Saturday, June 06, 2009


Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous (Psalm 1:5).

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6).

As a young law student Martin Luther had been caught in a thunderstorm and knocked to the ground by lightening. In fear he made a vow to become a monk, a decision that didn’t go over so well with his father. In the monastery Luther embarked on a life of trying to please God: doing good so that God would show favor. Becoming a monk was the sure-fire way to do that, and the rigors of the monastery shaped Luther’s understanding of righteousness.

Luther would later admit that he hated the word “righteousness.” It stuck in his throat and weighed heavy on his soul. Righteousness was something that God commanded us to do, and Luther knew he couldn’t do it. He never seemed to measure up or get it right. The word represented a command that could not be kept.

Having been assigned by his superiors to the role of Bible teacher, Luther was working through the text of Romans when he came up against the idea of righteousness and wrestled with it Jacob-like, refusing to let go until the word yielded a blessing. The blessing came, and it was huge. Luther came to see that righteousness isn’t something we do. Righteousness is something God gives to us.


One of the ways that Psalm 1 contrasts the wicked and the righteous has to do with judgment. “The wicked will not stand in the judgment” (Psalm 1:5). By implication, the righteous will do just fine when judgment happens. That’s an embarrassing concept for many people of faith. The idea of a judging God seems like a hold-over from some bygone era, archaic and even a little barbaric.

But the Psalm is clear. There will be a sorting out, a judgment that separates the wicked and the righteous. The “way” we choose will lead to a particular destination. Walter Brueggemann rightly observes that “the connection between devotion and destiny is not negotiable.”[1]

This reality forces us to grapple as Luther did with the nature of righteousness and the “way” of the righteous. Do some stand in the judgment because they managed to do better or do more than others? Is judgment the final grade given for conduct? Are the righteous those who make nice and do well while the wicked screw up and act up? If that’s the case, Luther saw correctly that we’re all in big trouble. None of us can stand in the judgment based on high performance standards.

Long after Psalm 1 was composed and included in Israel’s public worship, Jesus of Nazareth made use of the core image of “the way.” Jesus told his followers that he was the way, the truth and the life. The way of the righteous isn’t a life management program. The way is a person. The way is Jesus. He alone is our righteousness. He is our only hope for standing confidently on the Day of Judgment.

To choose “the way” that is blessed means turning to the one who blesses.

Lord Jesus, you are our only hope. You are our righteousness. You call us to follow you and walk in your way. By the power of your Spirit, help us to respond to that call and embrace your way of life. Amen.
[1] Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, p. 39.

1 comment:

Victoria said...

Thanks for the history lesson regarding Martin Luther - I know I studied him many (many) years ago, but oh how much I forget!!