Wednesday, May 05, 2010

A Righteousness Not My Own - Philippians 3:9

Audio can be found here (click to stream, right click to download) and on our podcast on iTunes.

How long does it take to prepare a sermon? I would agree with Dr. Hershael York of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary who says that every sermon he has preached has taken his whole life to prepare. He says that sermon preparation is like making wine: “The grapes may be newly crushed but they come from vines that are old.” At the Together for the Gospel conference I attended in Louisville a few weeks ago, Mark Dever said that he spends 30 hours a week in sermon preparation. Dr. Dever typically preaches longer than an hour, and has a rather large staff to help him shoulder the burden of the other demands of church ministry. I, on the other hand, do not have a large staff, and I know that you will not endure listening to a sermon of that length. Therefore, on average, I would say I spend 15-20 hours a week preparing the Sunday morning sermon. Now, there are times when the other demands of ministry do not allow 15-20 hours of preparation. Thankfully this is rare, but this week has been one of those cases. In addition to many other responsibilities that arose during the week, I was faced with preaching not one, but two funerals. Often, on those weeks when preparation time is short, God is gracious and affords me extra time I didn’t know I had, or brings a message to light from a shorter text that I can handle in shorter amount of time. Fewer times, I have to call in someone else to preach for me, and even more rarely, I will preach a message I have preached before. I can count on one hand the number of times I have done this. Today is one of those times.

On Wednesday, I prepared a funeral sermon for my neighbor, Mrs. Jane Porter, the 90-year-old godly wife of a Presbyterian Pastor. As I prepared to preach on the righteousness of Christ that we receive by faith, I looked over notes from a sermon I had preached here some four years or so ago when we were going through Philippians. As I did, the thought came to me that I really should preach that sermon again sometime. I began to sense that God might even be prompting me to do so. Then Wednesday evening, as I asked the congregation to pray for me, one church member said, “Why don’t you just preach an old sermon; we won’t remember it anyway.” So, I took that as a triple-validation that this message needs repeating. So we are revisiting a verse in Philippians that presents for us what I believe is the most important element of New Testament theology, encapsulated in a brief statement. And it actually dovetails together with what we have just studied in 1 Peter 1:13-16 quite well.

This single verse before us today, Philippians 3:9, deals with the doctrine of justification. The word “justification” is one of those theological words that you may stumble across every now and then (though I confess I wish it were more often). And many people are prone to just ignore those hard words without stopping to consider what they mean. We hear experts telling us that we need to avoid using terms like this in our preaching because people don’t understand them. I disagree. I think it is words like justification that form the foundation of our faith in Christ. So rather than avoiding them, I want to carefully explain them and apply them because I believe they are necessary for us to understand if we would grow in our faith.

So, let me give you a definition of justification. It involves three realities. 1) When a person is in Christ, his or her sins are removed because of Christ’s death. 2) He or she is pronounced not guilty before God. 3) And then the very righteousness of Jesus Christ is imputed or transferred to him or her. So, because of justification, we who otherwise would stand before God covered in sins, stand instead covered by a righteousness that is not our own, but a perfect righteousness that was earned for us by the sinless life of Jesus Christ.

The doctrine of justification was the single-most important issue of the Protestant Reformation, and is itself the core of the Christian gospel. Martin Luther said, “Justification is the chief article of Christian doctrine. To him who understands how great its usefulness and majesty are, everything else will seem slight and turn to nothing.” This doctrine of justification is our only hope of standing before God and being found acceptable in His sight. The avoidance of this and similar subjects in preaching is likely the reason why churches in our nation are in the shape they are in: spiritually anemic, and filled with people who are nice, and good, but lost.

God’s Attributes

In order to understand God’s workings and decrees, we must first understand something about His nature. If I asked you to fill in the blank of this sentence what would you say: “God is ____________.” Undoubtedly, in the minds of many, the answer that comes to mind almost instantly is “Love.” Indeed, the Bible says this very thing in 1 John 4:8. However, there are two reasons why I think it is dangerous to fill that blank with the word “love” apart from a longer, more detailed explanation. First, it restricts God’s attributes to only love. God is love, but love is not His only attribute. To understand His love, we must see His love in relationship to His many other attributes. Second it risks elevating all that calls itself love to an platform of idolatry. God is love, but the concept of love is not our God. God is love, but not everything that claims to be love in our society is a true reflection of His love.

If you were to ask me to fill in that blank, “God is ______________,” I think the most appropriate single word to insert there is the word “HOLY.” What we mean by “holy” is that God is completely set apart for the magnification of His own glory, separate and unaffiliated with sin; He cannot bear the presence of sin. This is central to understanding God. His holiness is the key attribute that helps us to clarify and qualify all of His other attributes. He is Holy. He is Love, but His Love is Holy. He is a God of Wrath, but it is a Holy Wrath. He is Sovereign, but His Sovereignty is Holy. See holiness clarifies His divine attributes and prevents us from viewing them through the distorted lens of cultural misunderstandings of these terms. And this kind of holiness is what He has called us to as well. Throughout the Old and New Testaments there is the reverberated call of “You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.” We saw that very statement in the last passage of 1 Peter we studied together last Sunday.

