This Sunday I’m preaching on Luke 18:9-14, the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The villain of the parable, of course, is the Pharisee, who turns up his nose at the pitiable tax collector, saying, “I thank you, God, that I’m not like him,” among other sinners. And we want to throw stones at the Pharisee. How can he be so self-righteous?
Oh, please! I’m just like the Pharisee, with one small exception: As a good Protestant, I believe that everyone, Pharisee and tax collector alike, must be saved by grace alone through faith alone. Once this happens, however—once we are justified and experience new birth through the Spirit—it’s back on the clock for you and me. It’s back to trying harder, to working harder, to proving ourselves to God all over again.
By all means, the balance sheet was zeroed out when we got saved, but every new sin puts us back in the red, and God’s patience is wearing thin. The “clean slate” that we received when we first placed our faith in Jesus is getting filthier by the minute!
We were like this tax collector at one time… But now that we know better, we are without excuse! So thank God we’re not like him anymore!
Am I exaggerating? Barely!
I think all Christians face this temptation to self-righteousness, but I wonder if it isn’t more acute within Wesleyan Christianity: We’re the ones, after all, who place a greater emphasis on sanctification, on the inward change made possible by the Holy Spirit, than other Protestant traditions. We are not monergists, unlike our Calvinist brethren; we are synergists. We believe Christians willfully participate in our sanctification—even though that participation is also only made possible by God’s grace.
My point is, Wesleyan Christianity tends toward the works righteousness of the Pharisee (not that it ought to, or that it needs to, but that it tends to). I think Wesley himself sees this tendency in his commentary on Luke 18:12. Of the Pharisee’s prayer, he writes: “the sum of this plea is, I do no harm: I use all the means of grace: I do all the good I can.”
Did you catch that? If you’re not a Methodist, you probably don’t recognize that Wesley is saying, in so many words, that the Pharisee is following Wesley’s own “General Rules”! 1) Do no harm. 2) Do good. 3) Attend to the ordinances of God (another way of saying “use the means of grace”).
It’s as if Wesley recognized the danger of turning even the General Rules into “the Law”!
In my own case, this self-righteousness doesn’t hold others in contempt so much as it holds myself in contempt—for the reasons I cite above! “What’s my problem? Why aren’t I a better person? Why am I still struggling with sin?” In other words, why am I not keeping the Law successfully?
So the Law ends up condemning me all over again; it’s as if I’m back where I started without Christ! “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
With this in mind, I’m so grateful for the people at Mockingbird. I’ve already sung their praises recently, but their reflections on the classic Lutheran distinction between Law and Gospel is absolutely what I need to hear right now.
Already, I can anticipate the objection: Yes, but the Lutheran tendency is in the opposite direction: toward antinomianism, toward moral laxity, toward “sinning more so that grace may abound.”
I believe that’s true as a tendency. (I’m still a Wesleyan, after all.) But the Mockingbird people are unpersuaded, as they explain here. And I fully affirm their last two points, which self-righteous Methodists like me need to hear:
4. The true antinomian is the one who tries to distort the Law. The one who reads “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48) as “Do your best, that’s all anyone can ask.” Or who read “Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor” as “Tithe ten percent” or “Contribute what you reasonably can.” The very people who accuse others of antinomianism are usually the ones who are themselves denigrating the Law. Because if you want measurable spiritual progress or spiritual accomplishment, you’re going to have lower God’s standard quite a bit.
5. The antidote to antinomianism, therefore, is not to sell people on linear, measurable sanctification, but to preach the Law in all its fullness. The condemning voice of conscience should not be smoothed over by developing good habits, but should be echoed in the pulpit and taken to its extreme, as Christ does in Matthew 5. The only genuine way to relate to the Law is to be utterly condemned by it. Anything less—including using it for exhortation—risks real antinomianism.
Oh, Methodist brothers and sisters: Let yourself be utterly condemned by the Law! Let yourself be utterly condemned by Wesley’s General Rules! Let yourself be utterly condemned by your own pathetic attempts at “measurable spiritual progress”!
And then make your way to the cross of Jesus Christ. Remind yourself that “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.” Remind yourself that Christ was perfect on your behalf! Remind yourself that it’s only through his righteousness, and not your own, that you’re saved, and that even sanctification is by grace alone.