There are two kinds of righteousness. The righteousness that you do and the righteousness that God does. The righteousness of works and the righteousness of faith. The righteousness of the Law and the righteousness of the Gospel.
The righteousness of the Law works this way: Do it and you will live. It’s that simple. Do it, do the Law, keep the commandments, and you will live. The righteousness of the Gospel works this way: Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. Law says “do and live,” the Gospel says, “Believe and live.”
This is where Israel went wrong. They had the Torah, but they focused on the commandments and forget the promises. They concluded that the Torah was a Torah of works. The Pharisees, of whom Paul was a member, charted 613 mitzvoth, dos and don’ts, things to do and not do, in order to keep Torah and do the righteousness that God required. This is how all religion approaches the righteousness of God. It’s a natural and obvious way of looking at it. God is righteousness; you’re not, so you better get cracking. Do the works of righteousness and you will be righteous. Just like the Nike commercial. Just do it. Do the Law and you will live by the Law.
The problem is that you can’t do the Law. Oh, you can do some of the Law, outwardly at least. But the Law is an all or nothing proposition. Do it and you will live, don’t do it and you will die. The Law doesn’t say, “Try hard and you will live.” “Make an effort in the right direction and you will live.” The Law isn’t graded on a curve. It’s do or die. Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect. Be holy as the Lord your God is holy. Not just be “pretty good” or “basically a nice person.” Be perfect, be holy. Jesus said your righteousness of works under the Law must exceed, exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees, the guys with the 613 dos and don’ts. They were good. They were really good. That’s why Jesus singles them out. They set the bar, but still the bar wasn’t high enough. Unless you outdo even the scribes and the Pharisees in righteousness, you won’t enter the kingdom of heaven.
The Law is whole hog, all or nothing. One little slip. One stray bit of gossip, one sideways glance of lust, one little hiccup of covetousness and you are guilty of the whole Law. That sound unfair, doesn’t it? You should be able to at least get credit for being basically a pretty good person, shouldn’t you? Why would one minor infraction make you guilty of breaking the whole Law entirely?
Here’s why. Sin isn’t about sinning. Sin is why sinning happens in the first place. The sins we commit in thought, word, and deed are symptoms of the condition of Sin. Sometimes the symptoms are raging, sometimes they are pretty mild. A little helpless infant is basically symptom free for a short while. Not for long. We might go for a while and begin to think that the disease is in remission, that we’re on our way to being cured. And then it flares up again, like a dormant virus, and we realize that we still have this condition called Sin. We’ve had it since we were conceived. It’s in our spiritual DNA as children of Adam. It’s why Paul cries out, “O wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
There’s no such thing as a partial disease. Even if you have only three itchy red bumps on your body, you still have a full blown case of the measles. You don’t have half a case. If you have a runny nose but not itchy, watery eyes or a scratchy throat, you don’t have one third of a cold. You have a cold. And even if the sum total of your sinning in a given day is a discouraging word, a covetous thought, and minor misdeed, even if you locked yourself up in a cell where you couldn’t hurt anyone else, you would still have the condition of Sin, which coupled with the Law, brings death. You’re not a little bit of a sinner, you are full blown full of Sin, Sin-full, and if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
That’s why one sin makes you guilty of breaking the whole Law. It’s a symptom of a total and deep corruption of our humanity, from head to toe, body and soul, everything. And that’s why the righteousness of the Law won’t work for a sinner because a sinner cannot do the righteousness of the Law. And that’s why our works cannot be held up before God. They are sin-full, full of sin, even when they are outwardly good.
This is why God has provided another kind of righteousness, a totally different way of righteousness. The righteousness of faith. This is not the righteousness you do but the righteousness that Christ does for you and gives to you. This is not about you going up to heaven to bring Christ down, or going down to the dead to bring Christ up. Christ does it all. He comes down, He lives, He suffers, He dies, He rises, He ascends – all for you. His doing is finished. He said so. “It is finished.” And He gives you that finished work of righteousness as a free gift to you by faith in Him. You stand before God covered with a righteousness that is not your own, but the righteousness that belongs to Christ and is yours by faith. It’s like wearing a Jesus suit. When God looks at you, He sees Jesus.
