The Gift We Can’t Live WithoutErwin W. Lutzer | May 22, 1994
Selected highlights from this sermon
Think about this: Jesus never committed a sin. That means He didn’t even tell a white lie…He didn’t even think of a white lie to tell.
But in order to save us—in order to give us what we need to get into heaven—He became sin. He became guilty of breaking all Ten Commandments (even though He never actually broke one). He became guilty of genocide. He became guilty of rape. He became guilty of adultery. He became guilty of telling a white lie.
And not just the sins of one person, but of all humanity from eternity past until eternity future.
He bore all of that punishment—our punishment—so that we could bear His perfect righteousness. And it’s only when we are clothed in His righteousness that we will be able to enter heaven.
At an evangelical conference several men with a tape recorder interviewed participants. It was a conference where books were published on theology. Now this is from conservative evangelicals, and they kept asking the question, “Is it necessary to be perfect to enter into heaven?” And they couldn’t find anybody who would say yes. That’s astounding. The people said, “Well no, of course not.”
You know we live in a day and age when people do not think theologically, but think of the foolishness of that answer. Here is God who is holy and without stain, and He’s going to let imperfect people into heaven. It’s unthinkable. It shows you the extent of our theological naïveté even among those who should know better.
So in order that it might be unambiguous and clear, let me state flatly and without qualification that if you are not as holy as God, don’t even think about being admitted into heaven. Don’t even let the thought cross your mind. Let that be said with clarity.
Now if you are thinking, and I know you are, you say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, I’ve got a problem,” and you do. It’s a big problem because my guess is you’re not perfect so you have a mighty big problem. Let me tell you how big your problem is. Your problem is so big that there is nothing that you can do to solve it. Unless God solved it you’d have had it. That’s how big the problem is.
Whether you are here today as a Protestant or as a Catholic, we must all appreciate the struggle of a monk in the sixteenth century by the name of Martin Luther. He enrolled in the Augustinian Monastery in Erfurt to save his soul. He was troubled with what is known in German as anfechtungen, the existential despair of soul, the consciousness of sin. When he entered into that monastery he decided to really become as perfect as he could be because in those days at least people knew you had to be perfect to get into heaven. Give them credit. They understood that but they believed that the only way you become perfect is that God infuses grace into your soul and then you can do good works, and you hope that you keep doing those works better and better and better until eventually you are perfect enough. And if you were not perfect enough, as most people thought they weren’t, you would go into purgatory where you would be purged until you would be perfect enough. Give them credit for knowing that no imperfect person ever gets to heaven.
So Luther began his quest for perfection. He took advantage of all of the means of grace that were afforded him in the monastery. He began to be disciplined. He wore coarse clothing so that he would not be able to enjoy life, so that he would mortify the flesh. He sometimes fasted so long that some of his friends thought that he was emaciated, and that he might die because of the way in which he treated his body.
Next month, God willing, I will be leading a tour to the sites of the Reformation which I’ve had the privilege of doing before, and we will go into the actual room (the cell) in which he lived there in Erfurt, which is basically a very bare cell with a stone cold floor. And there he slept without blankets so that he might put the flesh to death.
Then there were the sacraments of the Church. Confession gave him some solace, but he began to confess his sins, reminding himself of them by reciting the Ten Commandments and the Seven Deadly Sins, and then he would go to Staupitz, his confessor, and he would begin confessing his sins up to six hours at a time. Staupitz was so sick of seeing him that one day he said, “Luther, the next time you come to me let it be some big sin like murder, adultery or blasphemy, but not all these little peccadilloes, not all these tiny insignificant sins.”
Let me tell you something. Luther understood something more clearly than the people of his day, and certainly more clearly than many people in our day. And that was that it didn’t matter to God whether the sin was big or little. The point was whether or not it had been forgiven because in the sight of the Holy God one tiny little speck of sin was great enough to cast you out of heaven forever.
The issue was not whether it was big or little. The issue was whether it was confessed and forgiven, but he reached an impasse. There were times when he did not know whether he was remembering all of his sins. Furthermore, there were some things he did that perhaps God considered to be sin that he didn’t consider to be sin. Sins, in order to forgiven, had to be confessed. In order to be confessed they had to be remembered, but if they were not remembered they could not be confessed, and if they could not be confessed they could not be forgiven. And his despair only increased.
