Summary: Some people soak in their own righteousness; others seek a righteousness not their own. It is the latter who are in a right standing with God.
HOW DO YOU KNOW that you’re right with God? Can you know such a thing? When I was in the eleventh grade, one of my friends took his own life. Some of you have heard me tell that story. I don’t want to get into the details now, but I do want to talk about the effect my friend’s death had on me.
It occasioned in me a crisis of doubt—not doubt about God or the things of God. I didn’t stop believing in God. I still affirmed everything the Scriptures taught. I didn’t question any of that. What I did question was my standing with God. The suicide was so unsettling that it—well, it unsettled me. I lost my bearings.
I was as sure as ever that God was real and that I was a sinner in need of a Savior. But what I was not sure of was whether or not I was saved. I had no assurance of salvation. And it took me several years to work through that.
In time, I came to see that my standing with God does not depend on me—truth is, I am pretty undependable. Thankfully it depends on God, and God is dependable. I came to see that it is not my perseverance that will one day deliver me safely home to heaven; no, it is God’s preservation that will get me there.
I am convinced that not everybody understands this. In fact, I suspect that most people think something along these lines—that God has a set of celestial scales. On one side of the scales he weighs all the good things we have done—and maybe gives some weight to the bad things we have avoided—and on the other side he weighs all our sins. And whichever way the scales tip determines our eternal destiny. If we’re good enough—which I suppose means the good outweighs the bad—we get to go to heaven. But if there’s more bad than good, then we are consigned to hell. Now, I hope you don’t believe that—because that’s not what the Bible teaches—but I’m guessing that many, many people do believe it. Or something like it.
The Pharisee in our parable must have believed that. We’re told that two men went up into the temple to pray, and he was one of the two. As we listen in on his prayer, what we find is that he was a very self-satisfied man. He saw himself as morally exceptional and his religion as nothing short of admirable. Listen to what he said. He was quite bold. He said, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men.” And then he listed the failings of others. Some are “extortioners,” he said. That is, they got what they wanted by threatening people. Other men were “unjust.” Still others were “adulterers,” and so forth.
But not our Pharisee. No. When he compared himself to the guy down the street, he came off looking pretty good. He said, “I fast twice a week,” and “I give tithes of all that I get.” Now, fasting and tithing were required of every devout Jew, but this guy was over the top. Take fasting, for example. Jewish law required only one fast a year, on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. So, he was fasting about 103 more times than necessary every year. That really is exceptional!
And here’s the deal. Everything this man said about himself was true. He was upstanding, law-abiding, morally pure—a shining example to others. But there was a problem. He thought that all of that ought to impress God. And the truth is, God’s not all that easily impressed.
What God saw was a man soaking in his own righteousness. You think self-righteous people turn you off? You don’t know the half of it! What do you suppose God thinks when someone comes into his presence all puffed up with pride? This man was full of pride, and his pride led to arrogance. There he was, boasting to God about all his fine qualities, thinking that God would be as proud of him as he was of himself.
But God has a particular antipathy to human pride. Over and over the Bible says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (Jas. 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:5). This man didn’t know it, but he was building a wall of separation between himself and God. Thinking he was drawing near to God, he was actually distancing himself from God.
So, some people soak in their own righteousness, but others seek a righteousness not their own. Enter the tax collector in our parable. Remember: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” Notice how different things were with the tax collector. Jesus tells us that he stood “afar off” and “would not even lift his eyes to heaven.” Instead, he “beat his breast” and prayed only these words: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”