How to Always Be Right

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Habakkuk 2:4
Romans 1:16-17

According to the Bible, there really are only two ways of looking at salvation. One is the way of religion, and the other is the way of the gospel. Which one is correct?

“. . . but the righteous will live by his faith.”

Habakkuk 2:4

“I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”“

Romans 1:16-17

The most important principle of the Christian faith was originally stated not in the New Testament but in the prophecy of Habakkuk, chapter 2, verse 4: “the righteous will live by faith.”

Recently while traveling on a train in India, I found myself engaged in conversation with a twelve-year-old Hindu boy. Bakshar was friendly, lively, curious – and he just wouldn’t quit! After telling me all about himself and peppering me with questions about myself – who was I, where was I from, where was I staying, where was I going, how did I like India – he finally got around to my occupation. What sort of work did I do? I thought about how I could answer that in a way Bakshar could understand. “I’m a teacher,” I told him; “I teach Christianity.” “Ah,” interjected a man sitting nearby, “many religions, only one God; many different ways to God!”

That wasn’t just his opinion. It’s the majority view of the human race. A remarkable number of people believe that all religions are pretty much the same and say basically similar things, adjusted for cultural and historical differences. These same people also think that any religion can provide a valid connection to God. But biblical faith says otherwise. The Bible – which is widely believed to be a religious textbook – is surprisingly critical of religion.

TWO DIFFERENT WAYS

According to the Bible, there really are only two ways of looking at salvation. One is the way of religion, and the other is the way of the gospel. These two ways can be neatly summed up in two quotations. The first is one of America’s favorite texts: “God helps those who help themselves.” We Americans love this quote because it appeals to our sense of self-reliance, our famous “can-do” spirit. It’s also consistent with the religious mindset. Religion teaches that it’s up to us to do what is required – with a little help from God, of course. But “God helps those who help themselves” is not a biblical text. What the Bible says, in fact, is just the opposite: Listen to this quotation from Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Christ died for the ungodly . . . While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6,8). Religion says, “God saves the righteous.” The gospel says, “God saves the unrighteous. Christ died for the ungodly. God helps those who can’t help themselves.”

When I contrast the way of religion with the way of the gospel, please don’t think I’m showing prejudice against non-Christians. People born and raised in the Christian tradition are fully capable too of using religion to obscure the gospel and substitute a program of salvation by human effort. One who discovered this first-hand was Martin Luther. As a young man Luther had set out on a spiritual quest to find forgiveness for his sins. The church of his day said that if salvation was his concern, the best thing he could do was to become a monk. So young Martin headed off to a monastery, becoming not only a monk but eventually a priest and a doctor of theology as well. He lived under the most rigorous discipline, torturing himself spiritually and physically in an effort to do penance for all his sins as the church prescribed. But he found no peace. His righteousness never seemed to be enough. He did not experience forgiveness.

Exhausted by his struggle to attain salvation, Luther gradually began to realize that the biblical gospel was drastically different from the religion he had been attempting to practice in the monastery. He was especially drawn to a verse from the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans: “For in the gospel, a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’” (Rom. 1:17). As Luther wrestled to understand this statement, the evangelical light dawned on him. The righteousness that saves us does not come from the attempts to do good that we offer to God. No. Salvation depends upon having a different righteousness altogether: one coming from God and supplied to us in place of our own righteousness, to be claimed by faith alone. This gospel of a “justification by faith” became Luther’s watchword; his preaching and teaching of it was the spark that set off the correcting movement in the church known as the Reformation.

PAUL’S FAVORITE TEXT

Fifteen hundred years before Martin Luther, the apostle Paul had made a similar experiential discovery. For him, the basic principle of the gospel was best expressed in Habakkuk 2:4, a verse he loved to quote: “The righteous will live by faith.” The gospel, as Paul explained to the Christians in Rome, is the good news about Jesus’ death for sin and resurrection to life. This gospel is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes it and puts their faith in Christ. That is because in the gospel we discover the secret of being made forever right with God by means of faith alone. And this wasn’t just his own idea, Paul added; it is what Scripture itself teaches, for as Habakkuk testifies, “the righteous will live by faith.”

The truth that is summarized in the expression “justification by faith” is not just an abstract theological principle. It is a radical, life-overturning, all-transforming reality. In his most intimate letter, the letter to the Philippians, Paul offers a very personal glimpse into his own life history. He describes his ethnic and religious background: “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel . . . a Hebrew of the Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless” (Philippians 3:5-6). Paul’s wasn’t the usual testimony that we have come to expect from a convert to Christianity. No drug addiction, no prison term, no godless, downward spiral of destructive behavior suddenly stopped and transformed by the Lord. Paul’s conversion story wasn’t like that at all. His life before he met Jesus Christ was zealously religious and scrupulously virtuous. The apostle Paul wasn’t an example of humanity at its worst, but of humanity at its best!

