I am a righteous man. Or at least that is what I like to believe. I go to church, praise the Lord, I help where I can. I condemn those who do morally wrong (just see my old blog!), exhort the Mosaic Law and rigorously defend truth. Along with the great spiritual masters I stand, defending the faith, glorifying God through my actions for all to see. Indeed, even this article of mine shows how much I love God.
And that is why I am a sinner. In my younger years, I zealously tried to enforce the Biblical teachings, reprimanding those who endorsed false doctrine and rebuking they that sinned against God. And despite His grace, I am still tempted daily by such activities. Little do I know that I fall into both camps.
The good news is that through Jesus of Nazareth, God has provided salvation for us on condition of faith (2 Corinthians 5:19). That is, the grounds of our right standing before God are the life, death and resurrection of Christ, which is communicated to us by the gift of faith (John 3:16). This is a momentous message! To be free of the shackles of wrongdoing, enslavement to evil and fearing God’s holy justice (which all deserve for doing that which is erroneous), one cannot do anything. Mired in our own folly, we are unable to give to God what he is owed, having done that which is contrary to the good, and thus are servants of evil and deserve death. There is no action on our part, no set of commands or any formulae which can get one out of this mess. However, out of his grace, God has provided in the sacrifice and representation of Jesus all that one needs to be restored to relationship with him. This is achieved through participation in his righteous life, death and resurrection, by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and the atonement of our sins through Jesus death (Romans 8:1). This not only pays for our transgressions before God, but exacts a transformation of the sinner. No longer are we bound by sin, addicted to misdeeds and evil actions centred on humanity. Rather, we are regenerated to focus on God, not by our own power but by the Spirit (Romans 8:2). Thus, the Gospel proclaims that liberation from the destruction of sin comes through Christ alone, mediated by faith, not our own lack of works or merit.
By contrast, the Pharisaic trite I have propounded is a false gospel. I have argued that one can be their own saviour, implying Jesus died in vain! (Galatians 2:21) You see, what I have done is claim that your standing with God depends on what you do. In the past, I have condemned those who have premarital sex, those who engage in homosexual relationships, those who reject classical and traditional forms of worship, those who lie, those who reject the truth and so on. I justified this by claiming that God detests such behaviour, ranting and raving about how great a sin they were committing. Such a tack was a false gospel: by making the behaviour of a person the deciding factor in how they relate to God, I failed to realise I was removing Jesus from salvation. Christ tells us that he is the way, the truth and the life, and that no person may come to the Father but by him (John 14:6). As we are unable to break free of our transgressions and the power of evil, then we cannot save ourselves. As Jesus rose from the dead, which confers the blessing of God upon him and victory over the power of death, the wages of sin (Romans 6:23), it follows He has, through his actions, enabled others to be reconciled with God. Thus, only through him can we be saved. By putting such emphasis on one’s behaviour, I failed to acknowledge that our deeds have no bearing on our salvation: only the love of Jesus does. So such exhortations were just plainly wrong, as they denied that Jesus was the only grounds of salvation, and that nothing can be added or subtracted from this message without it being a false message.
Moreover, not only have I preached a false gospel, but I have been a hypocrite. Whilst I judged others to be disobeying God, little did I see that I was just a culpable. I too lusted, I too was lazy, I too have born false witness, I too have taught falsity and so on. How I could condemn by brothers and sisters without seeing the gaping big sin and evil in my own life is ridiculous. Indeed, as Jesus challenged the hypocrites of his day, ‘How can you say to your brother, 'Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,' when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye?’ (Luke 6:42). Whilst I recognised others needed Jesus, I failed to see that I did too. And so, without realising it, I perpetuated a life of self-righteousness, pleased with myself and pitying others.
These struggles still afflict me. I am still tempted to judge, placing worldly standards in front of spiritual ones. Living in a world still caught in the grip of the old ways, we are all confronted by dark evils. But thanks to the grace of God, those who are justified by faith no longer live according to the power of sin (Romans 5:1-2). Rather, those who are drawn into Jesus’ righteousness live not by the influence of evil but under the sphere of Christ through the Spirit (2 Corinthians 5:17). As such, thanks to what God has done in my life, two things have changed.
Firstly, through the gift of faith afforded by the Spirit, I now can see my own sin. That is, when those who live in union with Jesus stray from the path, the Holy Spirit enables them to recognise they have committed a heinous act. Through this, he reveals our utter dependence upon Jesus (John 16:8). Our failure to serve God as we ought is drawn out by the fact we sin, and points to the glory of Christ who does righteously love the Father. Thus, it contrasts our ineptitude with Jesus’ holiness. As such, it clarifies the nascent fact that we utterly owe everything to Jesus in sustaining our relationship with the Father, glorifying him even more by our weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:9). Thus, rather than believing I am righteous according to my own merit, the grace of the Lord changes people through faith to see that they are pretty pathetic in comparison to Jesus, and as such live with him at the centre of their identity thanks to the gift of his Spirit. The gift of God to recognise the sinfulness of the self redirects us to Christ, whom through a relationship of love on his part we can be restored to be worshippers of God.
Secondly, through the gift of faith afforded by the Spirit, I now see that Christ is the only means of salvation. The prior paragraph alluded to this, recognising that the identification of one’s own sin often refocuses us back to Christ. However, it is not only through our own sin we can receive such a wonderful truth. Through the transforming effects of the Holy Spirit, we are freed from notions that anything else can save humanity and the universe other than Jesus. Whilst confronted with temptations and malignant forces attempting to draw us from this truth, the power of the Spirit will always bring us back to Christ, helping us to see that it is His relationship with the Father which counts, not ours, for our standing. The vindication we have before God is not on our account – not even on the faith we have. No, it is grounded in the righteousness of Jesus, which we participate in through faith. This teaches us not to be self-righteous, judge, or demand any extra requirement for salvation. Rather, despite our failings, at the heart of our confession, worship and witness should always be Jesus, the heart of who we are and the cosmos. The transformation wrought by God in those who are saved is to place Christ at the centre of who they are, even if they fail often to appreciate this. And so the evidence of him and his key place in salvation is to be perceived by those living in the Spirit.
So this Pharisee, who is still tempted by the villainies of pride, confesses he is not all he often wants to be, and that ultimately even if he gets it wrong, his, and all salvation, is not acquired by human merit or worthiness, but by Jesus alone on condition of faith. Hence, all the glory and praise should be God’s alone, as our sin testifies too. Thus, this Pharisee asks for your forgiveness, and hopes that his folly will be an example of the glory, mercy and love of God.