When John sees heaven in Revelation, he says in 22:15 that outside are the dogs, and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolators, and everyone who loves and practices lying. Our temptation when we read that will be to say, “But I am not that bad.” Let me remind you of the words of James 2:10 – “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” The Law of God is not merely a collection of various laws. It is a singular unit. Break it at one point and you have broken it all. And the Bible says that the wages of that sin is death, and leads to eternal separation from God.

Each and every one of us has disqualified himself or herself from God’s presence because of sin. It is not just the violation of some arbitrary rule that we are dealing with. It is the offense of an absolutely holy God. It has been said that there are no small sins because God is not small. Sin is a grave matter because of the magnitude of the holiness of God against which our sins are an assault.

Our Nature

You say, “How do you know all of us have sinned?” I do not claim to know the specific sins committed by each person, but I do know that we are all born with a sin nature that manifests itself in rebellious attitudes and actions from the first moment wherein we are capable of exercising our will. We are not called sinners because we sin. It’s the other way around. The fact is, each and every one of us sin because we are born sinners. So when we say that we are all sinners, we are not offering a statement of specific accusation, but rather we are offering a statement of explanation. Do you wonder why you do the things you do, or why others act toward you in the ways that they do? The explanation is that we all sin because we are all sinners. That is an undeniable fact that we find in Scripture and in experience. Romans 3:23 says that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. God is holy, and He cannot tolerate sin. He has a holy standard for us all. And none of us have met it.

How Good is Good Enough?

There is a popular but dangerously false belief that says “good people go to heaven.” The idea is that God is good, and heaven is good, and people who are good will go there to be with Him. Often times, this God is believed to go by many names. Therefore, it is assumed that all major, and possibly all minor, religions and spiritual practices provide a legitimate path to God and, therefore, to heaven, assuming that we are sincere in our belief and good in our behavior. So if I do good things, and don’t do bad things, then I will be a good person, and the good God will take me to good heaven.

In spite of its popularity, this idea about good people going to good heaven is dreadfully WRONG. The truth that God has revealed is altogether different. It says that “good” is not “good enough”. This idea of gaining heaven by our own goodness minimizes both the holiness of God and the severity of the sins we commit against Him. Paul says in the preceding verses that he was better than any other person he knew, blameless in the sight of all who knew him. But his goodness wasn’t good enough to impress God. So what does it take? Paul’s ambitions were not to just be a good person or even a better person. He desired to be found in Christ, for only in Christ do we find the righteousness that God requires.

The Righteousness God Accepts

In this singular verse, Philippians 3:9, Paul mentions five things about this righteousness.

1. The righteousness God requires is not my own. I cannot earn it. I don’t deserve it. I can’t work hard enough to obtain it. There are not enough good things I can do to lay claim to this righteousness. The righteousness of Russ Reaves will never be enough to be acceptable before God.

2. The righteousness God requires is not derived from the Law. And that is a good thing. If we could compile a list of all the positive and negative commandments of the Bible, how many do you think there would be? Jewish tradition asserts that there are 613 specific commandments in the Law. That figure is somewhat arbitrary, but still the list is vast, and we know for certain we have broken a good many of them. We would agree that the Ten Commandments are a summary of all of these requirements and prohibitions. Yet, even at just ten, who among us can say we have satisfied them all? I meet people who say they are going to go to heaven by keeping the 10 Commandments, but they can’t even name them. Given a Bible, they can’t even find them. If I was basing my eternal destiny on something I would at least want to know what it was.

Jesus condensed the list of commands even further to just two: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself. He said that these 2 commands summarized the entire Law. But we can’t even keep these two commandments, can we? But Paul says here that the righteousness that God requires is not a completed checklist of law-keeping. In fact he says in Romans 3:20 that by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in God’s sight. That was not the purpose of the Law. The Law was never intended to save us. The Law was given to show us our sins, and our need of salvation. It is like a mirror. A mirror will show you that your hair is messed up, but the mirror will not fix your hair. So it is with the Law. It can’t make you righteous, but it can show you that you are unrighteous and in need of salvation.

3. The righteousness God requires is from God. If you don’t get it from yourself and you don’t get it from the Law, where do you get it? You get it from God. God offers to give it to us. What if I said to my daughter, who is 5 years old, we cannot go outside to play until you mow the yard. You would say, “That is an unfair demand – she is only 5. She can’t mow the yard” But, what if I mowed the yard, and said, “Salem, will you accept the work that I did in the yard as if it were your very own?” She would say, “Sure, let’s go!” I have imputed of transferred my yardwork to her. I have counted it as if she mowed the yard herself.

