Who will take responsibility for the spiritual future of Nashville? None of us likes the status quo. So who will pray and work and risk for a better future for Nashville and our region? We have a gospel deficit. Who will take responsibility to change that?
Nashville is suffering under the tyranny of performance-based religion. A false gospel feels normal. Jesus Jr. is what people expect. When we talk about “the gospel,” too many people think, “Yeah, sure. I already believe that.” They are not blown away. They think they know what church is about. And they see no alternatives.
In the corporate psychology and awareness of every city, there is a threshold of non-ignorability. When someone or something rises to that threshold, that someone or something is no longer ignorable – like the Titans and Vanderbilt and country music. The gospel has not yet reached that threshold in Nashville. We’re asking God for a new era of blessing for our city. His only biblical strategy is gospel-centered churches. What we are attempting is enough compelling churches – small, medium, large – just enough churches with the same gospel of the real Jesus, the same passion for the death of Bible Belt religion, the same radical culture of acceptance, and Nashville will wake up one morning within five to ten years and know that God’s grace has come to town. And it cannot be ignored, because it’s not just another big event down at the Ryman but it’s embodied in a growing network of gospel-driven churches that are here to stay.
Here’s the biggest challenge we face as we press the gospel forward. Our biggest challenge is ourselves. We see ourselves here in this parable:
He told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” —Luke 18:9-14
It’s all about self-justification. It’s about keeping up an appearance of okayness and performing well in front of people, in front of God, even in front of ourselves. Self-justification is the deepest impulse in the guilty, anxious human heart. It is the religion of the whole human race. And it’s ugly. Look how it treats people. Bible Belt religion is brutal, because there’s nothing divine about it. It’s just us – with a sense of moral fervor. For historical reasons, it uses Jesus-talk, it quotes the Bible. But it isn’t the gospel. How do we press the gospel forward, into our hearts, into our mission field?
In 1954 Francis Schaeffer wrote an article entitled “How Heresy Should Be Met.” He wrote, “The final problem is not to prove men wrong but to win them back to Christ. Therefore, the only ultimately successful apologetic is, first, a clear, intellectual statement of what is wrong with the false doctrine, plus a clear, intellectual return to the proper scriptural emphasis, in all its vitality and in its relation to the total Christian Faith, plus a demonstration in the life that this correct and vital scriptural emphasis meets the genuine needs and aspirations of men in a way that Satan’s counterfeit does not.” What was Schaeffer saying? He was saying that we need a three-fold strategy to win people for Christ. One, a clear statement of what’s wrong with performance-based religion; two, a clear statement of what’s right with the grace-based gospel; three, a clear demonstration of the beauty of the truth in our churches. The ultimate apologetic is churches that not only call out false religion and not only preach the truth but also embody the truth and by their sheer beauty put falsehood to shame and make the truth real in a way everyone can see – how the gospel outperforms the fraudulence of our own righteousness.
Let’s think today about the third part of that strategy. How can we not only expose what’s wrong, and not only articulate what’s right, but also demonstrate the gospel in such a way that people are drawn to Christ? I need this, because there are continents and peninsulas and regions of God’s grace I’ve never explored. As we go there together in our churches, we’ll surprise people. There are few experiences in life that can crack our hearts open like surprise. The sheer exteriority of our free righteousness before God, the out-there-ness of it, the Someone-Else-ness of it, the irrelevance of ourselves – it’s not what anybody expects, and it’s so freeing. The redeemed in heaven worship God for it: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:10). We love that, but we also forget. In our deepest thoughts and feelings we go back to works-righteousness, and it shows. In his commentary on Galatians, Luther said that justification by faith “cannot be beaten into our ears too much. Yes, though we understand it well, yet there is no one who takes hold of it perfectly or believes it with all his heart, so frail a thing is our flesh and disobedient to the Spirit.”
