The Work and Witness of the Holy Spirit

The Lord is Our Righteousness - A Devotional Paraphrase

Sermon 20 in the Sermons of John Wesley
By: Michael Roberts

“And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” Jeremiah 23:6

“How dreadful and how innumerable are the contests which have arisen about religion! And not only among the children of this world … but even among the children of God; those who had experienced ‘the kingdom of God within them’; who had tasted of ‘righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost’. How many of these, in all ages, instead of joining together against the common enemy, have turned their weapons against each other, and so not only wasted their precious time, but hurt one another’s spirits, weakened each other’s hands, and so hindered the great work of their common Master!”

What brings us down into this evil fray? A big part of the answer is our attachment to opinions and particular modes of expression. In order to stand united in Christ, we must have a clearer sense of the righteousness of Christ and how this righteousness is to be applied in and through the church. We must be able to come together, with all our different perspectives, and seek first to understand. As the Holy Spirit leads us, so often it is discovered in such encounters that there is little difference between us over things that truly matter. Therefore, we must be willing to rise above the fray. From this higher perspective, I am confident that we will see clouds disperse and the light of Jesus shining through in a new way. We will discern remedies to this evil, and that what this contention within the body of Christ is — evil.

So, as we rise above the fray, may we catch a glimpse of the righteousness of Christ. This will see us through and hold us together, even in our many differences. This righteousness is expressed in many languages, in many different styles of worship, in many different cultural practices, but the truth of Christ shines through them all, if we are enough above the fray to see it and let this light guide us.

What is the righteousness of Christ? It is twofold, divine and human. In Christ divinity, he is over all, equal with the Father, eternal, holy, infinite in justice, mercy, and truth. I suspect that few doubt this, at least at the level of assent to the doctrine. It is Christ’s human righteousness that gets to us. Christ is the image of God for us. He reflects who we are called to be. This includes love, reverence, resignation to the Father, humility, meekness, gentleness, love for lost humanity, and every other holy and heavenly temper or virtue. It includes a willingness to suffer and to give one’s life for the sake of love. In Christ’s human righteousness, we see what it means to be truly human.

Jeremiah’s words give a unique perspective on this truth. He says, The Lord OUR righteousness. How does this righteousness come to us? The answer is found in the doctrine of “Justification by Grace through Faith.” We are justified -- aligned, connected, set right – solely by Christ’s grace and mercy. Anytime we start to think that we are “right” and worthy of this justification, and thus able to judge others, we nullify this grace within us and in the world. This blessing of justification has two parts – 1. We are reinstated to God’s favor, and 2. Our dead souls are revived to spiritual life and renewed in the image of God. We are bought into our Lord’s righteousness and, by the Spirit of Christ, empowered to “walk in this new and living way till our spirits return to God.” (See Romans 3:21-26; 8:9-11).

To be clear, righteousness does not come to us because of our works of any kind. To believe that we impart righteousness is to become very narrow in how we prescribe appropriate behaviors and practices, in order to show righteousness. We try to control it. The truth is, faith is expressed in ways we cannot begin to fully understand. “How then can we be rigorous in requiring others to use just the same expressions as us?” We may differ in opinions and practices and still partake of the same precious faith. We can take off the filthy rags of our own righteousness and put on Christ. That’s our calling.

For a couple of examples, some in the Church of Rome deny the notion of salvation solely by the meritorious work of the righteousness of Christ, and proclaim our own works as a part of it. But “undoubtedly there are many among them whose experience goes beyond their principles; who, though they are far from expressing themselves justly, yet feel what they know not how to express … They rest on Christ alone, both [for] present and eternal salvation.” How can we see into the heart? If truth is in Christ, then Christ’s truth finds its own way, in ways that we cannot begin to fathom in our limited and finite form. The Spirit of Christ shines even through our limited and conditioned perspectives.

Or, what of those who deny the notion that righteousness is imparted to us in any way. Those in the Reformed Church – Baptist, Presbyterians, Independents, and many Anglicans – argue that only Christ is righteous. Any attempt to encourage good works is to be entered with great caution for it is likely to lead to a denial of Christ’s righteousness alone. We strongly disagree, but are not called to pass any sentence, but to leave them to the One who made them. Are we really going to say that those “who are not clear in their opinions or expressions, are void of all Christian experience? No! It must be that many have hearts right with God, at the deepest level. Oh, what if God passed this kind of judgment on us?

In Christ, we must be careful about claiming the righteousness to judge others, as if we were spotless. It is possible, as we have seen, for an individual or group to stand far from the virtues of Christ, and still claim to have Christ on their side. How wrong this is! In seeing so many deplorable instances of this, all I can do is implore you to guard “against this accursed abuse.” Do not make “Christ the minister of sin,” in the form of doing harm to others and bring division to the body. That is not the way of true holiness, by which we are able to see and know God.

To all “who violently oppose [other] expressions, and are ready to condemn all that use them as Antinomians (law breakers), I ask: ‘Why should you condemn all who do not speak just as you do? Why should you quarrel with them? Or if they quarrel with you, why imitate the bigotry which you blame?’ Only give this witness: ‘All the blessings I enjoy, all I hope for in time and in eternity, are given wholly and solely for the sake of what Christ has done and suffered for me’.”

And finally, I have a personal request: Please do not condemn me for my refusal to condemn. Please allow me liberty of conscience here. Please do not use this to represent me as “an enemy to the righteousness of Christ.” If there is a difference of opinion on these matters, where is our faith if we cannot think and let think, if we cannot forgive? Even in our disputes, “let us join hearts and hands in service to our great Master. As we have “one Lord, one faith, one hope of our calling,” let us all strengthen each other’s hands in God, and with one heart and one mouth declare to all, ‘THE LORD IS OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.” Amen.