Two men came to the church one Sunday to pray. One man walked through the crowd, right up to the communion table. He had a big cross around his neck and an even bigger Bible tucked under his arm. He stood tall, lifted up his face and his hands to heaven, and began to pray out loud so that people in every corner of the church could hear him. It didn’t take long for those who didn’t know the man to begin to realize that he was someone special. He was a pious, righteous, and holy man. He said so himself. He never used those exact words, but listening to his prayer it was obvious. He thanked God that he wasn’t like other men. He told God that he wasn’t a robber, an evildoer, or an adulterer. He told God that he fasted twice a week and he tithed, he gave a tenth of every single thing he acquired, to God. He told God all of this with confidence, and at a volume so that everyone could hear. I told you he was a holy man.
The man that he walked into church with went the other direction. He didn’t walk towards the front, he went to the back corner of the church where no one was sitting. The people of the church recognized him when he walked in. They rolled their eyes and quickly turned their heads like they didn’t see him…but they did. He was a notorious sinner, a scandalous man with whom everyone was familiar. He was the furthest thing from a friend. Many in attendance that day had been taken advantage of by the man–He knew it and they all knew it as well.
While the man, full of good deeds, was describing his goodness to God with everyone’s eyes and ears locked in, the pariah of a man stood alone, nobody wanted to see him. Tears began to run down his cheeks. His face was fixed on the floor. At first his hands were folded over his heart, but then he began to beat his chest. With anguish in his voice he prayed, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It was like he could barely get the words out. The prayer wasn’t shouted, it was barely whispered. He was standing there, with tears running down his cheeks, and anguish written across his face when suddenly the pious man turned and said, “God, I thank you that I’m not like that man” and pointed at the man in the back of the church.
One of the men left church that day “right” with God, justified by God, but it wasn’t the man most everyone would have thought. We people draw conclusions based on what we observe. The one man had quite a resume of righteousness. He wasn’t like other men. The other labeled himself nothing more than a sinner. The one man listed his credentials and asked God for nothing. The other pleaded for mercy. It would not have taken the crowd long to draw clear and concise conclusions about the two men. They would have all known without a doubt which man left the sanctuary receiving a standing ovation from God. Oh, but God isn’t like you and me. He has had to remind His people of this fact over and over again throughout time.
When God sent Samuel out to find a new king for Israel, Samuel spotted the perfect king. He was tall, dark, and handsome, but God had chosen the runt of the litter, not the “best in show.” He reminded Samuel,
7 …The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7 NIVO)
How often have we been fooled by what appeared to be, but wasn’t? How often have we fooled others, convinced them we were someone we wanted to be, but knew we weren’t? In Jesus’ parable for today we learn that the problem of self-righteousness was present in the hearts of people long before we ever stepped foot on the planet. Let’s read our Scripture for today found in Luke 18:9-14.
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men– robbers, evildoers, adulterers– or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ 13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ 14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14 NIVO)
It’s important to recognize who Jesus is speaking to before we ever even begin to try and understand what Jesus is teaching. Who is He speaking to in this parable? Luke tells us in verse 9.
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: (Luke 18:9 NIVO)
There were those who believed they were a lottery pick in the righteousness draft if God was ever going to make one. They didn’t need tabs to find the books of the Bible. They never missed a Sunday, regardless of the weather. They attended multiple Bible studies throughout the week. They could quote chapter and verse of the “Roman Road to Salvation” for their pagan friends. They had Christian bumper stickers on their wagons pulled by their donkey who sported a cross branded on his hind quarter. They knew if anybody was going to get into heaven it would have to be them. They were like the famous Rabbi Simeon, a well-known second century teacher, who said, “If there are only two righteous men in the world, I and my son are these two; if there is only one, I am he.”
There is a second important distinguishing feature of those Jesus had in mind when He told the parable: “They looked down on everybody else.” I’ve been thinking about this all week long. I believe this is a true litmus test between those who are truly righteous and those who are only self-righteous. Those who are aware that they have done nothing, nor could ever do anything to earn their salvation, they could never look down upon anyone. On the other hand, those who are self-righteous, those who believe God has saved them, but they have made so many wonderful changes in their lives to show how holy and religious they are, they will most certainly end up looking down their noses at everyone. Self-righteousness is a devilish delusion. The person who, like the Pharisee who praised himself before God, does not even realize that his most righteous deeds are but filthy rags before a holy and righteous God. Every person, regardless of whether they are a follower of Jesus or a hardened atheist, possesses a natural bent towards self-righteousness. In 1860, in a sermon called, “A Blow at Self-Righteousness,” Pastor Spurgeon wrote,
Self-righteousness is born with us, and there is perhaps no sin which has so much vitality in it as the sin of righteous self… My dear hearers, I cannot compliment you by imagining that all of you have been delivered from the great delusion of trusting in yourselves. The godly, those who are righteous through faith in Christ, still have to mourn that this infirmity clings to them; while as to the unconverted themselves, their besetting sin is to deny their guiltiness, to plead that they are as good as others, and to indulge still the vain and foolish hope that they shall enter into heaven from some doings, sufferings, or weepings of their own. (Spurgeon, Charles H. “A Blow at Self-Righteousness.” December 16, 1860)
Self-righteousness is a devilish delusion. It sets me above those around me and leads me to look down on everyone else. In our society we are accustomed to comparing ourselves to others and making value judgments based on those comparisons. “He’s better looking than the average guy. She’s smarter than her other classmates. They live in a nicer neighborhood, in a bigger home, and drive a better car. She’s a far better athlete than anyone else on her team.” We draw conclusions based on nothing else than these superficial facts. We make value judgments of others based on nothing more than superficial observations. Even worse, we estimate our own value and form our own identities on nothing more than how beautiful, smart, athletic, or rich we are. Or, if we are lacking in these areas we conclude we have no value or we have less value than “those” people.
