Luke 18:9-14, Be Unencumbered by Self-Righteousness

[October 27, 2013] Today we will not only consider the passage of Luke in which Jesus compares the self-righteousness of a particular Pharisee at prayer and the humility of a particular tax-collector, but also the origin of the so-called Reformation of the church in the 1500s.

Context (Luke 17:20—18:8)

In chapter 17 Jesus spoke to the Pharisees of the temporary presence of the kingdom of God in their midst—by His personal presence among them—and then turned to His disciples and spoke of how this was soon to end by His rejection. The world would continue to reject them (He and His disciples) until His sudden revelation (like lightning) when the chosen—if they are ready—would be delivered and the rest of the world would be destroyed. On that day, the chosen—like the company of Noah and Lot—must be ready to let go of everything and not be like Lot’s wife who looked back and became a pillar of salt. They must not try to keep their soul but instead lose it.

Until that day comes, the chosen—namely Jesus’ disciples—will be like a widow who cries out day and night to her defender. They will continue to be harassed by the “generation” that crucified their Lord. The believers’ defender is the Judge of all and He will not delay longer than He must, but when He is ready will give them justice suddenly.

Having Humility in Prayer (18:9-14)

However, they must not be like those “who trust in themselves that they are righteous, and view others with contempt” (I changed the tense). The comparison is with the Pharisees, obviously, but probably was spoken to His disciples who showed the same tendency, and therefore we can assume that the tendency is endemic and that we ourselves are likely guilty of it was well.

So Jesus tells a parable, which in this case is an example representing a type (otherwise, there is nothing symbolic about the story). Even as a type, it does not represent all Pharisees any more than it represents all tax collectors. Many Pharisees were humble and most tax collectors unrepentant. However, there were notorious examples of Pharisees in the Galilean countryside who fit this description, and there were tax collectors who came to Jesus seeking repentance.

The story takes place not in a local synagogue but in the Jerusalem Temple where people could pray at all times. The Pharisee in the story reeks of self-righteousness. He stands (aorist passive participle) and prays with (pros) himself, meaning that he stood by himself in his customary place. His “prayer” congratulates himself, first by saying what he does not do—things forbidden by the Torah—and then what he does above and beyond what is demanded by the Torah. He does not ask for anything, though the assumption is that he seeks vindication that he is right with God, that is, “justification” (dikaiosunē, verse 14). Notice that his “prayer” consists of thanksgiving, in which he credits God—not himself—with his being better than other human beings (perhaps thanking God for his election). Also notice that the words he says are for God’s ears alone; they are not said in order to impress others. These are things that he thought in his heart.

The tax collector stands (perfect active participle)—the verb indicates that he was not accustomed to being there—some distance away, away from the Pharisee, away from the altar where the propitiatory sacrifices were done, and perhaps even away from the other worshipers. He was unwilling to lift his eyes for guilt or shame, and beat his breast (see Luke 23:48) for grief, sad at what he had become. The words of his prayer were simply, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” The article in front of “sinner” does not mean he was comparing himself to others as worse than they were, but that he was simply considering himself before God—he is the sinner. (By contrast, the entire prayer of the Pharisee consisted of a comparison of himself with others.)

Obviously the Pharisee thought his vindication before God (justification), thanks to God for all God’s good work on him, consisted in God making him better than others. The tax collector did not look for vindication, for he could see no works that would have any merit before God, but pleaded only for mercy. He was a sinner, without any credit, and apart from God’s pure mercy he had no hope at all.

Yet, Jesus says, the Pharisee was not vindicated (or justified); instead the tax collector was—not vindicated but—justified (considered right before God). Why? After all, the Pharisee was probably telling the truth when he reported that he had no “sins” to account for but had many works of superogation (above and beyond what God required), and the tax collector was probably right to feel guilty and ashamed.

Apparently the Pharisee was missing the one thing that was necessary for justification and the tax collector had it. The Pharisee compared himself to others, in his own estimation (though according to the objective standards of the Torah) but the tax collector stood alone before God. The Pharisee saw himself as avoiding God’s judgment while the tax collector saw himself as under it. The Pharisee had no humility before God but acted as if God owed him; the tax collector put himself into God’s hands with fear and trembling. The Pharisee was not really aware of God; even when he gave thanks to God he was comparing himself to others. The tax collector seemed to be well aware of God and had an inkling of God’s holiness. The word he uses for mercy is to be propitious; he was aware of the altar that addressed human waywardness, and appealed to God’s mercy in view of God’s apparent willingness to provide it. But he never presumed it.

Not in this parable, but in the Christian life, there is a place for the assurance of forgiveness. For example, in the gospels when Jesus tells someone that they are forgiven, there is no virtue in their doubting or arguing with His word.

