February 12, 2006

BRAGGING OR BEGGING

“God, I thank you that I am not like other men.” Luke 18:11

“God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Luke 18:13

Here’s a story about two very different women, one a Sunday school teacher, the other a prostitute. The Sunday school teacher grew up in a stable, prosperous home and married her childhood sweetheart. She worked in a bank for awhile, but when she had children, she decided to stay home with the kids. She read books about parenting and listened to programs on how to be a good wife and mother. She read her Bible and prayed every day. Her whole family attended church every Sunday, and she worked to be the very best Sunday school teacher she could be.

The prostitute followed a different road. When she was fifteen she started using drugs and became very promiscuous. She had two abortions, and she also gave birth to a child. She started receiving welfare checks, but the welfare money wasn’t enough to buy food for her child and drugs for herself, so she earned extra cash by working as a prostitute.

One Sunday these two women, the Sunday school teacher and the prostitute, both went to church. The teacher folded her hands and prayed about herself: “God, I thank you that I am not like other women—using drugs, being promiscuous, ripping off the welfare system, having abortions. I’m faithful to my husband; I’m raising wonderful kids; I teach Sunday school, and my husband and I write some generous checks to charity.”

The prostitute, on the other hand, was so ashamed when she got to church that she didn’t even go into the auditorium with the other worshipers. Instead, she stayed out in the church lobby. There she broke down sobbing and cried, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

I tell you that this woman, rather than the other, went home justified before God.

Wait a minute! Of the two women I’ve described, which would you rather have your daughter grow up to be? Which would you rather have as a neighbor? Which does our country and our society need more of? The answer is obvious: we’d rather have more Sunday school teachers and fewer prostitutes. And that leaves us with the question: What sort of God is it that would reject the Sunday school teacher and accept the prostitute?

Shocking Grace

Well, the God who does this is the God and Father of Jesus Christ. If that sounds impossible, then listen to a story that Jesus himself told. The Bible says in Luke 18:9-14:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “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 a 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 [said Jesus] 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.”

To feel the full impact of this story, we need to know a bit about Pharisees and tax collectors. When we hear the word “Pharisee” nowadays, we may think of uptight, narrowminded, nasty people. But in Jesus’ day the Pharisees were just about the finest people around. They were religious, respectable, and patriotic. They had solid families, they were pillars of society, and they taught others about the Bible—much like Sunday school teachers do today.

Tax collectors were another story. They were rotten. Today revenue agents are mostly ordinary folks who collect taxes which are set by a government chosen by the people (and even then revenue agents aren’t very popular). But back in Jesus’ day, tax collectors weren’t simply ordinary people doing an unpopular job. They were traitors and robbers. They worked in cooperation with the armies of Rome against their fellow citizens. They squeezed taxes out of their own people of Israel for the benefit of a foreign dictatorship. That made them traitors, and on top of that, they were robbers as well. They would force people to give them even more money than the Romans required and keep the extra money for themselves. What scum!

So, then, if you think the contrast between a Sunday school teacher and a prostitute sounds extreme, it still isn’t as great as the contrast between a decent, patriotic, Bible-teaching Pharisee and a traitorous, thieving tax collector. According to Jesus, a hard-working, religious person can remain under God’s wrath, while a far worse person can be made right with God. A Sunday school teacher can go to hell, while a prostitute may end up in heaven. How can that be?

Well, it’s called grace, amazing grace, shocking grace! If you wonder how the Lord can reject some of the very best people and yet accept some of the very worst, the answer is that God’s grace bypasses the whole idea of “best” and “worst.” In grace there is no comparison. Grace bypasses those who exalt themselves in comparison to others, but grace saves those who humble themselves before God, no matter how wretched they’ve been.

David Feddes here again, and we’re looking at an amazing story about God’s amazing grace, Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.] It’s grace that teaches the tax collector’s heart to fear God and cry out, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” and it’s grace that relieves his fears with the assurance that he is now justified by faith, right with God and set free to live a new life.

