The Gift Of RighteousnessDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | January 24, 2016
Selected highlights from this sermon
God has always desired to communicate with humanity despite our sin. So He came, and died on a cross, proving that He alone is the Justifier of those who believe in Him. To Jew and Gentile believers, God credits Christ’s righteousness in order that we may stand before Him without guilt or shame. It’s a free gift, and it lasts forever.
This is the second in a series of messages titled The Inheritance of the Redeemed, the blessings that are ours because of our faith in Christ. If you missed the first message, which was on predestination, I encourage you to get a copy of it and to listen to it, because it is very foundational. But today’s message also is so extremely critical that I personally think about this gift that I’m going to introduce to you almost every single day.
In order to understand the importance of this gift, let me ask you the question: “What does God think of you today?” Is He happy with you? Is He mad at you, because you began to read the Bible through this year, and you’ve blown it already? We begin well, and then we fail—or you sinned this week, and you feel somewhat distant from God because life hasn’t gone well, and you haven’t reacted well to it. What’s God’s opinion of you today?
Now before I introduce you to this gift, I do need to give you a little bit of background, so stay with me, and then once we get to the gift, you’re going to understand exactly and it’s going to be as clear as Route 66.
Do you remember that ever since the beginning God has wanted to communicate with mankind? I mean, we’re talking even about the Garden of Eden, and we’re speaking about the fact that Adam and Eve sinned, and they used some leaves to try to hide their nakedness, and God says, “No, I’m going to give you better clothes. I’m going to give you, actually, the skin of animals.” Where did God get the skin of animals? Well, obviously He killed some animals. What He wanted to say right from the beginning is that there is no forgiveness, there is no covering of sin without blood, and there is no such thing as a cheap covering. And so after that He began to connect with Adam and Eve, but everybody knows that those animal skins were not the final covering for sin – by no means. They were only symbolic.
And then you get to the time of the Tabernacle, and you discover that God had all of those sacrifices that we struggle to understand. And in the Tabernacle there were two compartments – the Holy of Holies, and the Holy Place, and the priests could only go into the Holy Place one day a year. And God was saying, “I’m everywhere. I exist everywhere, but I especially exist here because I want you to understand My holiness,” because, you see, here’s the problem that God had. The problem was that He was communicating with mankind who were sinners, and He had to have a way by which that could be done without either compromising His holiness or contaminating Himself. So in the Old Testament He had fellowship with people. He put their sin away, but not finally. There was no payment for the sin back then. And yet He was connecting with people.
Years ago atheists wrote a tract in which they wanted to make fun of God. And they said, “Oh, look at the people of the Old Testament with whom God hung out. I mean, you know, you begin with Abraham. Well, Abraham lied, and he’s called a friend of God.” The argument of the atheists was simply this - that a person is judged by the company he keeps. Jacob was a cheater, and yet he was communicating with God, and God actually had him in the line through which Christ would be eventually born.
I mean you go through the Old Testament. Moses lost his temper and became very angry, and yet Moses had spoken face to face with God, as a man speaks with his friend. And then the classic illustration is David. Murder and adultery – (quote) a man after God’s own heart! Oh really?
The atheists were saying, “What kind of a God considers these kinds of people as His friends? They had a point. For four thousand years there was a scandal that was building, and that was that God was forgiving people and there was no final payment for their sin. There was justice being set aside so that he could connect with them, but there was no way that they could be finally and totally redeemed.
And with that background now I want you to take your Bibles, if you would please, and turn to Romans 3. And even as I mentioned the text I am glad that there is some rustling throughout the congregation. That means you have a Bible, or you can use the one that is in the seat in front of you. And for some of you, of course, there will be no rustling (no noise) because, God bless you, you’ve brought your phone. You’ve brought your iPad. You’ve brought your jackhammer. (laughter) You have everything that you need.
No matter what you are using today I want you to look at the text. Look at the text. Put your finger on the text. In the book of Romans the Apostle Paul is talking about how all of us are sinners. He begins with the pagans, and everybody says, “Yeah, for sure they are.” Then he goes on to the Jewish people who thought that they were a cut above the pagans, and he proves that they are sinners too. And by the time you get to chapter 3, verse 10, he says: “There is none righteous, no not one. No one understands. No one seeks for God.” You say, “Oh yeah? I sought God.” Yes, you did. That’s why you had to listen to the previous message on predestination because God sought you. That’s why you sought God. On our own we would never seek God.