There must be new ways of incarnating free justification we’ve never thought of. Let’s go find them, like the spies exploring the Promised Land, and let’s plant churches that look like holy freedom. Here is a critical success factor in every new church: how can we look like people who’ve been set free by the grace of God? Personally, Do I look like a man who doesn’t work for God’s acceptance but trusts him who justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:5), so that I can admit my ungodliness without threatening my self-image? In his book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton wrote, “The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good.” Our cities are too good – too good for Jesus. In her novel Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor has the main character saying, “If you believed in Jesus, you wouldn’t be so good.” But here is what’s waiting for sinners: “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3). There we are – thirsty, tired, dirty people pulling up bucket after bucket of fresh, cool water, drinking deeply, pouring it over our heads, dunking our faces in it, splashing one another. That freedom of heart looks like the gospel. So I ask myself, Do I look like a man who prizes the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I suffer losses without feeling sorry for myself, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own but only his, which I receive moment by moment with the empty hands of faith (Philippians 3:8-9), or do I look like a man who must have position and recognition in order to feel okay about himself? Do I look like a relaxed, happily subdued man – (Remember the Beach Boys’ song “Hold onto your ego”? “I know so many people who think they can do it alone; they isolate their heads and stay in their safety zones; now what can you tell them, and what can you say that won’t make them defensive? Hang onto your ego. Hang on, but I know you’re gonna lose the fight”) – do I look like a man who has happily lost that fight, because in Christ I have the forgiveness of all my trespasses according to the riches of his grace (Ephesians 1:7), or do I look like a man whose God might run out of grace any minute now? Do our churches look like every word of John 3:16 is literally true? Are sinners stunned by the environment of grace they walk into at our churches? Or do we look, taste, feel and smell like we need our own performance, no matter what we say we believe? A big part of sanctification is to stop looking like the heresy of justification by works and to start looking more like the freedom of justification by faith alone.
God wants us to be living proof of the beauty of the gospel, so that we compel the attention of our city for his glory. We’ve tried Christianity on our own, and it doesn’t work. Let’s listen to Jesus now. There are three sections in this text. One, the introduction (verse 9). Two, the parable (verses 10-13). Three, the conclusion (verse 14).
Verse 9 is the key: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” Who of us would think, “I’m trusting in myself to be righteous”? We’re Protestants. Good. What if we weren’t? But deep inside, it isn’t that simple. Moment by moment in our hearts justification by our performance wars against justification by his performance.
Verse 9 gives us a way of seeing that war inside ourselves. Look at these two ways of thinking: “. . . some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” If I’m treating others with contempt, I am trusting in myself that I am righteous. The two go together. How I really feel about the performance of Christ for me shows up in how I view the performance of other sinners. And I say “view” others rather than “treat” others, because a better translation is “. . . and viewed others with contempt” (NASB). Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich’s lexicon defines this verb as “despise.” Souter defines it as “ignore” – to think of someone as just not counting. Justification by grace changes how we view other people – not only how we treat them but how we perceive them and feel about them and the kind of impact they make on us in our thoughts. How I view other sinners reveals which kind of justification I’m really clinging to at any given moment – whether my own performance or Christ’s performance for me. I can think I’m trusting in Christ, but if I exude aloofness and superiority and contempt toward other sinners, I’m really trusting in myself. It’s like body odor. I’m not aware of it. But they sense it. God senses it. And it stinks.
God wants my theology of righteousness objectively resident in Someone Else and credited to me on terms of grace – God wants that thought to change the subject inside me from what’s wrong with everyone else to what’s right with Christ.
“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector” (verse 10). The rabble down there in the gutter and the decadent élite up there in the palaces – they were both bringing society down. But the Pharisees were holding the culture together. This tax collector was collecting “protection money” for the Romans, and lining his own pockets along the way. It was men like him that took food from the table of little children. He was a despicable, me-first opportunist. But check this out – the tax collector is coming into the temple to pray. I’ll bet it’s been a long time since he was there. Maybe he’ll finally get what’s coming to him. I wonder what God is going to do with this.
“The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get’” (verses 11-12). That’s pretty good. I mean, he thanks God for the good in his life. He doesn’t congratulate himself. He gives all the glory to God: “God, I thank you . . . .” He’s Reformed. Moreover, he is sincere. He means every word he’s saying. When Luke introduces the parable by referring to “some who trusted in themselves” – they don’t know they’re doing it. There’s enough in the Old Testament about trusting God for this Pharisee never consciously to trust in himself. He’s sincere. And he really isn’t guilty of many of the sins that other people commit. If everyone on the face of the earth instantly became like this man, the police would be out of work.
