Righteous for the Unrighteous

By Paul Koch

Just what does the Christian life look like? Do you know it when you see it? Can you describe it if you had to? Are there certain things that make a Christian: certain behaviors, certain mannerism, certain styles of dress and the like? Sometimes, I think there is. You can sort of tell when a group of Christians get together. Would we be correct in saying that Christian walk is marked by their willingness to do good to others? Is it to show the same compassion to others that we have all received from our Lord? Is the Christian life one that strives to follow the golden rule; to do unto others as you would have them do unto you?

St. Peter seems to think so. At least in some part, he knows the Christian life is marked by doing good. And so, he gives encouragement as he says, “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed.” (1 Peter 3:13-14) He says that followers of Christ ought to have no fear about doing good. Sure, the world may take advantage of you, they may walk all over you, they may even see your kindness and compassion as a sign of weakness, but who cares? After all it is “better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” This is the way of our Lord. This is what it looks like to take up a cross and follow him. It is exactly what he did as he exchanged his righteousness for the unrighteousness of the world.

But here’s the thing, we don’t do good because we’re innocent little lambs who don’t know better. We don’t suffer for doing good because we don’t know any other way to go. No, we strive to do good for a reason, for a really good reason, a reason that changes everything including how we live our lives. So, Peter says, “In your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” Your faith is reasonable. It is rooted in something outside of yourself, something beyond the desire to do good, or to play the part of the hero. Your faith and the life that flows from it is rooted in the death and resurrection of the only begotten Son of God. You don’t act like Christians in order to obtain some status or glory. No, you act like Christians because you have Lord who bore your sins to Calvary’s cross and rose from the dead to declare that you are free in him.

What our Lord does has been called “The Great Exchange.” It is the exchanging of all that is yours for all that is his. Christ sees your sin, your failures, your rebellion, your selfishness and your weakness, and he says that all of it, every last transgression, is no longer yours but his. In return he gives you something. For all your sin, he gives you himself. Yes, he gives you his very flesh and blood on the cross, but with that he gives you perfect obedience to the Father. He gives you holiness and adoption as the children of God. It is the exchange of the righteous for the unrighteous.

So, there you have it. Because of the great gifts of Christ, you are the saints of God. You are holy and set apart for his purposes and you can be zealous for doing good with a really good reason. But then something happens, something that we usually just call “life” happens. But it is not really random or accidental. Rather, as you zealously do good because of the gifts of Christ, there arises an opponent that will begin to work against you. Now, you might think that the great enemy would try to stop you from doing good, but that is not his best strategy. No, his real work is done in getting you to forget the reason why you do good. In fact, he will turn your good deeds into a form of tyranny and destruction even as he praises them for their beauty and value.

The attacks of the evil foe come as accusations about who you really are. The temptation to do evil things or to fail to do the good things you ought to do are easy and obvious attacks. But for the children of God, he attacks your very identity. After all, how can you be sure that you are God’s children? I mean, sure, you may try and do good, but there is so much good that you don’t do. And what about your heart? What about all those times that you grudgingly did those things? Those times when you wore the mask of the hypocrite? You may fool those who sit around you on a Sunday morning with your plastic smile, but you can’t fool God. So, the accuser goes on and on, pointing out your failure, showing your inconsistencies and declaring that you are no child of God. And this turns your zeal for doing good into a task you must accomplish to ensure your identity as God’s children. What was once an act of love becomes a task of desperation. For Satan knows that you will never be able to live perfectly enough, and so he celebrates your despair and doubt.

But you see, it was never your works, your doing of good, that defines who you are. That may be what the Christian life looks like on the outside, but that is not the measure of your identity before the Father in heaven. That is completely and totally wrapped up in the gifts of Christ alone. Peter says, “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed tot eh spirit in prison.” Christ so totally accomplished this work that he went and proclaimed it into the depths of Hell itself. He has made the great exchange. He traded his righteousness for your unrighteousness and then died for it. But he rose. He rose and so the payment has been made, and new life and hope are yours in Christ alone.

This gift is given to you. Given in the waters of holy baptism where you are clothed in his righteous garments. In the ancient world, some of the first baptismal fonts built into the baptistries of these first churches were in the shape of an octagon, an eight-sided place where new life was given. In my previous congregation down in Georgia, we had a large shell that was used as a reservoir for the baptisms. But the base that held it was in the shape of an octagon. In fact, shortly after the Reformation, churches in Germany began to be built with a new architecture in mind. They sought to put into brick and stone the confession of the church. So instead of the large cross shape of the cathedrals the churches were being built as massive octagons. The eighth days is the day of new life, the day of the resurrection, of hope and life.

Peter talks about your salvation in terms of the ark which Noah built. An ark that carried life through death, an ark that served to move the promises of God forward, through even his own wrath and terror. An ark in which a few, that is exactly eight persons, were brought safely through the water. Through the water there is safety. Through the gifts of God there is hope and life. And so, Peter echoes our eights in the church by saying about the ark, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 3:21)

Baptism, you see, makes the reason for the hope that you have real, concrete, and sure. Baptism is the tangible assurance of the gifts of Christ. It is the defense against the attacks of the devil who would have you doubt your identity as the children of God. But you see you are given a mighty weapon. When Satan begins his accusations, when he points out your failures and your transgression and says, “See? You need to work harder. You need to dig deeper if you are to be a child of God.” Why, you can yell right back in his face, “Look I am a baptized child of God. I am covered in the pure blood of my Lord I bear his righteousness in my body just as he bears all my sin in his. I am loved, I am forgiven, I am a terror to your shallow attempts to cause me to doubt. For Christ has proclaimed this promise from the depths of hell to the heights of the heavens.”

This is the reason for the hope. This is why we do good. This is why we live like no other – for we are the baptized, the holy, the saints of God.