The tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” – Luke 18:13
One of our world’s great tragedies is that churches sometimes perpetrate falsehoods about God. This happens whenever a person or an institution confuses the gospel of grace with religious routine.
Perhaps you’ve heard before, or have been given the impression, that what you need to do is get yourself as fit as you possibly can in order to approach God: that God will not accept you unless you come acceptably to Him, unless you have something good you can show for yourself. Nothing could be further from the truth! All the fitness that God requires is that you see and confess your need of Him.
By our very nature, we do not see our need for God. Instead, we resist Him: “No one seeks for God … No one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:11-12). It is therefore a great and glorious experience when suddenly, perhaps taking even ourselves by surprise, we find ourselves saying, You know, this wonderful offer of salvation in Jesus is exactly the thing that I need. To see, to know, to feel, and to experience the depth of our insufficiency and then begin to see the light of God’s mercy is nothing short of a miracle.
When Jesus told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector who came to the temple, He had exactly this sort of humble self-recognition in mind. The Pharisee pleads his righteousness and is proud that he is “not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). The tax collector, however, takes an utterly different approach. He has no confidence in himself and no sense that he deserves an audience with a holy God. All he can muster are these precious words: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And yet it is this man, the tax collector, who Jesus says “went down to his house justified, rather than the other” (v 14).
This parable is a wonderful invitation to those of us who know we have messed up in life. It is also a great challenge to those of us who have been Christians for years—for the devil loves to point us to our good works and suggest that we now deserve acceptance from God. As the religious expert, the Pharisee should have known better, but his religious uprightness blinded him to grace. Don’t be fooled as he was. In the end, all that you ever bring to God is an empty cup for Him to fill. You are never anything other than a sinner in need of mercy—but you need never be anything other than that, for God loves to be merciful to sinners. Come freely. Come with empty hands. Come without worry. He has mercy for you.
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