Sermon 88

Be Righteous

John 16:10


May 15, 2016


Grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today is Pentecost Sunday – the Great 50th Day – one of the three major Christian holidays, along with Christmas and Easter. But what does it bring that cannot be found in the other two?


The Work of the Holy Spirit

According to Martin Luther (1483–1546), the “work of the Holy Spirit,” which marks this day, is to make everything – “understanding, light, courage, and heart” – burn with “desire for everything that pleases God” (LW 77:326–27). And that’s needed because Christianity is more than the Creed. It’s more than doctrine. It’s more than belief in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

No, it is also a life (Acts 9:2). So in addition to believing, we are called to follow the Lord (Luke 9:23; Galatians 5:25) and live lives that are “worthy of the Gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27). We are to practice what we preach; we are to act upon what we know is true. Mulling it over and signing off on it, is not enough. It must also be practiced and applied (LW 30:34, 159). And so Jesus had disdain for the hypocrites (Matthew 23:13–33) – those who didn’t practice what they preached. Jesus is most vitriolic when he lashes out against them – “Woe to you hypocrites, who are like white-washed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness!”


Being Righteous

And we need this help because being righteous in God’s eyes is more than doing the right thing. No, we not only have to do the right thing, but we also have to think the right way, when we are doing the right thing, if we are to be righteous. But the worldly don’t think so. For them it’s enough when we simply do the right thing. It doesn’t matter to them how we think about what we’ve done. It doesn’t matter if we’re looking for praise and being proud of ourselves for the good we have done. Just bring the bag of food into the food bank and help the hungry and that’s that! They don’t care what you’re thinking when you drop off that bag of food for the hungry. But God does. He wants more. He’s also looking for humility and thanksgiving. So when we do the right thing he wants us to thank him for helping us do it (1 Thessalonians 5:18). That’s because without him we can do nothing (John 15:5). Quite nothing! We can’t exist without him (Psalm 104:29; Acts 17:28). We can’t stay healthy without him (James 5:14). And there’s no kindness in us to lead us on to do the right thing without him granting it to us (Galatians 5:22). So just try doing all of that by yourself! Just try keeping yourself alive, healthy and kind!

            Luther understood this all quite well. He cared deeply about the right way to do good works. On the first Reformation Day, October 31, 1517, Luther didn’t nail his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door. No, he had already sent them to his bishop, Albert, in Mainz [S. H. Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer (2015) pp. 60–61]. No, he instead preached a sermon on grace and good works [Reformation Writings of Martin Luther, trans. B. L. Woolf, vol. 1 (Lutterworth, 1952) pp. 49–55] – yes, good works, properly understood. And the sure foundation for those works is Matthew 7:17 – that only a good tree can bear good fruit:


These words… sound strange… to the ears of the world. In the world… righteousness means… the conduct that conforms to laws…. But how do the words of Christ… agree with this concept?.... These words show exhaustively that Christ is not speaking here of outward, secular righteousness, which is important and necessary for this life…. All men, [however] and everything they do… are subject to sin and damnation…. What, then becomes of righteousness?.... [Well, there is] Christ’s assumption of our sins [in his] crucifixion,… and the fact that He did not remain under sin…. Just as He came down from heaven for our sakes,… so He also ascended into heaven for our sakes [John 16:10]…. [There] He redeems us… and gives us forgiveness of sin…. This is a peculiar righteousness [that is] entirely outside us in Christ… [So if] my life does not pass muster before God,… I have another treasure…. Therefore learn this verse well…. It is true of course that we must improve our conduct;… but a better life… does not  accomplish what Christ’s going to the father [does]…. No, there is no other consolation than Christ’s going to the Father. This is our chief possession,… our ultimate trust (LW 24:345–49).