And then he realized something else. Even if he remembered all of his sins, even if he had all of them forgiven, oh God, tomorrow was a new day with new sins, and it had to begin all over again. It was like mopping up the floor when the faucet is running, and you keep mopping and mopping and mopping and it’s always there. Finally when he decided to go to Wittenberg where the elector Frederick was beginning a new university, Staupitz visited him in a courtyard there (which is still in existence today), and sat down and said, “Brother Martin, possibly you should begin to teach the Bible to assuage your conscience.”
And so he began to teach the Psalms. And he came to Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” And he knew that those were the words of Christ on the cross, and he began to think, “How is it that Jesus Himself, who was sinless, experienced this disquiet of soul, this anfechtungen , this despair? Then he realized that it was because Jesus was taking upon Himself our sins and our despair.
And then Luther got to the book of Romans and the first chapter, which you can turn to today, and he began to ponder the phrase, “the righteousness of God.” It says in verse 17, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” Luther began to ponder that and said, “The righteousness of God is frightening.” He said, “I know that I have to attain the righteousness of God, but how does a sinner get the righteousness of God?” He said, “Day and night I ponder that question.”
And then as he began to study the book of Romans he came to chapter 3 where the Bible says that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. And it says in verse 24 of chapter 3, “being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus,” and that “God set forth His righteousness (the middle of verse 25).” God set forth Christ that He might declare His righteousness. Verse 26 says, “For the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness, that God might be just and the justifier of those who believe in Jesus.”
And Luther saw something in the Bible that he hadn’t realized. He saw that there was such a thing as the righteousness of God, which was an attribute of God, but there was also the righteousness from God, which was a gift given to needy sinners. And as he pondered this and began to see the connection, he said, “Then it was as if I was reborn, and I entered into the gates of Paradise.” There was not only a righteousness of God, but there was a gift that is the righteousness from God given to needy sinners.
I want you to take your Bible and turn now to 2 Corinthians 5:21. Notice what the text says. “He (that is, God) made Him (Christ) who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Let’s take this verse slowly. Here is Christ who knew no sin, who was made sin for us. Christ received the alien sin, and I use the word alien because it was not a part of His nature. It was credited to Him. It was imputed to Him. And when Christ died on the cross He became guilty of breaking all of the Ten Commandments, and He became guilty of genocide, and He became guilty of adultery, and He became guilty of all of the sins – the ugly damnable sins that people commit. They were not His. He was legally guilty of them. God says, “I am counting You of being guilty of them.”
Now follow this. God places upon Christ all of our iniquities and all of our sins. He who knew no sin becomes sin for us. Our sin is imputed to Christ, and what do we get in return? The last part of the verse says, “that we might become the righteousness of God.” So we give to Christ what we are, namely our sin, and He gives to us what we do not have, namely what God has, namely righteousness, which is the thing that we lack so desperately.
Now Luther began to see it. You see up until that time the promises of God in the Bible were like giving a promise to a blind man that says, “I’ll tell you what. I’ll make you a deal. Okay? You are blind. All that you need to do is to see, and if you see, I’ll give you a million dollars. Go ahead and enjoy the million dollars, but see first.” Oh such a lovely promise but a condition that is impossible to fulfill. How does a man attain enough righteousness so that he can stand before God? Answer: He cannot. How does he receive it? He receives it from God who imputed sin to Christ and Christ’s righteousness to us.
Now what I’d like to do in the next few moments that are still allotted to me (and whether they are allotted to me or not, I’m taking them.) is to give you five characteristics of the righteousness of God, characteristics that will bless your soul, and that will take you all the way to heaven if you believe in Christ.
Number one, obviously it must be a free gift. It is the gift of righteousness, being justified (We read in the book of Romans a moment ago.) as a free gift. How in the world are we going to earn this righteousness? How are we going to make ourselves worthy of this righteousness? The answer is we cannot. Don’t try. Don’t bother. Don’t waste your time.
Luther called it a passive righteousness. By that he meant that it was a righteousness that we simply receive and we can do nothing to make ourselves worthy of it. We just simply receive it as a gift from God. He used the illustration of rain. What is there on the earth that makes it worthy of the rain? The earth may not deserve the rain. The earth may not create the rain. All that it can do is to enjoy the rain as a gift, and then later on it bears fruit, just like we as Christians receive the righteousness of God through faith, and then we begin to bear fruit. But the rain – the righteousness, which refreshes us and covers us - is a gift of God, as we learned last week when we spoke about grace. And you know, of course, that this is a series of messages, and I hope that you have the opportunity of listening to all of them because they are connected.
