Note: I preached a version of this sermon on October 27, 2019 (Reformation Sunday) at Christ Lutheran Church in Dallas
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“But now, apart from Law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed.”
I want to draw your attention to this brief phrase of Paul the Apostle today. It does not sound especially noteworthy or interesting, so please bear with me. Because it is one of the most important little phrases in all of Scripture: the righteousness of God.
It sounds sort of obvious, right? “God” and “righteousness” go together, so much so that you can’t talk about one without talking about the other—like “sun” and “light” or “Texas” and “high school football.” To talk about God is to talk about righteousness and vice versa. But does Paul mean by “the righteousness of God”?
Well, let’s try a comparison. The righteousness of God vs. the righteousness of Benjamin.
God does nothing wicked.
Benjamin does some wicked things.
God is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
Benjamin changes. Sometimes he’s doing a good job, sometimes he gets lazy.
God does not need anything.
Benjamin needs lots of things. And he thinks he needs things that he really just wants.
God is good all the time.
Benjamin is good some of the time.
So the righteousness of Benjamin is not the righteousness of God, right? Benjamin is not bad, but he’s not all the way good either. He’s mixed up, he changes, he struggles. God is perfect, Benjamin is imperfect. God’s righteousness is WAAAY up here, Benjamin’s righteousness is sort of down here—not nothing, but not great either.
So this is one way to think of the righteousness of God—it’s like our righteousness, but more so: more constant, more perfect, just more. And for most Christians, most of the time, this is how we think of it. God is up here being perfectly righteous, and our job as Christians is become more and more like God. Our job is to climb up toward the righteousness of God. Our job is to meet the standard that God sets with God’s own righteousness. The Law of God is the way we do that. It teaches us what the righteousness of God is, and tells us what we have to do to reach it.
But Martin Luther heard something different in Paul’s words. If the “righteousness of God” has been revealed in the Good News of Jesus, and not through the Law, how can it mean that it’s something we have to keep trying to reach? What good does that good news do to poor suffering Benjamin Bullfrog, who has trouble enough as it is without being told that he has to keep working to make himself perfect in order to achieve the righteousness of God? How can it be that the Good News is that we have to meet an even higher standard than we thought we did?
Luther grasped an answer in this text: “For we hold that a person is justified—that is, made righteous—by faith, apart from works prescribed by the Law.” Luther describes this as something like a revelation. The “righteousness of God” is not a distant standard that we have to toil to meet. Instead it is the power of God to make us righteous. The righteousness of God makes us righteous.
Incidentally, Luther was borrowing an ancient interpretive move from St. Augustine, who talked about the rest of God on the Sabbath not as God’s inactivity—because God never changes, according to Augustine—but as God’s gift of rest to the whole creation. The wisdom of God is what makes us wise. The light of God is what enlightens us. The power of God is what makes us strong. The righteousness of God is not a distant standard, sitting there, that we work to reach. Instead it is God’s work of making us righteous, making us perfect and acceptable in God’s sight without our fulfilling one bit of the Law.
Luther called this the iustitia passiva Dei, the passive righteousness of God. He distinguished this from the active righteousness—Benjamin’s righteousness in always striving upward toward God to achieve. The righteousness of God can’t be achieved. It can only be received.
And this mattered so much because people in his world or ours could never feel that they had done enough to reach that distant righteousness of God. There was always more to do! We are always trying and never succeeding, always on the road and never at our destination, always reaching and never grasping. Luther’s claim was the opposite: the righteousness of God is not where your good works end. It’s not where your good works take you. It’s where your good works start. God has already given you everything, if you will receive it by trusting God’s promise revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
So why have I tried to walk us through this moment in Christian theology? What do Paul the Apostle and Martin Luther have to do with us?
First, we remember today that the righteousness of God is totally different than every other way we talk about being good in our world. We are always being driven to active righteousness. We have to keep improving in our work, meeting our targets, minding our metrics. We have to build or preserve our savings, if we’re lucky enough to have them. We have to pay down our debt, if we’re lucky enough to have income to do that; fix up our houses, if we’re lucky enough to own them. We even have to track our weight and our exercise and our diet for our health insurance. Everything in our world is active righteousness. Four weeks I’ve been here and I take weekly attendance numbers personally, as if my worth as a person is being judged by how many people are here to listen to me.
That is life: active righteousness. Always trying harder and never being or doing enough. And what we hear at church, what we receive in baptism, what we eat with our mouths in the Sacrament is exactly the opposite: God for us, Christ for us. Not a chore but a promise. Not more striving but a gift grasped by faith.
Second, we remember this moment today because even in the church, we are continually tempted to make righteousness into our business instead of God’s. In some churches, Christian righteousness is proved by our good morality. We don’t do bad things. We fulfill the law by refraining from the wrong kind of sex or fitting into proper gender roles or keeping a godly household. In other churches, Christian righteousness is expressed by having the right attitudes toward our neighbors, or having an appropriately inclusive way of thinking and talking and acting. And in most churches, we end up expressing Christian righteousness by activity. We volunteer, we give, we try to be helpful, we show up and we ask others to show up. Our own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has embraced this as a brand: God’s Work. Our Hands.
I understand where all this comes from. It’s good to be personally holy, it’s good to be inclusive, it’s good to be active. I know what our denomination is trying to say by telling people that being Lutheran means doing God’s work.
But I rankle when I hear it all the same. Because people already have work. Many people have more work than they can safely do, just to keep their families fed and clothed and housed. People have struggles enough without being told that they have to fulfill some imagined Biblical ideal of manhood or womanhood, that they have to straighten out their kids, that they have to use better words in order to be pleasing to God. There is always a way to leave people feeling like their little pile of righteousness is so small, and to leave them looking up at a distant and impatient God.
None of those things is the Gospel. None of those things is the righteousness of God revealed through faith for faith. We remember today that if you are here, if you are listening, if you are groping toward trust, you already have enough. You already are enough. If the only gift you have to give today, tomorrow, this year, this lifetime, is to come here and confess your sins and add your voice to the praise of heaven, you are righteous. God does not need anything else from you. Because God is always the one who gives.