And so he goes on through, and what he’s basically saying is that we are part of a very corrupt tree, and we try to wear a mask, we try to make it look good, and we sometimes (quote) do good, but at the end of the day it says in verse 18 that there is no fear of God before their eyes. In other words, we know God is watching and we really don’t care what we do.
So Paul concludes here in verse 19: “Now we know whatever the Law says it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world,” he says, “is accountable to God.” And everybody comes up guilty. God is so holy, and we are so sinful that even our good acts are tainted. We help a woman across the street, and we can hardly wait to tell somebody how wonderful we were and what we did that day. And so he concludes in verse 20 of chapter 3: “By the works of the Law no human being will be justified in his sight, for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.” By the works of the Law nobody will be justified.
And now Paul goes into one of the most important passages of Scripture. I wish I could comment on it phrase by phrase, but we’re going to get to the basic point very quickly here. “But now (verse 21) the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the Law.” Thank God it’s apart from the Law because through the Law there is no righteousness of God. “Although the Law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe, for there is no distinction. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” And that is sin, by the way. God’s standard is His glory. So how far are we able to shoot with our arrow to see if we can hit the glory of God, and we constantly miss it?
I told you before the story of a man going through a farmyard, noticing on the barn all of these circles, all of these targets, and in the middle of each one an arrow. So he commended the farmer for being a good marksman. The farmer said, “That wasn’t done by me. That was done by a boy from the village who isn’t that bright, and what he did is he shot arrows into my barn, and then he painted the targets around them.” (laughter) And we aim at the glory of God, and we say, “I’ve reached it.” The answer is, “No, you haven’t. You’ve reached your own target, but not God’s.”
Now notice: “And are justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Now verse 25! Everyone listen to this. You may be here today as a teenager. If you are going to live the Christian life, you are going to need to understand what I’m going to tell you now, and in the rest of this message. You’ll notice it says in verse 25: “Whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood to be received by faith.” I’m so excited about this message I’m stumbling over words today. That’s another reason why you ought to have your Bible open in front of you. “Whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood to be received by faith.” Why? “This was to show God’s righteousness, because in His divine forbearance, He had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteous at the present time so that he may be just and the justifier of those who believe in Jesus.”
From infancy, probably, you have been told that Jesus died for sinners, and He did. But that’s not the first purpose of the cross. God put forth Jesus, which reminds us of the fact that salvation is of God. God put forth Jesus. Why? It’s to declare God’s righteousness. Jesus died for sinners but we must understand that Jesus also died for God. Jesus died for God, so that God could be acquitted – he could be set free from the scandal that we’ve talked about, having fellowship with Old Testament saints without a final sacrifice. It talks here about the divine forbearance of God. God says, “I’m going to save them on credit. I’m going to take their sin, set it aside, and have fellowship with them, but a Redeemer is coming who is going to pay their debt as well as the debt of all those who will eventually believe on Jesus.
So Jesus died for God to vindicate God’s righteousness and to legally get Him off the hook, and to explain. What about the Old Testament people who were saved, enjoying God without a sacrifice? And you’ll notice it says that God set him forth to be the propitiation for our sins. Now that word means the turning away of God’s wrath against sin. But I don’t want you to think of the Father being harsh (He’s the one that demands a sacrifice), and the Son is the kind one who goes to the cross. Redemption was planned by the Trinity. It is God who loved the world and therefore He gave His only begotten Son. God – the complexity of His emotions both as One who is both just and as One who is loving.
So Jesus comes, and He is the propitiation for our sins, and in a message some time ago I emphasized that this is very different than the pagans who can go on lying. And people will say, “Oh Christianity is just like all the other religions. They have their sacrifices too.” And they did. The difference is that in Christianity God becomes the sacrifice. God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself. And so it is God who purchases the redemption. It is God who comes and vindicates. God the Father! The mystery of the Trinity!