So works that are truly good in God’s eyes are very difficult to do because we can’t control our thoughts – the good that I would do I cannot do (Romans 7:19). We can get the good deed done, but we can’t do it with humility. That’s because our hearts and minds are “desperately corrupt” (Jeremiah 17:9). We’re always asking about ourselves when we help others – which turns our righteousness into filthy rags in God’s eyes (Isaiah 64:6 KJV). So we need a fire lighted under us to get us going – to move off the dime.


Our Righteous Redeemer

Into this swamp of indecision and self-absorption steps the Savior, Jesus Christ. He solves the problem by becoming our righteousness for us (1 Corinthians 1:30)! This is amazing. He shares his greatness with us! He who was rich became poor so that by his poverty we might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). Unheard of! Baseball players can’t do this. They can’t share with me the ability to hit a 95 mile an hour fastball. The great Ted Williams (1918–2002) was said to have been able to see the laces on the baseball as it fired in when he was up to bat [My Turn at Bat (1969) pp. 93–94]. No way could he share that with me! And can I share with you my ability to read Biblical Hebrew? Both of these skills are clearly non-transferable. But not the righteousness of Christ! He miraculously shares that with us so that we may be children of God (John 1:12) – something we never could do on our own.

            And Christ becomes righteous by going to the Father (John 16:10). He goes to mediate for us (1 Timothy 2:5). He goes to intercede for us ( Hebrews 7:25). He goes to be our advocate before the Father (1 John 2:1). This only he can do as John 14:6, Romans 5:2, and Acts 4:12 say, and as Luther reaffirms (LW 24:349). All of this Jesus does by dying for us – by being punished in our place (Hebrews 9:26). For this reason God loves him (John 10:17). And it is just that love that he passes on to us. He does this in his word and in the Sacrament of the Altar. In that sacrament he abides in us that we might abide in him (John 6:56). This is where the sharing goes on. So here is our life and salvation (John 6:53).

            So when we do a good deed in Christ, we don’t think about what we’ve done but rather about whom we’ve helped. When asked about feeling good about what we’ve done, we’re puzzled. Why should we, we say back? Well, because you did it and that’s great, we’re told. But did we really do it all by ourselves? This line of inquiry doesn’t get the Christian very far – much to the amazement of our worldly friends who trade in recognition, respect and being thanked. But we know it isn’t about being thanked (Luke 17:9–10). We know it’s more about being content in whatever state we’re in (Philippians 4:11). We know it’s about our Redeemer (Ephesians 1:7), who is of such great worth (Philippians 3:8).


The Pillar of Truth

And when we leave church today, we are called to do good works in our Redeemer’s name (Colossians 3:17). One such work would be to strengthen and promote his church – that gathering of the baptized who struggle together to be righteous. For on Pentecost we not only celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, but also the birth of the Church.

   But what is the Church? Is it a place for entertainment? Or does it ride the crest of the wave in search of innovation, as well as theological and liturgical creativity? Is it the celebration of new theories of the meaning of life – like that put forth by the award winning scientist, E. O. Wilson, in his book, The Meaning of Human Existence (2015)? Or is it just a gathering of friends for good times? Well, what does the Bible say the Church is?

1 Timothy 3:15 states clearly that it is none of the above. It instead is the “pillar and bulwark of truth.” No innovation here. No updating of beliefs to be seen here. No, the church is just like this concrete pillar standing before me – it doesn’t move. Every now and then, over the years, Dean and I come into the church to see if that pillar has moved or not. We look for any slight give in it. It’s been standing there for over 65 years now. But we never see a bit of movement! Strong and steady – and so is the church – that “pillar and bulwark of truth.” The truth – about ungodliness and godliness, about sin and salvation (LW 14:290) – nothing changes. For these matters are eternal. So no updating here. We remain needy sinners, and Christ our willing, gracious and unique Savior, keeps on giving salvation to all who call on him (Acts 2:21).

So stand by the church – the very body of Christ (Colossians 1:18). Promote its truth. Rejoice in the Savior, Jesus, who shares his righteousness with us, so that as we live together in the church, we may ourselves finally become righteous. Amen.


(printed as preached but with some changes)