by David Souther
(Editor’s note: With this blog post we continue our series, “The Stories within the Story.” Each article will include how to use specific passages and stories in scripture in gospel witness.”)
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
One effective way I have found to engage people with the gospel is by pointing out the contrast between what many think Christianity is about as opposed to what it is really about. One of the greatest misconceptions today is the idea that Christianity is for “good people” who do “good things” in order to get on the “good side” of God.
Jesus addresses this in Luke 18:9-14. Two men came to church to pray. One was a religious professional who thought he was doing all the right things. To prove this fact, he compared himself with others who he felt did not measure up, including the other man who had come to pray. He believed that his behavior earned God’s acceptance and approval.
The other man was a tax collector who was despised. Tax collectors were known for cheating people out of their money, as well as helping the Roman government oppress the people. People considered them swindlers and traders to their country. Many viewed tax collectors as the last group with whom God would associate.
The tax collector agreed with their assessment, yet he came to pray. With downcast eyes and a repentant spirit, his prayer was simple, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” Unlike the religious professional, his appeal was not based on his own merit, but on God’s mercy.
Jesus shocked his audience by revealing that the tax collector was the one who God accepted rather than the religious professional.
The lesson here is that if you want to come to God, you cannot come as a result of your own goodness, morality, or ethics. You must come recognizing what the Bible says in Romans 3:23: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” God is perfect, we are not, and we are “guilty as charged” before Him.
We must also come knowing that our good works cannot erase our guilt. Being good does not take away the sin that separates us from God. We are helpless before God, like the tax collector, and need God’s mercy.
The good news is that God is merciful. Because He loves us, He provided a rescuer for us, Jesus Christ. Jesus came to earth, bore the penalty we deserve because of our sin, and rose from the dead three days later. Therefore, Jesus is the perfect rescuer for us. He took care of our sin on the cross by dying in our place and demonstrated His power and authority to save us by His resurrection.
May God grant us success in proclaiming and clarifying Christianity to the world. Jesus is not for good people or perfect people, but for people who know they are sinners, guilty before God, and know that there is nothing they themselves can do to change that fact.
David Souther is president of ministry and outreach for EvanTell, Inc.