It’s the “word of faith” and not the “word of works” that Paul proclaimed. Words go in, words come out. It’s the Word of faith that goes out from mouths sent by God and into ears that changes minds and creates new hearts that believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection are yours and that rattle out of you from the new heart of faith as the confession “Jesus is Lord.” Words in, words out. Word of faith in, confession of faith out. It’s like breathing. First you inhale, then you exhale. The inhaling is more like God doing CPR on us, old school CPR. He breathes life into our lifeless, Sin-dead clay with His living, breathing Word, and we exhale the Word of faith as confession of the name of Jesus.
Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ. All of you who believe here, believe as the result of the Word of faith, the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection for your forgiveness, life, and salvation. And if you’re unsure whether God intends to give you the gift of faith, consider this: He’s arranged for you to hear it today, here and now. Jesus lived, suffered, died, and rose and He is your righteousness. He came to seek and to save you. He was sent by the Father to preach good news. He sent His disciples to preach good news. He established His office of the ministry to preach good news. I stand here today before you as one sent by God. My feet may not be terribly beautiful, but they are the feet of one who has been sent by God, called and ordained to Christ’s service, to say on His behalf, “Your sins are forgiven, and you stand before God clothed in the righteousness, innocence, and holiness of Christ your Savior.” God has arranged it for me to preach and you to hear, and faith comes by hearing. So don’t imagine for a second that God doesn’t intend to save and forgive you. Your hearing this is hard evidence, and faith comes by hearing.
Faith comes by hearing because the Word of faith is powerful. It’s not just a report to be believed, narrative to be discussed like the latest offering of the book of the month club, talking about Jesus so you can buy into the program. We don’t give the Word nearly enough credit. The Word is the powerful faith-creating, faith-enlivening Word that calls into being out of nothing, that says, “Be light” and light there is. Jesus says the word, “Come” to Peter, and the disciple defies all laws of buoyancy and actually walks on top of the water just like Jesus did. And not just a step or two. Matthew says, “He walked on the water and came to Jesus.” And he did that not in the power of his will or his walk, but in the power of Jesus’ word that said to Peter, “Come.”
That same powerful Word of faith was spoken to you over the waters of your Baptism. Jesus said to you, “Come to Me, and follow Me.” And while you didn’t walk on the water, you died and rose in the water. You were born again from above in the water. You became a child of God in the water. You were clothed with the robe of Jesus’ righteousness in that water. The Word of faith came to your ears as it comes to you here today this morning.
Faith always has an object. You don’t just have faith. You have faith in something. You trust something. Peter didn’t walk on water solely by his faith. He walked on water by faith in the Word of Jesus. It was the Word of Jesus that kept him afloat, and only when he got distracted by the wind and the waves did he start to sink. Saving faith is faith in Jesus, not that He exists or that He died and rose, that’s a given. Saving faith is faith that what Jesus did for all, He did for you, and that you stand before God, even though you are still very much 100% sinner, you stand before God justified, righteous for Jesus’ sake.
Most of the time, the Christian faith is not a romp on the surface of the water. In fact, it rarely, if ever is. Peter only did that once. And then only for a brief moment. As sinner-saints, we are filled with doubt, anxiety, fear, anguish. The devil, the world, our flesh knock us around like the wind and the waves that threatened to sink Peter. But there is that moment when Peter is about to go under the water. I want you to freeze frame it in your mind, if you can. He’s standing next to Jesus and he begins to doubt the Word of Jesus and starts to go under. And he cries out to Jesus, “Lord, save me.” In that moment there is both great doubt and great faith. The only one who could save Peter was standing on the water next to him. And Jesus reaches out his hand (Peter didn’t reach out his hand, Jesus did!) and he grabs him and brings him safely to the boat again.
That’s you and me. Doubtful yet believing. “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” And it’s the Lord who grabs us by His Word and won’t let us go. He hauls us back to the safety of the boat, our ark on the flood, and there we are safe to worship Jesus as Lord and Son of God.
The Word of faith is near you. It is in your ears, in your heart, on your lips. God put it there. The Word that says you are righteous and holy before God for Jesus’ sake. Trust it.
In the Name of Jesus,