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THE SPLENDID GIFT OF CHRIST'S RIGHTEOUSNESS GIVEN TO US THROUGH OUR FAITH
Fr. Steven Scherrer, MM, ThD
Homily of Monday, First Week of Advent, November 28, 2016
Isaiah 4:2-6, Psalm 121, Matthew 8:5-11


Scripture quotations are from the RSV unless otherwise noted.

 

"In that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and glory of the survivors of Israel. And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, every one who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning" (Isaiah 4:2-4).


Here Isaiah speaks of the future cleansing of his people Israel, not of the whole people, but only of a remnant of them. "He who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy" (Isaiah 4:3).


"In that day, the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious" (Isaiah 4:2). This branch of the Lord is the longed-for Messiah who will bring righteousness and justice to the earth, as Jeremiah prophesies, "Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness'" (Jeremiah 23:5-6).


This has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the Messiah. He is the righteous Branch, the long-awaited descendent of King David. He saves the remnant of Israel, those who have survived the exile and have been cleansed of their idolatry. And even of these, only a small remnant of them would believe in him. It is this small remnant that are now justified and glorified by Christ.


These are the days we are now living in. We have seen the branch of the Lord and know that he is "beautiful and glorious" (Isaiah 4:2). We see the fruit of his coming and of his saving work. This fruit of salvation is "the pride and glory of the survivors of Israel" (Isaiah 4:2).


We are enjoying this fruit now, the fruit of being declared and made (Rom. 5:19) righteous and holy (Heb. 10:10) by Christ's saving death that atoned for our sins by vicariously suffering our just and necessary penalty for them. When we put our trusting faith in him, God counts what he suffered to our account as though it were we who had suffered it and acquits us of all our sins, dropping his case against us, and setting us free, declaring us righteous, with Christ's own righteousness reckoned to us, and all our sins forgiven.


Is this not fruit that is "the pride and glory of the survivors of Israel" (Isaiah 4:2)? What more beautiful fruit could there be? It is our glory to now walk in Christ's righteousness, because of Christ's work on the cross, through our faith in him. We who believe in Christ are the fulfillment of this prophecy. We are those blessed ones who remain in Zion, the remnant left in Jerusalem who are now called holy, because of what Christ has done for us on the cross, because of the reparation that he alone could and did make for our sins by his death as the incarnate Son of God who bore our sins and was punished by the Father for them in our place (2 Corinthians 5:21; Isaiah 53:5-6; Romans 8:3-4; 1 Peter 2:24). "And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, every one who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem" (Isaiah 4:3).


Christ's death cleanses us and washes away our filth and bloodstains. Isaiah prophesies this day that we are now living in "when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning" (Isaiah 4:4).


This is how righteousness comes to us, comes to our earth and transforms us. It comes through Christ's work, not ours. This does not mean that we are to live a Christian life without good works of our own or that we are not to constantly try to grow in holiness by our good works and good life, for we most certainly are to perform good works and thereby grow in holiness. But these good works in no way are the foundation of our justification nor merit it, as The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification states.


The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church in 1999 stated: "We confess together that sinners are justified by faith in the saving action of God in Christ. By the action of the Holy Spirit in baptism, they are granted the gift of salvation, which lays the basis for the whole Christian life. They place their trust in God's gracious promise by justifying faith, which includes hope in God and love for him. Such a faith is active in love and thus the Christian cannot and should not remain without works. But whatever in the justified precedes or follows the free gift of faith is neither the basis of justification nor merits it" (#25).


We do not merit or earn justification by our good works. Our good works are not the cause of our justification, but rather its effect. Good works result from our justification. They do not cause it. Grace alone and the work of Christ alone cause our justification. Our task is simply to receive this free gift of God by making an act of faith in Christ's saving work on the cross and by entrusting ourselves to him for our salvation, humbly repenting of our sins.


Our part is repentance and faith. Repentance means that we have a firm purpose of abandoning our sinfulness and of amending our life.


It is an error to think that by doing many good works and penances we will earn forgiveness of our sins and that God will declare us righteous on the basis of our works, penances, and sacrifices. Justification is a free gift that no amount of good works or sacrifices or penances will ever earn or merit. It is impossible to justify ourselves in this way. Our own weaknesses and inner sinfulness and concupiscence will always arise again and sink us.

 

By our own efforts we will never achieve righteousness before God. No one can keep God's law perfectly enough for this to happen to him. No one can make himself righteous before God by doing good works. Nor does God's justifying decree require any good works of our own to be added to Christ's work on the cross to cause God to declare us righteous. Only Christ's work is needed, and it comes to us without any works of any kind on our part. Our part in basic justifiction is faith, not works.


We "know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified" (Galatians 2:16). "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9 NKJV). "For no human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law" (Romans 3:20). "For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law" (Romans 3:28).


What causes God to declare us just and righteous is only Christ's reparation-making work on the cross for our sins to atone for them, to propitiate God's righteous wrath against us for them, and to reconcile us to God, thus redeeming us from our bondage to sin.


Then our good works follow immediately as the fruit of our being declared righteous and just by God, with all our sins forgiven. By our works we then grow in holiness. If we do not have good works, then our faith was not genuine and we were not justified. If we lose our justification by falling into mortal sin, we need to seek it again by true repentance, a firm purpose of amendment, and the use of the sacrament of reconciliation (John 20:22-23).


The beauty of this biblical doctrine of justification by faith "apart from works" (Romans 4:6) is that we are actually freely given the righteousness of God himself, not a merely human righteousness of our own making, of our own achievement, of our own merits. We are given Christ's own splendid righteousness to shine in our hearts that he painfully earned and merited for us by his suffering and death on the cross in reparation for our sins.


I want to "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). Thus we will not fall into the error of so many Jews of St. Paul's day, "for, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness" (Romans 10:3). This is the splendid gift of righteousness in Jesus Christ, because of his atoning sacrifice on the cross for our sins that comes to us not through our works, but through our faith in him. This is the righteousness that is prophesied today by Isaiah.


"In that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and glory of the survivors of Israel. And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, every one who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the blood stains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning" (Isaiah 4:2-4).

 

 

 

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