The Pharisee knew the rules. He went to the temple to pray and looked down on the tax collector who was also praying. The Pharisee rejoiced before God that he was not like the tax collector.

The Pharisee told God that he was not like other men. The Pharisee told God that he wasn’t an adulterer…and he wasn’t. The Pharisee told God that he wasn’t a tax collector who stole money from God’s people…and he wasn’t. The Pharisee told God that he fasted twice a week…and he did. The Pharisee told God that he tithed all of his possessions…and he did.

The tax collector, on the other hand, barely looked up. Instead, he pled for desperately needed mercy—“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”—and received it.

Jesus said that the tax collector found favor in God’s eyes (i.e. was justified) and the religious Pharisee didn’t. Then Jesus made an astounding statement. He said, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

***

Justification by faith in Christ alone (Romans 3:21-28) is offensive, insane and irritating. It is perhaps the most controversial religious doctrine ever taught by any religion. And frankly, it is in direct opposition to everything we’ve been taught and assumed was true.

But if it’s true (and it is), it’s the best news the world has ever heard…and it changes everything.

I used to think that I was the only preacher in the world teaching the radical implications of the Gospel. I know, I know, that’s incredibly arrogant of me and I repent. Subsequent to my silly pride, I’ve discovered that God is speaking to his church all over the place. When God speaks, he rarely speaks to one. God speaks to a bunch…and he’s speaking to a whole bunch of people right now.

I believe we’re sitting on top of an awakening. My constant prayer is, “Do it again, Lord. Do it again.” But my greatest fear is that we will see salvation by faith alone as too radical.

Howard Hendricks, who essentially stood at the back door of the church and asked people why they were leaving, warned us in his book, Exit Interviews:

“Modern-day American Protestantism has given back a lot of theological ground that Luther, Calvin, and the other Reformers in its heritage paid for in tears, and that Christ paid for in blood….Most churches preach grace and live works. Story after story bore this out. The results were invariably tragic. Perhaps the greatest tragedy was that a system promising forgiveness to people and freedom from guilt ended up making so many of them feel guilty….I believe that the church needs to decide how long it is going to coddle legalism in its ranks…people who preach grace but practice works. People who inflict guilt on others for being human, let alone sinful. People who say, ‘Well, we don’t want to go overboard on this grace thing because people will take advantage of it.’ The church has made it comfortable for those who hold that position. But at what cost! Legalism is keeping people out of the church, it is driving people away from the church, and it is poisoning the lives of those who remain in the church. So why permit it? Why even tolerate it, especially when Jesus and Paul, among others, reserved their harshest words for those who compromised grace?”

Luther was, of course, right when he said that we had to preach the Gospel to one another lest we become discouraged. But we must also preach the Gospel to the world without compromise or that awakening will never happen.

When the Gospel ceases to astonish, it has lost its life and power. The day is far-gone, the night is upon us, and we are not refreshed. We compromise the very essence of our faith. We take the incredibly good news of our faith and make it bad news. We kill the Gospel.

If you want to kill the Gospel, add requirements.

Listen to the Pharisee: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get” (Luke 18:11).

That was true. The Pharisee really did have a lot to bring to the table.

We need to stop saying at funerals, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much” (Matthew 25:21). The only true “good and faithful servant” was Jesus Christ. When we are ushered into heaven, we always come empty-handed.

Let me give you the “rest of the story” on the Pharisee. As the Pharisee stood before the judgment seat of God, he was quite sure he was fine and he had it all covered. That is, until he started naming his righteous acts. That’s when they ushered him out as he muttered, “Hey, what’s with that?”

I’ll tell you what’s with that. It’s called salvation by faith alone.

If you want to kill the Gospel, add kickers.

“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!’” (Luke 18:13).

Jesus didn’t mention in the parable that the tax collector got better. And Jesus didn’t require any promises from the tax collector that he would do better.

Present Pharisees drive me nuts with John 8. “But,” they always say, “Jesus said, ‘Go and sin no more.’” At this, I usually refer to the prostitute in Luke 7 who was forgiven and even commended for her love. She wasn’t told to straighten up, join a discipleship group, or get involved in ministry…so I suppose that since Jesus didn’t tell her to stop…then he approves of prostitution.

When the Gospel ceases to astonish, it has lost its life and power.

My late friend, Rusty Anderson, was playing with his granddaughter one day when she did something she shouldn’t have. He told her, “Honey, don’t do that.” She said, “I’m sorry, granddaddy.” Then five minutes later she did it again. He warned her to stop and she said again, “I’m sorry, granddaddy.” Shortly thereafter, she did it again and he got the same apology, “I’m sorry, granddaddy.” Rusty said in frustration, “Sorry isn’t enough!” Rusty told me later that he thought he heard Jesus say, “Funny, it was enough for me.”

If you’re a preacher, there is a problem with no kickers. It robs you of leverage and control. Salvation by faith in Christ alone does that, you know.

If you want to kill the Gospel, add limitations.

“I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other” (Luke 18:14).

The prodigal son went back to the pig farm…and the tax collector had to go back pretty often to pray. I know that because the Scripture doesn’t have a very high opinion of human nature. People really do take advantage of grace if they get it, especially when they first get it. The difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector is that the Pharisee was going to hit a wall, slip into the dark and maybe never come back. Tax collectors always come back.

We are to assume that the tax collector was justified…but he wasn’t fixed.

I really thought I’d be better by now. I’m not. And that’s good. The nature of self-righteousness is that it is the one sin in which those who commit it don’t know they did so. The nature of goodness is that those who are getting better generally don’t know they are doing so.

If you want to kill the Gospel, add a bit of religious gloom.

“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).

The fact is that those who remain in a perpetual state of woe and depression over their sin are often the same ones who teach the doctrines of grace.

If you knew that Jesus was coming back next Thursday, what would you do? You would probably repent, go through remorse, and spend the time remaining in prayer and fasting. Not me. If I knew that Jesus was coming back next Thursday, I would buy a Mercedes because I’m tired of my old Honda and run up the credit cards.

The reason you’re so shocked is that Jesus likes me more than he likes you!

It feels like arrogance, but it’s not. It’s the simple realization that I have nothing to prove, nothing to lose and nothing to hide. I’m screwed up and Jesus, because I’ve put my faith in him, likes me a lot.

You too.

Read more from Steve Brown here.