Humility is God’s dress code standard for the church. Those that come before God clothed with humility can have the robe of Christ’s righteousness placed upon them (cf. Jeremiah 23:6) and leave justified in God’s sight. As an illustration of this, the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18:9-14 is the quintessential summary of the difference between those that God will justify and those that only seek to justify themselves.
As a pastor, I am quite often asked what the dress code of our church is. “Can we wear jeans, can ladies wear pants, do we have to wear a tie, and will we feel out of place if we don’t dress up?” I am thankful for this because these questions about how they are expected to look give me an opportunity to address the real issue. My answer gives people insight into what God is looking for when we come to church. I say, “The only thing we ask is that you come clothed with humility.” This parable is always among the first teachings I give to new members.
“This parable exposes the great problem of human pride (Phillips, p.162).” Pride was the first sin, the sin of Satan. It was the “genesis” of sin if you will (cf. Isaiah 14:12-14 / Ezekiel 28:11-19). This mother of all sins has filtered down to our age and remains as the great wall between man and God (1 John 2:16), between a righteousness that saves and one that doesn’t. “Indeed, it is a want of humility that keeps the great mass of people from faith and salvation (Philips, p.162).” That is why this parable is of utmost importance in exposing and dealing with the sin of self-righteousness, and finding true righteousness.
The parables taught by Jesus Christ are meant to peer into our hearts and expose our human weakness. They proclaim the utter necessity of our commitment to Christ and the priorities of his kingdom (Phillips, p.200). Using the religious climate of first century Judaism, Jesus addressed the problems of his day (Phillips, p.157) and with his infinite wisdom used his words to cross the boundaries of time to reveal our similar conditions today. The sins that Christ dealt with, and the reasons they exist are true for all times.
One doesn’t need to be a Bible scholar to know that the Scriptures are replete with the notion that God hates pride and loves humility. Pride is an abomination to God (Proverbs 6:17), and humility is absolutely necessary for salvation (Philips, p.162). Many parables and teachings touch on this theme in varying ways (cf. Luke 10:25-37 / Psalm 34:2 / Isaiah 57:15, 66:2). Certainly this is true of the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.
This parable goes deeper than that, however. “The Judaism Jesus confronted was unloving, unmerciful, proud, and greedy for earthly riches. But above all was the sin Jesus spotlights in this parable from Luke 18, a cancer that lay at the root of all these other spiritual ailments, namely, self-righteousness (Phillips, p.158).” “The scope of this parable likewise is prefixed to it, and we are told (vs.9) who they were whom it was leveled at, and for whom it was calculated. He designed it for the conviction of some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others (Henry, Luke 18:9).” This shows that self-righteousness is a sin that flows from a wrong standard.
In this parable self-righteous sin takes the form of a two-pronged pride. Firstly, like the people who are using the standards of others to determine what to wear to church, the self righteous use a comparison with others as the standard of their own righteousness. The Pharisee looked at other people and determined he was doing the Lord’s will.
So too many in the church today, as well as those “good people” out there who don’t think they need God, think that because they are “ahead of the pack”, that this makes them righteous. “But the standard for righteousness to which the Bible directs us is not that of other people but that of God (Phillips, p. 163).” The focus is wrong.
Secondly, while comparing ourselves with others is not right, neither is comparing one’s self with his own self. Even if we have made great strides in our walk with God, and lived a more holy life in the power of the Spirit of God, it is not that life that will justify us before God. “The Pharisee not only justified himself by comparison to others, but also he propped up his pride on the pillar of religious works (Phillips, p.163).” Again, the wrong focus.
The world follows suit. Self-help, self-improvement, self-empowerment, self-esteem, self-awareness, self-actualization, “self” magazine, it goes on and on, the great focus of humanity is on self. Even in the church we often see teaching geared toward becoming a better or more successful person rather than on the person of Jesus Christ.
It seems to be about what we can do for God, or even what God has done in us, rather than on what God has done for us. We feel as if we “do our best” that this sincere effort is what justifies us. This is precisely what the Pharisee thought, “for the Pharisee was not seeking justification, and felt no need of it (JF & B, Luke 18:14).” The world would applaud this man today, probably calling him a “true saint" or “one of God’s choice servants”.