Now with that background I’d like to introduce you to the gift that is given to all who believe on Jesus, the transforming gift that will impact your ability to live the Christian life from here on out. The gift that I am referring to is the gift of the righteousness of God. In order for us to get into that, because Paul uses that word here, and of course, in the book of Romans elsewhere, I do need to refer one more time to Martin Luther and his struggle.
You see, what Luther was doing was he was living in an era in which it was believed that if you did enough good works God would see you’re good enough to save you. The question was how many good works do you have to do? He fasted until sometimes people thought he might die. Rebecca and I have been in the cell that he was in (It’s like a cell), in the monastery in Erfurt. Hard floor! He slept without blankets to try to mortify the flesh. He confessed his sins up to six hours at a time, but his conscience would not be silenced because you don’t know how high God’s standard is. You go through and you do all these confessions, and then you have to start again tomorrow, because it’s like mopping the floor with a faucet running. I mean new sins, and maybe you forgot some of them. Despair!
And then he began to teach the book of Romans. You know the story. He gets to chapter 1 and it says, “In the Gospel the righteousness of God is revealed,” and he looks at the righteousness of God, and hatred against God wells up in his heart. “Oh yeah, that’s my problem – the righteousness of God! If He wasn’t that righteous, well then maybe I could attain to His standard. But He’s so righteous.”
“Love God?” said Luther. “I hate Him. He’s given us an impossible standard.” But as Luther began to look in Romans 1 and then Romans 3 and chapter 4, he began to realize something. Righteousness is an attribute of God, but it is also a gift given to sinners. And look at what it says in chapter 4 regarding Abraham. This was true also in the Old Testament. Verse 3: “For what does the Scripture say? Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Abraham certainly wasn’t righteous but he was credited with righteousness because he believed.
Paul wants to show that what he was teaching was consistent really with the Old Testament. And then when he gets to chapter 5 you’ll notice that the text says here very clearly that this is a gift righteousness. Verse 16: “But the free gift following many trespasses brought justification, for if because of one man’s trespass death reigned through one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness (There it is.) reign in life through Jesus Christ.”
So what I’d like to do today is to give you three or four characteristics of this gift of righteousness that are legally conferred on all who believe on Jesus so that now we can reach God’s standard, because God gives us what we need to do that.
Let me give you those characteristics. First of all, obviously it’s a free gift because it’s the kind of righteousness of which you and I have none. We can’t contribute to it. We can’t do anything about it. God took our goodness and He put it on the shelf, and across it He wrote “unusable.” He can’t use your goodness. It’s all tainted with sin. And so what I do is I set aside human goodness as unusable. If there were something really truly holy and good about us, God would have to acknowledge that. But in the book of Romans it says that there is nothing to acknowledge.
So God says, “I set aside human sin, and now what I’m going to do is independent of human beings.” You see, the righteousness of God is not just human righteousness lifted to a higher power. It’s entirely different. It has to be a gift. It is a gift that is unearned. It is a gift that we can never repay. But there is something else about it. Because it’s a gift, God doesn’t find it more difficult to save big sinners than lesser ones. God saves some terrible sinners. There could be some people listening to this message, and you know the things that you have done. I would think that since this messages goes to different parts of the world and on the radio, I’m speaking to people who know right well that they are criminals. And you are saying to yourself, “Can that righteousness be applied to me?” And I say, “Absolutely because it’s a righteousness independent of human works.” It’s much better to live a good life than a criminal life, but as far as righteousness is concerned, God gives the same righteousness to everybody. God can receive you, so it has to be, of necessity, a free gift. That’s why it’s called a gift of righteousness in Romans 5.
There’s a second characteristic of this gift, and that is that it is a perfect gift (chuckles) obviously, because it’s God’s righteousness. You see because it belongs to Him and He says, “I’m conferring it to you; I’m crediting it to your account and therefore your debt is being fully paid by Me,” of course it can’t be improved upon, nor can it in any way be diminished. It is as perfect as God.
See, Luther knew something that his generation lost, and our generation certainly has lost, and that was that in order to get to heaven you have to be as perfect as God. That’s difficult to do in ourselves, isn’t it? Wives, look at your husbands and say, “On that basis you’re not making it.” So it is a perfect gift. It is God’s righteousness.
