Posts tagged ‘Righteousness’

Being Pharisaical About Being Pharisaical

The other day, I came across an experiment.  It was conducted by a Christian guy named Timothy Kurek who, by his own admission, wanted to “shock the Pharisee out of himself.”  He had been raised with a quintessentially fundamentalist pedigree, even attending Jerry Falwell’s famed Liberty University as a college student.  But something in his fundamentalist upbringing proved profoundly unsettling to him.  So he left everything he had known and feigned coming out of the closet as a gay man to his friends and family in an effort to see how his Christian friends would respond to him.  Some were loving.  Others, sadly, but predictably, skewered him.[1]

As I learned about his experiment, I came to appreciate his moving and sometimes heart-rending experience.  What I found somewhat troubling, however, was his characterization of the Pharisees.  Tim spoke many of times of his “inner Pharisee” – this voice deep inside his soul full of accusations and vitriol.  By the end of his journey, TIm went from having an inner Pharisee to calling himself a “recovering Pharisee.”  Part of this journey seems to have included a radical change concerning his conception of sin.  He is not nearly so comfortable calling things that have been traditionally called sins, “sins.”  After all, this is what Pharisees do.  They talk way too much about sin.  And he doesn’t want to be like them.

This past weekend at Concordia, we talked about Jesus’ Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  The Pharisee, in Jesus’ telling, represents everything we have come to hate about these religious elites.  He comes across as arrogant, judgmental, and outright smarmy in the prayer he offers on the steps of the Jerusalem temple:  “God, I thank You that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” (Luke 18:11-12).  This guy’s bluster is palpable.  Yuck.

Did I mention the irony is also deep?  Our reflexive response to this parable all too often sounds something like this:  “God, I thank You that I am not like other religious hypocrites – Pharisees, Sadducees, creationists – or even like those unenlightened, bigoted fundies who attend Liberty University.  I judge not and am smart enough to realize that my Christian witness to the world has to be nuanced and Huffington Post appropriate.”

Somehow, I’m not sure this is what Jesus intended for us to get out of this parable.

The problem with the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable was not that he was religiously conservative, nor was it that he was concerned with sinfulness.  Both of those things are fine and, in many instances, even desirable.  The problem was that this Pharisee trusted in the wrong righteousness – his own.  Luke’s setup of Jesus’ parable makes this clear enough:  “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable” (Luke 12:9).

Sadly, many people see the road to killing their inner Pharisee as one paved by downplaying certain sins, thereby demonstrating themselves in-tune and in-touch with our culture’s zeitgeist.  But the road to killing our inner Pharisee cannot be paved in this way.  Indeed, Jesus Himself was quite comfortable with much of what the Pharisees said about sin and, many times, thought they did not understand sin deeply enough.  Just read the Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount or His discussion on human sexuality in Matthew 19:1-12 to see how seriously Jesus took sin.  Killing our inner Pharisee is not about redefining sin, but about killing sin by the cross.

So let’s stop trying to slay Pharisees by diminishing sinfulness.  That’s simply swapping one form of Pharisee-ism for another.  It’s swapping a religious self-righteousness for a cultural self-righteousness.  And that simply will not do.  For we do not need self-righteousness, we need Jesus’ righteousness.  Only His righteousness can cure a Pharisee and save a sinner.

Even a Pharisee and sinner like me.

[1] To learn more of Tim’s story, see Url Scaramanga, “Ur Video:  Straight Christian Lives as Gay Man,” (10.19.12) and “Timothy Kurek, Straight Christian Man, ‘Comes Out’ And Pretends To Be Gay For A Year,” The Huffington Post (10.13.12).

October 29, 2012 at 5:15 am 3 comments

ABC Extra – Righteous, Dude!

