Most of us will admit that from time to time we do things we know are wrong. We understand that God may not really approve of such behavior on our part. What can we do so that God will forgive us? How do we get "right" with God?
In the Book of Luke, Jesus offers us this helpful parable (Luke 18:10 - 14):
"Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
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. I fast
twice a week and give one tenth of all I get.' "
"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.' "
"I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For every-
one who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
In one sense, the Pharisee certainly was a good man. When he says he gives a tenth of all he gets, that means he's generous to the poor. When he says he doesn't commit adultery, that means he is a faithful husband.
But, let's look at the Pharisee's prayer ---- whenever we write a thank-you letter to somebody, aren't we thanking them for things that they have done? However, the Pharisee says, "God, I thank you," and that's it. That's the last reference to God. The prayer is all about the Pharisee himself. This is self-worship. Underneath the veneer of God-centeredness is utter
self-centeredness. Underneath the veneer of all that God-talk and all the God-activity and all the morality, is adoration of self.
The Pharisee's view of acting morally and being righteous seems to have two characteristics:
1.) His understanding of sin and virtue is completely external. It's completely focused on behavior and the violation of, or the keeping of, rules. It's not looking inside. It is not looking at character. Sin is perceived completely in terms of discrete individual actions. Notice he does
not say, "God, I thank you that I am getting more patient. I'm getting to be a gentler person. I
am able to love people I used to not be able to love. I'm able to keep my joy and my peace, even when things go wrong."
2.) The Pharisee says, "I'm not like other men," implying, "I am so much better" ---- perhaps he is looking down on those "other men."
Now consider the tax collector. What can we learn about repentance from his attitude?
If you think of sin externally and comparatively, like the Pharisee, there's always somebody who has committed more sins than you. You are only ever a sinner, you are never the sinner.
The Pharisee, it seems, is thinking of sin in absolute terms.
On the other hand, the tax collector seems to be saying, "All I know is I'm lost, and where everybody else thinks they are does not matter." The tax collector is not just looking at what he has done wrong ---- he is not just looking at his discrete individual actions ---- his whole understanding of himself is that he is the sinner ---- it is how he sees himself. It is a part of his identity. He asks for mercy. He sees his dependency on God's radical grace.
The attitude of the tax collector shows us that real repentance involves real sorrow over sin and the way it has grieved God. Fake repentance is sorrow over the consequences of sin and the way it has grieved you.. Self-pity may appear to be repentance, but it is not.
Jesus says the tax collector went home "justified before God." What does Jesus mean by
"justified before God"? What is "justification"? Scholar and Presbyterian pastor Timothy Keller says that in this parable, Jesus introduces us to a universal problem ---- the problem of
righteousness. Then Jesus gives us two figures, each of whom represents a particular solution to the problem. One solution does not work, says Keller. The other one does work.
The Pharisee is trying to justify himself by his good deeds and by his conscientious religious practices. He is keeping God's rules, but in such a way (focusing on the external) that it makes him feel good about himself and so he can say, "Now, God, you owe me." He is keeping God's external rules as a way of earning his justification. He is not depending on God's radical grace. The tax collector, on the other hand, shows by his words and actions that he is utterly depending on God's mercy.
"Justification" is a legal term, borrowed from the law courts. It is the exact opposite of "condemnation." To condemn is to declare someone guilty, whereas to "justify" is to declare him righteous. In the Bible it refers to God's act of unmerited favor by which God puts a sinner right with Himself ---- not only pardoning or acquitting him, but by accepting him and treating him as righteous. No matter what we attempt to do for ourselves, only God can do this.
We are justified and thus treated as righteous because of God's unmerited favor. God's love and acceptance of us, says Pastor Keller, is secured through Christ, and we obey God's law out of a desire to delight, resemble and know Jesus.
These thoughts are brought to you bu CPC's Adult Spiritual Development Team, hoping to encourage some personal growth for you this year at CPC.