The pre-Christian Paul was righteous, both outwardly (as far as others could see), and inwardly (as far as he knew himself). Listening to him describe himself, one gets the impression of a privileged man enjoying great success in his chosen field, and quite happy with himself as a result. Paul lists a long series of things that explain his pride. The blood of Abraham flowed pure in Paul’s veins. He had been born and raised orthodox; he had the very best spiritual pedigree. But Paul did not merely rest on the privileges that were his by birth. He also cultivated his natural advantages by active commitment to the religious life. Paul kept all the rules. He went to all the right schools, he joined the right party, he was noticed by the right people. He became a Pharisee, the most prestigious religious group because it was the strictest. And then he became a zealous persecutor of the new sect of Christians in order to prove his devotion to the law of God. Even among the Pharisees Paul’s reputation for orthodoxy and piety was great. Finally, the apostle sums it all up this way: “As far as keeping the Law is concerned, I kept it perfectly” – or so it seemed to him at the time. Luther once remarked that if anyone could ever have been saved by being a good monk, he was the man. Paul’s practice of religion was just like that. If striving to be devout and zealous for God are what it takes to please God, Paul was a clear winner.

But there came a moment when Paul’s eyes were opened – literally – by seeing Jesus Christ. Paul came to re-evaluate his whole life as a result of that encounter. Everything he had valued and prided himself upon he now saw as worthless. His vaunted self-righteousness crumbled into nothingness. It was truly a moment of reckoning, of summing up. Paul added up all his human pluses: his birth and background and upbringing, his zeal and morality and righteousness. What he found was that all these things in God’s eyes totaled zero. “Whatever was to my profit,” he wrote, “I now consider loss for the sake of Christ . . . . for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him. . . .” (Philippians 3:7-8).

How can this be? Are all our attempts at pleasing God really worthless? Is every good deed just wasted effort as far as getting right with God is concerned? Is religion merely rubbish? With respect to justification, the answer is yes! The trouble is that whatever we do on our own is only relatively good. And God doesn’t grant salvation on the basis of giving religion a shot or making a pretty good effort at doing what’s right. God is perfect goodness. Only the perfectly good can ever hope to merit God’s approval. So what are less-than-perfect people to do?

Well, here’s the answer, and it is good news, gospel. We can make a trade. A wonderful exchange is offered to us in Jesus Christ. We can give up our own poor righteousness, our performance-based semi-goodness, for a kind of righteousness that isn’t ours by nature but is credited to us by God when we put our trust in Christ. Here’s how Paul describes it: “I consider everything in my past as so much rubbish,” he wrote, “in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Philippians 3:9).

There are only two options. Either you try to do it on your own, by yourself, through your own virtuous performance of religious acts and charitable deeds, or you admit your failure and cast yourself upon God’s grace. Paul surrendered his own proud religion-produced, self-defined righteousness as so much garbage and he exchanged it for Christ’s perfect righteousness – a righteousness that is offered to anyone who puts his or her faith in the Lord Jesus. The apostle made that trade, and he never regretted it, no matter what it cost him in human terms. Because, as Habakkuk said, “the one who through faith is righteous will live.”

GOOD NEWS FOR THE TERMINALLY UNRIGHTEOUS

Does that sound like good news to you? It certainly does to me. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’ve got what it takes to save myself. After fifty years of on-again, off-again effort, I don’t see many signs of substantial moral progress in myself, on my own. I have come to the conclusion that I’m never going to make myself righteous in God’s eyes; in fact, I’m convinced that in myself I am terminally unrighteous.

One of the fondest fantasies of the human race is that we are progressing toward human perfection, or better yet, that we will soon be able to perfect ourselves through scientific and technological achievements. The latest suggestion for the self-salvation of the human race seems to be genetic engineering. Great things are promised from this new knowledge: the eradication of disease, reversal of the aging process, the ability to produce “designer children,” even to clone yourself. O brave new world! But though scientists may have mapped the human genome, there’s no indication that they understand human nature or that they can do anything about human sin. There is no righteousness gene.

The bad news is really a double whammy: one, we can never save ourselves, and two, we will never change our basic nature. But the good news – the gospel of grace – is that God can save us through Jesus Christ and God will change us into the likeness of Jesus Christ. That is the real, the authentic gospel. Anything else is a counterfeit. And everything depends on our believing this gospel. Because, as Habakkuk said, “The righteous will live by faith.”