The Heidelberg Catechism: Lord's Day 24
62. Question: But why can our good works not be our righteousness before God, or at least a part of it?
Answer: Because the righteousness which can stand before God's judgment must be absolutely perfect and in complete agreement with the law of God, whereas even our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.
 Deut. 27:26; Gal. 3:10.  Is. 64:6.
63. Question: But do our good works earn nothing, even though God promises to reward them in this life and the next?
Answer: This reward is not earned; it is a gift of grace.
 Matt. 5:12; Heb. 11:6.  Luke 17:10; II Tim. 4:7, 8.
64. Question: Does this teaching not make people careless and wicked?
Answer: No. It is impossible that those grafted into Christ by true faith should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness.
 Matt. 7:18; Luke 6:43-45; John 15:5.
Index of Spiritual Indicators
In the early 1960's, the U.S. Bureau of the Census came out with what was called, the "Index of Leading Economic Indicators." The Bureau chose 11 indicators of the American economy and used them to interpret current business developments and to predict future economic trends.
In 1993, William Bennett released what he called, the Index of Leading Cultural Indicators. His goal was to examine the moral, social, and behavioral conditions of modern America. It showed, for example, in 1960 there were 288,000 violent crimes committed. In 1991, there were 1,900,000 violent crimes committed. He revealed the average SAT score in 1960 was 975, and in 1992, the average score was 899. That’s just a sampling of what he examined in his study.
Then, in 1996, another index came out. This one was done by George Barna, who is a famous pollster of religious statistics. His little book was called, The Index of Leading Spiritual Indicators.
Here were some of Barna’s findings 20 years ago:
Perhaps one of the most disturbing statistics was this,
"most Americans believe that ...salvation is an outcome to be earned through their good character or behavior. …Six out of ten people (57%) believe that ‘if a person is generally good, or does enough good things for others during their lives, they will earn a place in heaven.’"
Barna then reported, "this perspective has remained constant throughout the 90's." His present research has revealed this statistic hasn’t changed much. This figure means at least 57% of Americans are relying on themselves for their eternal life. And yet, as staggering as that figure is, it’s really not new. It really isn’t much different from what Jesus experienced in his day. In fact, it was because of this mindset Jesus told the parable in Luke 18:9-14.
The Pharisee and Tax Collector
Jesus must have lost some brownie points with the Pharisees when he told this parable. Why? Because the Pharisees made it their life's mission to live exemplary moral and religious lives. In fact, they were so concerned about how they lived, they wouldn't even walk by someone they considered a sinner. They would literally cross to the other side of the road to avoid being near them.
Along comes Jesus. He spoke directly to those "who were confident of their own righteousness" and those "who looked down on everybody else..."(v.9) (Emphasis mine)
"Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector." (verse 10)
This was an extreme contrast. The Pharisees were regarded as holy men. These were men who worked hard at being righteous. Then there was the tax collector. Few people were regarded lower than the tax collector. The Jews despised tax collectors in that day because they were seen as Jewish traitors to the Roman government.
It was in that context Jesus declared,
"The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men - robbers, evildoers, adulterers-- or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'" (verses 11-12)
Do you see what's going on? We observe this Pharisee talking about how wonderful he is. He’s showing off his spiritual resume. He's listing for God, just in case God was too busy to notice, all his marvelous accomplishments. He seems to be saying, “Just look here, Lord: I tithe, I go to church, I fast. What a good boy am I."
Then Jesus shows us the tax collector’s mindset. Jesus states,
"But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God have mercy on me, a sinner.'" (verse 13)
There he was, a tax collector, in all his misery. He had come to a place in his life where he realized only God could save him. Thus, he asked God for his mercy and sought forgiveness for being a sinner. This was true faith and repentance.
A Justified Man
Then, in verse 14, Jesus concluded with these words:
"I tell you the truth, this man (the tax collector), went down to his house "justified" rather than the other, for everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted." (verse 14)
Jesus teaches that at that moment of faith and repentance, the tax collector went to his house a justified man. What does it mean to be justified? Justification answers this question:
How can a sinful person be made right (or brought into a right relationship) with a perfect and holy God?
According to Barna’s statistics, 57% of Americans would answer the way the Pharisee did, by pointing out all their good works and drawing attention to their worthiness.
In contrast to that sort of mindset, Jesus plainly shows us it’s only through the humility of the tax collector that we can be right with God. This is how we apply or receive God’s free offer of grace. By humbling himself before God in faith and repentance, the tax collector was immediately justified, Jesus tells us. His justification (or, being declared righteous) was immediate. There were no good works he needed to do first.
Therefore, to be right with God, or to be justified – to be saved – involves two things.
First of all, there’s the need to repent. As you’ve discovered in your own life, you must recognize you have sinned before you will ask for forgiveness. It’s similar to discovering you are sick before you decide to go to the doctor to get better. If you don’t know you’re sick, you probably won’t go to the doctor.
My Dog Max
That is why God does not hesitate in the pages of Scripture to let us know we’re fallen and broken individuals. Scripture clearly says we owe an impossible debt because of sin. Yet not everyone recognizes this debt. Not everyone realizes they are lost in sin. Certainly the Pharisee didn't realize it. He was too caught up in how good he thought he was. Sadly, there are many people who are like my dog Max was the day he got lost.