Granted, this is only a snap shot and not the whole picture. Yet it is a picture of the hearts of these two men as they stood before God. We know not whether the Pharisee was hypocritical nor if the tax collector changed his ways. However, at that moment, while they were at prayer, both of them being sincere, it was the tax collector (like Abel) whose prayer was received and who was considered right before God. The Pharisee’s prayer (like Cain’s offering) was rejected, and all the things he avoided and all the good things he did did not gain him righteousness in God’s sight; they did not vindicate his claim.

The lesson is that “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Whenever Christians pray, they ought to be like this tax collector. This is the corrective to the widow in the previous parable who prayed for vengeance against her adversary. Such a prayer can be right—prayed not against human adversaries but spiritual ones—only if it is prayed with humility, and the recognition that we ourselves are under God’s judgment in this world.

This humility is further taught in 18:15-17. Not only must we be unencumbered by self-righteousness but also by our dependence on wealth, or material security (18:18-30). Thus unencumbered, we will be ready when the Son of Man is revealed and will not be tempted to look back and hold on (17:30-33). The Pharisee in this parable held onto his own good works. This too is a weight and an attachment of which we need to let go.

What do I mean that we are under God’s judgment? Are not Christians forgiven their sins? And do they not have the assurance of forgiveness? Yes. However, there are two things to consider: as long as we live in this world we stand under the same judgment as everyone else, suffering the same misfortunes and death as they do, and before God we are also under God’s judgment, a judgment that is borne, however, by our Savior. The judgment is real, but it is borne by Jesus. We are still sinners, and as such we are condemned. However, we are also forgiven (our condemnation is taken on—borne—by Christ), and we are justified—meaning that God sees us not only as forgiven but as having the same righteousness as Christ. The righteousness of Christ consists of His obedience in bearing our judgment, and the judgment of the whole world. We are given His righteousness when God breathes into us the Holy Spirit, and insofar as Christ dwells in us we are constituted righteous with His righteousness (reflected in our becoming in this world like He was). The judgment of God against us does not disappear, you see; it is borne by Christ. We can never not be thankful for the forgiveness of our sins and for the righteousness given to us. We have no righteousness of our own in which we can rest. Our resting place is only in Christ, indeed, in God—Whose love and goodness saves us.

This is a central truth recovered by the Reformation.

The Reformation

The Reformation, like all things in history, is a complicated story and we cannot tell it in a few minutes. It had precedents, but without any doubt it hinged upon one man, Martin Luther. Certainly the course of the world was profoundly changed by this one individual. More than anything else it was his faith that made this difference.

Born in 1483 he entered university in 1501 and graduated as master of arts in 1505. He suffered a profound anxiety about his own sinfulness before God. That same year, after the sudden death of a classmate and a narrow escape from lightning, he became an Augustinian monk, certain that it would lead to his salvation.

The Augustinian monastic order made much of preaching and Bible study, and like Augustine, stood firmly against Pelagianism. Luther was ordained a priest in 1507, graduated as a bachelor of theology from the University of Wittenberg in 1509, and became a doctor of theology and the university professor of the Bible in 1512. He then began a series of exegetical lectures on the Psalms, Romans, Galatians and Hebrews, made himself familiar with all of medieval theology and the new humanistic scholarship, and proved himself a first-rate scholar and brilliant theologian. In 1512 he was appointed director of studies in his own monastery and in 1515 he was appointed the district vicar in charge of eleven monasteries. He also preached regularly, first in his own monastery from 1511 and then in the Wittenberg parish church from 1514.

Yet in spite of his accomplishments, he found no peace of soul. His studies gradually led him, by the time he was lecturing on Romans, to the realization that salvation is a new relationship to God based not on any human work of merit but on absolute trust in the divine promise of forgiveness for Christ’s sake. The law of God, he came to see, existed to humble us. The Gospel shows that God justifies the ungodly through faith apart from works. The redeemed person, while not ceasing to be a sinner, is nevertheless freely and fully forgiven, and from this new and joyous relationship with God in Christ flows the new life of willing conformity to God’s will. Faith, as the firm trust of the heart in God’s mercy for Christ’s sake, is active in works of love. Our salvation does not depend on such works; rather, these works are the result of gratitude for salvation already assured. Love is thus the spontaneous fruit of faith, not the condition for our acceptance before God. Faith, then, not love, is what unites the soul to God. This was Luther’s discovery.

Salvation is thus having a right personal relationship to God. The ground and pledge of this right relationship is the unmerited mercy of God shown in the sufferings of Christ on our behalf. Christ has borne our sins and we in turn have Christ’s righteousness imputed to us, and, on this basis, in faith, we enter into a lively union with Christ. This is entirely the gift of God to humble, self-accusing sinners, and not any sort of work in which we have a part.

In early September of 1517 Luther published ninety-seven theses attacking the whole of medieval Scholasticism as Pelagian. He came to these conclusions gradually from the time he began his lectures on the Psalms in 1513. It was not until 1519, however, that he consistently taught that the sinner is justified before God by faith alone—by absolute dependence on and trust in the Gospel of free forgiveness.