“Righteous!”  Whenever I see this word followed by an exclamation point, I cannot help but envision a teenage Californian with long hair, decked out in board shorts, surfboard in hand, just waiting to take on the next big wave.  And it’s not surprising that this is the portrait that comes to mind.  After all, the word “righteous” is not exactly an integral entry in our pop-culture lexicon.  And when the term is used, it describes nothing more than a big wave.  In fact, I found some of the synonyms assigned to the word “righteous” in the Urban Dictionary to be interesting:  “awesome,” “amazing,” “cool,” “exciting.”[1]  All of these can certainly apply to big waves.

Though the word “righteous” is not regularly used in a particularly thoughtful manner in our day and age, this word served as a foundation of theological thinking and speaking for the biblical writers.  For it was used to describe the very character of God: “The LORD is righteous; He has cut me free from the cords of the wicked” (Psalm 129:4).  It is interesting to note how the Psalmist connects the righteousness of God to the defeat of wickedness.  In the Bible, righteousness and wickedness are inimical.  Thus, righteousness is more than just something that is “awesome” or “cool,” it is, in a phrase, that which is wholly right while actively opposing that which is wrong.

In our text from this past weekend in worship and ABC, God expounds not only on His righteousness, but on how a person can connect to His righteousness.  God says through His prophet Habakkuk, “The righteous will live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4).  “Righteousness,” God says, “is not attained by righteous living, but through faith in the God who is the very definition and embodiment of righteousness.”

Interestingly, this conception of righteousness – that it is attained through faith in God – is at odds with Habakkuk’s conception of righteousness.  When God tells Habakkuk that the Babylonians will soon sweep in to destroy Israel because of her unrighteousness, Habakkuk protests:  “Why are You silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves” (Habakkuk 1:13)?  Habakkuk carries with him a conception of righteousness that is grounded not in God, but in good works.  The more good things a person does, the more righteous he is.  Conversely, the more bad things a person does, the more wicked he is.  Habakkuk’s argument to God, then, is, “Israel may be wicked, but Babylon is wicked-er!  How can You use a nation less righteous than Israel to punish her for her unrighteousness?”

It is important to understand that Habakkuk’s objection to God and conception of righteousness is not entirely unfounded.  Righteousness can be and is defined in such a way to include the works the one does.  Indeed, the Lutheran Confessions even speak of a “righteousness of works”:  “The human will…can to a certain extent render civil righteousness or the righteousness of works; it can speak of God, offer to God a certain service by an outward work, obey magistrates, parents; in the choice of an outward work it can restrain the hands from murder, from adultery, from theft” (Ap XVIII:40).  This “righteousness of works,” however, as helpful as it might be to keep society in order and provide for its ongoing tranquility, counts for nothing in the sight of God.  Isaiah accurately estimates the value of this kind of righteousness before God when he writes, “All our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6).

God’s primary concern is not how righteous we are in the world’s sight, but how righteous we are in His sight.  And righteousness in God’s sight can only be attained by faith in Christ.  As the Lutheran Confessions state: “The imputation of the righteousness of the Gospel is from the promise; therefore it is always received by faith, and it always must be regarded certain that by faith we are, for Christ’s sake, accounted righteous” (Ap IV:42-43).  Because we are accounted righteous “for Christ’s sake,” we cannot consider anyone better or worse, holier or wicked-er, in the sight of God.  For Christ’s righteousness is indiscriminately and freely applied to all who have faith.  And because Christ’s righteousness is whole and complete, everyone who receives His righteousness is also whole and complete.  There is no difference between those justified in Christ.  That is why, to obtain true righteousness, only one thing will do – faith!

