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Only Sinners Can Be Saved (The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity)

[Luke 18:9-14] 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.”

Only Sinners Can Be Saved

I work hard. I’m always on time. I am frugal. I pay my bills on time. I am right in my opinions. I am moral. My marriage is intact. My kids are a success; I raised them right. They never acted like kids today, and neither did I. I am a good citizen. A model church member – I give. I count as righteousness whatever I am good at, and what I am good at I count as righteousness.

And most of all, I AM NOT LIKE THOSE OTHER PEOPLE. I am not like those moral failures. I am not like the criminal or the foreigner. I am not like those who are not good at what I’m good at. I am not like the broken family. I am not like that younger generation. I am not like that older generation. I am not like the others – I thank You, Heavenly Father, that I am not like them.

The Pharisee in the Temple prayed like you think and talk, “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.” What he was good at he counted as righteousness, and he looked down on those who fell short of it. You watch the news. You go on and on about how awful those other people all are. You talk the way this Pharisee prayed.

Another man, a fraudulent sinner, the Tax-collector, looking at no one else, prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” In fact, in the Greek, he said, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.”

This isn’t just about how you pray. It’s about how you watch the news. It’s about how you talk with and about one another, and your fellow man. If your conversation is always about those nasty people out there or that person in here who does this or that wrong, then you are talking the way the Pharisee was praying.

Our Lord Jesus Christ teaches us today to instead talk and pray and think and feel the way the guilty, fraudulent, Tax-Collector prayed – “Lord, first of all, I am the sinner.” Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

To speak and think otherwise is to lie and deny God’s truth. Jesus told this parable against those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and (therefore) treated others with contempt.” That you have an inward dislike of others because of their sins and faults is an indication that you, in fact, are trusting in yourself that you are righteous, like that Pharisee.

Scripture says it this way elsewhere, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” “If we say we have not sinned, we make God a liar, and His word is not in us.” [1 John 1:8,10]. And “whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness” [1 John 2:11]. It truly is hate to always be talking about other people – in the news, in politics, or in our lives - in such a negative way.

Those who trust in themselves that they are righteous and, therefore, treat others with contempt cannot be saved. Only the sinner can be saved. Only the guilty sinner who knows his sin goes home justified, that is, forgiven.

Jesus said it – “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” [Mark 2:17]. You and I expend so much energy, and accumulate so much anxiety, running the endless gears of our minds explaining away our sinfulness to convince ourselves we are righteous – but, in fact, it’s the sinner whom Jesus came to save. Scriptures says, “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” [1 John 1:9]

How much peace could we have if we’d learn to say, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner”?

I’m going to give you a couple of quotes. One is this: “God can save the sinner you are, but not the saint you pretend to be.” Here is another: “Be careful not to judge your righteousness by other people’s sins” [Martin Luther]. And here is yet another: “There is no saint without a past, and no sinner without a future.”

Whatever your sin is, and however strongly and however long it still clings, as you train yourself to say, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner”, you will have a future of peace with God.

I am the sinner. Yet Jesus, the Righteous One, became the Sinner for me on the cross. Jesus, who alone is without sin, became the Sinner in your place on the cross.

Jesus, God’s Son, became the Sinner in place of all mankind on the cross. And there He died for sin. There He took your Hell for sin. Jesus became the Sinner in place of all and died the Sinner’s death in place of all, so that sinners can go home forgiven. Jesus died the Sinner; the sinners have now been justified by His blood [Roman 5:9].

Jesus says the Tax-Collector who prayed, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner”, went home justified, which means forgiven and counted righteous in God’s eyes.

Because Jesus became the Sinner for you on the cross, you go home forgiven and counted righteous in God’s eyes, though your struggle with sin continues, as you pray “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.”

Therefore, let’s not hate our neighbors or our brothers and sisters for their sins. Let’s not hate the world for its increasing darkness and immorality. Let’s not live a life of grumbling or complaining about others. Instead, let’s confess with honesty and with regret that the sin out there, in fact, also resides in our hearts still, and let’s pray, “God, be merciful to us, the sinners” – because only sinners have a Savior. Amen.

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