Next Sunday is Reformation Sunday. We’ll give God thanks for the work of The Blessed Reformer, Dr. Luther, which has produced fruit in our lives. For you have been taught by his Catechism to believe you are saved not by what you do, but by faith in Him Who died for you upon The Cross, Jesus Christ your Lord. It is with that faith, without trust in anything you do, that you will go down to your house today justified.
That’s Jesus’ verdict on the Pharisee and the tax collector. The unrighteous tax collector was actually righteous, but the righteous Pharisee was actually unrighteous. One was humbled before God, the other was exalted before God. How can this be? It’s so not human thinking!
The Pharisee looked like the most righteous person of all time to all people, especially himself! He could tell he was absolutely perfect. He took nothing from no one. He did nothing wrong. He never cheated on his spouse. He never cheated on his nation either, which is what a Jewish tax collector was doing by collecting taxes for Rome from his fellow Jews. He kept all the rules of his Judaism right down to the letter, not just by tithing anything and everything, but by fasting every Tuesday and Thursday.
The tax collector looked like the most unrighteous person ever, and he knew it. He didn’t get close to God’s Altar like the Pharisee. He stayed far, far away. Plus he did something very unseemly: he beat his chest. And he didn’t look up to heaven, like they prayed in those days. He knew he was no good, so he just asked for the only thing he could: God’s mercy, that is, if God could have mercy on someone like him.
So what’s God’s response? Does He love someone who might as well call himself Mr. Perfect or someone who knows he’s anything but? He loves the second. The second knows he needs a Savior, but the first thinks he has no need to be saved from anything.
So what was Perfect doing? Deifying himself, worshipping himself as god. You pray to whatever you believe in, and the Greek actually says he was praying to himself. Even if he were praying to the true God, he really wasn’t thanking God for anything. If he were, He would have said, “Dear Lord, thank you for delivering me from all evil and for not allowing me to fall into temptation. Keep me steadfast in what is good and far from all wickedness and sin.” Instead he was just happy that by his own power he was special, unlike anybody in the whole world. Since he was the reason he was perfect, he didn’t need God to save him. He really thought he had no sins.
The tax collector was nothing like him. He knew he was a sinner. In fact, since he calls himself “The Sinner,” he’s saying he’s the worst sinner ever. He knew he deserved nothing from God but His eternal wrath and punishment. That’s why he was beating his chest; he was physically confessing his sinfulness and what he deserved because of it.
But there’s more to his prayer. Our translations have him ask God for mercy. That’s not what he’s saying. He’s asking for far more. Mercy could just be God not punishing him as much as He could. No, he’s asking for far more. He’s asking for a propitiation. He’s asking for his sins to be covered over so God can’t ever see them anymore. Was his prayer answered?
Yes! Jesus says he went home justified. What does that mean? Melanchthon explains this in Article III(:205) of The Apology. It means God acquitted that guilty person and declared him righteous because of the righteousness of another, namely Christ. He got it because he believed God would do the very thing he asked. What is Christ’s righteousness? Philipp says in Article XXI(:19) that it’s Christ’s merits – what He did for you and earned for you on The Cross.
That’s the message of The Evangelical-Lutheran Reformation. It’s not: “Worship Martin Luther.” It’s: “Confess your sins and believe in Christ if you wish to be saved.” That’s what Luther preached. That’s what caused The Reformation. It wasn’t loyalty to a charismatic individual. It was faith in what he preached, not because he was preaching it, but because it was, and still is, what Scripture teaches. Every preacher needs to preach this week in and week out.
So if you want to go to heaven, don’t be like the Pharisee. Don’t declare you don’t need God’s help to get in. Don’t even claim you only partly need God’s help. You can’t save yourself. You can’t begin to try. You can’t even make a step towards God, nor do you need Him to just do the first thing so you can do the rest. You need Him to do everything. You are a sinner. You can’t escape it on your own. You can’t do enough good to overcome it, so it’s not a matter of you outweighing bad with good. You need the good to replace the bad!
How can that happen? You need Christ to cover you with His Blood. That word in the Greek for mercy, for covering, for propitiation, is first used in the Old Testament Greek Bible for the mercy seat, the cover of The Ark of The Covenant. Every year on The Day of Atonement the high priest sprinkled blood on it and God no longer saw the sins of the people. This pointed ahead to Christ. St. John writes in his first Epistle, chapter 2: “If anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with The Father, Jesus Christ The Righteous. He is The Propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Christ Jesus shed His Blood for you. His Passion and Death are your salvation. The Blood He shed before Pilate, The Blood He shed on The Cross, His holy, precious Blood covers all your sins. God no longer sees them. He no longer holds them against you. Instead He sees what Jesus did for you. He declares you who believe in Him worthy of eternal life solely for that reason. For that reason, you who believe it will go home today justified. So how shall we respond? Cornelius Elven did it well when he penned these words, sadly not in our hymnal (TLH 323):
With broken heart and contrite sigh, A trembling sinner, Lord, I cry. Thy pardoning grace is rich and free – O God, be merciful to me!
I smite upon my troubled breast, With deep and conscious guilt opprest; Christ and His Cross my only plea – O God, be merciful to me!
Far off I stand with tearful eyes Nor dare uplift them to the skies; But Thou dost all my anguish see – O God, be merciful to me!
Nor alms nor deeds that I have done Can for a single sin atone. To Calvary alone I flee – O God, be merciful to me!
And when, redeemed from sin and hell, With all the ransomed throng I dwell, My raptured song shall ever be, God has been merciful to me.