Pastor James Preus
July 16, 2023
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
What does Jesus mean by righteousness? Righteousness is an attribute of God. It is the order by which He runs the universe. Righteousness is what is right. Righteousness is the will of God. God expresses His righteous will in the Law and the Prophets, which are the Holy Scriptures. If you are to be righteous, you must conform yourself to God’s holy Word. You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
The righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees falls short, because it is superficial. Their righteousness is all outward works. Jesus calls them whitewashed tombs, clean on the outside, but filled with dead men’s bones and all uncleanness on the inside. They add rules to God’s commandments, not to become closer to God, but to make it easier for sinners to follow. And what is worse, they teach others to be like them. So, they not only refuse to enter the kingdom of heaven, but they prevent others from entering as well. But the Holy Spirit didn’t cause this to be recorded for our learning, so that we can judge and condemn a bunch of religious zealots who lived two thousand years ago. The scribes’ and Pharisees’ superficial righteousness is prevalent today. You should be concerned for yourself. Do you think you’re a good person, because you have conformed yourself to a few rules, because you have controlled your behavior? That is not the righteousness of God.
Jesus’ teaching is much different than the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus gets to the heart. “You have heard it 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 judgement.” Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Some think that by contrasting His teaching from what they had heard from of old, Jesus was contrasting His teaching from the Law and the Prophets. But Jesus is the true teacher of the Law and the Prophets. Jesus has not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them.
So, for you to be righteous, you must not simply behave properly on the outside, but your very heart must be righteous. You must desire to do God’s will from the heart and to serve your neighbor out of sincere love for him. Yet, this is impossible by your own power. Scripture says in Romans 8, “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” God indeed made mankind in His image with original righteousness, so that the first man and woman desired to do God’s will from the heart. Yet, that original righteousness was lost in Adam’s Fall. Now, all born according to the flesh can do nothing but sin, as our Hymn of the Day states:
From hearts depraved to evil prone,
Flow thoughts and deeds of sin alone;
God’s image lost, the darkened soul
Seeks not nor finds its heav’nly goal. (LSB 562:3, All Mankind Fell)
So, for you to have true righteousness before God, you must have a new heart. What Jesus says here, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” is very much what He said to the Pharisee Nicodemus, “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3) For you to have a righteousness that gains entrance to the kingdom of heaven, you must have a new heart. You must be born again.
But how can you be born again? Your first birth is after the image of Adam, the man who fell into sin. In Adam’s image you are a sinner. After whose image can your second birth be, so that you can have a pure and righteous heart? Christ Jesus is the true Son of God from eternity. He took on our human flesh without infecting Himself with original sin. In human flesh, Jesus lived righteously from the heart before God. Yet, He took on the sin of the whole world and was punished in the stead of all people. Being God in the flesh, His passion for our sins and innocent death made full satisfaction for our sins. So, in Jesus we have the image of God restored in human flesh. In Christ, mankind has access to true righteousness. So, if you are to be born again, you must be born again after the image of Christ.
St. Paul, who lived as a Pharisee and exceeded the righteousness of the Pharisees according to the Pharisees’ standard, writes to the Philippians concerning his blameless righteousness under the law:
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith. (Philippians 3:7-11)
So, St. Paul makes clear that it is not your works under the Law that will justify you, but only faith in Christ, who gives you His own righteousness as a gift! (Romans 3:20-28; Galatians 2:16)
This righteousness is earned for you by Christ alone. Only Christ’s righteousness gains access to God and His kingdom. And this righteousness of Christ is received through faith alone. This righteousness is given through Christ’s Word and Sacraments. Baptism, which is not just plain water, but water included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word gives you the righteousness of Christ. Jesus even teaches that Baptism grants the new birth by which you are born again of the Spirit (John 3:3-6). Without new birth, you cannot believe in Christ or receive His righteousness. The Absolution, where God’s minister declares your sins forgiven in the stead and by the command of Christ also gives you this righteousness of Christ, because righteousness is the opposite of sin. The Lord’s Supper too gives you Christ’s righteousness, because it grants forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. The preaching and teaching of the Gospel gives you Christ’s righteousness, because it declares to you God’s grace and mercy for the sake of Christ Jesus, who died for you. All these means of grace are empowered by the same Holy Spirit through the Word of Christ. All these give the same righteousness of Christ, which He earned for you through His perfect obedience. And the righteousness these means of grace give is received through faith alone apart from your works.