The Comparison Game

The Pharisee, meanwhile, has no time for grace. He’s too busy comparing himself to others and saying how superior he is. And at one level, every word he says is true. He really is better than other people. He’s better than a traitorous, thieving tax collector, that’s for sure.

The Pharisee is playing the comparison game, a game that many of us like to play. In the comparison game, you don’t measure yourself by the standard of God’s perfection; instead, you measure yourself by how well you compare with other people. You don’t measure how low you are by how high God is; instead you measure how high you are by how low someone else is.

One reason the comparison game is appealing is that it helps you to feel better about yourself. You may not be perfect, but you’re still better than a lot of other people. And if you’re better than they are, you must be good enough. You may not be the smartest kid in the class, but compared to so-and-so, you’re a genius. You may not be the ideal husband and father, but compared to some messed up guys you know, you’re a real family man. The comparison game can come in handy even if you’re a convicted criminal. You may have been imprisoned for robbery, but compared to those low-life child molesters, you’re still pretty decent!

And that brings us to a second attraction of the comparison game: you get to choose your own competition. It would be depressing to compare yourself to the purest people around, and it would certainly be depressing to compare yourself to the absolute perfection of Jesus. But the nice thing about the comparison game is that you don’t have to do that. Don’t look above you. Just look below. Look at all the people who are worse than you are. Then you’ll feel like a winner.

That’s what the Pharisee does in Jesus’ story. He chooses his own competition. He doesn’t trouble himself thinking about people who are better than he is, and he certainly doesn’t compare himself to the absolute holiness of God. When he wants to know where he stands spiritually, he compares himself to every lowlife he can think of: robbers, evildoers, adulterers, tax collectors, and so forth. And surprise, surprise!–he finds that compared to them, he’s a model of virtue.

But according to Jesus, “whoever exalts himself will be humbled.” Whoever compares himself to others will be a loser in relation to God. When you stand in the presence of the Lord God Almighty—as you ultimately must—comparisons with others become totally irrelevant. Even if the comparisons are true in a certain sense, they are beside the point.

God doesn’t determine your status by checking whether you attended church more than other people you know. He doesn’t ask whether there are people who are worse than you are. That’s not how God measures you. He measures you in terms of his perfect moral law. And if you’ve broken that law, it’s not going to help you one bit to point out that others are even worse. You’re a sinner, and that’s that. God isn’t interested in whether you happen to be a little better than some other sinner.

Imagine a person on trial who says, “Judge, I admit to committing the murder. But remember, I’m not a serial murderer like some people. I’m not a rapist or a child molester. And besides, think of how much worse I could have been. I only killed one person. What about all the billions of people I didn’t kill? I should get some credit for that.”

Well, anyone stupid enough to try that defense is in big trouble. When you’re standing before the judge, the question isn’t what somebody else did. You are the one on trial. And the focus isn’t on whether there might still be some crimes you haven’t committed. The fact is, if you’re guilty of just one crime, that’s enough to condemn you, and any comparisons you make are beside the point. When you have to face the Judge of heaven and earth, no comparison can save you.

No Difference

When we’re comparing ourselves to others, we’ll see some differences in our ability to do good, and those differences may be real. But from the only perspective that matters, God’s perspective, these differences make no difference. The Bible says, “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22-23). Your efforts may take you a little further than the next person, but you still fall far short of the glory of God.

Think of being stranded out in the middle of the ocean. One person can’t swim at all. If he’s stranded in the middle of the ocean, he’ll go down like a rock and drown. Another person knows how to dog paddle a bit. He’s a better swimmer than the first. But if he’s stranded in the middle of the ocean, he’s going to drown. The third person has had lots of swimming lessons. He can swim much better than the first two. But if he’s stranded in the middle of the ocean, he’s going to drown. The fourth is a superb swimmer, a certified lifeguard. But if he’s stranded in the middle of the ocean, he’s going to drown. Now, if we compare these people to one another, it’s true that one can swim better than the next. But so what? The distance is too great for any of them to make it. When you’re stranded in the middle of the ocean, you don’t need swimming lessons. You need a boat.

