Justified only by faith in the God of mercy

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Sermon for Trinity 11

2 Samuel 22:21-29  +  1 Corinthians 15:1-10  +  Luke 18:9-14

I hope that, by now, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is firmly rooted in your hearts. We hear it year after year in the Gospel for this Sunday and it summarizes the Christian faith so simply that any child can understand it. In fact, children understand it far better than great theologians and pastors and synodical officials, as another Lutheran pastor is in the midst of finding out (we prayed for him by name last Sunday). Some people are justified before God; some are not. Who are the ones who are justified—considered and declared by God to be righteous and innocent in His sight? And who are not? That’s the subject of Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

He tells this parable in the first place because some of the Jews who were following Him still didn’t get it. Luke tells us that Jesus spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others. I hope you can see, right at the outset, how devastating that is and why Jesus had to attack it with this pride-shattering parable. To trust in yourself, to have faith in yourself, that you are good enough, that you have done enough to earn God’s favor and forgiveness—that’s a fatal mistake, a mistake that will forever keep you from being justified before God, for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled.

Jesus gives us an example of a man who exalted himself, before God and before men: the Pharisee in the parable. Now, in the world’s eyes, he may have had every reason to exalt himself—to lift himself up in his own eyes. As the Pharisee stands in the temple and prays, he sounds like a model citizen. He is no murderer, no thief, no adulterer. He’s also very religious; he fasts twice a week—a sign of devotion to God; he gives ten percent of his income to God, as God told the people of Israel to do. His works looked good enough for him to be justified before God.

But his heart was bad; Jesus reveals that to us. The Pharisee lifted himself up before God, as if he had earned God’s favor because of the good life he had led. He lifted himself up above other men, and certainly above the tax collector standing across the room. Indeed, he lifted himself up above all the saints—above Adam, above Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, above Moses, above David and all the prophets. Because all of them acknowledged their sin before God. All of them humbled themselves before God and looked to God, not for praise, but for forgiveness. All of them relied only on God’s mercy for their justification. As the Scripture says, for example, about Abraham: He believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness. Or as David wrote in Psalm 32: Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity, And in whose spirit there is no deceit. But there was deceit in the Pharisee’s spirit. He was deceiving himself, that he was righteous because of the good things he did. The truth is, even the good things he did weren’t good in God’s sight, because they didn’t flow from faith in God’s mercy. By exalting himself, the Pharisee was actually rejecting God’s Word that accused him of being a sinner. By exalting himself, the Pharisee was actually despising, hating the true God, who is a God of mercy and compassion toward sinners, not a God who pats sinners on the back and praises them for being such good people. As Jesus says, the Pharisee went down to his house not justified.

Then Jesus gives us an example of a man who humbled himself before God and before men: the tax collector who stood in the distance, beat his chest and simply prayed, God, be merciful to me a sinner! This was no mere show of humility. It was genuine. The tax collectors had a reputation of being swindlers, taking advantage of their neighbor and loving money more than God. Most of them probably never set foot in the temple, for fear that lightning would strike them because they were such bad people. Now, this tax collector may have done just as many bad things as his fellow tax collectors, but he was different; he did go up to the temple. Why? Because he recognized his sins and sought forgiveness. He trusted in the God of mercy, which means he must have heard the Gospel, because no one trusts in the God of mercy by nature. No one comes to repent of his sins and trust in God’s mercy toward sinners on his own, but only by hearing the Word. So he must have heard the word that God is merciful and that God will forgive all who confess their sins to him. That’s not surprising, because the Word of God was certainly preached in Israel, even in the very sacrifices that were offered in the temple itself, each one crying out, “God will provide a sacrifice to make atonement for sins. God will forgive the one who trusts in the blood of the sacrifice!” So he dared to go up to the temple. He dared to pray. He humbled himself before God, and God exalted him. God lifted him up. The tax collector went down to his house justified.

Dear Christians, you and I know that God has now, once and for all, provided the sacrifice that makes atonement for sins. He has given His Son, who shed His holy, precious blood on the cross so that all who have sinned may wash their filthy robes and make them white in the blood of Christ. In other words, so that sinners may approach the God of mercy in faith and receive forgiveness for all their sins. We approach the God of mercy, the Throne of Grace, first in Holy Baptism, and then continually in the pastor’s absolution and in the Sacrament of the body and blood of Christ. Here is where God has promised to be merciful, and that promise inspires and creates faith. Paul reminded the Corinthians of that Gospel in today’s Epistle: I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.

Like the Corinthians, you have received that Gospel, too. You were baptized into it. You confess it here every week. You know that you have been justified by faith in Christ Jesus, and that faith is the only means by which sinners are justified, because your works aren’t good enough. You aren’t good enough. But God doesn’t justify those who are good enough. He justifies those who humble themselves and rely only on His mercy for the sake of Christ.

Now, is that a license to go out and keep on sinning? Of course not! You’ve died to sin. How could you live in it any longer? No, those who trust in the God of mercy are pleasing to God by faith. They are good trees that bear good fruit. They are branches in the vine that is Christ. And as Christ says, He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.

So being justified by faith doesn’t mean you don’t do good works or that God doesn’t expect you to do good works. It means that you don’t rely on those works to be justified. It means that you always and only approach God on the basis of His mercy in Christ and never because you think you have been righteous enough to earn His favor. That’s why David could pray as you heard him pray in the First Lesson today: The LORD rewarded me according to my righteousness; According to the cleanness of my hands He has recompensed me. For I have kept the ways of the LORD, And have not wickedly departed from my God…I was also blameless before Him, And I kept myself from my iniquity. Therefore the LORD has recompensed me according to my righteousness, According to my cleanness in His eyes. At first, that sounds kind of like the Pharisee’s prayer in Jesus’ parable, where he speaks of his own righteousness before God. But there’s a night and day difference between the two, and it lies in the heart. As the Scriptures reveal about David, he didn’t rely on his own record of righteousness as if it earned God’s favor, like the Pharisee, as if he didn’t first need God’s forgiveness to be righteous before God. No, David confesses over and over his need for God’s mercy. But as a believer in God, David did act righteously when he went up against his enemies, including King Saul who wickedly kept trying to kill David. And so God lifted David up above his enemies and gave him the victory. David was righteous by faith, and for that reason he sought to live a righteous life before the God in whom he trusted.

There’s a warning in today’s Gospel that we all need to hear, because even though we’ve been born again by water and the Spirit in the new life of faith in the God of mercy, our natural tendency is to revert to our natural state of trusting in ourselves and our righteousness. The devil would soon have you convinced that you are saved because you are so much better than others, to have you pray like the Pharisee: “God, I thank you that I do not support abortion, or practice homosexuality, or defend illegal immigration. I give generous offerings to church and I loudly proclaim that ‘all lives matter.’ I thank you, God, that I am not like other men—immoral, indecent, liberal.” Watch out for that natural tendency. You stand by faith and only by faith, not by being so much better than the next guy.

But there is great comfort in the Gospel for you who, like the tax collector, recognize that you have no reason to stand before God except that God has revealed Himself as merciful and forgiving for the sake of Christ. You are the ones who confess your sins, who plead, “God be merciful to me a sinner!” You are the ones who receive the body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sins. And so you can be confident that you are the ones who will go home, again today, justified. In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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