God has demanded that we meet a certain standard: We must be absolutely and completely sinless, perfect, righteous and holy. And we fail. We are prone to say, “God that is not fair. We can’t do it.” Even if we could decide today to live that way for the rest of our lives (which we can’t, but if we could), we would still have the sins of our past to deal with. But what if God, in His grace and mercy, said, “Listen, the righteousness that I must have, I will accomplish for you and impute it to you – I will give it to you freely as if it were your own.” And God has done this through the life of Jesus Christ. We are right to emphasize His death and resurrection, but we mustn’t overlook the sinless life that He lived. Without His sinless life, His sacrificial death would not be possible. He was qualified to die in our place because He had no sins of his own to die for. His sinless life satisfied the righteous and holy demands of God, and that accomplishment can be imputed to us. God offers this gift to us out of His mercy and grace. He offers to wrap us in the righteousness of Christ. And that is the meaning of the next point.

4. The righteousness that God requires is found in Christ alone. In the verses preceding verse 9, Paul says that everything that he once would have boasted of, he now considers to be worthless compared to being found in Christ. The word he uses is actually quite vulgar; we’ve cleaned it up a bit in some translations by using the word “dung.” But that is what Paul says all of his accomplishments amount to in the sight of God. And the same is true of us. I didn’t grow up in church. Some of you did. Praise God for that. But, hear me carefully, if your trust, and your hope, and your confidence is in your church-going heritage, or the spiritual stature of your parents or grandparents, then you are not saved. The only way to be saved is to be “in Christ.” Being “in church” or being “in a good family” is not going to do it. There must come a point when we personally accept Jesus Christ’s death as the payment for our sins, and surrender ourselves to His Lordship. Those who are “in Christ” are covered in the righteousness of Christ, and when they stand before the Lord, be it in prayer, in worship, or in judgment, God will deal with each one just as He deals with His only begotten Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. In Colossians 3:3, Paul refers to our lives being hidden with Christ in God.

Now finally, …

5. The righteousness God requires is received by faith. It is not earned, attained, or manufactured. God gives it. And anyone who would wish to receive it must do so by faith. Paul says that this righteousness is through faith in Christ, and it is on the basis of faith. Faith is not a substitute for righteousness, as if God is grading on the curve. He doesn’t say, “Well, you don’t have righteousness, but I’ll take faith instead.” It is actually faith which receives the perfect righteousness of Christ from God. God is offering it to all who will receive it. We claim it as our own as we accept it by faith.

Faith is more than just intellectual agreement with all the claims of the Christian gospel. Faith is more than just historical acknowledgement whereby we say, “We believe in Jesus,” and by that, mean nothing more than saying, “I believe in George Washington.” Certainly it must include the intellectual and historical elements, but it must go farther. It is a personal response to God whereby an individual says, “I believe that Jesus Christ died in my place, for my sins, and that He rose from the dead, and that He will give me His righteousness.” And as an act of the will, that individual places his or her only hope, only trust before God, in the person of Jesus Christ. This decision to trust Him then affects the way that person lives. If their faith is genuine, the Spirit indwells, empowers and transforms them. If their faith is not genuine, there is no transformation. And upon placing my trust in Christ to save me, there is a confidence in knowing that when this life is over, I will be greeted at the portals of heaven by the open arms of God Himself who will welcome me to my eternal home as if I were His only begotten Son – because I am in Christ, and have been engulfed in His righteousness.

Imagine it like this. We have all seen a standard yellow pencil. It has two ends. One end is for erasing and the other end is for writing. In justification, God erases our sins through the death of Jesus Christ, and “writes,” if you will, the righteousness of the life of Christ onto our spiritual account.

Now I want to close with some specific points of application:

1) Most importantly right now, if you have never received the righteousness that God offers to us in Christ, the righteousness He requires, you can have it today. Look at the sins of your life, those things you have done and not done, and the inherent attitude of spiritual rebellion that resides in each of our hearts, and renounce them. Turn from them. This is what the Bible calls repentance. It is to say to God, “I no longer want to live in this.” And then accept by faith that Christ has died to remove those sins from you and offers to give you His righteousness in exchange for your sins. His death and His righteousness is our only hope. So turn from sin and place your complete trust in Him to save you.

2) Secondly, to those who are doubting. You might say, “Pastor, you are not supposed to make people doubt their salvation.” Well, I honestly think that deception is worse than doubt. And there are some who never doubted once, but who are deceived by false assurances, and thinking they are saved, they are really lost. And there are others who, through the journey of doubt, arrive at a destination of unshakable confidence. So I would say that every now and then, it might be beneficial for us to examine ourselves, as the Apostle Paul admonishes in 2 Corinthians 13:5, to see if we really are in Christ. If you are not certain today, you can nail it down by recommitting yourself to Christ by faith.

3) Third, I want to say to those who know that they have received this righteousness by faith in Christ, we must live it out. We make God look like a liar when we claim to have laid hold of His very righteousness but then we live with reckless abandon and unconcern for His holiness. So, may others see the righteousness that we claim to have, as we live our lives before their eyes.

4) Finally, this gift of God’s grace is so magnificent. Anyone who has truly received it will acknowledge that it surpasses everything in this world. So, we must respond to God in awestruck wonder at His grace of saving us. If this doesn’t draw you to worship with enthusiastic fervor, I imagine that you have yet to comprehend it. And, since this gift is so precious, we must give it away. I want to challenge you, if you have received this grace of God in Jesus Christ, share it with others. Tell them how Christ can remove their sins and make them righteous in God’s sight as well.

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