Being Righteous in an Unrighteous World

Scriptures: Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17

These days, we like to talk about being shaped by the world and affected by the world in very many ways.

People talk about being survivors. Cancer survivors, abuse survivors, tornado survivors, earthquake survivors, and the list goes on and on.

Mind you, it’s great to be a survivor. But I would hope we want to do more than just survive. I frequently like to tell at least your leaders in the church that part of my goal, part of my call as a pastor, is to help you folks move beyond, from a mentality of surviving to a mentality of thriving. You want to move from surviving to thriving.

The Bible doesn’t use the word “survivor,” when it talks about trials and tribulations, or pretty much anywhere. It does use the word, however, “overcomer.”

Now, the root word for overcome has a very interesting meaning in the original language. It means to prevail, to pass over, and to gain the victory. I don’t want to settle for just surviving. I want to get the victory, and I want to be an overcomer.

We want to look at our struggles and our trials, and we want to overcome them. This is not to diminish them at all, but simply to be aware that we have a victory already. Jesus taught his disciples to be confident and hopeful.

In John 16:33, he said, “In this world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.” We can be overcomers because Jesus was an overcomer. And the Lord has provided a way for the believer to be victorious over every foe he faces.

Today, we’re going to talk a little about how we can overcome. Because overcoming is how we become righteous in an unrighteous world. Psalm 98 makes it very clear. It says that the Lord has revealed his salvation to the world. David didn’t know it, but he was speaking prophetically of Jesus Christ, who came so that all who believe in him might be saved. Thus they overcome even death itself, because we partake in Christ’s victory over things.

Then again, in the Gospel of John, Jesus talked about abiding in his love. I prefer the word “abide,” which is used in some translations, to the word “remain.” There’s a real good reason for that. You see, the word remain is a passive word.

You might remain in somebody’s love. That’s because they choose to keep loving you. If something remains in your grasp, it’s because you, as the greater one, are choosing to hold on to it. But when you abide in someone’s love, that’s an active thing. That’s where you’re living that love out. You abide because you stay. You’re focused, and you continue to move forward in that love.

Then in 1 John, a key for this in terms of understanding how we stay righteous in an unrighteous world.

For everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even” [or through] “our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves him who begot also loves him who is begotten of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God overcomes the world.

So we see this, and the text reveals that we will face powerful opposition in this world. This opposition could actually be seen in some ways as necessary. It certainly is the result of our fallen world.

Helen Keller was famous for the difficulties she overcame. When she was about two years old, she had a fever of some sort, meningitis or scarlet fever, and became blind and deaf. Through a miracle of God and the patient work of the person who was her teacher and tender, she learned how to speak.

She made the observation that “the marvelous richness of human experience would lose something of rewarding joy if there were not limitations to overcome. The hilltop hour would not be half so wonderful if there were no dark valleys to traverse. It is the difficulties in life that give us the opportunity to know what it is like to have the victory.”

Now, this text reveals three resources that are given to us to enable us to be overcomers. And make no mistake; when I say “staying righteous in an unrighteous world,” we can’t do it. Not to be a bummer, especially on Mother’s Day, but we can’t do it.

Not on our own. We don’t have the strength to tough it out and to make it and hold on to our faith, and stay in Christ’s love, to continue to follow His commandments, to be righteous, on our own.

If you think you are, then you are falling into what is known as self-righteousness, and you’re going along a path that will lead to the loss of hope. Because however self-righteous you may feel you are, there’s going to come a point where you’re going to screw up.

Then the balloon gets deflated, and we have to deal with the aftermath. And there’ll be plenty of people, I’m sure, standing around, ready to point it out to us.

So we can’t be righteous on our own. But, in this unrighteous world we can stay righteous through Jesus Christ. If we abide in Him, if we continue to follow His commandments of love, if we continue to reach out to others with the good news, and to show them that hope, to give that caring concern, then we can stay righteous.

Because, you see, when God looks at us He sees Christ’s righteousness, which we put on. In Romans, it talks about putting on Christ’s righteousness in the same way you would put on a robe, or your clothing, before God.

