Sermon on the Mount | Righteousness & Law: Part 3

We said in our last post that nothing was wrong with the law, and everything was wrong with the people to whom it had been given. We see this principle at work in our lives. 

I can remember standing (barefoot!) at the checkout line in Gee’s Big Star Grocery in Cleveland, MS as a young child, staring at all of the potential “impulse buys,” asking my mother if I can have a roll of butter-flavored LifeSaver candies. And she laid down the law: “NO, you may not have butter-flavored LifeSaver candies.” And the law, DO NOT STEAL, exposed the sin in my heart, and sin exploited the law, leading me to COVET and then STEAL … to do the very thing that the law said not to do. I snuck one of those rolls into my cutoff jeans’ pockets, and even managed to sneak a piece into my mouth before I got into the (front) seat of our car. Then my mom busted me and walked me right back into the store to return/apologize/pay. But it wouldn’t be the last time I stole. Aware of the law “Do not Steal,” sin seized an opportunity and produced in me coveting and stealing of every kind.

Now, notice that in my example of stealing, I also brought up coveting.

COVETING is wanting something other than God. Coveting is saying there’s something besides God and His love and his salvation that I have to have as a requirement for being happy. Coveting is not loving and resting contentedly in the Lord. God is not enough. If you can’t love Him enough to be content with what you are and what you have, that’s coveting. That’s the essence of sin. 

Now in reading the passage in Romans 7, I had a hard time understanding how Paul, a very, very moral person from his birth, could say that he was coveting (vv. 7-8). So what was Paul coveting? 

He tells us in Philippians 3:4ff. 

“If anyone else thinks he has grounds for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised the eighth day; of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; regarding the law, a Pharisee; 6 regarding zeal, persecuting the church; regarding the righteousness that is in the law, blameless.”

So Paul’s view of himself before coming to understand the righteousness of Jesus was that he was a pretty stellar human being. He was a Pharisee, after all. But as Romans 7 makes clear, the reason he “possessed” this stellar morality is because he was COVETING morality. He wasn’t content with the righteousness of Jesus, but HAD TO HAVE … COVETED … righteousness that he earned. He wanted to have it. He had to have it. He didn’t want to feel like he had to rely on God’s mercy.

And so, says Paul back in Romans 7, he realized the law, DO NOT COVET, awakened within him coveting of all kinds … namely, coveting of MORALITY. The 10th commandment aroused within Paul the sin of coveting the other 9 commandments and his supposed ability to keep them. 

Sin is so great at “seizing the opportunity” that it can turn a moral education into a black hole of covetousness. We need a righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees.

When Paul finally saw it, he says in v. 10 that it was initially death for him. It was death for him in the sense that he realized he was dead in the water with God. He was condemned. He realized, underneath all of his morality, there was a tremendous self-righteousness, which isn’t true morality. And as Philippians 3 goes on to explain, it was only when he saw this and saw the beauty of Jesus’ righteousness that that which he once coveted he quickly considered rubbish. Compared to Jesus, what he had to have had to be discarded. (READ: “POOR IN SPIRIT” and “MOURNFUL.”)

In his book, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson writes this scene in which Dr. Jekyll (the good person) endeavors to never let Mr. Hyde (the bad person) to come out again. He’s not going to take the potion that turns him into Mr. Hyde, and he endeavors to effectively kill Mr. Hyde through good works. And Dr. Jekyll does all kinds of kind and wonderful things for a variety of people. And then there’s this paragraph in which Dr. Jekyll is sitting in a park on a bench, thinking about all of this (pp. 97-98):

“It was a fine, clear, January day … and the Regent’s Park was full of winter chirruppings and sweet with spring odors. I sat in the sun on a bench … I reflected I was like my neighbors; and then I smiled, comparing myself with other men, comparing my active goodwill with the lazy cruelty of their neglect. And at the very moment of that vainglorious thought, a qualm came over me, a horrid nausea and the most deadly shuddering. […] I looked down … I was once more Edward Hyde.”

When Jekyll tried incredibly hard to be incredibly righteous, to rescue himself through his moral good efforts, he found out instead of going away from Hyde, he was becoming Hyde. He became Hyde through his self-righteousness. This is very much like what happened to Paul, and it can happen to any of us.

That’s why we need a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. A righteousness of the Pharisees misreads the law. It doesn’t really understand what the effect of the law is, as we saw from Romans 7.

We need a righteousness that is beyond external in form that leads people to make much of us and us to think very highly of ourselves.


Rob Tims

Rob is Teaching Pastor at Blackman Baptist Church.