Vol. IX — No. 18 May 5, 1968
For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. Ye have heard that is was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and Whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift. Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing.
Beloved in the Christ Who would robe you in righteousness:
Here is a mystery: The very thing that natural man most vigorously denies that he has is the very thing that he is most Careful always to be covering up. Post-modern man has gone one step farther: he has quit denying that his life is suffused with sin from one end to the other; he has quit calling it sin, and instead is calling evil good. He has begun saying that many of the evils that our parents warned us against are after all but the free expression of the human Spirit and need an outlet. There are teachers, books, periodicals and other advocates today professing the doctrine that man should be free to follow his inborn inclinations. Are these the days of which St. Paul prophesied in his Second Epistle to Timothy: “This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God”? 2 Tim.3:1ff. Post-modern man has laughed Paul to scorn and spit God in the face, declaring that those things are not bad—they are good: only by giving his passions free rein can man fully realize his full self! And the man that talks that way has been given still another label today: he is called the post-Christian man. Did you realize that the world seems to be moving fast into the post-Christian age? Yet we said that we are concerned with the man of mystery, the man who has much of sin in his life, but is endeavoring to cover it up. Perhaps we should discuss post-Christian man. But it is a topic too vast for a morning sermon. Today, we have a Gospel passage that discusses people who at least pretended to be a people of some outward morality and righteous- ness, people to whom Jesus said, “Ye are they which justify yourselves before men.” But Jesus analyzed their “morality” and “righteousness” this way: “But God knoweth your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God.” Luke 16:15. So we want to continue that analysis by presenting to you Christ’s own analysis in our text—not of post-modern man, not of post-Christian man, but of “Christian” man, man as he existed under the Old Testament order of things, and as he exists in Christendom. Let us turn to an
There are two kinds of righteousness, as is seen clearly from the opening words of our passage: “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” One kind is the righteousness of “good” men, of men who want a good reputation, who want to be highly regarded for their obedience to principles of morality and law. The other is the righteousness of Christ, which alone avails before God: which etches off our souls the sin and guilt and depravity, which is our spiritual disease, and enrobes us with the righteousness of Christ whereby we can stand before God as though we have never sinned.
Every soul of man, inheriting sin from Adam, is like the young lawyer who came to Christ and asked what he should do to inherit eternal life; he was “willing to justify himself.” Luke 10:29. It is natural to cover up. Man has been doing it ever since Adam—he said that he just stepped aside, when God called him in the garden, whereas the fact was that he ran in fear to hide himself. He blamed the woman God gave him, seeking not to admit that he was guilty of eating of the forbidden tree.
The scribes and Pharisees were trying to stand before God on their own. Not having shed anyone’s blood, they had kept the commandment not to kill. Not having violated the body of a woman, they had not committed adultery. Having written a statement of divorce, they felt they were free to marry any other that they chose. Not having taken an oath that mentioned God’s name, they felt free to swear by heaven, or by Jerusalem, or by their own head.
They went even further. They made a large number of commandments that God Himself had not made. The record says that they had 318 commandments, detailed regulations for themselves and their people, on which they insisted.
What kind of behavior is this? Can’t you see the self-righteousness of it all? It is an attempt to be even more holy than God! It is an attempt to cover up one’s genuine sin as not condemnable. It is similar to the behavior of the school-boy who has tormented his schoolmates; when his father blames him for it he answers that that teacher won’t even let you breathe in her room—so why blame him if he puts a tack on his neighbor’s chair. Just so, the Pharisees kept so many hundreds of external commands that over-lending to a widow and foreclosing the mortgage must not be wrong! lusting after another woman must not be wrong! swearing endless oaths must be all right! and one could hate his enemy if only he loved his neighbor!
Still worse: falling into this sham righteousness is the special temptation of those who tread the very courts of the Lord! Yes, it is among those who would be “good” that Satan’s temptation to undo them is the greatest. It was of God’s own vineyard that He cried in Isaiah, “Wherefore, when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes?” Is.5:4. And this was in the vineyard of which He Himself declared, “What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it?”
A student of church history observed that “every solution…carries within itself the possibility of some new abuse.” (Roland Bainton: The Travail of Religious Liberty, The Westminster Press, Phila., p 254.) It is among “good” people that guilt eventually emerges greatest. It was among His own that Christ was crucified. “He came unto His own, and his own received him not.” John 1:11.
