I don’t know how all of you came to be members of Risen Savior. I know some stories. At least a few went through a Bible information class with me. BiC as some call it, is a series of lessons, about an hour long, for 10 weeks. We study the basic truths of God’s Word together to understand what God says about sin, grace, faith, and works, who God is, who Jesus is, and what baptism and the Lord’s Supper are all about. It’s a pretty focused time. I have one going right now. Bible information class requires a lot of patience and dedication. We’re asking people to fulfill a requirement to become members. Like a giant hoop to jump through.
Other people became members by way of catechism class when they were younger. Two years of instruction in the truths of God’s Word. Anyone, no matter how they became a member and where, may have had forms to fill out. A contact form, giving birthdates and anniversaries. Then a set of envelopes was assigned for giving. Pictures for the directory. A mailbox in the back. It seems like there’s lots to do to become members of our church.
Except to get to heaven, only righteousness not membership, is required. That’s what Paul makes clear to the Romans in the second lesson. It’s membership in THE Church of all believers, that’s what’s important. Naturally it means asking what requirements to get into that, to gain righteousness? Might seem as easy as the right classes, time, forms, paying some money, and we’re in. People find verification that righteousness is just another thing that can be earned with work. In fact when Paul wrote, many would have seen a figure like Abraham as prime example of someone who earned his position before God. Paul used Abraham to make clear to us that’s not how we get right with God. It comes another way…
Righteousness we need
God gives us credit
God gives by faith
Abraham isn’t the giant forefather to us he was for the people Paul was writing to. If we read about him in the Old Testament we can see why he was giant for them. We heard a little about him in the first lesson. Back then Abraham went by Abram. “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Get out of your country and away from your relatives and from your father’s house and go to the land that I will show you.” The Lord gave Abraham a command. And if that was all, we might have to reconsider what Paul says about Abraham in Romans.
But Abraham wasn’t blindly following a command of God on his own power and ability. He wasn’t listening to God and obeying him to earn something from God. The Lord followed up with a promise. “I will make you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great.” Abraham could go to this unknown country, away from everything he ever knew, because God had made a tremendous promise to him. And “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.” God made the promises. God put in place the plans to bring those promises to completion. There was the promise God made of a Savior to come. Abraham would be the father of this great descendant. What was challenging was Abraham had no descendants at that time. But God set up everything, planned it, and would make it happen. That’s what Abraham believed. He accepted the promises God made. God credited Abraham with righteousness because Abraham believed God. And Abraham believed because God moved his heart by the promises to believe. Abraham’s account was marked acquitted. His legal status before God changed. Abraham was cleared of all his sins. He was righteous, all because of the payment someone else would make on his behalf.
My first job, working as a cook for a local family restaurant, I received minimum wage, $4.50 per hour. I came home thinking that would be great. For every hour I worked I would get paid. I could count up my hours, do the multiplication, and figure out my check. Relatively close minus taxes of course. But that paycheck was what I was owed. I worked for it. Spiritually we count up our hours too. We mentally calculate the amount of good we’ve done. I let that car in front of me when things were backed up. I held my tongue when striking back with a sharp word would have felt better. I cleaned my room without my parents asking. I did all these things. Now what am I owed?
Of course we’re not claiming perfection. We’re not claiming to be completely righteous, because that would mean no sin. But as long as the check marks next to good things offset the sinful things in our minds we feel good. Righteousness is the thing we strive for. Sometimes we say today we’ll be better than yesterday. We try and achieve the next level. Keep one command and try to keep a harder next time. Level up in God’s laws. Like a video game. We like getting rewarded. Collecting our rewards. At a certain point we should have collected enough God would reward us with heaven. That’s trying to earn righteousness before God, or earn righteousness from God.
Righteousness we need isn’t something to be earned. It’s credited. It’s opening a check on your first day and finding money that you could live on for life with no need to work. It’s getting leveled up in the video game to the top without even playing. If that check is waiting for you on the first day and you don’t take it, does it make the check less real? No. But you better believe the check is real. You need to believe God, just like Abraham. Only then will righteousness be credited to you. But what are you believing in? Promises of course. You believe in the work of another. “But to the person who does not work but believes in the God who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited to him as righteousness.”
What does God do to justify the ungodly? That work was completed by his perfect Son. Jesus was righteous, perfect at birth in Bethlehem. His perfection continued through life. Jesus didn’t have to be better today than yesterday, his life never wavered. He was always good. Was kind to others naturally. Never struggled to hold his tongue. Always obeyed his parents. Did everything perfect. That meant God owed him heaven. But Jesus wasn’t here to earn heaven, that was already his. He was here to earn heaven for you. Jesus went to the cross where he could carry your sins. By his death he was condemned for your sins. Jesus earned acquittal by paying the price required. God declared him guilty, sent him to the tomb, where your sins should have sent you.
When you hear what God did for you in Christ, you hear about an acquittal already earned. You don’t work for it, or try and earn it. It doesn’t seem fair, but you take God at his word. God makes you a promise that the death of Christ was for you. And God solidifies that promise with Christ’s resurrection. Knowing Jesus comes alive again your belief has something real to hold on to. You believe God’s promises. You believe God’s Word, that Christ did in his life what you had not done. You believe Jesus undid everything you did. You believe it and accept it as true. And God credits you with righteousness. Freely gives you Christ’s righteousness. God takes the mark of acquittal given to Jesus and gives it to you. Not earned, not paid by you, not something you worked for. Embraced by you, believed by you. Credited to you.
No promise of God is conditional. Heirs of God don’t happen by the law. No amount of force, no keeping commands, no good things done according to the laws of God could make anyone righteous. “For this reason, the promise is by faith, so that it may be according to grace and may be guaranteed to all of Abraham’s descendants.” Abraham believed God. He had faith, a gift from God. It came by way of promises and grace.
Conditional promises nullify the promise. Telling kids to be good so they can get a treat or something special makes it more of a transaction. It’s good behavior in exchange for something. It works. It’s effective at getting acceptable behavior. But it doesn’t last. Transactions, conditions, and exchanges don’t work spiritually either. Forced behavior to live according to a commandment of God only works for so long. Why keep working to help our neighbor if that’s conditional to getting something we want? We won’t care after a while. Law never works. Living that way only creates the impression the law could save people. That would take away the need for a Savior. It would take away any need for faith.
That’s not how God operates. His promises are by grace alone, good news that because of Christ you have forgiveness, grace, and mercy. You believe them by faith alone. You trust in Jesus alone as the one who earned righteousness. God made you a promise with no conditions.. He attached the finished work of Christ to it. That’s what your faith holds to. You’re receiving what God gives. You’re righteous by faith, saved by grace, called righteous in Christ.
Membership into this church isn’t an exclusive thing, it’s just something that takes some work. But there’s nothing for you to do in order to be righteous before God. It’s all been done. Jesus earns your acquittal. Makes it so you’re declared not guilty and free from sin. The work of Christ is credited to you. The work of Christ is what you have faith in. The completed work of Christ is the promise you hold to. In that, you have the righteousness you need.