How Are We Right with God – By Merit or By Mercy? A Devotional Guide through Luke 18:9-14

And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

There are two attitudes that keep people from coming to Christ. “I don’t really need His mercy because of what I’ve done.” Or “I can’t receive his mercy because of how bad I’ve been.” The first attitude stems from an exalted view of self. The second from a deficient and defective view of God. Jesus goes after these two attitudes in this parable. It is a parable on the theme of justification.   How unentitled beggars — bruised, broken, and hungry — can come into God’s house and feast at His table.

The teaching of justification is extremely important.

Martin Luther called justification the “chief article” of the Christian faith. This teaching alone “nourishes, builds, preserves, and defends the church of God and without it the church of God cannot exist for one hour.”

John Calvin called justification “the main hinge on which Christianity turns.”

Thomas Watson declared: “Justification is the very hinge and pillar of Christianity. An error about justification is dangerous, like a defect in a foundation.

Two Contrasting Men – A holy man/ the chief sinner

In this story, the two principal actors have much in common. Both are men. Both “went up into the temple to pray.” Both stood to pray, as all Jews normally did. Both prayed and began their pray with the same word “God.” But there the similarities cease. (When we look below the surface, we see that they were separated from each other by four major differences.

Four major differences.

  • Their opinion of themselves was different.
  • Their posture in prayer was different.
  • The object of their confidence was different.
  • The Pharisee appealed for justice on the ground of his supposed merit. The publican confessed his moral bankruptcy and pleaded for mercy alone

Two Contrasting Outcomes – One is justified. The other condemned. The one who humbles himself is exalted. The one who exalts himself is humbled.

  1. Why is the tax collector justified and the Pharisee condemned? He humbled himself by confessing his need. The other did not. Both men were sinners, deserving judgment. But only one admitted it and called on God for mercy. Similarly, the publican was not justified because he was a sinner, but because, having acknowledged that he was a sinner, guilty and deserving of judgment, he cried out to God for mercy.
  2. The publican’s prayer is not a generalized petition for God’s mercy, but he yearns for the benefits of an atonement. Lord, make an atonement for me. On the basis of the shedding of blood, have mercy on me. Have mercy is the verb form of the word for the “mercy seat” on the ark of the covenant in the Jewish temple. Literally, treat me as one who comes on the basis of the blood shed on the mercy seat as an offering for sins. Between God the offended and me the offender comes the mercy seat.
  3. Mercy Seat ultimately revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ. Only because He died our death is it possible for us to have his life. Only because he was made a curse for us can we inherit his blessing. Only because he endured our condemnation may we be justified. Have you prayed the publican’s prayer?
  4. Being justified is not something you work for, it is a gift that you receive. Listen to the words of Martin Luther: “Christian righteousness has nothing to do with what we do or how hard we work, but it is given to us and we do nothing for it… We receive and allow someone else to do all the work for us and in us, and it’s God that does it. That’s why we call it ‘passive righteousness.’”

 Application Questions:

  1. Martin Luther’s first thesis on the Door of Wittenburg in Oct. 31, 1517 read: “When Jesus Christ came preaching the gospel saying repent…He meant that every single day in the life of a believer was to be one of repentance.” How might the Lord be calling you to turn away from your own self-righteousness? Start by examining Isaiah 64:6. Compare the metaphors of the filthy rags with the beautiful robe of righteousness (Zechariah 3:1-5 and Isaiah 61:10-11).
  2. What happens when we forget that our acceptability before God depends upon what we receive rather than what we do? How can this fracture a community of believers? Look at verse 13, where is the publican standing? What does this reveal about the vibe the Pharisee gave?  For comparison: Galatians 2:11-18.
  3. Do you lack peace and assurance in your relationship with God? Can you really rest and delight in His love for you and not feel guilty? What do you think Martin Luther means when he says: “Anyone who does not understand [justification] or cherish it in the heart and conscience will continually be buffeted by fears and depression.” Nothing gives peace like internalizing the heart of the gospel, which is 2 Corinthians 5:21. Why not make this your memory verse for the week?
  4. Read and reflect upon Galatians 1:9-10 and confess to the Lord your struggle with the following: “Preoccupation with projecting the nice guy image, impressing others with your experience and relying heavily on the regard of others that leads to self-consciousness, sticky pedestal behavior, an unfreedom in the iron grip of human respect…For most of us it takes a long time for the Spirit of freedom to cleanse us of the subtle urges to be admired for our studied goodness” (Manning, Ragamuffin Gospel, p.147).
  5. Here is a cheering thought from the Heidelberg Catechism on the subject of our text.. How are you right with God?
    Only by true faith in Jesus Christ. Although my conscience accuses me that I have grievously sinned against all God’s commandments, have never kept any of them, and am still inclined to all evil, yet God, without any merit of my own, out of His amazing grace, imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ.
    He grants these to me as if I had never had nor committed any sin, and as if I myself had accomplished all the obedience which Christ has rendered for me, if only I accept this gift with a believing heart.
    – Heidelberg Catechism (1563 AD), Q. 60

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