The Bible says that sin has stranded all of us so far from God’s glory that none of us can cover the distance in our own power. No matter how we compare to each other, none of us can make it to God on our own. We fall short. A person in the middle of the ocean has a better chance of swimming to land than a sinner has of working his own way to heaven. Ultimately, whatever the comparisons, “there is no difference,” says the Bible, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

There is no difference! Let those four words sink in. There is no difference. And so there must be no comparison with others. The Lord has every right to condemn even the best of us to hell. A Pharisee or a Sunday school teacher can be condemned. We’re all sinners, so God can condemn even the best of us. On the other hand, he can also save the worst of us. We’ve all got the same basic sin problem, so it’s no harder for him to save you or me than it is to save anyone else. The Bible says, “It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy” (Romans 9:16). God can save anybody he chooses.

“There is no difference,” says Romans 3, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” Jesus Christ died on Calvary’s cross to save sinners. Sinners. That means you, and it means me. No one is more qualified to be saved or less qualified to be saved than anyone else. We all need the blood of Christ. We all need to put our faith in the mercy of God. Even the worst sinner can have a new standing with God. “This righteousness from God,” says the Bible, “comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.”

God’s grace and mercy are greater than all our sins, and in Christ he has provided the way of to be saved. Jesus took the guilt of our sins upon himself and suffered the punishment in our place. His resurrection power is so great that he can give eternal life even to dying sinners. Before we can benefit from all this, however, we need to stop bragging and start begging.

Bragging About Badness

We need to stop comparing ourselves to others and humble ourselves before God. The comparison game is a deadly trap. It’s a trap for religious, respectable people, and they’re not the only ones. It can be a trap for others as well. Believe it or not, it’s possible to brag about badness as though it were a virtue. To show you what I mean, here’s another version of Jesus’ parable.

A man was raking leaves in his yard one Sunday when he saw his neighbor leaving for church. The man thought to himself, “That guy may look saintly in his Sunday clothes, but he’s no better than I am. Hey, I’m no goody-goody, but I’m good enough. Okay, so I never go to church or worship God, but I never said I was a saint. And I lie a little if it will help my sales figures. And sure, if I find an attractive woman who’s willing, I follow my natural urges. But so what? I’m just doing what’s normal. Whatever it takes to be happy, right? At least I’m open and honest about it. That’s a lot better than strutting around in my church clothes like my pious neighbor.”

Meanwhile, the man’s Christian neighbor arrived at church. He had a hard time singing the first song. He was thinking, “Lord, last Thursday when my car had a flat tire, I swore and took your holy name in vain. I know how terribly that offends you. And just five minutes before we left for church, I argued with my wife and yelled at my kids. Sometimes I wonder how I can even call myself a Christian. God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Now, which of these two is the real hypocrite? Who looks down on the other? Who really feels sorry for his sin? You see, religious people aren’t the only ones who can play the comparison game. It’s possible to be as wicked as a tax collector and still be as proud as a Pharisee. Some people openly flaunt their wickedness, and then they’re proud of themselves for being so blatant about it.

In Jesus’ parable, the tax collector doesn’t strut around saying, “Boy, am I glad I’m not a hypocrite like that self-satisfied Pharisee! Sure, I’m a sinner, but what’s the big deal? Nobody’s perfect. At least I’m open about it. I’m sure that God—if he exists—will appreciate my honesty.”

No, the tax collector stands alone before a holy God, and cries out, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” He’s not just frank about the fact that he’s a sinner. He’s sorry about it, he’s ashamed, he’s heartbroken. He hates his sin. He’s not bragging about his “honesty”; he is seeking God’s mercy.