Third, it is a permanent gift. It’s permanent. Once received it takes you all the way to heaven. If I may one more time refer to Martin Luther, was he saved during those days when he was confessing his sins? Of course not because, you see, as he confessed his sins, the next day he was loaded again with new sins. And you really don’t know where you stand. Salvation does not come through confession. You can’t remember all your sins. Even if you did, as I’ve already emphasized, tomorrow is another day with brand new ones. Where do you go?
But once he understood that salvation was a free gift, that is to say that the righteousness of God was credited to Him and that it was his permanent possession through faith in Jesus Christ, now it freed him. And one of the doctrines that he gave up soon after was purgatory, because purgatory said that nobody dies good enough to go to heaven so there are the fires of purgatory that finally purge you so that you can have entrance. And he said, “If I’m clothed in the righteousness of Christ, I go from this life to the next, and I’m deposited in heaven as if I am Jesus.” And if you know Christ as your Savior, when you die, you’ll be welcomed into heaven as if you were Jesus. (applause) And I’d say that that’s really good news for sinners, isn’t it?
“I think it’s wonderful,” somebody says over there. Yeah! Now if you’re not a sinner, well, talk to me later, and I’ll give you a little bit of help. (laughter) It is, therefore, permanent. It says in the book of Hebrews: “He has perfected forever those who are sanctified.”
But also I want to give you another characteristic, and that is it is a sanctifying gift. It sanctifies us. It could be that somebody is listening to this, and he says, “Oh well, if I receive Jesus I can do just anything I like.” By the way, when somebody says that to you there should be a part of you that rejoices because they are beginning to understand the Gospel. It’s the natural unsaved response to the Gospel.
Now Paul is going to argue: “Should we therefore continue in sin because grace abounds? Absolutely not!” But you see, it is this truth that sanctifies us. I read in chapter 5 that we reign in this life by the free gift of righteousness. How does that work?
Do you remember the story Les Miserables, Victor Hugo’s book about Jean Valjean? He breaks out of prison and he’s looking for a place to stay and nobody will have him, and finally a bishop takes him in. And the bishop is very kind to him and ends up giving him a nice warm bed with clean sheets. But in the middle of the night, Jean Valjean wakes up, and tiptoes through the bedroom of the bishop and steals the silverware and leaves.
Later that morning Jean Valjean is caught by a guard. He brings him back, and the guard says to the bishop, “He says you gave him these spoons.” And all that the bishop has to say is, “No, I didn’t,” and Jean Valjean goes to prison for the rest of his life. But do you remember what the bishop did? The bishop said, “Oh yes, I gave him the spoons. In fact, I am angry with him because here are some candlesticks he should have taken too.” Well the guard has to just walk away. And then the bishop says to Jean Valjean, and I’m paraphrasing here, “With this act of grace, I bought your soul for God.” And from then on Jean Valjean began to live a different life.
Now I know that the illustration breaks down because we can’t just begin to live a different life without the power of the Holy Spirit, which incidentally, is the next message in this series. But still, grace is transforming. Grace motivates us. In light of the fact that we have God’s righteousness we have now a desire to live righteously. We can never attain the righteousness of God, but we want to live righteous lives. And yes, we do confess our sins in order to restore fellowship with God, but not in order to begin somehow all over again. We do it because we are His children.
Your children have permanent love and acceptance from you as parents, but when they misbehave there is some confession that has to be done. And that’s why we pray that the church would confess, and that the church would repent. But still we repent from the standpoint of strength.
You see, the reason that this means so much to me is there are mornings when I wake up when I don’t necessarily have a heart hot for God. Have you ever had a morning like that? Have you ever had a morning where your failures seem to overwhelm you, and you really feel quite bad about what you’ve done, but what’s been done has been done? Where do you go from there? What do you do? You say, “God’s mad at me.” No, what you do is you say this. There is a prayer I came across this week. It says, “In Christ there is nothing I can do that would make You love me more, and nothing that I have done that makes You love me less.” Wow! “So God still loves me?” Yeah! “I’m still represented before the throne? The righteousness of Jesus Christ is still my gift, covering my life?” Yes!