Max was a great dog. I got Max while I was serving my first church. We basically saved each other. I found him as a puppy at the Humane Society and saved him from an uncertain future. He saved me from loneliness as I was a single pastor at the time.
The day after the East Coast experienced what became known as, the "Storm of the Century," Max and I visited my parents who live in Northeast Florida. Max loved to run around their backyard. Since it was fenced in, I would let him stay out there for long periods of time. On this particular day, my parents and I decided to run some errands and I didn’t think twice about letting Max stay in the backyard. About two-and-a-half hours later we got back home, only to discover Max was missing. Unbeknownst to us, part of the fence had blown over because of the storm.
I called and called for Max but there was no response. I looked all around their neighborhood, but there was no sign of Max anywhere. He was lost. I began to panic. It was a Friday afternoon, at rush hour, and my parents live near a road, which even on a slow day, is very busy. Max didn't know his way around and I got really worried.
I decided I needed to get into my truck and drive around some of the neighborhoods near my parents’ house. After what seemed like hours, I finally made my way to the neighborhood directly behind the woods which were behind my parents’ house. I drove up and down the streets of the neighborhood very slowly, calling out for Max. No luck. Suddenly, as I pulled down the last street of the neighborhood, I saw something that caught my eye.
There were some kids down the street, throwing a stick to a dog. As I got closer and closer, I recognized who it was. It was Max! I had been scared to death because he was lost, and the kids told me he had been there for about 30 minutes, playing catch with them. He was having a great time! I was searching high and low for my lost dog and he was playing around. He didn't even know he was lost, and yet he was.
Scripture teaches us that in our fallen condition, we’re a lot like Max. We’re lost in sin, and yet, left to ourselves, we don't even know it.
That’s why we need God’s prevenient grace, which we looked at in the last chapter. This is the grace which awakens us to our need for Christ and draws us to God. Jesus declares the good news is that when we humbly recognize and admit our sinfulness and indebtedness to God, like the tax collector, we’ll be forgiven. This is only able to happen because of God’s justifying or saving grace.
It’s the grace of God that enables us to say yes to what God has done for us in Christ. It enables us to remove our trust in ourselves and place it in Christ alone. In a manner of speaking, this is what happened to the tax collector. He wasn't puffed up with a false sense of accomplishment. He knew very well what his place was before a perfect and holy God. That’s why he threw himself on the mercy of God.
Secondly, we're called to place our trust, or faith, in God as he has revealed himself through his Son, Jesus Christ.
Even though the Pharisee practiced all the rules of morality and lived a very religious life, he wasn’t right with God. All of his acts were just that - acts. They were external behaviors. They looked good from the outside, but there was no concern about a proper inward attitude and motivation of the heart. His good works weren’t done out of a sense of gratitude or obedience to God. He wasn’t living that way for God's glory but for his own. It was almost as though he practiced all of his good deeds so he could brag about how good he was. It was in the midst of his boasting that he revealed his sins of pride, arrogance and self-reliance. He didn't realize God not only looks at the outward things, but also at the heart, the inward things. God cares about why you do what you do.
The tax collector acknowledged his total dependence upon God's mercy. He knew he couldn’t save himself.
There's only one person who ever lived a perfect and sinless life, and that's Jesus Christ. Faith means trusting in his life of perfect obedience to God's will. It means completely depending on Christ's death on the cross for the cleansing of your sins. That’s why saving faith isn’t based on anything we’ve done or could ever do. It’s about trusting God and the saving work of Jesus Christ.
Head and Heart
Picture a man who's just fallen off a cliff. As he falls to his certain death, he reaches out in desperation and grabs a small limb. He knows the limb won't hold him very long, but he's hanging on for dear life. As he looks up he sees how steep the cliff is and he knows he could never climb up. As he looks down, he sees the jagged peaks just waiting for the inevitable. He begins to panic.
Suddenly he sees an angelic figure floating above him. And so he screams, “Save me! Save me!"
"Do you believe I can save you?" the angel asks. The man sees the powerful wings and the mighty arms, so he says: "Yes, I believe you can save me." "Do you believe I will save you?" the angel asks. The man sees the compassionate, merciful face of the angel, and so he cries out, "Yes, yes, I believe!"
"Well then," the angel says: "Let go!" Still hanging on for dear life, the man yells back: "Is there anybody else up there?!" (Ken Boa, I'm Glad You Asked)
Brothers, there’s no use having the right information, or even believing it’s true, if you don’t put your personal trust in what you know.
When my youngest son was two years old, my wife took him to the YMCA for swimming lessons. Usually my wife would get into the water first and then call to my son to jump to her. He was able to plainly see her standing there in front of him. He knew she could catch him. More than that, even at two years of age, he knew she loved him and would catch him. But if he never jumped to her he would have revealed he wasn’t really committed to that knowledge. He had to jump.
The tax collector turned his back on his sin and turned his face toward God as he sought forgiveness. He placed his trust in God. The Pharisee spent his time giving God his spiritual resume, telling God how wonderful and religious he was. He trusted himself.
Which one are you, the Pharisee or the tax collector?
Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. Do everything in love.