The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
If Jesus had told us to NOT be like the scribes and the Pharisees, that would make perfect sense, right? “Don’t be like those works-righteous fools, who wrongly believe that all their good works and glory-hounding somehow earns them God’s grace and favor.” We’d have no problem with that. Simple and straight-forward. Easy to understand. And most importantly, it accords with the rest of Scripture, right? We’re saved by grace through faith, and not because of our works, lest anyone should boast.
And yet… that’s NOT what Jesus says here. In fact, it’s just the opposite. “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” There’s no maybe about it. Unless you “outrighteous” the best do-gooders; the very pillars of society and pinnacles of what it means to be “good and holy,” you will NEVER enter the kingdom of heaven. That’s a problem. Even the great and mighty Oprah can’t hold a candle to the scribes and Pharisees when it comes to the righteousness of good works and right living. What hope do we have?! And now Jesus is telling us to outshine and “outrighteous” them?! That makes no sense! Either you’re saved by grace through faith, or you’re saved because of your works. Which is it, Jesus?!
Well… believe it or not, it is quite simple; so simple that even the smallest children can (and do) understand it. In fact, I would argue that the smallest of children understand it better than we do. Let’s just start with the simple fact that NO ONE is saved by their own works. From the fall in the Garden of Eden until the end of time, man is saved through faith in God’s grace. That’s it. There has NEVER been a time in all of history that man has earned/merited salvation by his works. If that were the case, then God wouldn’t have had to send His only-begotten Son to take our place. But He did. Jesus gave up all of heaven’s majesty and glory in order to redeem us; to pay our wage of sin. He did what no man can do. He fulfilled the Law perfectly, every jot, every tittle, every iota. More than that, He took our place in suffering all of the heavenly Father’s righteous wrath. He took all our guilt upon His shoulders. He shed His blood; laid down His life as a perfect and all-redeeming substitute for us. He paid our wage in full. It is finished, once and for all. He got what we justly deserve, and because of His all-atoning death and resurrection, we get what we don’t deserve—grace, mercy, and peace—all of which is attained through faith alone. We don’t earn it. We don’t merit it. It’s all really bad accounting when you think about it. All our sin is credited to Him, and all His righteousness, in turn, is credited to us, by grace (and grace alone).
Dear children of God: This is the righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees—Christ’s perfect righteousness. It’s a righteousness that is not and cannot be earned. It’s a perfect and all-availing righteousness that is graciously gifted to us by God’s grace and mercy. We see this unconditional and unmerited gifting of righteousness and grace right here at the baptismal font. We see it right here at the altar and communion rail. It’s all so very simple.
Bear in mind: We are still called to do good works! The Law isn’t abolished! It’s still written on our hearts. However, understood in the light of justification, these aren’t prescriptions for salvation, but rather descriptions of those who have been saved. Truly God-pleasing righteous works are not something that can be prescribed or commanded, no different than the apple tree can be commanded to bear good apples. God-pleasing righteous works can only be observed and witnessed and praised. Just like the good tree naturally bears good fruits, the joy of your justification will bear good and God-pleasing fruit; fruits that will be witnessed in your daily workings and sojournings. You will be different, not in order to be saved, but out of the joy that you are saved. And in this respect, even the smallest, most meager work is great and good and righteous and God-pleasing in His sight, not because it’s earth-shattering and bank-busting and newsworthy, but solely because it is a work that humbly and gratefully flows forth from Christ’s perfect and all-redeeming righteousness.
Folks: This is the “gift” we bring to the altar. It’s not a gift of our works/deeds, as if all this is one big quid pro quo; i.e., we scratch God’s back, and He, in turn, scratches ours. No! Ours is the gift of thanksgiving. “What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits to me? I will offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving.” We come to this altar in thanksgiving for all that Christ has done and continues to do for us. We come to receive Him and to render thanks and praise to Him. And this “sacrifice of thanksgiving” isn’t just a Sunday morning thing. Properly understood, all our righteous works are really nothing more than thankful responses to the all-availing righteousness shown to us in Christ and because of Christ. And in this way, the sanctified, righteous good works daily performed by a faithful citizen of heaven in reflex-response to the joy of justification in Christ automatically outshine and exceed anyone and anything put forth by those outside the kingdom of heaven. It’s that simple.
So…like many sermons you’ve heard before, this sermon will end much the same way. You’re not going to hear prescription; i.e., how you need to do/not do this, that, or the other thing in order to be deemed a good Christian. You’re not going to hear how you need to abstain from this and do more of that, or else your salvation is at risk. Nope. Just the opposite! Hear the description of your baptismal reality! You have been made alive and set free from the bondage of sin, death, and the devil; from the death sentence of Law, not because of anything you’ve done to deserve it, but solely because of Christ and His all-atoning death and resurrection. You are one whom God loved so much that He willingly sent His one and only Son to suffer and die for. His righteousness is your righteousness precisely because He took your sin and paid that impossible deadly wage in full with His own holy life blood on His all-redeeming cross. It is this Good News; this cruciform, baptismal righteousness that takes root and springs up to bear abundant God-pleasing fruits and works in all who hear and hold fast in faith.
May God grant this righteousness to you; the sanctified righteousness that naturally bears good and God-pleasing fruit in light of and in response to faith alone in God’s grace alone because of the perfect and all-availing righteousness of Christ alone. Folks: It really is that simple, and thanks be to God that it is!
In His name and to His glory… AMEN.
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