Works for righteousness vs. works from righteousness – Trinity 6 sermon from Rev. Joshua Hayes

Sixth Sunday after Trinity

Matthew 5

University Lutheran Chapel, Boulder, CO

In the Name of the Father, and of the X Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The scribes and Pharisees had outward works. People were impressed with them. Jesus says that they were zealous in outreach: “You [Pharisees] travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Mt. 23:15). Does this mean that mission and outreach are bad? Hardly. It means that if we reach out to satisfy our own need to justify ourselves and our existence, then we can grow an organization by leaps and bounds but it will not be the righteousness that exceeds the Pharisees’. Let’s be honest: sometimes we do and talk mission-work because we want to feel better about ourselves as Christians. But good intentions and outward works are not enough.

The Pharisees also gave lots away. Many gave large sums. Jesus says that they tithed even in the details: “You [Pharisees] tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: judgment and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (23:23). Does this mean giving and tithing is bad? Hardly. Frankly, we could all strive toward more sacrificial, cheerful giving; to support our congregation ideally at a minimum of 10% of our income and then give generously on top of that to other people and charities in our lives. But let’s be honest, sometimes we put money in the plate because we want to feel better about ourselves as Christians. Doing so will not be the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven.

The Pharisees prayed and fasted with great discipline. Obviously these are good things. Couldn’t we all have a better prayer life and read the Bible more? But just doing the work is not the righteousness that avails before God.  Fasting is good. It is commended to us not only by Scripture itself but also the Small Catechism, the Lutheran Confessions, and our fathers in the faith. But let’s be honest: sometimes we check off our daily prayers as if it were another item on the to-do list just so that we can feel better about ourselves as Christians for the day. But no matter how many days you pray and fast in a year, it will not produce a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.

All works, no matter how impressive among men, are worthless before the judgment seat of God apart from faith. Your righteousness must exceed. Apart from faith, charitable giving, outreach, and even prayer are not good. Apart from faith, they do not please God. Apart from faith, that is, apart from Jesus, you can do nothing. The sinner can flail about this world and do all manner of things, but apart from Christ he is not righteous in doing them, for without faith it is impossible to please God.

This is the difference between doing works for righteousness versus doing works from righteousness. Those who work for righteousness will never do enough, but those who are declared righteous through faith because Christ has done enough are sanctified and pleasing to God.

For only Jesus has the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. This is the righteousness of faith, when we believe that for Christ’s sake God has freely forgiven us our sins and imputed to us the perfect righteousness of his Son. This promise, which is the very Gospel, cannot be bought, worked for, studied for, or invented. It is given in the words of the Gospel and received through faith alone, for a promise can only be received through faith and not through works.

At this point in the sermon the Lutheran preacher is supposed to wax eloquent on why not even faith itself is work we do but is worked in us by the Holy Spirit. Faith merely receives. But this is important for two reasons.

First, if we turn faith into our work then we rob Christ of his glory and we set ourselves up for despair. If we seek certainty for our salvation in the sincerity our heart’s act of believing instead of seeking certainty in the words and promises of God’s Word, we set ourselves up for despair. In fact, it is often when our faith feels weakest that it is strongest, for then we have nothing but to cling to Christ for everything.

Second, if we turn faith into our work, then we will have trouble sharing the Gospel with atheists. Many atheists are fine with a theoretical god, who for salvation would require that you mow your lawn twice a week, pay your bills on time, and not be outrageously evil. That makes sense to our fallen reason. A religion of works seems fair and achievable. What they object to is the God of the Bible. “Why should I believe in a God,” (they say), “who is so conceited that his one requirement is that we believe in Him? How petty is it that he would eternally condemn those who don’t believe in him? Is God so needy that he needs us to believe in him before he can feel better?”

Here the atheist and the “make-a-decision-for-Jesus” Christian both agree on something, though they might not realize it. They both assume that faith is a choice we make and you have to make the right one to make God happy. So the Christian laboring under this false impression seeks God’s favor and the certainty that he is saved in the moment he decided for Jesus (I mean, really, really, truly decided for Jesus!). The atheist thinks that a God who requires this is petty and should not be believed anyway.

The reality is that God is already happy with you because of Jesus. He does not wait for people to fulfill some requirement or choice. Christ Jesus earned the perfect life for all people, paid for the sins of all people on the cross, and by raising him from the dead God has universally declared this to be valid for all people and has reconciled the world to himself. Theologians call this “universal, objective justification,” because it’s a done-deal, objective truth for all people of all times and it does not need to be activated by our choice before God can be favorable disposed toward us.

So the to the atheist we might say that God does not need us to believe in him before he can be happy with us, but that for Christ’s sake he is already happy with us. To believe that this is true is to enjoy it and receive its benefits—and that for your sake, not God’s. A promise can only be enjoyed and received by believing it. God does not want us to believe for his own sake but for our sake. God does not condemn the unbeliever because God is petty, but because if we reject the objective reality which saves us and call it a lie, then we have cut ourselves off from the means of life and salvation. And what will save us then? Our works?

Which brings us back, finally, to faith and works. Generally speaking, faith and works of love are not opposite for the Christian. It is not either or. Jesus wants his Christians to show their faith by their works: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” St. Paul agrees: “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! … So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus…present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.”

But when it comes to justification—how one can stand before the judgment of God, be saved, and enter into heaven—then our Lord Christ himself teaches that there is an eternal opposition between works and faith: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Entrance into the kingdom cannot come from that kind of righteousness. It will not do merely to give a higher percentage than they did. It will not do to be more zealous in missions than them. It will not do to up our sincerity by 60% or 100%. It will not do to substitute Social-Justice-Warrior-ing for prayer and fasting.

Our righteousness cannot save or bestow a clean conscience. Only Jesus’s righteousness saves, which we have through faith. It is not enough to be better than the Pharisees by degrees, but we must have an altogether different righteousness—the righteous of God. On this St. Paul writes in Rom. 10:  “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”

God’s righteousness is Christ, and it is the only righteousness that can save. The Christian who thus has the righteousness of Christ through faith alone exceeds the external righteousness of the Pharisees. His works of love come from a renewed spirit and are not done with a view to earning anything from God. He seeks only God’s glory and not his own convenience or glory.

And yet, since we “serve the law of sin with our flesh” even as we “serve the Law of God with our mind” (Rom. 7:25), and because our life as Christians is not the perfect life of Christ, we confess that we cannot enter the kingdom of God through and because of our Christian lives.

And so whenever the question is how shall we live, the answer is: with faith in God and love toward our neighbor. But whenever the questions arises in our hearts as to how we can enter the kingdom of heaven, we flee for refuge not to the pharisaical righteousness of the flesh, nor to our own imperfect Christian lives, but in faith alone to the perfect righteousness of Christ.

“For faith alone can justify, works serve our neighbor and supply the proof that faith is living.”

Come soon, Lord Jesus.

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




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