Quite often, we get things plain backwards.
Many in the world – potentially millions and millions of people – and even some in the church, have a fundamentally backwards understanding of what Christianity really is, at its core. I call this colossal misconception a backwards understanding because it truly represents the reversal of everything Jesus taught in his life and accomplished through his death. Now, I realize that that’s a pretty broad and sweeping statement, but before I support it, let’s see how we got here.
Christians are known in and to the world today primarily for the things they do (support philanthropic efforts, read and believe in the sacred authority of the Bible, pray, defend the rights of the unborn, etc.), and even more for the things they don’t do – (advocate sex outside of marriage, support gay rights, drink (too much), etc.). This public perception, centered as it is on Christian behavior, has led many to believe that “belonging” to the Church is primarily about behavior. Many believers in Jesus Christ, even, subtly and tacitly affirm the notion that being a Christian is about doing good things, that the church is a group of people who do these good things, and that people outside of the church are, for the most part, people who don’t do good things. And here is where I must say: all of this is backwards.
The ministry and teaching of Jesus make this clear. Jesus didn’t come to gather and build a kingdom of “good” people – people with their stuff together, people who did and said the right things. Rather, Jesus came to build a kingdom of people who knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they didn’t have their stuff together and that they didn’t do and say the right things.
Take, for example, the story Jesus tells in Luke 18:9-14, the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector:
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 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. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 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!’ 14 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 clues us in to the meaning of this story with its introduction: this parable is told to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (18:9). In other words, it was told to self-righteous people. People who thought: 1) that being a part of God’s people meant being good and doing right things, and 2) that they were capable of doing right things well enough and often enough to be considered good. They trusted in their own ability and behavior, believing that such were enough to justify them – to give them a place among God’s people.
There’s much to be said against this attitude of self-righteousness – and its prevalence in the modern church, but here let’s simply note this: the self-righteous character in the parable (the Pharisee) is ultimately excluded from God’s people, while the self-consciously unrighteous character (the tax collector) is included. Why is this? The Pharisee, a fastidious observer of the Mosaic Law, thought he deserved God’s favor because of his righteousness; but the tax collector, aware of his sin, knew that his only hope was the grace and mercy of God.
Here is the great reversal – and the reason why much of our thinking about and practice of Christianity is backwards. We think that, if we are to truly belong to God’s people, we must behave like we belong. We think that our acceptance hinges on our performance. But that is because we simply don’t realize just how free God’s grace really is. God’s mercy isn’t earned, in any way – not even abject contrition or remorse over sin will merit God’s favor. The only thing you need to do to receive God’s grace is to understand just how desperately you need God’s grace. Note the attitude of the tax collector, which Jesus commends: “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!’” (18:13). Desperate for mercy, he knew that, based on his own merit, he stood apart from God’s people. And though he was a sinner, he “went down to his house justified” (18:14).
Pray with me that a rich vision of this free gospel grace will reform our naturally backwards thinking. And praise with me the Father, Son, and Spirit of this gospel-grace, who together justify and accept sinners like me, not because I’ve managed to get my act together – in any way, but simply because, by grace, I’ve learned how desperately I need grace.