It’s God for us not when we hear God demanding that we reach up to his righteousness. It’s God for us when we hear God giving us the righteousness of his Son as a pure gift.