So the first thing is it is a free gift. It can be given, as we explained last time, to big sinners and to lesser ones indiscriminately. In fact, let me change the illustration and use one that Luther did not use. Think of snow. Here you have messy trails in the snow, and some of you, looking back in the rearview mirror of your lives, see those messy trails, don’t you? You see what you have done to your body. You see what you have done to other people, and some of you are still doing bad things to other people right now. And you look back and you see this mess and you wish things could have been different, but the past cannot be changed, and all that you see is the mud and the grime and the dirt. But then a snowfall comes – eighteen inches of snow that blankets the whole area.
“Come now, let us reason together says the Lord. Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow, and though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” God says, “There’s the messy trail but I’m going to cover it, and it will be covered by the special pure righteousness of Christ, which is My righteousness, so that before Me you will be as holy as He is.” And the first characteristic is it is a free gift.
What do you do with those who can’t forgive themselves? Spalatin, who was a friend of Luther, did some things he couldn’t forgive himself for. He had given some bad advice and he hurt other people because of the advice, and he could not be consoled. If Luther had been living in our century he would have said, “Now Spalatin, let’s get a couple of things straight. First of all, it was not that big of a deal. Everybody is in the same boat as you are. Number two, what you need to do is to work through this by recognizing that you have to feel good about yourself. That’s your real problem. So what I’d like to do is to help you to feel good about yourself.”
Luther didn’t do that. He did not minimize the sin. He magnified grace. He said to Spalatin in a letter, “My faithful request and admonition is that you join our company and associate with us who are real great and hardboiled sinners.” He said, “You’ve committed a great sin? Oh come and join us because we are big sinners. You must by no means make Christ to seem paltry and trifling to us as though He could be our helper only when we want to be rid of imaginary, nominal and childish sins. Oh no, Spalatin,” he said, “that kind of a redeemer would not be good for us.” He said, “He must rather be a Savior and Redeemer from real great grievous and damnable transgressions and iniquities, yeah from even the greatest and the shocking sins.”
I didn’t bring it with me but we have a letter from a man in prison who listens to our radio ministry. He was guilty of rape. He raped four women. He’s in jail now but he has come to saving faith in Christ, and he is wondering how a man who has done something so terrible, with consequences that are still ongoing, and who has had such a terrible effect on women, ever come at peace with himself. It’s not by feeling good about himself or getting in touch with his pure inner child, as some people are doing. It is to realize that God sent a snowfall and covered the mess. God helps us with the consequences. He helps us work through it but we have a brand new basis upon which we can accept Him. He is not looking at us legally now as those who are such damnable sinners, but He sees the righteousness of Christ, to be found in Him as Paul said, “not having my own righteousness which is of the law but that which is through the faith in Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.” It hurts me to say it but I’m going to say it anyway. God’s righteousness is so perfect and so pure that it can cover a rapist. And now I’ve said it.
Number one, it is a free gift. Number two, let us remember it is unchangeable. The righteousness that the Apostle Paul received when he wrote the book of Romans is the same righteousness that we receive. It is the same righteousness that is given to every person who believes in Jesus. Some of you don’t know who your parents are. You may have been adopted. Some of you have lived lives where there’s been all that rejection and all that pain, and you wonder how you can endure. I want you to know today that God gives you the very same righteousness and the same acceptance before God as the Apostle Paul, or Martin Luther, or Billy Graham, or anyone else whom we may admire as a wonderful Christian. You have the same opportunity. It is called the priesthood of the believer because there is only one kind of righteousness. It is God’s righteousness and it is credited to those who believe, and it is yours.
Friday evening, our precious daughter, Lisa, who is 16 going on 22, said to me, “Dad, do your prayers count more than the prayers of other people?” I think it’s easy for children in the home of a pastor to get that impression because whenever we gather together at a church picnic, or we’re having lunch somewhere, the pastor is always asked to say grace. Always we have to be ready to preach, pray or die at a moment’s notice. I said, “Lisa, the answer is no. It depends on the amount of faith in my heart just like it depends on the way in which other people pray, but we have the same access.” The same blood that covers my sins, that gives me acceptability to God, is the same blood that covers you. When it comes to that it is the same snowfall that covers our messy trails. It is an unchangeable righteousness.