Justified

If you want to accept the good news of the gospel, you first need to accept the bad news: that you are a sinner, that you are in the same predicament as every other man and woman on this planet, that you are utterly incapable of making yourself right with God. Once you see that, the comparison game is over, and you’re in a position to believe the good news of God’s grace. Jesus says that when you cry out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” you are justified before God.

Justified. The word means “made right with God.” It’s a word that has brought hope and salvation to millions throughout the centuries. The Bible says, “To the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Romans 4:5). “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). This word justified means that when God calls you and moves you to repentance and faith in Christ, he forgives all your sins—past, present, and future sins–and declares you to be forever right with him. Let that good news sink in. Justified! Forever right with God!

Justification is not probation. What’s the difference between justification and probation? Well, in the legal system, a judge will sometimes tell a convicted offender, “I’m not going to punish you for this violation. Instead, I’m putting you on probation. If you behave yourself, fine. But if you get into trouble again and violate your probation, then I’m going to throw the book at you.” Now, is that how God deals with us? Does God say, “Okay, I’m willing to forgive you and overlook your past sins. But if you ever commit another sin, you’ll be right back where you started”?

No! Jesus doesn’t say that the repentant tax collector was put on probation. Jesus says that he went home justified before God. When you trust God’s mercy in Jesus, every last sin, past, present, and future is nailed to his cross and forgiven. You don’t fall away from salvation every time you commit a sin. Long before you were ever born, God knew every sin you’d commit, but God chose you anyway and called you into a living faith in Jesus Christ. You are justified by faith, and no sin of yours can undo that. When you trust Jesus, you’re not on probation. You are justified. You are right with God, and nothing can ever change that.

Does this mean it’s okay for Christians to wallow in sin? Of course not. God’s purpose is to make his people like Jesus. But when God justifies us through faith, we can be sure that we are right with God, even when there are some wrongs that still need to be cleaned up in our lives.

Take the apostle Peter, for example. Jesus told Simon Peter that he would deny his Lord three times and that Satan was out to get him. “But,” Jesus added, “I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32). Satan wanted Peter, but Jesus wouldn’t let that happen. Jesus had already prayed for Peter, and so even though Peter’s faith would waver, it wouldn’t fail completely. Peter’s destiny was secure. Notice that Jesus didn’t say, “Peter, if you turn back to me after you fail.” He said, “When you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” It was certain that Peter would turn back to Jesus. His Savior was making sure his faith wouldn’t fail, and that meant Peter could not lose his salvation.

Justified means that you are right with God, that your standing is based on Jesus, and that nothing can separate you from his love or keep you from the destiny God has for you.

My friend, if you want to know what it means to be a genuine Christian, you need to understand that word “justified.” You need to know how to have a right relationship with God. You might think heaven is reserved for people who are comparatively good, and hell—if there is such a place—is reserved for only the very worst people. Not so. Jesus says that the even very best person still is not good enough to escape death and hell, and that the very worst person is still not bad enough to be disqualified from God’s mercy and salvation.

No matter who you are, there is only one way for you to be made right with God. You need to be justified by faith. Give up on your own achievements, forget about how well or how poorly you compare with others, and trust that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has done what you could never do. He has satisfied the requirements of the just judge. He has bridged the infinite gap between sinful people and a holy God. So forget your pride, confess your sin, and put your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. God rejects bragging but responds to begging. As you sense the depth of your own sin and the wonder of God’s love, make the tax collector’s prayer your own: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Then you can be sure that you have been “justified before God.”

PRAYER

God, have mercy on us sinners. As we bow before your holy majesty, we realize how empty and deadly all our comparisons are.  We know, holy Father, that you had every right to abandon us in our sins, and we praise you that you chose instead to send your beloved Son to live among us and to open the way of salvation. Thank you that we can be justified, that we can be made right with you. Look upon us in your mercy. Work in us by your Holy Spirit to give us a deep hatred for sin, a strong faith in Jesus, and a warm love for others and for you, great Father, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.