We have three resources that have been given us. First is a birth. “For whatever is born of God overcomes the world.” There is no way to be an overcomer without that new birth, without being born again.

Jesus described this process to a man by the name of Nicodemus in John 3. Nicodemus came and asked Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, and no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”

Jesus answered and said to him, “Surely, I say to you, unless one is born again” – or the word could be “born from above” – “he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Being an overcomer demands that we be born again. There is not one lost person alive today who can honestly say that they are living joyful, fulfilled, victorious lives. That person doesn’t have the ingredient necessary for a victorious life, and there is a void in their lives that can only be filled successfully with Christ.

Now this doesn’t mean – because we’re Presbyterian – that you have to have some massive conversion experience at a Billy Graham crusade. What it does mean is that you understand your need for Jesus Christ, that you have accepted that need, and that you have reached out and asked for Christ to be your Savior, that you have taken Him not only as Savior but as Lord of your life.

In that moment, when you ask for the salvation of Christ and the presence of the Spirit, that is when you become born again. Whether it be in a crusade or in a closet, you made a decision at some point to follow Jesus. If you haven’t made a solid decision about that yet, then I encourage you to do it, soon.

Secondly, it requires belief or faith. “And this is the victory that has overcome the world, our faith.” When we by faith receive the Lord Jesus Christ as our Savior, we’re born again. So if we want to be victorious, it’s time to stop trying and start trusting. What are you trusting in today?

We have this confusion sometimes about belief versus faith. When we believe something, in today’s vernacular, that usually means an intellectual assent or an intellectual agreement. A contract, if you will. I’ll keep believing in this as long as it keeps coming through. If it stops, then forget it.

Now, admittedly, there are a few people, like Cubs fans, who keep believing even when things don’t appear to be that way. But the fact of the matter is, most of the time belief is intellectual assent.

When it said credo, I believe, like in the Apostles Creed, it’s actually talking about faith. Faith trusts. Faith involves a personal relationship. Faith continues to have trust even when we don’t understand what is going on and it seems like things contradict the person that we are trusting in.

Maybe there are those times that we don’t seem to feel God. We don’t sense His presence, or it seems like we’re being just overwhelmed with trials. We feel like saying, “God, why are you doing this?” or “Are you even there?” And we choose to trust, just as we choose to love.

We love, because God first loved us, but our love is of the will. I like telling people during weddings, and I know I’ve said this from the pulpit before, but I just love saying it. The fact is, is there’s a difference between being in love and loving someone.

Being in love is a passion, it’s an emotion, and it’s great while it lasts, but there will be a time when it goes away. It may come back, but there’s going to be a time when it goes away.

Loving, on the other hand, is a choice, as we choose to love someone, even when they are not very lovable at the moment. Whether it be children, or spouse, or elderly parent, they can make themselves very difficult to love. Now you, of course, are always going to be perfect and lovable, but … Not! We all have our own faults. Even moms.

But the fact is, is that we choose to love them anyway, despite those faults. And as we continue to do that and we continue to reach out and we continue to care, then we exhibit the love and righteousness of Christ.

You do the right thing, not because it gains you kudos, not because it gains you applause, but because it’s the right thing to do. Somebody once said, and I can’t remember who, that character is what you do when nobody’s around watching.

It’s in those moments that we truly determine how well we will stay righteous in this unrighteous world. Everybody’s challenges are different, and yet everyone is still the same. Because all fall short of the glory of God, and everyone needs Christ.

So I would encourage you, as you go out into this world, and you face the challenges of this world and the hostility of this world, that you would cling to that which you know is true. That Jesus Christ saves, that God loves you as you are, enough that the Son came and lived and suffered and died for you, and was raised again that you might have new life, an abundant life in Him here and eternal life in heaven, and you have a hope that no one and nothing can take away.

Holding on to that, do what is right, do what is good, love and serve the Lord, and you will remain righteous and in His favor, and all that you do will glorify Him. And as the Westminster Catechism says in its first question, “What is the chief end of man? To glorify God, and enjoy Him forever.”

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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