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[1] Definition 2 at

April 30, 2012 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

ABC Extra – Heart Cleaning

When I was a little kid, one of the places my dad used to take me was the zoo.  I loved to see the animals – the bears, the giraffes, the elephants, and the otters.  I especially liked the otters.  They always seemed so playful and energetic.  But as much as I enjoyed seeing the animals, they were never my favorite part of my zoo trips.  No, the highlight of these trips was always my ride on the zoo train.  At my local zoo, they had a real, coal burning, steam engine which ran a mile long trek around the perimeter of the zoo grounds.  And I loved to ride it.  The wail of the train whistle, the chug, chug, chug of the pistons, and the waft of the smoke rising from the train’s stack always mesmerized me.  I also loved the open-air cars.  There was nothing like having the wind blow in your face as lots of beautiful scenery whizzed by beside you.  In fact, I always wanted to hang my head out the side of the car and feel the wind rush through my hair.  But in each car, they had these notices posted: “Please remain seated and keep your hands and arms inside the car until the ride has come to a complete stop.”  I despised these notices.  And my dad would never allow me to fudge the rules…not one bit.  Whenever I’d try to stick my hand out the side of the car to feel the breeze, my dad would grab it and point it up to the notice.  I could look at the scenery whizzing by outside, but I could not stick my hand out the window to get closer to it.  I had to keep my hands to myself.

In worship and ABC this weekend, we looked at the story of a sinful woman who comes to anoint Jesus as He is dining with a Pharisee named Simon.  As I mentioned in ABC, many scholars believe this woman not only lived a sinful life, but a scandalous one as a prostitute.  When Simon sees this woman weeping over Jesus and pouring perfume on Him, Simon mutters to himself, “If this man were a prophet, He would know who is touching Him and what kind of woman she is – that she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39).  Simon is upset that this sinful woman would dare to touch Jesus…and that Jesus would allow her to do so!  In fact, from this, Simon deduces that Jesus cannot be a true prophet – for a true prophet would never let a sinful woman come into contact with Him.  Simon believes this woman should keep her hands and arms inside her own little space at all times.  She should keep her hands to herself.

According to Old Testament law, coming into contact with something or someone which was physically, spiritually, or ceremonially unclean rendered you unclean.  For instance, Moses writes:

If a person touches anything ceremonially unclean – whether the carcasses of unclean wild animals or of unclean livestock or of unclean creatures that move along the ground – even though he is unaware of it, he has become unclean and is guilty.  Or if he touches human uncleanness – anything that would make him unclean – even though he is unaware of it, when he learns of it he will be guilty. (Leviticus 5:2-3)

Moses is warning, “Be careful what you touch!  Because if you touch the wrong thing, you will get the wrong result – you will be rendered ‘unclean’!”  So please keep your hands and arms inside your own little space at all times.  Keep your hands to yourself.

A touch can defile.  This was the way the religious leaders viewed sinfulness and righteousness, uncleanness and purity.  This is why Simon is so upset with Jesus.  After all, He is allowing a clearly unclean prostitute to defile His ceremonial cleanness without so much as a wince!  Jesus, however, knows better about purity and uncleanness:

Nothing outside a man can make him “unclean” by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him “unclean.”  For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man “unclean.” (Mark 7:15, 21-23)

Jesus knows that a sinful woman cannot defile a pure person, for a person becomes sinful not because of some external source of wickedness, but because of his own sinful heart! The Lutheran Confessions explain, “Neither sin nor righteousness should be placed in meat, drink, clothing and like things” (Apology XXVIII 7).  These external things cannot defile us.  It is our own hearts which make us wicked.

This sinful woman’s touch does not defile Jesus’ purity.  But Jesus’ purity does cleanse this sinful woman.  Jesus announces to her, “Your sins are forgiven” (Luke 7:48).   This woman’s sinfulness is no match for Jesus’ forgiveness.  And the same is true for us.  We are cleansed through faith in Christ!

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October 24, 2011 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Sermon Extra – The Heart of the Gospel

“But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:21-22).

More magnificent words have nary been written. Paul’s words in these verses constitute the heart and soul of the gospel. Because Paul’s words are so foundational to everything we believe, teach, and confess as Christians, I thought for this week’s “Extra,” I would simply take some time to briefly unpack some key phrases, specifically in verse 22.

