But if we walk in the light, just as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanses us from all sin. 1 John 1:7

Trinity 10 – 2023

Romans 9:30-10:4

What does it mean to “pursue righteousness”? That’s not a phrase that we hear very often. Does this mean that people today don’t pursue righteousness? Or does this mean that they describe and define this pursuit in different ways, with different terms?

Well, to be righteous, or to have righteousness, means that things are “right” in your life. The Greek word that we translate as “righteous” can be defined as “the state or condition of someone who is as he ought to be.”

The root word that the Greek word for “righteousness” is derived from, is the word for “equity.” If you are righteous, everything is lined up correctly, and everything is in the right place. All is harmonious and good.

All the pieces of the puzzle of your life have been put together in the right way. You are on the right track in how you live and in how you conduct yourself with others.

Different people have different standards for gauging whether they do in fact have such “righteousness” in their lives, or for measuring how much righteousness they have. But however one defines what is good and right, nobody wants his or her life to be wrong: on the wrong path, set up in the wrong way, with wrong relationships, wrong goals, and wrong outcomes.

And yet, people often do feel that their life is wrong, or at least that it is not completely right. And much of this wrongness comes from inside of them.

They think and say things that bring disruption and disorder. They know they shouldn’t think and say these things, but impetuously and impulsively they do so anyway.

Plans go unfulfilled. Goals go unmet. Friendships sour. Other, closer relationships become dry and stale, embittered and boring. What used to feel so right, doesn’t feel right any more. It doesn’t feel like anything any more.

The more people get a sense of what a truly and fully righteous life would be like, the more they realize that they don’t have a righteous life. The effort to be righteous seems to be hobbled from the start.

Wanting righteousness and a righteous life doesn’t make it happen. Wanting it just makes you all the more discouraged when you have to admit that you don’t have it, and when you begin to conclude that you will never have it.

And what are the standards for measuring these things? Many today measure their successes or failures only by the rule of their own aspirations and desires.

Yet even by those norms, they fail. They don’t conform to their own norms. They don’t obey their own rules.

Previous generations, however, who had not been subjected to the cultural brainwashing in secularism and hedonism that have so dominated western civilization for the past few generations, used to measure themselves, and their righteousness, by a different standard: one that was more objective, because it was outside of themselves; and one that was more demanding.

People used to think that God’s definition of a righteous life was the definition that really counted. And so they looked to God’s Word, and in particular to God’s Law, in order to know what is truly right for human beings, rather than wrong; what is truly good, rather than bad; what is truly wholesome and fulfilling, rather than degrading and empty.

And for them, as they listened to the voice of their conscience, they knew as well that being truly righteous had to include being righteous in God’s eyes: being accepted by him, and pleasing to him. They wanted to know not only how they stood with other people, but how they stood with God.

They were right to care about being right with God. And we too should care about this. We must care about this.

The Jewish people in particular, who had been the first recipients of the Ten Commandments and of the Hebrew Scriptures in general, really began to pay attention to God’s Law during the time of their seventy-years-long national captivity in Babylon.

Their temporary exile from the Holy Land was a severe chastisement from the Lord: due to the idolatry that they and their forebears had so often fallen into during the time of their national independence, under the influence of the pagan nations that surrounded them.

But now that all changed. In Babylon they were sincerely humbled by what their idolatry had brought down upon them.

And so, when the Jewish people emerged from this captivity, and were allowed to return to the Holy Land, that old idolatry was gone. There would be no more sacrifices to Baal. There would be no more erecting of statues of pagan deities.

The wickedness of their idolatrous ancestors had deprived them of true righteousness before God. The immoral lifestyles and religious errors of the pagan nations had not taught their ancestors anything about true righteousness.

From now on, they were going to look to the Lord of Israel for that kind of information. God’s Word would be revered. God’s Law would be honored.

That was the key to achieving righteousness in their lives, it was thought. That was the key to knowing what is right by God’s standards, and to leading a righteous life.

But did it work? In today’s reading from his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul says that it did not. He writes:

“Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law.”

True righteousness is not only a matter of right behavior and right actions. It is also, and chiefly, a matter of right desires in the will, right thoughts in the mind, and a right love – for God and man – in the heart.

Sin, however, is a deep corrupting influence in all of us, which gnaws away at all our good intentions, turning them into not-so-good outcomes. Because of sin – whether people want to admit it or not – we will never, on our own, be right – within ourselves, or with God – in our desires and thoughts.

And we all have this sin inside of us. It is passed down to everyone who descends from Adam, and who has been conceived in the natural way within the human family.

