Reflecting on the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14 makes me think about the temptation to legislate morality by arbitrarily judging which sinners we think are most “savable.” If the Temple that day were a typical Sunday morning, I presume most churches would cater to the man with moral superiority. He shows interest in religion and shows a genuine desire to “get right” with God. We cater because he is most like us, over against the other scandalous men like adulterers, extortioners, and tax collectors. After all, they don’t come across all that “receptive” in the seeker kind of way. No, this latter group classifies people less savable, so we think, because their lives are really jacked up. They are far from the kingdom while the moral man like us is “not far from the kingdom.”
Perhaps because we feel encouraged by the moral man’s sincere attempts of being good, we tend to ease off on the gospel. After all, he is not as bad a sinner as the rest of the guys who really need a healthy preaching of the gospel, right? I would submit to you just the opposite is true. Those we think are “not far from the kingdom” are really farther than we think because they have convinced themselves they are not as bad as they really are, and therefore the good news for sinners is substituted for good advice for those who simply need a little self-help.
One look at Jesus’ approach to the moral man shows that He did not let off on the gospel but pressed them harder than any other. He knew that in order for them to be saved, the self-righteous would need severe jolting to get them out of their deception and darkness. And my friend, we do such persons no favor when we take the moral man in our church whom we think most “savable” and soft peddle the gospel. This is because in reality, he is the least likely to be saved. The church should be a place that comforts the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable, especially those take comfort in the words “peace, peace” when there is no peace (Jer. 6:14).
Inasmuch as sinners need to repent of their sin, the moral man needs to repent of his righteousness. And as a gospel community, it is important that we demonstrate a repenting community that is looking away from righteousness in ourselves and looking by faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ. If we are not seen as a gospel people marked by repentance and faith, then what will unbelievers have modeled before them?
We live in a day where seldom that repentance of sin is celebrated. How much less is repentance of self-righteousness? And the consequence of this is cultural Christianity inoculated to the gospel and society of do-gooders on the treadmill of religious performances in hopes of earning God’s approval. Non-Christians learn to play the Christian, dressing appropriately, learning the Christian shorthand speech, and becoming competent in sin management. Having the form of godliness but denying the power thereof, we have concluded those whom Jesus said have no hope of entering the kingdom (Matt. 5:20) to be not far from it. We have made it acceptable, if not cool, to live as Pharisees because we have been impressed by their behavior modifications and fail to realize they are full of dead men’s bones.
So my plea for us gospel loving Christians today is that we would be intolerant towards self-rigtheousness and call men committed to their morality to total abandonment regarding their self-salvation projects. It is a plea to celebrate repentance of both sin and self-righteousness and to press us all into a deeper appreciation of the gospel. Let us not be impressed by man’s attempts at goodness but call them to flee the wrath to come by resting in the one work that truly justifies–the work of the cross. Let’s not make it a comfortable place for modern-day Pharisees to express thanksgiving in their good works, but instead make it a comfortable place to repent of them.