I think it was Ludwig von Zinzendorf (I love that name. I don’t get to say it too often.) who said, “Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness, my beauty art, my heavenly (glorious) dress.” I can get up in the morning, not because of what I’ve done or because, you know, I’ve had a warm time in my devotions (though God knows we ought to have our devotions). But I can get up in the morning because God is there. Jesus represents me.
The terrors of law and of God
With me can have nothing to do;
My Saviour'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;
[Hymn by Augustus Toplady – A Debtor to Mercy Alone]
You can get up in the morning because you are loved and the righteousness of God is credited to your account.
Now there are some implications of this obviously, and for these I look at the text. You’ll notice it says this in verse 26 (We already emphasized that Jesus was put forward as the propitiation of His blood to be received by faith for us.) “This was to show God’s righteousness, because in His divine forbearance He passed over former sins. It was to show His righteousness at the present time (And here’s now the key phrase) that he might be the just and the justifier of one who has faith in Jesus.”
God can be both loving and totally just, and He can acquit us because Jesus paid what we couldn’t, and gave us the gift of divine righteousness and credited it to our account. So God is totally just, and He’s the justifier.
The second implication is this. You’ll notice he says (I love this.) in verse 27: “Well, what then becomes of our boasting?” It’s excluded. You’re going to come before God and say, “Oh God, I am just so wonderful because I came to know your Son and I’m so much better than the person standing next to me who has never believed, and I’m taking credit for the fact that I’m pretty wise in this business of salvation?” With that attitude… I’ve never said this before and never planned to, but I will. You are kind of slapping God in the face. And that’s why throughout all of eternity we will continue to worship at the wonder of God’s salvation, and that He demands perfection, and then supplied what he demanded, and offered it to sinners as a free gift.
I’ll tell you – no boasting from us in heaven! There should be no boasting on earth. Who makes thee to differ from another? What hast thou that thou hast not received? And if thou hast received it, why do you act as if it belongs to you? It’s all of God. Everything! No boasting!
And finally we see here that Jesus Christ is the one who is the redeemer, not just for the Jews, but for everyone. Verse 29: “Is God the God of the Jews only? Is He not also the God of the Gentiles?” Yes, also of the Gentiles! Is He the God of the people who attend The Moody Church? Yes, He’s God of the people who attend The Moody Church.
There are not a lot of ways to get to heaven, because there is no other Savior who paid the debt of those who believe. And some of you who are depending upon your works, let me tell you that if anyone ever says to your question… You know, “If you were to stand before God and God were to say, ‘Why shall I let you into heaven?’… If anybody says, “Well, you know, I’m a pretty good person,” not only are he or she not understanding the Gospel, but much more seriously, they actually are putting up a huge stumbling block to the Gospel. They are more lost than the person who says, “I have nothing to offer God. I come with my need, and God has to do everything else.” That person can be saved. As long as we cling to our righteousness we can’t.
So in this broken world where we measure our spirituality by our industry and by our works, let’s remember that it is given as a free gift, that is, salvation to all who believe, the Bible says. Is God working in your heart today to believe that Jesus actually did pay it all?
D. L. Moody was in a meeting one time and he said that a man stood up and said, “It took me 42 years to learn three things.” And Moody thought, “Wow! If I listen carefully I can maybe learn them all right now. I don’t have to wait that long.” The man said, “The three things are this. Number one, I cannot save myself. My works do not contribute to my salvation. The second thing I learned is that God doesn’t expect me to or think I can. He, above all, knows better. And the third thing is that Jesus paid it all for those who believe.” Isn’t that good news in a fallen world? (applause)
The gift of righteousness – God’s righteousness – that takes us all the way to heaven! What a gift!
If you’ve never received Christ as Savior, you may do that. We’re going to be singing in a moment, but wherever you are seated, or however you are listening to this, you can say at this moment, “Jesus, I receive that free gift because I know that I have sinned, and I come to a Savior.” A great Savior for great sinners!
Father, we ask that your Holy Spirit will take your Word and do what we can’t. You can open hearts. You can convict of sin. You can show people the beauty and the glory of our salvation, and today there are those that may be reborn into your Kingdom. Help us, Lord, to rejoice in the salvation freely offered. We love You. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.