Because of sin, the love of our sinful hearts will always be turned in on ourselves, and be directed back toward ourselves, so that in our fallen condition we will love and serve our own pride, greed, and lust – and not God in his goodness, or our neighbors in their need.

Maybe we can discipline ourselves enough, to refrain from overtly immoral bodily actions – most of the time. But that is not righteousness in the truest and deepest sense.

For sure, that is not the righteousness that counts with God, and that makes us pleasing to God. And so it is not real righteousness, according to the objective rule and norm of real righteousness that God’s Law provides.

To be truly righteous before God, we need a righteousness that is righteous in every respect, inside and out, all the time. We don’t have a righteousness like that.

Yet God does something strange and unexpected. God lets the true and deep righteousness of his divine-human sinless Son Jesus Christ – conceived miraculously of the virgin Mary – count for us. In the gospel, God looks at us through Jesus-colored glasses, so that he doesn’t just see us, but he sees his Son on us and with us.

It might not seem fair for God to count unrighteous people as righteous, but God doesn’t have to be fair. He can be lavish in his undeserved grace. He is God, after all.

And besides, who would complain? It’s not as if some people made themselves righteous before God the hard way, so that they justly resent God allowing others to have this in an easy way.

The hard way – the way of trying to be righteous and to obtain righteousness by human works – has never worked for anybody. So, no one has “standing” to lodge such a complain before God’s tribunal.

And everyone is invited to benefit from God’s rescue of unrighteous humanity from the righteous condemnation of his Law. Everyone – Jew and Gentile alike – is offered a way out, and a way up, through Jesus.

St. Paul speaks in greater detail concerning the error of most of his own beloved people – that is, the Jewish nation – who are trying to use God’s Law as the basis for a self-constructed human righteousness, rather than allowing God to give them his gift of righteousness. Paul writes that

“They have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they, being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”

In his own person, and in his own life, Jesus was righteous. For Jesus, everything was lined up correctly, and everything was in the right place. All was harmonious and good.

All the pieces of the puzzle of his life had been put together in the right way. He was on the right track in how he lived and in how he conducted himself with others. And Jesus fulfilled all righteousness for us, both by what he did, and by what he allowed to be done to him.

He lived righteously – in thought, word, and deed – actively obeying his Father in heaven according to the Ten Commandments, in all of their outward and inner applications. And he died righteously – as the atoning sacrifice for all human sin, and in the place of all sinful men – passively allowing the will of his Father in heaven for human redemption to be accomplished in his suffering.

In his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul explains that God “made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” And we become the righteousness of God, and are counted as truly righteous in his sight, by faith.

By faith.

The universality of human sin results in the universality of human disobedience of God’s Law. And in the hearts of all people – both Jews and Gentiles – not only are we disobedient there, too, but the rebellion and wickedness that live there are the worst of all. Jesus says in the Gospel according to St. Mark that

“What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

No one with a heart like this can make himself righteous by the works of the Law. But someone with a heart like this – indeed, all of us, who by nature have hearts like this – can repent of our sins every day; and can believe in Christ, and in the certain promise of his forgiveness, every day.

And by believing – by looking upon Jesus, by trusting in Jesus, by clinging to Jesus – we are righteous. You are righteous.

Elsewhere in his Epistle to the Romans, Paul reminds us that

“Whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.”

“But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed…, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness…”

In his Epistle to the Ephesians, Paul also explains what happens when God gives us his righteousness in Christ. First, we are saved from the fate of eternal punishment, and separation from God, that unrighteous sinners deserve. We are saved now, because in God’s eyes we are righteous now, since the righteousness of Jesus covers us and cleanses us.

But then, the righteousness that God credits to us – freely and fully – starts to get inside of us. On this side of eternity we never become, in our own persons, as righteous as Jesus is, or as righteous as what we are credited to be in Jesus, by God’s grace. The sinful nature clings to us, to the grave. But we can and do start to become more like Jesus.

We start to become more like what we were originally created to be, before sin entered the human race in Eden. We start to become what we are re-created to be now, as new creatures in Christ. And so Paul writes that

“God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

With the good works that God urges us to perform, and that he enables us to perform, we are not pursuing righteousness through the law: or at least not the kind of righteousness that counts before God, and that brings peace to a troubled heart and pardon to a troubled conscience.

That true and complete righteousness is received by faith, in Christ, who gives it to us as he gives himself to us.

But with the good works that God urges and enables, we do live out in this world – as well as we can, with the Lord’s help and guidance – a grateful life of love to the One who first loved us; and a grateful life of service to others, in the name of the One who served us and gave his life as a ransom for us.

“Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith; but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law.”

“For they stumbled at that stumbling stone. As it is written: ‘Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense, and whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.’ Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved. … For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” Amen.