No matter how good we are, however, it can never be good enough. “What the Pharisee said about himself was true. His trouble was not that he was not far enough along the road, but that he was on the wrong road altogether (Guzik, Luke 18:9-14).” The Bible says that all our righteousness is as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). The standard is the perfect righteousness of Jesus, and Jesus said, “Be ye perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48).”
The Apostle Paul spoke to both sides of self-righteousness when he said, “For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise (2 Corinthians 10:12).” It is simple to bring this teaching forward and apply to today.
There is, however, an insidious perversion that lurks below the surface, an unrecognized but damnable problem that can be seen upon close scrutiny of this parable. An observation often overlooked by those in the church is that when the Pharisee prayed he was thanking God for his walk, not simply saying how great he was on his own power. He had a sense of humility, but not true humility. He knew that it was not on his own that he was able to do good works, but he felt that those good works were what justified him. God does indeed develop righteousness in everyone to whom he imputes righteousness (Romans 8:1-4 / Philippians 1:6), but we never achieve perfection in this life. Works are the fruit, not the root of justification (Ephesians 2:10).
This is the great problem and the danger for those in the Roman Catholic Church, the teaching that the imparted righteousness whereby we can indeed do good works is the grounds of our justification, instead of the imputed righteousness of Christ to our account. Our good works give evidence to our faith (Matthew 7:20 / James 2:18) but they do not save us (Romans 3:20).
To some, they believe it is the work that the Holy Spirit does in their life that gives them divine acceptance (Martin, p. 6). “According to the Catholic Church personal transformation is both the basis and the means of acceptance by God (Martin, p.8).” This is subtle but is explained by saying that for some to justify is to make righteous rather than to declare righteous. The difference is the difference between a saving faith that relies on an external atonement for sin and a misplaced faith that relies in an internal abatement of sin.
The tax collector knew what this difference meant when he cried “have mercy on me”. “The tax collector is not offering a generalized prayer for God’s mercy. He specifically yearns for the benefits of an atonement (Bailey, p. 154).” The word used in Greek here, hilaskomai, “clearly refers to the atonement sacrifice (Bailey, p.154).”
The snare of self-righteousness happens to believers as well, and “that is what sometimes makes the church so unappealing to the world and so painful a society to its members (Phillips, p.165).” “If I credit myself for my ‘great, spiritual walk with God,’ then it is an easy thing to despise you for your ‘low walk with God (Guzik, Luke 18:9-14).’ Sadly, many feel or claim to be sanctified when they are only sanctimonious. “How common it is for Christians who were saved like this tax collector to go to live like the Pharisee (Phillips, p.164-5).”
The plain truth is that we must continue to walk in repentance and faith even after we have been justified. Martin Luther, in writing the first of his famous ninety-five theses against the Catholic Church said that the whole life of a believer should be repentance. “The humble manner of the tax collector is not needed merely for our entry into salvation but for the whole of our Christian lives; his plea for mercy ought to be found in all our prayers, since God’s grace is the sole ground of our confidence and hope as Christians (Phillips, p.165).”
We should be thankful that we have been given a measure of freedom from the power of sin in this life, but we must be careful to never equate this with our righteous standing before God. You are not to thank God for your righteousness compared to others, but thank Him for His righteousness accredited to you because of the Atonement. “The proud Pharisee goes away, rejected of God; his thanksgivings are so far from being accepted that they are an abomination (Henry, Luke 18:14).”
In Christ we are righteous, yes, but being “in Christ” is the key. It is not Christ in us, but us in Christ that makes us righteous. Considering our spiritual state, it has been said that the more light we have, the more dust we see. It isn’t about self-loathing. The Church’s dress code deals with whether we see with our true condition before God or does the lens we view ourselves from have a “wrong focus”. The question is, simply, “Are you wearing the right glasses?”
Bailey, Kenneth E. Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes, Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983.
Guzik, David. Notes on Luke 18: 9-14. To be found on Internet @ www.blueletterbible.org.
Henry, Matthew. Notes on Luke 18: 9-14. To be found on Internet @ www.blueletterbible.org.
Holy Bible, King James Version.
Jamieson, Fausset & Brown. Notes on Luke 18: 9-14. To be found on Internet @ www.blueletterbible.org.
Martin, Richard. Divine Acceptance, Fallbrook, CA: Life Research International, 2004.
Phillips, Richard. Turning You World Upside Down, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Company, 2003.
Labels: Devotional, Issues