As I walked through the parking lot at work yesterday, I overheard a yelling match between two people. I work at a Christian nonprofit in a rough part of town, so these types of scenes are typical. A lady in her car was screaming back and forth with a man walking along the sidewalk.
As I continued to walk, the lady drove up beside me, and I recognized her as a client I’d just met inside. She was upset and flustered.
“Did you hear what that man said? These people are supposed to be Christians, but what he said was awful!” she complained before driving off.
I shook my head. I heard the things she yelled at him from her car. They weren’t kind, and only three minutes earlier she was telling me about her Christian faith.
I’m guessing we’ve all been there. I know I have. You think everyone else needs Jesus and God’s grace, but you’ve got things covered. You think to yourself, Thank God I’m not that guy. What a sinful wreck.
I was making judgment calls on strangers
I grew up in a Christian home and considered myself a devout Christian throughout my childhood. I didn’t smoke, drink, chew or go with girls who do. I went to church, read my Bible, prayed now and again, and I never cussed (out loud).
In high school, I made judgment calls on people all the time. That guy smokes marijuana; he’s lost. That girl has a different boyfriend every week and I’m guessing she hasn’t remained pure; God help her. That teacher agrees with homosexual marriage and abortion; sinner.
These people needed Jesus badly. They needed the Gospel, and I hoped someone would share it with them. But I wasn’t about to.
I’d then go home after school — after passing judgment on all these people — and I’d hop on my computer and browse pornography on the internet. I thought I was fine because I was a Christian. Jesus was enough, right? God’s grace was enough. My sins were covered. I was forgiven.
“I might be bad, but that guy’s worse”
None of us would admit to being this blatant in thinking that we’ve got a license to sin. We’ll never admit that we squander God’s grace and Christ’s blood so recklessly. We think that grieving the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30) is something only apostates are guilty of. As believers, we hold ourselves innocent of it day in and day out.
In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus shares a parable about two men praying in the synagogue. One man is a Pharisee, and he thanks God that he’s not like the other man, a wretched sinner and tax collector. The tax collector beats his chest and pleads to God for forgiveness because he’s a wretched sinner.
The Pharisee wasn’t wrong. The other man was a wretched sinner, but the Pharisee failed to recognize that he was a wretched sinner himself. He based his righteousness on “that guy over there” while the tax collector based his righteousness on God’s law, and begged for forgiveness, grace and mercy for his sins.
We can’t define righteousness as “not worldly”
The world around us is an awful place. The things that pass for entertainment today are heartbreaking. I looked at the top 50 songs on the American charts and all but a handful are explicit. The way people treat one another and talk to one another in person or online is depressing. Social media has turned from being a place to make friends to a place to lose friends in droves.
It’s tempting as a Christian to see the filthy rags the world passes off as righteousness and think we have something better and purer to offer God. Yet the truth is that apart from Christ and His righteousness, our good deeds are no better than those of the world (Isaiah 64:6).
We can pass judgment and pity the secular culture around us. We can play the role of the Pharisee and thank God that — despite all our flaws and failures as a church — we are not as bad as “that guy” over there. But by doing so, we’re not fooling anyone but ourselves.
God knows the price of our sins — He paid for them. And the world isn’t fooled by our outward displays of self-righteousness. They know what happens behind closed doors. Non-Christians aren’t the only ones having affairs, cheating on their taxes and looking at pornography when nobody is watching.
The kind of Christian I want to be
I want to be more like the tax collector beating his chest, begging God to forgive him for his sins. I want to see the world’s need for God’s grace but never lose track of my own immense need for God’s grace, too.
I want to come alongside someone struggling in sin and tell them where I find hope every day as a sinner myself. I want them to know that if God can save a wretch like me, then He can certainly save them.
I want people to see the way I live my life and glorify God for it. I don’t want them to see a man who can do no wrong, but instead I want them to see a mere man — frail and weak by his own strength — completely dependent on God for every good thing.
That’s what I want, but I’m far from it. I’m still comparing myself to that Christian lady who yelled awful things to that man on the sidewalk and then complained about the awful things he yelled back.
What sanctification should look like in our lives
The longer the Apostle Paul ministered to the church, the more he saw himself as a sinner. He started off recognizing his sin (Acts 22:19), then he considered himself least of the apostles (1 Corinthians 15:9), then least of the saints (Ephesians 3:8), and he ended his ministry as the chief of all sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).
Like Paul, as we grasp the magnitude of Christ’s work on the cross for our salvation, we see more of our need for His grace and righteousness in our everyday lives. I don’t know about you, but I have a long way to go before I consider myself the chief of all sinners. Jesus is precious to me, but I know there are still things in my life I find more precious than His shed blood on my behalf. There are still sins I indulge in without thinking about their cost. I’m still prone to look at the world around me and notice how evil others are, then overlook my own sinful attitudes and actions.
“God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13).