The Problem With Me-Centered Righteousness

Text: Romans 9:30-10:4

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Many years ago, in a Bible study, I read a quote from an old Missouri Synod theologian that went something like this, 

"Even if you were to quit all of your habitual cursing, your continuous drinking, and your unending womanizing, you could still find yourself landing in hell." 

As I looked up from reading the quote, a long-standing church member turned beat red and was obviously agitated. Furthermore, the woman sitting at the same table next to him also shook her head with great disgust. As he started to raise his hand, I leaned forward to call on him, but before I could do so, he blurted out, 

"Pastor, are you saying that we do not need to do good works – that good works do not matter? Are you saying it is o.k. to sin?"

Unfortunately, these two individuals did not understand what the Missouri Synod Lutheran was saying. They couldn't make sense of his comment because they were super Christians. Yes, you heard that correctly. The two individuals sitting at that table weren't ordinary people. They weren't even ordinary Christians. But instead, they were super Christians. Both of them perceived themselves as being the most morally upright and righteous people in the church. They perceived themselves as being great examples to the rest of God's flock. They weren't drinkers, they weren't sexual deviants, and they weren't foul-mouth sailors. They dotted their I's; they crossed their T's. They paid their tithes. They did their volunteer service. But there was only one problem, the righteousness that they depended on for eternal life was not the righteousness of God but instead, it was their own righteousness. 

In our reading from the Epistle of Romans, Paul is clearly demonstrating to us that there are two kinds of righteousness. There is a kind of righteousness that mankind chases after, tries to accomplish, and does by their own willpower. It is an active kind of righteousness, one that a person must accomplish, achieve, and accumulate on their own. And on the other hand, there is a righteousness of God that is freely given.

Now, one would think that those two people were wonderful moral examples for the rest of the church. They were impressively pious – energetic regarding God. However, contrary to all appearances, they were doing everything exactly backward. And so, while it might be easy to think that they were great examples of Christianity, they were actually terrible examples of what it looked like to be a Christian. And again, the reason being, the righteousness that they depended on was a righteousness that they had established.  

As I later came to find out, these two individuals tragically had no room for the shed blood and resurrection of Jesus Christ in their version of Christianity. You see, anytime the free righteousness of God was mentioned, they not only got defensive but attacked. They attacked because they did not want to let go of their manmade righteousness. I can remember the lady sitting at that table talking to me later that week and saying, 

"Pastor Richard, I have believed the same way for the past 70-plus years, and some young pastor is not going to tell me otherwise!"

Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy; Lord have mercy on all of us.  

So how can we make sense of all of this? 

First, let us consider righteousness. What is righteousness? Dear friends, we must understand that righteousness is not just avoiding sin but also doing good, thinking respectably, and speaking well. And so, we could say it this way: avoiding sin is only half of the equation. And so, if you and I are successful in not habitually swearing, not continuously drinking, and not being a sexual deviant, then congratulations – you have avoided sin. However, that is all that you have done – you have avoided evil. In other words, righteousness is not only avoiding sin but also being perfect in thought, word, and deed, according to the Ten Commandments. And so, to be righteous, you should obviously avoid murder, but you should also uphold the gift of life. To be righteous, you should not only stop gossiping but also put the best construction on everyone and every situation. To be righteous, you should not only avoid coveting other people's things, but you should be 100% content with the gifts you already have. And so righteousness is not merely avoiding bad things. Instead, righteousness is avoiding bad and doing good as well. 

And so, back to those two individuals, their pride led them to believe they were righteous because they avoided certain sins. However, they failed to comprehend that they also needed to act, think, and talk perfectly as well. Frankly stated, they were fools in thinking that they had a sufficient righteousness before God almighty.

Secondly, perhaps the most damning thing about their theology was that their righteousness was not being done for their neighbor in need. In other words, since all of their efforts were to establish their own righteousness, all the evil they avoided and all the good they did was not for their neighbor in need but was to prop themselves up before God almighty. In fact, their righteousness was done with great zeal so that everyone else around them would see how great they were. They were doing good works to prop themselves up – to build their spiritual resumes. Their righteousness was me-centered.  

As we heard in last week's sermon, their story should be a warning to us – it should drive us to prayer and repentance,  

"Lord, protect us from setting up our own me-centered righteous systems and not submitting to Your righteousness."

Baptized Saints, the Apostle Paul is clear in the Epistle Reading! Salvation and righteousness are God's business. Jesus Christ not only avoided all the pitfalls of sin but also loved perfectly in thought, word, and deed making Him the epitome of righteousness. And so,  righteousness is found in Christ. And not only is it found in Christ, but it is also given to you and me as a gift. And so, properly speaking, righteousness is not established by you, but it is established by Christ. Righteousness is not obtained by striving after it, but it is obtained by receiving it by faith. Righteousness is not me-centered; it is Christ-centered.  Righteousness is not manmade but God-given.  

But what about those questions that were raised by those two individuals, 

"If righteousness does not depend on us, do we need to do good works?  Do good works matter? Are we saying that it o.k. to sin?"

Baptized Saints, some 500 years ago, Martin Luther correctly said, 

"God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does."

Oh, how we should print this on a banner and hang it outside of this church! God does not need your righteousness to satisfy his justice or earn His favor. Why? Because Christ has already done that for you! Christ has already secured God's favor toward you. There is nothing that you can do to make God love you more. You are already completely and totally loved, accepted, and forgiven by God, for Christ's sake! All that Christ has done for you in His life, death, and resurrection is personally given to you in the Word and Sacraments. And so, when you are plunged into the mighty waters of baptism, when you hear the powerful words of absolution, when you eat and drink from this table - you have God's complete and total righteousness. Nothing else is needed before God. God doesn't need your righteousness, but your neighbor does.  

Baptized Saints, think of it this way. Because of Jesus, you don't have to spend all of your time establishing righteousness for your salvation. Because of Jesus, you do not have to be narcissistically consumed with me-centered spirituality. Because of Christ and His righteousness that is freely given to us poor miserable sinners, we are set free to serve our neighbors. Any righteousness that we get to say, think, and do, is for our neighbors.  

Think of it this way: because we have vertically received the righteousness of Christ as a gift, our good works can take on a horizontal focus. Because we have every spiritual blessing in Christ, we are free from always focusing on ourselves, our accomplishments, and what other people think of us. We are freed to do something useful for our neighbor in need.  

And so, if there is any huffing and puffing over righteousness here at St. Paul's, well… it shouldn't be for God or for your own personal gain, but it can be for one another, as well as all of our neighbors in this city of Minot.  

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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