Our society also makes moral judgments about others. Whose morality? Well, it’s the morality that each of us carves into the two tablets of what we value most. “I never lie. I would never take advantage of another person. I’m not an adulterer. I’ve made the necessary changes in my life so that I leave the smallest carbon footprint possible. I never pass up a homeless person without giving them money. I believe that every person should be able to live out their own truth, whether I believe their truth is true or not.” Anyone who believes otherwise is “less than,” inferior to me and those who believe like me, morally. We’re not going to do anything to change how those in our society assess our value and worth, but we are not to bring these assessment tools into the church.
Sadly, we do. Oh, we don’t use the same measuring stick, but we still use the tool of comparison to determine our value and identity. “She’s such a good person. He is always willing to volunteer to help with anything the kids are doing. He is the most dependable deacon we have! She knows the Bible like the back of her hand. Have you heard her quote Scripture before?! She’s the first one to write a check whenever there is a need. When he prays it’s like heaven has come and visited us.” And then there are those like me who look at those like you and say, “I wish I knew the Bible like him. She is so compassionate and caring about others…I’m so focused on myself. My heart is so hard and my mind so full of ungodly thoughts…I could never be like them.” Do you see what we are doing?
When we compare ourselves to one another it is a losing game. It is a losing game no matter which side of the fence you are on when you compare yourselves to the righteousness of others. If I compare myself to others to make me look good then I end up puffed up with pride and become self-righteous. If I compare myself to others and find myself falling short then I get discouraged, depressed, and feel less than significant, less than sufficient.
Here’s the good news. God didn’t create you so that you might assess your value based on how you measure up to others. He created you to be totally and completely dependent upon Him, to derive your value, identity, and worth solely from your relationship with Him.
We can always find someone who is less moral, less committed to their faith than we are, but God doesn’t call us to be better than those around us, He calls us to be “holy as He is holy.” This was His call to the people of Israel in Leviticus 19:2.
2 “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy. (Leviticus 19:2 NIVO)
The same call is issued by Jesus in the New Testament. Jesus told the listening crowd, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48 NIVO) God gave His people the law: “Have no other gods before me. Do not take God’s name in vain. Honor your father and mother. Do not kill. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not covet anything of your neighbors.” How’d you do? Broken any lately? Exactly! Paul said the law leaves us without excuse, it shows us we are all guilty. In Romans 3:19-20 he wrote,
19 Obviously, the law applies to those to whom it was given, for its purpose is to keep people from having excuses, and to show that the entire world is guilty before God. 20 For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are. (Romans 3:19-20 NLT)
We not only break the law, but the law breaks us. It shows us we are guilty before God. Then Jesus steped onto the scene and He raised the bar. Jesus said it’s not just doing the right things that determines whether you are a law-keeper or a law-breaker. Jesus said,
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28 NIVO)
For those who have never committed adultery, Jesus has a question for you: “Have you ever lusted after another person?” I told you, the law breaks us. Anyone who knows this can easily understand why the tax collector stood off at a distance, beat his chest, and cried out, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Martin Luther tried with all of his might to live a righteous and pure life. He had at the forefront of his mind, “Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” He tried with everything that was in him, but he failed miserably, and daily. As a result he spent hours each day in a confessional because he wanted to come clean before God. Surely confessing his sins would bring comfort, he thought, but it didn’t. Luther wrote, “Yet my conscience would never give me assurance. I was always doubting and said ‘You did not perform that correctly. You were not contrite enough. You left that out of your confession.’” Luther later summed up his life in the monastery with these words,
I was a good monk, and I kept the [R]ule of my order so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery, it was I. All my brothers in the monastery who knew me will bear me out. If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading, and other work. (Martin Luther)
Yet, Luther could find no peace with God. Then, while he was studying the book of Romans, Luther discovered not something new, but something that had been hidden from him: Justification by faith alone by grace alone. Luther read,
17 For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (Romans 1:17 NIVO)
Not a righteousness produced by good works, but a “righteousness from God” freely given to those who “will live by faith.” This righteousness that Paul writes about in the letter to the Church in Rome is a declaration of righteousness, being made righteous by God, it’s not an accomplished righteousness. When all of this came to Luther he said, “When I discovered that, I was born again of the Holy Ghost. And the doors of paradise swung open, and I walked through.”