Number three, it is a permanent righteousness. Some of you are going to have difficulty accepting this, but I want you to understand it clearly, and in a future message I’ll give you reasons to accept it. Do you realize that when Jesus Christ justifies you, and in saving faith you have believed on Him, that gift of righteousness covers all of your sins, past, present and future, all the way. What was Luther’s problem? You have all these people who are confessing their sins, and they are unsaved. Luther was unconverted, though confessing his sins meticulously. Why? It’s because the confession only took care of the sins that he had committed so far. He had no provision for tomorrow when he would commit new sins.
Let me ask you a question. How many of your sins were future when Christ died on the cross? Well I hope you realize that all of them were. Jesus died on the cross and went to heaven, and you hadn’t even begun sinning yet because you weren’t around. When Jesus died, you see, He not only took care of some past sins. He had to look into the future and anticipate all the iniquity that we would do, that the iniquity of us all who are living in this century would be laid upon Him. And therefore when you receive the gift of righteousness it is good enough to take you all the way to heaven. You say, “Well, does that mean that we as Christians don’t have to confess our sins anymore?” Listen very carefully. We have to. In fact, we have to have deep repentance, but it is never to establish or reestablish our legal relationship with God. There is a difference between the favor of God, which we always enjoy because of Christ, for He sees us through Christ, and fellowship with God. You see if there is a break in our relationship as happens from time to time, neither my children nor we as parents need to be restored as father, as parents and children. But we need to make sure that we are in fellowship, and God asks that, and confession is part of the process. But it is never to reestablish our relationship with God, our permanency with Him.
Oh I know what you are saying. You’re saying, “Well, you know, that means that people can believe on Christ and they can live as they wish.” You see when you become a member of God’s family He makes sure that you do not live as you wish. There’s a whole growing process, but the initial gift is freeing, and we’re going to be talking about the implications of that in a future message. It is a permanent righteousness.
Now it is an infinite righteousness. You know sometimes people say, “Oh I know the meaning of the word justification. Justification means it is just as if I had never sinned.” Let me tell you that that is an inadequate definition – partially right but far short of the mark. Folks, when God justifies us, when He declares us to be righteous, as righteous as His blessed Son, it is not just as if we had not sinned. It is as if we have been perfectly obedient to the Law. It is as if we have met every one of his infinite and very holy requirements because, you see, Jesus Christ represents me before God the Father today. Today He is my righteousness. Today He is my wisdom. Today He is my sanctification. Today He is my redemption. He is everything that I need today, representing me in heaven, and in the presence of God I am being accepted and received and welcomed and loved on His basis. And there is no way that that can be associated with human righteousness. Even if there were a perfect person he could not die for the sins of everyone like Jesus Christ died for the sins of those who believe. He couldn’t do it.
Do you remember Augustine in his despair as he was thinking about his own sin? And he was thinking of how much God demands, and then the light dawned on him and he said, “Oh God, demand whatever you will, but supply what You demand.” God, if you need infinite righteousness, if You need a righteousness that is so pure and holy that belongs only to You, that’s fine. But God, I don’t have it. Supply it! And that’s the message of the Gospel. God says, “I give you an infinite righteousness.”
Finally, it is this righteousness that is the basis of our union with Christ. You see, in the Bible more than a hundred times in the Epistles the Apostle Paul uses this precious little phrase. It says that we are “in” Christ. What does it mean to be in Christ? It means that God has clothed us with the righteousness of Christ.
“Clothed in His righteousness alone,
Faultless to stand before the throne.”
“Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness
My beauty art my heavenly dress.”
And that’s why we’re in Christ. That’s why Jesus could say in John 17 when He was praying, “Oh Father, Thou hast loved them even as Thou has loved Me.” He said, “You are loving them as much as You are loving Me.” Wait a moment! God loves Christ with an undying, unbelievable love, and now He’s loving us as fallen sinners, as people who want to do good but end up doing bad oftentimes, and He loves us as much as He loves Christ. It is unthinkable, but God says, “I am loving you for Christ’s sake. I am receiving you based on His righteousness. You are in Him, and when I embrace my Son, I am embracing you because you are in Christ, received, loved, welcomed. And it would be heresy for you to say, “You know, God would love me more if only I were better.”
Oh, how many people are in despair because of that. “Oh, God is so mad at me.” I’ve had Christians say this. “God is so mad at me. If you only knew what I did you’d know how He could not love me,” and you see, the devil has a field day and they are driven from the presence of the grace and the mercy of God by their own guilt because they do not understand that God loves us not even because we have a good day. And I don’t want to be misunderstood, but it’s not even because we had a warm and wonderful time in our devotions. Important though that may be, it is because we are in Him. It is the basis of every command in the New Testament.