From God…

This phrase describes the source of righteousness. A Christian’s righteousness is not of his own making or doing. Rather, it is “from God.” A Christian knows that, apart from God, “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10), “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Thus, in order for someone to be declared “righteous,” that righteousness must come from somewhere else, or, more accurately, from someone else. Paul declares that this “someone else” is God.

Through faith…

This phrase describes the application of righteousness, that is, how God’s righteousness gets from God to us. Some people try to apply God’s righteousness to themselves by ascending to God via nebulous mysticism or good works or deep knowledge. But Paul’s answer of how God’s righteousness gets applied to us involves no steep ascent to the Divine through various contortions of the soul, body, or mind. Rather, the way that God’s righteousness gets applied to us is through faith. And for Paul, faith is simple trust – trust that God is indeed righteous and trust that God indeed wants to share His righteousness with us as a completely free gift, apart from any merit or worthiness on our parts.

In Christ…

This phrase describes the object of righteousness. The object of righteousness – the One to whom we look to see God’s righteousness on display – is Jesus Christ. He is the epitome and the embodiment of God’s righteousness. Indeed, He is God’s righteousness come to earth. Thus, if we do not trust in Christ, we cannot receive God’s righteousness. Much debate has swirled around this phrase as it appears in Greek: dia pisteos Iesou Christou. Grammatically, this phrase can be translated in one of two different ways. One the one hand, it can be translated as above: “through faith in Jesus Christ.” This takes the phrase Iesou Christou as an objective genitive. In other words, Jesus Christ is the object of our faith. But this phrase can also be translated as a subjective genitive: “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” Here, Jesus becomes the subject of the faith. Although grammatically, the former is probably to be preferred, theologically, both are important. For we must have faith in Christ for God’s righteousness to be applied to us. But God’s righteousness cannot be applied to us through Christ unless Christ is righteous, that is, faithful (cf. Hebrews 3:6)! Thus, we have faith in the faithful Christ.

To all who believe…

This phrase describes the destination of righteousness. That is, God desires that His righteousness find its destination in every person. It is important to understand that God’s righteousness is undiscriminating. He does not desire to give it to one person while desiring to withhold it from another. Thus, anyone can receive God’s righteousness, no matter how wicked, debase, or depraved they might be. No one need remain outside the grasp of God’s righteousness. This is why we share the gospel of God’s righteousness.

This, then, is the gospel: that God gives to us His righteousness through faith because of the faithfulness of Jesus to anyone who believes that His righteousness is for them. This is the gospel that the Christian church has stewarded for some 2,000 years. And who knows? We may be stewarding it for some 2,000 more. By God’s grace, may we steward it well. For it is the most precious treasure to humankind. For it is the message of our forgiveness, life, and salvation. And there can be no greater treasure than that.

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August 16, 2010 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

ABC Extra – The Power of Peer Pressure

This weekend in worship and ABC, we discussed the family fiasco of addiction.  The statistics pertaining to various addictions are startling:

  • 23% of adults consume more than five alcoholic beverages each day.
  • Each year, nearly 35 million people try to quit smoking.  Less than 7% are successful.
  • 25 million Americans visit cyber-sex sites between one and ten hours per week. Another 4.7 million spend in excess of 11 hours per week on these sites.

Clearly, we are a culture trapped by our addictive behaviors.

Sadly, these addictive behaviors often start when a person is young.  Teenagers are drawn into habits of smoking, drinking, drug use, and sexual immorality, usually because their friends pressure them to engage in such activities.  Consider these statistics:

  • The Adolescent Substance Abuse Knowledge Base reports that 30% of teens are offered drugs in middle and high school.
  • According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 74% of high school students have tried alcohol at the encouragement of their friends.
  • The Kaiser Foundation reports that 50% of teenagers feel pressured to engage in sexually promiscuous relationships.

Peer pressure is clearly alive and well among our youth.  Indeed, it is thriving.  The problem is, peer pressure coerces many of our kids straight into harmful addictions.

