He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But 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!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
One of my colleagues, John Currid, preached a convicting message from this parable at RTS-Charlotte on Tuesday. (I hope the audio will eventually become available at RTS on iTunes U.) Quoting from Spurgeon and McCheyne, among others, he reminded us that pride, fueled by human accolades, is often a besetting sin for ministers of the gospel.
It brought to mind (by way of contrast) a few times I’ve heard this parable expounded in such a way as to undermine its very point. In those renderings, the Pharisee stands for “them” (those self-righteous religious folk, trusting in their own good works) and the tax collector stands for “us” (good evangelical Protestants who trust in Christ alone for justification). By the end of the message one could barely resist praying, “God, I thank you that I am not like that Pharisee!”
It’s quite possible to preach the the doctrine of justification by faith alone in such a way as to practically contradict it. Ironically, Reformed churches may be most vulnerable to this error, simply because they (rightly) place such emphasis on that doctrine “by which the church stands or falls” (as Luther famously put it). We fall into the trap of taking pride in our celebration of a doctrine that repudiates all pride!
But one implication of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, which perhaps needs to be emphasized in Reformed settings, is that we aren’t justified by the doctrine itself. We aren’t justified by faith in the doctrine of justification by faith alone! We’re justified by faith in Christ alone. That is the precious, glorious truth of the doctrine. We don’t put our trust in any good works, including our good doctrinal works. Recognizing our utter spiritual bankruptcy, we look wholly outside ourselves to the perfect sufficient atoning work of Jesus Christ.
Is this theological nit-picking? No, I think it makes all the difference in the world. It’s the difference between anti-Phariseeism and inverted Phariseeism.
Happy Reformation Day!