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Lenten Series: Advancing in the Path of Righteousness

Meditation on Luther’s Heidelberg Thesis 18:
It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ.

Text: Philippians 3: 4b-9

Theme: Righteousness Sufficient and in Need of More
By Steven Hein

Tonight, the paradoxes of Luther’s disputation at Heidelberg continue to beckon you to the holy cross. The topic that Dr. Luther is examining is righteousness. As a Christian, you know that your righteousness, and mine, as the prophet Isaiah declares, are as filthy rags before God. And so you turn to the cross, and there you find the righteousness of Christ that covers you. This is what it means to be a Christian. So what is there in tonight’s Luther thesis for you? Let’s see!

Luther’s thesis states, It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ. Now that sounds good, doesn’t it? It’s just what unbelievers need to hear, so that they might repent of their sins and receive the grace of God. After all, that’s why you are a Christian. You have received God’s grace. If unbelievers turn to the cross, they will receive God grace, and join you in Christ’s Church. Yes, it sounds good, but does it speak to you now, as a Christian? Or does it just speak to the need of unbelievers?

You heard the second lesson for tonight, which is the basis for this sermon. There, St. Paul declares that he has many religious and righteous things in his life, in his background, but he rejects those things that were gain for him. He counts them as loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ. He then says that he counts them all as rubbish that he might gain Christ. Now, here is the question that must be asked: Is Paul talking about his conversion? Is Luther in tonight’s thesis talking about your conversion? If so, then all this applies to the unbeliever! But if not, then all this applies to you, to your life tonight.

Well, Paul isn’t just talking about a conversion experience. Luther isn’t just talking about your baptism. Both Paul and Luther are talking about the life of the Christian. In the Christian life-in your Christian life-It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ. Yes, this is not just a one in a lifetime issue. It is an every day, every hour, every moment issue!

Note that Luther does not talk about receiving Christ, as we hear so often in Christian talk. He speaks of receiving the grace of Christ. When St. Paul says that the only value in life for him is to be found in Christ, not having his own righteousness, which is from the Law, but to have that righteousness which is through faith in Christ, he is not speaking about his conversion on the road to Damascus. Rather, he is speaking about his every day need as a Christian, on the road to Heaven.

Here is the paradox tonight. When the Holy Spirit works faith in your life, you become a forgiven sinner, and a child of God, from that moment onward. Thus, you have the righteousness of Christ, and you have it one hundred percent. This is true. Nevertheless, on the road to Heaven, traveling along the path of righteousness, you still and continually need the righteousness of Christ. As is true of every gift of Christ-forgiveness, redemption, the new life, the drowning of the Old Adam, the arising of the New Man, your victory over the Devil-so it is true of your righteousness of Christ. You both have it, and yet you still need it daily.

What St. Paul declares and Dr. Luther states is true of every Christian, not just of every unbeliever prior to becoming a Christian. It is certain that every Christian must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ. The grace of Christ is not just some divine general goodness. It is the assurance of Christ’s righteousness. And this righteousness cannot be received where a clinging to human righteousness still exists. And that clinging occurs in you, and in me, because of the continuing existence of the sinful nature! This is sinful nature, this fleshly self, will lead you to sin, and in those cases where you set out to refuse the wrong and do the good, it will say: OK, let’s do that! And why not? Do evil, or do good, it’s all the same to the Devil, just as long as YOU are doing it!!! Because then the Devil can make you aware of your good doings, of how you are going, of how you are able to accomplish some righteousness in this world. Bravo for you! He says. Then it is that you need to hear again the declaration of St. Paul: I count them all as rubbish that I may gain Christ. Over against this Bravo of the Devil, you need to hear the shout of Luther: Man must utterly despair of his own ability! The only safe harbor that you have, in which to receive, and rejoice in the grace of Christ, is where these words reign in your daily life. And in your daily life, you despair of your own ability, and then cling-again and again-to the cross for righteousness. As we heard from St. Paul last week, Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believes!

Thus, it is true, at one and the same time: you are righteous on Christ’s account, and you also need the righteousness that comes from daily receiving the grace of Christ. To live in Him and in His righteousness is to utterly despair of your own ability to be righteous. To live in Christ and in His righteousness is to be prepared to receive the grace of God which He so richly showers upon you through the proclaimed Gospel and the sacraments.

There are many righteous things that the Scriptures urge upon Christians. But, whenever you strive to do righteous things, inevitably they are corrupted by sin. On the other hand, whenever you despair of your ability to do righteous things, and instead receive Christ’s grace through his appointed means, inevitably righteous things come forth. It is not the case that righteousness is as righteousness does, but rather the opposite is true: righteousness does as righteousness is.

The paradox for this evening is true: You have righteousness in Christ, and at the same time, you need righteousness from Him. To admit this is to despair of your ability, and in that despair, that confession of your sin, you are prepared to find your righteousness in Christ alone, through the Gospel of His grace. Amen!

Steven A. Hein is currently Headmaster of Shepherd of the Springs Lutheran High School and the Director of Shepherd of the Springs Christian Institute in Colorado Springs, CO. He was formerly Professor of Theology (24 years) at Concordia University-River Forest, IL.

Bible Reference

Philippians 3: 4b-9
4b If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more:5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.7 But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ--the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.

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