There is nothing more dangerous to salvation than the sense of one’s own righteousness. A keen observer of how things go in the world put it this way: “Nothing, it would appear, more induces cruelty than a sense of righteousness. Cruel acts performed for a noble cause—such as the salvation of humanity—permit the perpetrators to have it both ways: to satisfy their unconscious sadistic natures and salve their consciences.” (Dorothy Thompson in a syndicated newspaper Column.) It was the medieval church that out people down in cold blood to make nations “Christian.” To be sure, this was a perverted Christendom, but the perversion had its roots in self-righteousness, the sin of the scribes and Pharisees.
This sin is as modern as the rising of this morning’s sun: “It is a sad but sure truth that every time you speak of a fine purpose, especially with eloquence and to the admiration of bystanders, that there is less chance of your ever making a fact of it in your poor life.” (Thomas Carlyle; citation unidentified.) Small wonder that an early Church Father speculated whether there would be many preachers of the Gospel in heaven! “Ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men,” said Jesus to the church leaders of His time, “for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.” You can read that, and the rest of the sordid reasons why, in the 23rd chapter of St. Matthew. The reasons are summarized in what Jesus said in our text this morning: You cannot teach the command of righteousness, “Thou shalt not kill,” and then cloak yourselves in the comfortable privileges of hurting and harming your neighbors with anger and ugly words; but the moment someone has a grievance against you, you must hurry to ask his forgiveness. Just don’t try to stand there in the filthy rags of your own goodness.
Another way to say this is that the worst possible kind of Phariseeism then, is mere orthodoxy of the head. The leaders of Jesus’ day were very careful to teach all the commandments of God. And Jesus recognized that when he told the people that the Pharisees were in Moses’ seat (as teachers of the people): “All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do ye not after their works: for they say, and do not.” Matt. 23:3ff, through v. 12.
We knew a man once who turned the preaching of the truth to immense personal profit, and he belittled me as a young pastor for not being sharp enough to do the same thing: he would go a thousand or two miles from home every two years, set up a tent, and make people weep for their wickedness; they would give him their money and their purses, and he actually chuckled when he said that that was the only real way to get himself a new car on the trip. In his grocery store at home it was publicly known that he would not give a poor beggar an onion to give some flavor to the stew he had scrounged from people’s garbage cans down by the tracks. This reminds us of another thing Jesus said to the Pharisees in that famous chapter 23 of St. Matthew: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithes of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ye ought to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” v. 23, also 24-28.
The worst kind of work-righteousness is that which is satisfied with being convinced that every Word of God is utter truth, but itself is full of heartlessness and unkindness, judging and condemning and refusing to forgive. Such an one is worse than the enlightened pagan who at least is in earnest about trying to make of himself a better and better man. “Eigenlob stinkt,” say a German proverb—self-congratulation reeks to high heaven! Fallen man has nothing to offer. All that is human is sin. That is the doctrine of Scripture. “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
Glory be to God on high, there is a righteousness that excels it! Oh, that We had words to make it delightful to you, desirable as the dearest treasure of your heart!—the righteousness of God Himself in Christ, that is all yours so surely as you will clasp the person of Jesus to your bosom as your Redeemer and Savior from all sin. Just crawl on your knees to His Cross and cry, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” All that you need is your need—and you know that you have enough of that, so surely as you know your own heart, for we are through talking about externals. There never has been a soul among men who would have the dark corners of his heart exposed to the gaze of men or God. Those purple patches are dyed white by the saving blood of Christ, buried as under the depths of the sea, removed as far as the east is from the west. What hurts us most is the secret faults that we do not even know with our consciousness; “cleanse thou me from secret faults,” cries the Psalmist; “wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.”
This is the second kind of righteousness, the kind that avails before God. Of course we can’t grasp it with our minds so as to rightly appreciate it, for our very hands are stained and shaking with the trembling outreach of a beggar. But the essence of Christianity is poverty, the only qualification anyone needs where food is given for free. “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters,” cries Isaiah; “and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labor for that which satisfieth not? hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good (it’s free!), and let your soul delight itself in fatness. Incline your ear and come unto me: hear, and your soul shall live…Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near: let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” Isaiah 55:1ff.
Covered with the cloak of Christ’s righteousness, you stand before God as though you had never sinned. There are two kinds of righteousness: man’s own, which is filthy rags; that given us by God in Christ, which is—there are no words for it! Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the King James Version.