On October 31, 1517, Luther published the famous “Ninety-five Theses” against the abuse of indulgences. They were written in Latin and intended for academic debate, and were far less inflammatory than his earlier theses, questioning only the extension of indulgences to purgatory. They implied that the pope would repudiate the present practices once he was informed of them.

Repentance, Luther taught, was not a single act but a constant change of heart and mind over a lifetime. The Christian seeks rather than avoids divine discipline. The true treasure of the church was not the excess merits of Christ and the saints delegated by the pope and the sacerdotal system but “the most holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God” freely offered to repentant sinners by faithful preachers.

As a result, Luther was charged with heresy in 1518 and in April he defended himself with the Heidelberg Theses, in which he argued against free will and the dominance of Aristotle in theology, and outlined his theology of the cross. Luther thought the pope would agree with him. He was summoned to Rome. His prince, Elector Frederick, knowing what would happen if he went to Rome, managed to get him a hearing in October in Augsburg instead. There Luther was ordered to retract and he refused. He was able to flee back to Wittenberg. In November the pope issued a bull defining indulgences in the sense that Luther condemned.

Already Luther rejected the inerrancy and final authority of the pope, and now he proclaimed the fallibility of general councils. This implied a break with the entire medieval system of authority and seemed to allow final appeal to the Scriptures alone. A papal bull condemning this position was issued in June of 1520.

By May of 1520 Luther was proclaiming that only faith can make the sinful conscience confident before God and liberate the will for unfeigned love of one’s neighbors. He also insisted on the essential goodness of ordinary life and its occupations as opposed to the ascetic flight from the world of monasticism. 1520 was also the year Luther published other works calling for reform. These works had a profound impact.

In April of 1521 Luther was summoned and appeared before the emperor and the Reichstag in Worms. He was asked to recant his books. He asked for time for reflection, and the next afternoon he appeared before them. He acknowledged that he might have expressed himself too strongly against persons but he was not willing to recant the substance of what he wrote—unless he was convinced of its wrongfulness “by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason.” He alienated the emperor but made a favorable impression on Frederick. Nevertheless, a month later he was formally put under the ban of the empire, and the order went out that he was to be seized for punishment and his books burned. This ban was never abrogated.

Frederick had Luther seized by friendly hands as he journeyed home from Worms and brought secretly to the Wartburg castle, where he was hidden. There he was able to write. His attack on Roman practice intensified, but his most important fruit was his translation of the New Testament, which he began in December of 1521 and published in September of 1522. His translation was from the Greek (instead of the Vulgate) and it was idiomatic and readable. The Wittenberg city government appealed to Luther to return and in March, 1522 he was back in city.

After this the Reformation spread in all the territories of Germany and in Scandinavia. To many Luther seemed like a halfway reformer. A more radical reformation developed in Germany, Switzerland, Moravia, the Palatinate, the Netherlands, Friesland, Prussia, and Poland among those we now call the Anabaptists. Zwingli became active in Switzerland, beginning in 1522. Calvin converted between 1532 and 1534, considering himself a Lutheran, and had considerable influence in France, the Netherlands, Scotland, England, and even in Poland, Hungary and southwestern Germany. He was most active in the 1550s.

The Reformation in England took place gradually, extending from the reigns of Henry VIII (1509-1547) to that of Elizabeth I (1558-1603). It was largely an act of state, imposed from above. The Scottish Reformation was also largely political, tied to Scottish independence, taking place mostly in the 1560s under the influence of John Knox, who died in 1572. Zwingli died in 1531, Luther in 1546, and Calvin in 1564.

The [Magisterial] Reformation aimed at reforming church doctrine. The Radical Reformation (the Anabaptists, today’s Amish, Mennonites and Hutterites) aimed at reforming the Christian individual and corporate life. Balthaser Hubmaier died in 1528, Jacob Hutter in 1536 and Menno Simons  (the Anabaptist leader) in 1561, just to give you an idea (there were many leaders). The Catholic Counter-Reformation was an attempt to define the Roman church over against Protestantism, and in the process it effected many reforms of its own. The 1500s is when the Western Church divided and splintered; creating a chaos from which it has still not recovered. The splintering that we still see going on today started at that time. Nevertheless, the Western Church and its heirs in the churches of the global South is still—in my view—one whole. As we move into the twenty-first century, I hope we will find that the Eastern Churches (Byzantine, Coptic and Eastern) and the Western Church are also one whole. As our argumentativeness and divisiveness allowed the loss of a great deal of global Christianity (perhaps half, if not more!) in the early Medieval period—to militant Islam—so may our unity allow us to recover it, pending the Lord’s return. It will require of us a great deal of love and humility (and shared scholarship), and it will not be easy. May God’s will be done.

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