One of the myths about peer pressure is that it is a relatively new phenomenon.  In another survey, teens were asked whether or not peer pressure affected people 100 years ago.  46% of the respondents said that peer pressure affected teens “significantly less” than it does today while another 16% said that peer pressure didn’t affect teens at all a century ago.

In reality, peer pressure is nothing new.  In our text from this weekend, we encounter an instance of peer pressure when the Israelites “gather around Aaron and say, ‘Come, make us gods who will go before us” (Exodus 32:1).  Notably, the word for “around” – when the Israelites gather “around” Aaron – is al.  Al is a notoriously ambiguous preposition and can be translated as everything from “upon” to “beside” to “beyond” to “towards” to “against.”  In other words, it is a catchall preposition.  Many scholars believe that, in Exodus 32:1, al is best translated as “against.”  That is, the Israelites gather against Aaron to put some pressure on him to cast a false idol.  In a phrase, the Israelites place Aaron under the weight of “peer pressure.”

Tragically, Aaron caves to the Israelites’ al. He builds their false idol.  And, just as in a case of addiction, the Israelites become enslaved to this idol as they worship it even as a drug addict is enslaved to heroin or a food addict is enslaved to sweets.  And it all begins with the Israelites’ peer pressure on Aaron.

How do you respond to peer pressure that would lead you down a dead end road to sin?  Do you cave in as Aaron did, or do you take a stand even when people are against you?  Another famed biblical character, King David, knew well the heartache of having people against him.  He cries out to God, “O LORD, how many are my foes!  How many rise up against me” (Psalm 3:1).  But unlike Aaron, David does not cave to peer pressure.  For David knows, “You, O LORD, are a shield around me” (Psalm 3:3).  David remains steadfast, even in the face of the menacing al of his foes.  My prayer for you this week is that when the world would come against you with its addictions, you would stand steadfast in Christ’s righteousness.

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May 24, 2010 at 4:45 am 2 comments

ABC Extra: Children Who Rebel

Rebellion has become a sort of rite of passage as children move into adulthood.  The teenage son breaks his curfew to sneak out with his friends and party late into the night.  The teenage daughter secretly dates that cute boy she’s head over heals for in spite of her parents’ strong objections.  The Fourth Commandment, “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12), seems of little consequence to many teenagers.

It is a common misconception that it didn’t used to be this way.  Children did not used to so headily and so arrogantly rebel against their parents.  The truth of the matter, however, is that children have been rebelling against their parents for centuries.  Jesus puts it like this:  “Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death” (Mark 13:12).  Indeed, the rebellion of children against their parents goes back even farther.  It stretches all the way back to the Fall into sin.

In Luke 3, the evangelist presents us with a genealogy of Jesus Christ.  And what a genealogy it is!  It traces the Lord’s lineage all the way to the first man, Adam.  It’s especially interesting the way Adam is talked about.  In the midst of a bunch of genealogical standard fare – “so and so was the son of so and so, and so and so was the son of so and so” – we come to this:  “Methuselah was the son of Enoch, the son of Jared, the son of Mahalalel, the son of Kenan,  the son of Enosh, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God” (Luke 3:37-38).  Luke says that Adam, like everyone else throughout the course of history, was a son.  He was a son of God.  And just like every son that has come after him, he rebels against his parents, or, more precisely, his Father.  God commands His son Adam not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and Adam sneaks off and eats from the tree anyway.  The first sin was one of rebellion.  And children have been rebelling against their parents ever since.