This grants great comfort and assurance to the conscience stricken by its own sins. Our sins give us alarm, because we know they set us apart from God. But Christ’s righteousness can never be condemned. So, if you have Christ’s righteousness through faith, then you have certainty that God accepts you. Faith believes the promise of Baptism, Absolution, the Lord’s Supper, and the preaching of the Gospel, that God is reconciled to you for the sake of Christ Jesus. This does not depend on your works, but on Christ’s righteousness alone.
Yet, Satan and our old sinful nature always try to twist this word of comfort for their own perverted uses. St. Paul teaches that as sin increases, God’s grace to forgive sins increases even more (Romans 5:20). So, the mind set on the flesh asks, “Should we continue in sin that grace may abound?” If Christ gives us His righteousness as a gift and our own works don’t get us into heaven, then why not just do whatever we want, no matter how sinful it is? But this is the way of thinking of an unregenerated unbeliever. Sixteenth century Lutheran Pastor, Johan Spangenberg explains it this way, “Just as it is impossible to have fire without heat, it is no less impossible for the righteousness of faith to be without good works.” This is most certainly true. If you have Christ’s righteousness, then you have been born again. If you have been born again, then you have a new self, born after the image of Christ, which desires to do good. Your new birth has caused you to be a good tree, which bears good fruit. St. Paul explains it in Romans 6, “How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by Baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
In Baptism, our old self was crucified with Christ, so that the body of sin might be brought to nothing (Rom. 6:6). Your old self cannot believe in Christ. Only your new self, born again of the Spirit can believe in Christ. So, if you have faith to receive Christ’s righteousness, then you also have the desire to do what is right from the heart.
There is a debate whether Jesus means His own righteousness given as a gift or the righteousness done by the Christian, when He says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Yet, the righteousness of Christ received through faith and the righteousness done by the Christian through faith are so closely united as heat is to fire, that the question is almost moot. The righteousness of the Christian indeed exceeds that of the scribe and Pharisee, because it is done by the heart! God is the judge of our works, not humans, who cannot look upon the heart. Yet, it is essential for you to recognize that even your works done from a Christian heart do not earn your salvation. Only the righteousness of Christ earns your salvation. Yet, the works of a Christian can only be done if you possess Christ’s righteousness through faith.
Jesus emphasizes the close relationship between the righteousness of Christ received through faith and the righteousness done by the Christian be exhorting us to be reconciled. Don’t murder; don’t even get angry! Leave anger to God. The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. What’s more, make friends with those who hate you. Repent if you have sinned against others and forgive those who have sinned against you. Do not even offer God your gift if you are not reconciled with your fellow Christian. This is the righteous fruit Jesus desires to be produced from the heart, because He Himself came to reconcile us to God while we were still sinners.
The righteousness of Christ you hold in your heart through faith, which alone grants you access to heaven, cannot lie dormant! As fire cannot but produce heat, so Christ’s righteousness in a believer’s heart cannot but produce good fruits of righteousness. So, put to death what is sinful in you as often as it rises. Do not get angry at your brother or sister in Christ, but seek to be reconciled and live as friends. Bring your sins and their sins to the blood of Christ to be washed away forever. Don’t hold grudges or be afraid to speak honestly with each other. You have died to such unrighteousness when you were joined to Christ in Baptism. And Christ has ignited a fire of righteousness in you that desires to burn warmly, so that God is glorified by others on account of your good works. Amen.