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What Luther Says

True Humility: It's Not About What You Can Do For Jesus (The Parable of The Pharisee And The Tax Collector In Luke 18:9-14)

The passage from Luke 18:9-14 about The Pharisee And The Tax Collector is one of those parables that American Evangelicalism has traditionally used to burden believers. I should know from firsthand experience.

Luke 18:9-14 (ESV) 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.”

How has this parable been misinterpreted and misused?

The answer is Exhibit A when it comes to the Lutheran difference or the very thing that separates the Lutheran confession of "the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 1:3) from all the others.

In short? The answer is a proper distinction between Law and Gospel with Christ crucified at the center of it all. To put it another way, it's not about what you can do for Jesus, but about what Jesus has done and continues to do for you.

See, whenever I used to hear someone preach on this passage of the text, it would always be heavy on the Law, but it would never include any Gospel of Grace!

Actually, on second thought, it would include their version of "grace" which, ironically, was only more Law since Jesus was propped up as some kind of a "Model-For-Your-Life-For-You-To-Follow-On-The-Path-To-Christian-Moral-Behavior" (think: "What Would Jesus Do?" and the unbiblical teaching that any of us could ever be like Jesus let alone that we should try to be like Him). How arrogant of us! A "Theology of Glory" perhaps?

For instance, let's take a quick look at Luke 18:13 that says, "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!'"

Knowing his inadequacy before God, he seeks a God who saves rather than condemns.

Do you see the key difference? I hope so, because it's the Lutheran difference. Only the truly humble would pray for and receive God's forgiveness (Luke 18:4; Proverbs 15:33; Proverbs 16:18).

I really want to make sure this point isn't lost on anyone who might be reading this, because it's quite profound and I fear that I may not be all that qualified to do with God's Word what He intends to be done with it despite what Isaiah 55:11 tells us.

With that in mind, here's a 15-minute sermon from Pastor Paul Webber who serves at Hope Lutheran Church in West Jordan, UT.

There is a difference between humility that comes from us and the humility that comes from God. We can make ourselves humble only insofar as we see ourselves compared to others. The humility that comes from God is based on how we compare to what God demands of us in His law. God humbles us in His law, emptying us of pride in ourselves and our own merits, so that by the Gospel He can fill us with faith and pride in Christ and His merits.

Wasn't that fantastic?

In case you're still missing it (like I missed it for far too many years), here's what I'd like you to takeaway from Pastor Webber's sermon that speaks of "true humility" and gets to the heart of the matter or that which highlights the Lutheran difference in understanding what we are supposed to learn from this passage.

"Jesus had every reason to be prideful. Not only was He -- genuinely -- without sin, but He was also the eternally begotten Son of God, equal to the Father is substance, power, and glory. Yet, for our sakes, Jesus humbled Himself to be born in human flesh as one of us and then live His life according to the same laws and conditions as us. And Jesus did not just humble Himself and be born as living as one of us in our world, but He humbled Himself even further, and taking all of our sin, and all of our guilt onto Himself, and then burying it in His suffering and death on the cross. Jesus died to pay for the sins of every Pharisee and every Tax Collector. Jesus died to pay for your sins and you can know that they have been paid for, because Jesus did not just die, but He has risen, and He has now ascended to be at the right hand of God the Father. So for us, Jesus is not just another example; another divine illustration of the Law, which we are bound to follow drearily and unsuccessfully to our deaths. Jesus did not show us what we must now do. Jesus showed us -- and now His Gospel shows us -- what has been done for us, and now, by faith in us, to reconcile us to God both now and in eternity. This is why when we are asked how we know we are saved and we are forgiven our sins, and how we know we're gonnna go to heaven, we don't point to anything about ourselves or what we do, but we instead point to Jesus, His cross, as the proofs for what we believe and do as Christians. For Jesus' sake, God will not give us what we deserve. We know that some time in the future, when we see Jesus again, we'll be happy and we'll be at peace, but God's love and mercy is not just limited to the future. we have God's love, mercy, and forgiveness now, in those ways in which we're told about Jesus and are brought to faith in Him and all that He has done." 
[beginning at the 9:45 mark]

The Pharisee excludes himself from God's gift of righteousness, while the penitent Tax Collector embraces it. Today, beware of the complacency of measuring your own "goodness" against others. Measure yourself against God's standards only, be humbled by His Law that tells you that you are a sinner no matter how "good" or "not as bad as..." you think you are. Then repent.

Psalm 34:18 (ESV) The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.

Psalm 51:17 (ESV) The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Repent and pray for the forgiveness and mercy that is available to you through His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. God is ready to justify the worst of sinners by His generous grace in Christ.

"God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" Amen.

In a Lutheran layman's terms, true humility is not about what you can do for Jesus, but it's about repenting and recognizing (a.k.a. believing/confessing) what Jesus has already done for you (and continues to do for you!) through His life, death, and resurrection while receiving His gifts for you in His Word and Sacrament ministry.

NOTE: As you know, I am a newly converted Confessional Lutheran who recently escaped American Evangelicalism. That being said, please contact me ASAP if you believe that any of my "old beliefs" seem to have crept their way into any of the material you see published here, and especially if any of the content is not consistent with our Confessions and Lutheran doctrine (in other words, if it's not consistent with God's Word, which our Confessions merely summarize and point us back to) so that I can correct those errors immediately and not lead any of His little ones astray (James 3:1). Finally, please be aware that you might also discover that some of the earlier pieces I wrote on this blog back in 2013 definitely fall into that category since I was a "Lutheran-In-Name-Only" at the time and was completely oblivious to the fact that a "Book of Concord" containing our Confessions even existed. In addition, there are some entries that are a little "out there" so-to-speak since the subject matter was also heavy influenced by common Evangelical concerns/criticisms that aren't that big a deal for us Lutherans. I know that now and I'm still learning. Anyway, I decided to leave those published posts up on this website and in cyberspace only because we now have this disclaimer and only to demonstrate the continuing work of Christ and the Holy Spirit in my life (Hebrews 12:2; Philippians 1:6). Finally, please know that any time we engage in commenting on and/or interpreting a specific portion of the holy Scriptures, it will always follow the verse-by-verse notes from my Lutheran Study Bible unless otherwise noted. Thank you for stopping by and thank you in advance for your time, help, and understanding. Grace and peace to you and yours!


About JKR

Christian. Husband. Father. Friend.

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Thank you for visiting A Lutheran Layman! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question since we do not exercise censorship. We've seen a similar policy with other blogs and it's worth repeating: Please act as if you're a guest in my home, and we'll get along just fine. I think anyone would agree that the kind of back-and-forth that is characteristic of blogs/chat forums and social media is becoming tiresome for all of us. Still, we should confess, edify, and love (and contend and defend when needed). Bottom line? Search the Scriptures! Apply Acts 17:11 to anything and everything you find here and, if you do happen to disagree with something you find here (which is certainly ok), or think I'm "irresponsible" and "wrong" for writing it, then please refute my position by supporting yours with Scripture and/or the Confessions. I don't think that's an unreasonable request, especially for those who identify themselves as "Christians" here, right? Besides, Proverbs 27:17 tells us "Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another" and 2 Timothy 3:16 says, "all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." If you have an opinion that's great, I welcome it, but try to support it using God's Word. I mean, if the goal here is to help us all arrive at the truth of God's Word (myself included), then it should be easy to follow through on this one simple request (I'm talking to all you "Anonymous" visitors out there). Grace and peace to you and yours!

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