The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
I have been reading Jerry Bridges’ The Disciplines of Grace, a wonderful book that takes a deep looking at God’s role and the Christian’s role in the pursuit of holiness. Chapter two, “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector,” is all about the need for a humble realization of our own sinfulness and the need for a grateful acceptance of God’s grace. Bridges says that these are two significant needs among committed Christians. However, Christians tend toward one of two opposite attitudes.
The first is a relentless sense of guilt due to unmet expectations in living the Christian life. People characterized by this mode of thinking frequently dwell on their besetting sins or on their failure to witness to their neighbors or to live up to numerous other challenges of the Christian life that are so often laid upon them.
The other attitude is one of varying degrees of self-satisfaction with one’s Christian life.
We can drift into this attitude because we are convinced we believe the right doctrines, we read the right Christian books, we practice the right disciplines of a committed Christian life, or we are actively involved in some aspect of Christian ministry and are not just “pew sitters” in the church.
I know people who live in each of those camps and, in fact, have bounced back and forth between them too many times.
Bridges turns to Luke 18:9-14 and the well-known story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, a story that compares and contrasts religious hypocrisy and true humility. The Pharisee was outwardly religious, doing and saying all the right things, but the tax collector was truly broken by his sinfulness. It was the tax collector who went home justified.
Bridges gives a bit of an “ouch” moment when he says, “We usually approach this story with the sense of approval that comes from reading about other people instead of ourselves.” He wants us to see that this story applies not only to unbelievers, but also to believers. After all, Jesus told the story to those who were confident in their own righteousness and that is something we are not immune to. “The sin of the Pharisee can become the sin of the most orthodox and committed Christian.”
How can a Christian become this kind of a religious hypocrite? By defining sin down, so to speak. While we may not succumb to the great and public sins of drunkenness or stealing or murder, we are prone to the “refined sins” (what in a later book he would refer to as “respectable sins”)—things like judgmentalism and critical speaking and pride. “We see the ever-increasing pervasiveness of these more flagrant sins, and we see ourselves looking good by comparison.” And yet we allow ourselves to be given over to those ugly, respectable sins.
Bridges then teaches about the seriousness of sin, showing the horror of even those refined sins, showing that they too are about defying God and rebelling against him. He shows that Christians are at once saints and sinners. “We really are new creations in Christ. A real, fundamental change has occurred in the depths of our beings. The Holy Spirit has come to dwell within us, and we have been freed from the dominion of sin. But despite this we still sin every day, many times a day. And in that sense we are sinners. We should always view ourselves both in terms of what we are in Christ, that is, saints, and what we are in ourselves, namely, sinners.”
And what do sinners need? They need the gospel. Having laid this kind of groundwork, Bridges is now ready to show how the gospel applies to the Christian life. That will be the subject of next week’s reading.
For next Thursday please read chapter three (assuming that you are reading along with me).
The purpose of this program is to read these books together. If you have something to say, whether a comment or criticism or question, feel free to use the comment section for that purpose.