The Bible says that we should put off the works of the flesh – sensuality. Why? Because you are in Christ, clothed with His righteousness. It becomes the one doctrine that becomes the anchor point, the doctrine that I keep going back to almost every single day.
Some of you have heard me preach on justification by faith before but I need to preach on it now because it’s part of the series. But that’s why I didn’t begin with an apology because if you are going to be in this church very long you are probably going to hear this again because you never outgrow it. You never get to the point where you say, “Well, now we’re moving on to real deep things finally.” No, it doesn’t get any deeper than the righteousness of God credited to unworthy sinners. That is as deep as it can go.
How Thou canst think so well of me,
And be the God Thou art,
Is darkness to my intellect,
But sunshine to my heart.
It doesn’t go any deeper than that.
Remember in the Old Testament God says, “When you put blood on the door the angel of death will pass over you.” It didn’t matter how great the sinners were within, though it is much better to be a lesser sinner than a greater one as I explained last week, but God says, “It is blood on the door that matters.” Now let’s suppose somebody would have come and said, “Oh boy, you are going to get this angel of death and he is going to kill your firstborn tonight. Boy, is he going to get you.” What if the Jews had said, “Well, my word, maybe that’s true, but here is the unleavened bread, and here are the herbs,” and they had depended upon the unleavened bread and the herbs? No wonder they’d be in despair. No, they don’t do that. What do they do? They say, “Hey, look, there’s blood on the door.”
You see, here’s what happens. Satan comes to accuse us during the day and during the night. Night and day he keeps telling you, “Don’t you know what a wretch you are? Look at what you did. Don’t you understand that you deserve to suffer? What’s this business of grace? You don’t deserve it. Someday, if you live better, you’ll deserve it.” All those things, you see! And Christians don’t know how to handle the accusations, and the enemy of our souls lacerates us because we begin to say, “Well, now you know, wait a minute, Devil, you have no right to say that. I memorized a verse of Scripture last week and I attended church and I am trying.” And he has a field day. He just explodes that in our faces, and we have nothing to hang onto.
That would be like the Israelites saying, “Well look, there’s the unleavened bread here, and there’s the herbs.” No, my friend, the reason that you have devotions is that you might walk with God, that you might know the fullness of the Holy Spirit, but it does not reestablish the firm basis upon which God accepts you, which is the righteousness of His Son.
What you need to do is what Luther did when the devil came to him and listed his sins. In a dream he saw all of his sins, and then he told the devil that there were some sins that had been omitted, that the list was incomplete, and if he was going to list his sins, he should list all of them. And then beneath the list he wrote, “The blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin.” The righteousness of God, which is by faith, is the way in which you handle the accusations of the devil.
“Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifies. Who is he that condemns? It is Christ that died, yeah rather that is risen again, who is even now on the right hand of the throne of God who also makes intercession for us.” We go on the basis of blood, Christ’s blood, shed for us as sinners.
After our morning service we are going to have a memorial service for Jim Thies, who died of AIDS a few days ago. Jim is in heaven today but I want to explain why he is in heaven. He’s in heaven because there was a time when Jim recognized, as a sinner, that he could believe on a Savior who died for sinners. Whether their sins be considered big or small there was a Savior who died for even damnable transgressions. And as he came to die he could look back into the rearview mirror of his life, and he could focus on the messy trails (and all of us leave some messy trails), or he could do what we know he did, and that is to look at the snow that covered them.
The terrors of law and of God
With me can have nothing to do;
My Savior’s obedience and blood
Hide all my transgressions from view.
My name from the palms of His hands
Eternity will not erase;
Impressed on His heart it remains,
In marks of indelible grace.
Don’t ever think that you can go to heaven without having the righteousness of Christ and being as righteous as God. Those are the only ones who enter but they enter through faith. The gift of righteousness is given to those who finally give up and believe in Christ alone.
Let us pray.
Oh Father, who are we that we should be credited with the righteousness of a spotless, obedient, beautiful, holy Savior? And yet we thank You for that precious gift. We thank You today that those who are in despair can finally look at hope. We thank You for the blessed acceptance that You give us. Thank You that we belong to You forever. We pray today for those who do not know You as Savior, those who may be depending upon religion, and their own good works. Whatever it may be, we pray that in grace You will overcome the natural resistance of the human heart to the message of grace, that they might believe. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.