It was the greatest discovery Martin Luther had ever made in his life. Yet, it wasn’t a discovery of something new, it had been in God’s Word the whole time. Martin had listened to the teachings of men rather than the teaching of God’s Word. Once he discovered this wondrous truth, Martin set out to correct the teaching of his church and tell everyone he knew. This led to the Protestant Reformation.
Is it any wonder that Martin Luther preached thirteen sermons on the Scripture we are taking a look at this morning? He loved the contrast of the Pharisee and the tax collector. He loved that Jesus made it known that the tax collector and not the self-righteous Pharisee had gone home justified before God that day. Luther wrote,
My precious Gospel teaches me and the good publican, that before God the highest wisdom is to know and believe that God is so minded, and has founded such a kingdom through Christ, that he will be gracious to help poor, condemned sinners. And thus you can unite the two in one word and confession: I am indeed a sinner, but still God is gracious to me; I am God’s enemy, but he is now my friend; I should justly be condemned, yet I know that he does not desire to condemn me, but to save me as an heir of heaven. This is his will, which he has had preached to me, and commanded me to believe for the sake of his dear Son, whom he has given for me. (Luther, Martin. The Pharisee and The Publican. 1522)
That’s the Gospel in its entirety my friends. We have nothing to offer God except our sin-scarred, rebel hearts. What God has done for us is truly unimaginable. What has God done? Paul told the people of Corinth.
21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21 NIVO)
Did you hear that? “In Him we might become the righteousness of God.” We do not become righteous because of the things we do or the things we refrain from doing. We are made righteous because of what Jesus has done for us in offering His righteous, sinless life, in our place. That’s what the cross was all about. Peter wrote,
18 For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, (1 Peter 3:18 NIVO)
Jesus died for you and He died for me; the righteous for the unrighteous. Why would He do that? To bring you and me to God. What is our response to that truth? What is your response this morning? Do you hear the declaration of the goodness of God on your behalf and simply walk away unfazed or are you moved to the core of your being? I pray that this truth never grows old to you or me.
In the last verse of Jesus’ parable we find the only appropriate response to the grace of God lavished upon sinners like you and me. Read along with me from Luke 18:14.
14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14 NIVO)
Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, but those who humble themselves will be exalted. God’s grace is humbling is it not? Over and over again, as we’ve been studying Jesus’ parables, we’ve listened to stories of God’s grace. The prodigal son who deserved to be disowned was welcomed home with a BBQ and new threads. The laborers who came to work late in the day were paid the same as those who had worked all day long. Those who were nobodies were invited to the feast of the marriage supper. And on and one the stories go. All of those who were shown such grace were humbled because they knew they were undeserving.
Brennan Manning was far more honest than most of us who follow Jesus. Brennan was an alcoholic who battled his addiction throughout much of his life…and often fell back into the bottle. He also wrote some of the most powerful books about the grace of God I’ve ever read. I’ve given over 100 copies of The Ragamuffin Gospel away to friends through the years. The last book Brennan ever wrote was called, “All Is Grace.” In it he writes,
My life is a witness to vulgar grace—a grace that amazes as it offends. A grace that pays the eager beaver who works all day long the same wage as the grinning drunk who shows up at ten till five. A grace that hikes up the robe and runs breakneck toward the prodigal reeking of sin and wraps him up and decides to throw a party, no ifs, ands, or buts. A grace that raises bloodshot eyes to a dying thief’s request—“Please, remember me”—and assures him, “You bet!” …This vulgar grace is indiscriminate compassion. It works without asking anything of us. It’s not cheap. It’s free, and as such will always be a banana peel for the orthodox foot and a fairy tale for the grown-up sensibility. Grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all our might to try and find something or someone that it cannot cover. Grace is enough… (Brennan Manning “All Is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir.”)
Grace is enough. God’s grace is enough. So many people today are working like crazy to please God, to somehow do something to catch God’s eye, to cause God to say, “See, I told you that one was a good choice!” Stop it. God’s grace is enough. Do you want to know the remarkable thing about the effect of pure, undefiled grace on your heart and mine? Once we understand that that we are saved by grace alone it ignites something in us that makes us want to serve God even more, to make His grace known to others even more. Not to repay God or to earn God’s favor, but out of pure gratitude for His wondrous grace.
There’s someone here this morning who needs to fall into the arms of His grace. I want to urge you to give Jesus your heart today and allow Him to breath new life in you. That’s why He brought you here this morning. Won’t you come?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
March 31, 2019
“God does not love us to the degree that we are like Christ. Rather, God loves us to the degree that we are in Christ. And that’s one hundred percent.”