If there is one word in Holy Scripture that causes anger in some, but joy in others, it is the word “righteousness”. Martin Luther at one time hated the word because, in his words, I had been taught to understand philosophically regarding the formal or active righteousness, as they called it, with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner… I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God… Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience.
Luther’s confusion, perhaps your confusion, is because Scripture uses the word “righteousness” in three senses. First of all, it denotes an attribute of God. Second, the pious life of a human being. Third, the merit of Christ or the righteousness of faith. If you are confused as to what sense of the word “righteousness” is used in Scripture, you will either go with Luther to the brink of despair, or you will be lost through false confidence. The latter danger is greater because you are by nature under the delusion that a righteous life saves.
Jesus, however, demands a higher, better, more perfect righteousness than your righteousness, or even the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees. Jesus demands His righteousness. You cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven unless you have the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
Pharisaical righteousness is a two-faced lie before God and man. The Pharisees were the hypocrite’s hypocrite. They feigned external piety. Recall Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector that we’ll hear more about next month, Lord willing. The Pharisee stands before all beating his breast and making a big show of how pious he is. Yet inwardly the Pharisee hated the Tax Collector and, frankly, hated everyone who wasn’t just like him.
What’s worse, the Pharisees were only considering about the act and not about the condition of the heart. You sinned by killing someone, but the anger and hatred that fueled the murder were not considered. They were zealous about the Law, but mostly about the deed and not so much about the thoughts and words. Jesus did not tolerate their hypocrisy. He gives seven woes to the scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites in Matthew chapter 23.
There are Pharisees in the Christian Church. These are the people who go to church and partake of the Lord’s Supper, yet they still live here in gross sins. They hate, they are angry, envious, and dishonest. That’s you. That’s me too. We all put on the mask of piety, yet easily rip it off to reveal the me that nobody should know. All too easily the trap is laid that if you do something just so, if you are really, really, really pious about something, even more so than your spouse or your neighbor, that is why you are a Christian. That is why God will spare you from eternal condemnation.
External piety is a good thing that can go wrong when you pin your hope for salvation on it. External righteousness is still only external. It is a highly imperfect fulfillment of divine Law. True fulfillment of the Law, true righteousness, true holiness, must be done with the heart. Jesus says, You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.
You don’t want to go before the judge. If you go before the judge, you know a decision will be rendered…and it may not be the decision you want. You won’t be happy and your adversary won’t be happy. It’s best to resolve the matter outside of court. That way you will have won your brother back and kept the matter from a final decision that could lead to bigger problems.
Every transgression of the Law, even in the heart, all other good works, even worship and prayer, is reprehensible before God when you put all these things before His face and expect Him to give you justice for them. No wonder Luther hated the word “righteousness” so much. All he did for a long time was try to please an angry God with his outward works and piety, thinking God would be pleased by them. All Luther did was stoke the reprehensible fire of God’s heart.
Then came his rediscovery of the Gospel. Luther writes, At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ ” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.
If someone could perfectly fulfill the Law, then he could be saved through the righteousness of the Law. This is impossible. Luther saw it. You see it, too. You are a transgressor of the Law from birth. So you must look somewhere else, to someone else, for perfect righteousness. You, like Luther, look to Jesus Christ, Who actively, actually, perfectly fulfilled the Law for you, in your place. Jesus also satisfies divine righteousness in His suffering, His passive, obedience. He passes away for you, carrying your debt of sin into the tomb where it is buried forever.
You receive this righteousness when it is preached and offered in the Gospel. You can’t have it forced down your throat. It is a gift of God, of which no man can boast. The Holy Spirit appropriates this gift in the preaching of the Gospel, in your Baptism, in the Lord’s Supper, and in Absolution. These gifts create and sustain faith. These gifts give you what you are looking for: righteousness that exceeds the scribes and Pharisees.
Luther then continues, I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word “righteousness of God.” If you’ve read even one thing Luther has written, and you’ve read the Small Catechism so that’s at least one, you’ve learned how much Luther loved the phrase “righteousness of God”. You love that phrase too, for your salvation is built on it. Someone, Jesus, is righteous for you, in order that you are righteous before God Almighty. Standing before Him, robed in Jesus Christ and His glorious work on your behalf, the kingdom of heaven is yours for Jesus’ sake.