What’s wrong with this man? At least three things. One, he comes before God with nothing to confess, nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to ask God for. Who would go to the doctor’s office to say, “Doc, I just want you to know I’m feeling great. No problems. That’s why I came in today”? But sinners come to the divine Physician with a sense of urgency. They undress. They invite his inspection. And they follow whatever treatment he prescribes.
Two, the morality this man lives by is self-chosen. Moses didn’t require fasting twice a week. This man’s strict code gives an appearance of commitment, but God hadn’t asked for it. And though he’s right to tithe, giving God ten percent is really his way of displaying how sacrificial he is: “I give tithes of all that I get.” He obeys God selectively and proudly, and selective, proud obedience is covert disobedience. He isn’t really obeying God at all; he’s using God for his own self-reinforcement.
Three – this gets to the heart of it – this man really believes he is different from the tax collector. He thinks that sin is a matter of degrees. There are little sins and big sins, and as long as he stays below a certain threshold, he’s okay. It’s only if he would get above that threshold, like committing extortion, that it would get serious. But short of that, he can look at other sinners and say, “I may not be perfect, but thank God I’m not like that!” And the most telling thing I can do is read this parable and think, “Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee!”
Let’s all admit it: “Lord, this man is who I am.” Let’s never stop admitting it. The more we identify with our fellow-sinners, especially the ones we view with contempt, the more we mourn with them rather than despise them, the more we’ll look like justification by faith alone. Here’s how Martin Luther said it in his lectures on Romans:
Who can pride himself over against someone else and claim to be better than he? Especially in view of the fact that he is always capable of doing exactly the same as the other does and, indeed, that he does secretly in his heart before God what the other does openly before men. And so we must never despise anyone who sins but must generously bear with him as a companion in a common misery. We must help one another just as two people caught in the same swamp assist each other. But if we despise the other, we shall both perish in the same swamp.
Here’s how Jonathan Edwards instructed us:
Spiritual pride tends to speak of other persons’ sins with bitterness or with laughter and an air of contempt. But pure Christian humility rather tends either to be silent about these problems or to speak of them with grief and pity. Spiritual pride is very apt to suspect others, but a humble Christian is most guarded about himself. He is as suspicious of nothing in the world as he is of his own heart. The proud person is apt to find fault with other believers. But the humble Christian has so much to do at home and sees so much evil in his own heart and is so concerned about it that he is not apt to be very busy with other hearts. He is apt to esteem others better than himself.
Brothers, if the churches we plant view other churches with contempt, then all we’re doing is creating more Bible Belt religion, and maybe the most hypocritical of all. Isn’t it time for us to start taking responsibility? Here’s how:
“But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other” (verses 13-14a). This man hasn’t come into the temple to feel better about himself. He has come to meet with God. He doesn’t even notice anyone else. The text could even be translated, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner” (NASB). He doesn’t call himself “the trusting sinner.” He doesn’t call himself “the repentant sinner.” Just, “the sinner.” His conscience is so disturbed that he stands there beating his breast with a regret that won’t go away except through the mercy of no one less than God. He doesn’t look at his past and dismiss it: “Well, that’s over now. I’m moving on.” He knows it isn’t over until God says it’s over. So he becomes honest before God about himself, and his life opens up to new blessing.
He’s standing off at a distance, but he can see the altar there in the temple. On that altar this sinful man sees a lamb that’s been slaughtered. Its innocent blood is flowing down over the altar. And the tax collector looks at that death and sees there his only hope. That’s why he says, literally, “God, be propitiated in relation to me. Let the blood of that lamb, which you have provided – let the death of that lamb pay for all my failures.”
“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (verse 14b). God will never make peace with our pride. What does God accept? God accepts the sacrifice of the Lamb slain for sinners who are so stung by their guilt that they humble themselves. No more performing. No more comparing. Nothing but need, lifted up to God in faith.
What then is God saying to us today? If we treat the gospel as another mechanism for our own self-exaltation over other sinners, God will pass us by. We will go nowhere spiritually, not one inch, and we will wonder why our cool churches are producing Pharisees. It’s time to come down from the high moral ground. The only one who belongs up there is Jesus. If we will humble ourselves before him, his fragrance will waft out of our churches into our cities, and other sinners will know that God’s grace has come to town.