This weekend in worship and ABC, we studied 1 Samuel 2 and the story of the rebellion of Hophni and Phineas against their father and against God.  The author of 1 Samuel is pointed in his analysis of the sons’ character:  “Eli’s sons were wicked men; they had no regard for the LORD” (verse 12).  Their rebellion was two-pronged.  On the one hand, they took animal sacrifices that were properly to be burned in honor of the LORD and instead kept these animals for private meals (cf. verses 13-15).  On the other hand, they engaged in sexual immorality with the women who served at the temple where they were priests (cf. verse 22).  Eli, Hophi and Phineas’ father, although he condemns the latter sin, does not condemn the former.  We find out why he does not condemn the former sin just verses later when a prophet of God arrives at Eli’s doorstep and rebukes Eli for too partaking of animal sacrifices which properly belong to God!  The prophet asks in the stead of the LORD:  “Why do you scorn My sacrifice and offering that I prescribed for My dwelling?  Why do you honor your sons more than Me by fattening yourselves on the choice parts of every offering made by My people Israel” (verse 29)?

The Hebrew word for the “choice parts” of the Israelite offerings on which Eli and his sons are fattening themselves is re’shi’ith. Interestingly, this word is most often associated with the practice of tithing:  “Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the LORD your God” (Exodus 23:19).  The Hebrew word for “best” is again re’shi’ith. Be it Hophni or Phineas or their father Eli, this is a family that is not interested in bringing their first and best before God.  And so they receive judgment from God.

Does your family bring its first and best before God?  Does your family give the first of its week to God in worship?  Does your family give the first of its money to God in finances?  Does your family give the first of its day to God in prayer and study of God’s Word?  Although the practice of giving the first to God in your family’s life may not prevent those hoary teenage years of rebellion altogether, it is good training in righteousness – for your children…and for you.  And righteousness has a mysterious way of repressing rebellion.

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May 3, 2010 at 4:45 am 1 comment

Good Friday

On this Good Friday, the words of the prophet Isaiah are especially striking to me:

He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to Him, nothing in His appearance that we should desire Him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we esteemed Him not. (Isaiah 53:2-3)

It is important to remember that before Good Friday was “good,” it was ugly.  As Isaiah explains, Jesus, in His hours on the cross, because the most ugly, hideous, depraved, grotesque creature this world has ever known – so ugly, in fact, that people hid their faces in repulsion.  For Jesus, in His hours on the cross, bore the sins of the world.  Martin Luther explains:

God sent His Son into the world, heaped all the sins of all men upon Him, and said to Him: “Be Peter the denier; Paul the persecutor, blasphemer, and assaulter; David the adulterer; the sinner who ate the apple in Paradise; the thief on the cross. In short, be the person of all men, the one who has committed the sins of all men. And see to it that You pay and make satisfaction for them.” Now the Law comes and says: “I find Him a sinner, who takes upon Himself the sins of all men. I do not see any other sins than those in Him. Therefore let Him die on the cross!” And so it attacks Him and kills Him. (AE 26, Galatians 3:13)

History’s most infamous sins were heaped upon the head of Christ.  What an ugly Friday this so-called “Good Friday” must have been!  What an ugly Christ the people gathered around the cross must have beheld!  Indeed, at the cross, it looked as though the ugliness of sin had overtaken the very beauty of God.  But then, all the ugly sins of humanity encountered something for which they never bargained.  Again, Luther explains:

The sins of the entire world, past, present, and future, attack Christ, try to damn Him, and do in fact damn Him. But because in the same Person, who is the highest, the greatest, and the only sinner, there is also eternal and invincible righteousness, therefore these two converge: the highest, the greatest, and the only sin; and the highest, the greatest, and the only righteousness. Here one of them must yield and be conquered, since they come together and collide with such a powerful impact. (AE 26, Galatians 3:13)

One of these – either man’s sinfulness or God’s righteousness – must yield and be conquered.  So which one yields?  Which one is conquered?

It is here that we find what’s “good” in Good Friday.  For on the cross, a truly bloody battle was waged between righteousness and sinfulness.  And righteousness won. This is the good news of Good Friday.

As you gaze upon the ugliness of cross today, remember that God’s beautiful righteousness is hiding there.  And righteousness won. And not only did righteousness win, but righteousness is now given to you and me by God’s grace on account of our faith.  And this makes this Friday a very good Friday indeed!

April 2, 2010 at 4:45 am Leave a comment

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