Law and Gospel in Joyful Clarity
‘Justified, One Way or Another’
The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity Sunday |4 September 2011
There are in this world two religious postures, two ways that a man stands before his neighbor and even before God. Just two. And they are in our Gospel text.
Two men go into the temple to pray. One is a Pharisee. He walks to the front. He stands in the front. He prays, “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.”
We might look at this guy and jeer, but, dear saints, this is your sinful flesh. This is what the natural man does. This is self-justification, declaring yourself to be righteous, and if we have even the slightest ability to recognize the language of our sinful flesh, and the language of the world, and the way the devil talks to us, we will recognize this kind of speech.
I will grant to you that there are different kinds of self-justification. We can run through a few of them, but I have to warn you, these will be easier to see in someone else than in yourself. I’ll describe on to you, and you’ll say, “Oh yeah, I know someone like that.” That’s not the point.
“I’m a good person.” That is the first and I think most common form of self-justification. We you ask a person off the street if they are a good person, they say, “Sure.” We think we know better. We come into this hall Sunday after Sunday, and we say, “I, a poor miserable sinner.” In other words, we are not good people. This is what Paul says about us.
Romans 3:10-12 “None is righteous, no, not one; no one under-stands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
How many do good? None. Not even one? Not even one. So we know this, we now that we are sinners, we know that we have broken God’s law, but our sinful flesh is defensive about it. It doesn’t want to admit it.
So I think if you were walking down the street and someone jumped out of the bushes with a video camera and said, “Are you a good person?” You would say, “Um, yeah, sure.” If someone woke you up in the middle of the night (you can try this with your spouse tonight) and asked you as you were waking up, you’d say, “Oh, ach, of course.” Liar. But what’s the point here?
Your sinful flesh is in the business of self-justification, of asserting your own innate goodness. And the devil is egging your flesh on. Why? Because if you are basically good then you, basically, don’t need Jesus.
So this is the neutral position: “I’m a good person.” It can take a few steps in either direction. If it gets a bit more extreme it goes from saying “I’m a good person” to saying “I’m a holy person.” This is where our Pharisee is coming from in the text. “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”
The Pharisees had taken God’s law and made it doable. Instead of showing their sin, they used the law to show their righteousness (and other people’s sins). This is a misuse of the law. Instead of working like a mirror to show us our sin the Pharisee used the law like a pedestal to exalt themselves.
When you hear the law this is what your sinful flesh does with it. “Oh, I kept that commandment, I’ve done, I’ve tried to do this.” No you haven’t. But your sinful flesh can’t admit it’s real character. If the law shows our sins then we’d better change the law.
That’s what the Pharisees did. You’ve heard how the Pharisees had all these hundreds of extra laws? And we think to ourselves, “Look how difficult they made the law!” But they were not trying to make the law more difficult; they were making the law doable. You can only take 150 steps on the Sabbath. You can’t spit on the dirt, only on a rock on the Sabbath. Don’t eat on this day. Give these spices to the temple offering. All of these made the keeping of the law measurable, doable. You could go to sleep at night and think, “I’ve kept the law.” That’s a damnable thought.
The Ten Commandments are not that way. They are not doable. When you use the Ten Commandments as a checklist, it is a checklist of failure. Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and soul and mind and strength. Love your neighbor like you love yourself. That’s never done, never finished, never perfected. In fact, it’s barely even begun.
But the devil and our sinful flesh soften the law, invent new laws, all so that we can stand there and assert our own holiness; all so that we can justify ourselves before our neighbor and even, like this Pharisee standing in the temple, before God. Do you know what I’m talking about? The condemnation of the law is so severe that we fight against it. We change the voice of the law from condemnation to commendation, to self-justification.
There is a third way that we sinners attempt to justify ourselves. If the first is “I’m good,” and the second is “I’m holy,” the third is, “I’m indifferent. I don’t care.”
Indifference is a nasty disease, and it is constantly tearing at us; the devil is constantly tempting us with it. Indifferentism, I am convinced, is the big-gest religion in our country. I don’t know how many people I meet who say they believe in God, or a higher power, or even in our Lord Jesus, but they simple don’t care. They don’t care what the Bible says. They don’t care about judgment day. They couldn’t be bothered to come to church, to listen to a sermon. They don’t take any time to consider the important questions that make us humans and that make life an adventure. It is not that they disagree with the Bible, but they are annoyed by it.
This is a particularly nasty form of self-justification; it says that I am above judgment, above critique, that my standard is myself; I am my own law.
“I’m good.” “I’m holy.” “I don’t care.” The creed of the sinful flesh; the creed of your sinful flesh, and it is a creed (and this is the point) that doesn’t need Jesus. Remember that I told you that there are two religious postures, two ways that a person stands before their neighbor and God? This is the first: self-justified. But the end of this posture, this religion, is death and eternal death. You cannot justify yourself.
But there is a second posture. We find it also in the text. “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!’” Here is humility. Here is hearing the true voice of the law, that we are sinners, and acknowledging it. Here is coming to the end of yourself, to the end of your own good works. Here every self-justifying mouth has been stopped by the verdict of the law: “Sinner.” Here is contrition, sorrow over sin, and here is faith, a trusting in God’s mercy and His mercy alone for forgiveness and salvation. And here, dear saints, is where the salvation of God is found.
And this is not simply some appeal to some very nice deity. This tax collector is in the temple, and he prays for a very specific mercy.
You remember in the temple, the Holy of Holies, this small and dark room where the Ark of the Covenant rested. The Ark was this gold plated box, and in it (at least originally) were a bowl with some manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded almond blossoms, and most importantly the two tablets with the Ten Commandments. And on top of the Ark was the mercy seat. It was pure gold, and it had two cherubim (angels) over the top, facing in, with their wings reaching over the Ark. That mercy seat is where the presence of God would rest, and that mercy seat is where, once a year on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would take the blood of the sacrifice, once for himself and once for all the people of Israel.
Do you get the picture? The Ten Commandments are there testifying to God about you, but then comes another testimony, the testimony of blood, that covers the commandments. The blood of the sacrifice covers sin, it blots out transgression. The mercy seat was a preaching of Jesus, of the death of the Son of God that would cover the sins of the world. That’s what the mercy seat was about; that’s why it is called the “mercy” seat, and not the judgment seat or condemnation seat.
The word in Greek for the Mercy Seat is hisalterion, and that is the word this tax collector uses in his prayer, the verb form. “Lord, hilasthati me, a sinner. Lord, let the blood of another cover my sins. Lord, accept a sacrifice on my behalf.” This man pleaded for mercy because he pleaded for blood. And the result?
Jesus says, “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.”
Dear saints, we have God’s mercy because we have His blood, the blood of Jesus, His death on the cross and the promise of the forgiveness that He won for us there. You are justified not by your works but by the blood of Jesus; you are declared holy not by yourself but by God’s own Son. By His Word and His Promise and His blood you are cleansed and forgiven and set free, and this is our comfort and peace, now and forever. Amen.
And the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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Pastor Bryan Wolfmueller
Hope Lutheran Church | Aurora, CO