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  • Writer's pictureRev. Chris Brademeyer

The What and Why of Righteousness


Receiving Righteousness

The First Sunday after Trinity, 6/2/2024

Genesis 15:1-6

Rev. Christopher W. Brademeyer

 

That portion of God’s holy Word for consideration this morning is our Old Testament reading from the book of Genesis in the fifteenth chapter with special emphasis on verse six which reads as follows:

               

                “And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”[1]

 

Thus far the Scriptures.

 

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

                Righteousness is one of those concepts that is frequently discussed in our congregation, indeed, is commonly discussed in all Christian congregations. And there is good reason for this. After all, righteousness is at the heart of the Christian religion and is one of the central attributes of God Himself.

                So, then, it is a necessary thing for us today to spend some time discussing what “righteousness”  is. According to Webster’s Dictionary, righteousness means being free from guilt or sin, or being morally right or justifiable.[2] That is to say, the English term deals with purity and holiness and moral rightness. To be righteous, then, is to be without stain, to be ethically and morally clean and pure, and to be holy. The Hebrew term translated here as righteous is tsedaqah (צְדָקָה), has generally the same range of meaning. That is to say, it relates as well to holiness, moral purity and cleanness, and being free from all guilt and sin. But, in addition to this, it is often attached to God and His actions. For example, the Psalmist says in Psalm 119:40, “Behold, I long for your precepts; in your righteousness give me life!”[3]

                And here comes the great problem. God is righteous and demands righteousness, but we are not. “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me,”[4] says King David. Indeed, his evaluation of his condition before God might as well be our own. The problem we have as sinners is a profound deficit of righteousness. Now this does not mean, as some erroneously take our teaching on this matter, that we are incapable of human decency and the relative sort of goodness that takes place between human beings. As sinners our problem is with God, not necessarily with each other. And while it is certainly the case that a sinner will tend to grow in his pettiness, greediness, unforgiving nature, and the like from the lack of the love and forgiveness of God in himself or herself, it is also possible for an unbeliever to be a decent enough neighbor who has nice backyard barbeques, sprays his dandelions, and pays his special assessments. But, doing such things or not is not the real issue of righteousness. Righteousness is not reducible to simple morality. It is, at its core, a matter of the whole person, or as we like to say, a matter of the heart. This does not mean that righteousness is a matter only of the inner self. The heart is emblematic of the whole person and righteousness, properly understood, manifests itself in one’s life by way of actions. Righteousness is rooted in our deepest self and grows forth into good works of all sorts. The works are not the cause of the righteousness, just as fruit does not cause the fruiting plant to be planted or any growth that might take place. This is illustrated in our Gospel reading today.[5] The rich man is condemned, not for his riches, but for the lack of practicing righteousness.

                To put this briefly, sin and righteousness are incompatible with each other. They are polar opposites to each other. This is why two related things happen in the matter of justification, that is, how we are made to have a holy, righteous status before God through Jesus Christ. Firstly, our sins are forgiven and taken away as far as the east is from the west.[6] Through the shed blood of Christ, sin is undone, atoned for, and forgiven in Christ. But the removal of sin is not all that we need, we also need to be righteous. However, as sinners, we do not have the capacity to be righteous. We do not produce holiness, moral purity, or have the ability to live free from sin and the guilt associated with it. As such, we need to be made righteous, to receive righteousness.

                And this is exactly what God does for us. Not only are we forgiven of our sins, but we also receive and have credited to us the righteousness of Christ. Martin Luther called this an alien righteousness in a famous sermon given in 1519.[7] That is to say, this righteousness is not from us or by us, but it is certainly for us. And since it is not our own, it is not found internally, in our piety, prayers, or any such thing that might originate in us. It is not our decision that makes us righteous. Indeed, we do not even cooperate with God in the matter. That is to say, we are monergists, that is, those who do no work in salvation, we simply and passively receive it.

                How could we do anything for salvation? It is all done in Christ! Even faith is given as a gift by the work and ministry of the Holy Spirit. Simply put, we passively receive forgiveness, life, salvation, even the very righteousness of God. This is not a new thing either. Sometimes we Christians imply that righteousness by faith is something that is a New Testament reality and the God saved in the days of the Old Testament by obedience to the Law of God. However, this passage today shows us that God has dealt with us by saving us by faith, not by works even in the Old Testament. In other words, our Father in the faith Abraham was counted righteous by his trust in God and the power of the Almighty to save. The same is true now, though we have the benefit of doing this by way of seeing the accomplished salvation of mankind from our historical vantage point rather than by way of anticipation as the patriarch Abraham did.

                While faith is passive, it is not inactive. Faith may not do anything for our salvation other than receiving what Christ has done for us in dying for our salvation, both in terms of granting us forgiveness and righteousness, but it does lead to actions. That is to say, the righteousness passively received by faith produces good works, the fruit of righteousness and cultivates these righteous actions in service to our friends and neighbors and other godly living. As James notes, faith without works is dead,[8] that is to say, faith in Christ produces the godly fruits He desires in the things we do in our lives as Christians.

                The matter before us is rather simple. We are justified by faith, that is, we passively receive the gifts of God won for us in Christ Jesus. And this is not our work in anyway, it is the gift of God. And because we trust in this saving work of God, we are accounted righteous and fit for the eternal Kingdom of God.

In the holy Name of + Jesus. Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

 


[1] Genesis 15:6 English Standard Version. All subsequent citations from the Bible are ESV unless otherwise specified.

[3] Psalm 119:40

[4] Psalm 51:5

[5] Luke 16:19-31

[6] Psalm 103:12

[7] Luther’s Works, vol. 31, pp. 297-99. This sermon may have been preached in late 1518, dating is uncertain.

[8] James 2:20

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