Pastor James Preus
Trinity Lutheran Church
August 15, 2021
Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous. What does it mean to be righteous? To be righteous means that you are in a right relationship with God. To be righteous is the same thing as to be just. That is why Jesus said that the tax collector went down to his house justified, much to the surprise of his audience, who thought the Pharisee was righteous. Jesus was declaring that the tax collector went down to his house declared righteous by God.
When we speak of being righteous or justified, we are speaking of how we will be judged by God on the Last Day. Scripture declares, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27) Christ Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead. Everyone will stand before God and give an account of what he has done, both good and bad. (2 Corinthians 5:10) And God will judge. Those who are judged righteous, that is, those whom God justifies will enter into eternal life. Those who are judged unrighteous will be damned to eternal perdition. To be justified is the opposite of to be damned. This means that the doctrine of justification is the most important teaching in the entire Christian religion. I certainly can’t think of more pressing one! How do I know whether I am justified before God? How do I know whether God will welcome me into heaven or damn me to hell? This is what we are discussing when we discuss justification.
It is God who justifies. Jesus spoke this parable to those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others. But you cannot trust in yourself that you are righteous. You are not the one who declares yourself righteous. It is God who justifies. Declaring yourself righteous goes hand in hand with despising others. How does the Pharisee justify himself? He compares his works with others. He despises the tax collector to prove that he is righteous. But that is no way to prove yourself righteous. If a friend is helping me build something and I ask him to cut me a board 46 inches long and he cuts me a board 38 inches long, he won’t make the board the right length by comparing it to all the scrap pieces and talking about how much further from 46 inches they are. If you fall short of being righteous, it doesn’t matter how much farther you think others have fallen short.
What Jesus teaches us in this parable is that a man is not justified before God by his own strength, merit, or works, but rather, a man is justified before God by grace, that is, as a gift from God. This is what St. Paul says in Romans chapter 3, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” God justifies freely by grace, not on account of our works. The Pharisee listed off his works, he fasted twice a week, he gave ten percent of all that he earned to the Lord. But it was the tax collector, who listed no works at all who was found righteous by God. This is because God justifies by grace as a gift. It does not have to do with our works. It is in spite of our sins! It depends on God’s grace, that is, on his undeserved love for us. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
This is why St. Paul, who himself was a Pharisee (and a very zealous one at that), declared all his works to be rubbish, so that he could be found in Christ not having a righteousness of his own, but one that comes through faith (Philippians 3:8-9). So, whether you are a tax collector or a Pharisee, an adulterer, thief, or liar, or every-Sunday-Christian, you are justified by grace alone. This is why Jesus concludes this parable with the statement, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” The one who humbles himself does not claim his own righteousness, but accepts Christ’s righteousness as a gift. Yet, the one who exalts himself refuses the gift, because he thinks he can earn his own righteousness.
God justifies sinners. The tax collector said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And God justified him. He declared the sinner righteous. In fact, God only justifies sinners. He will not declare righteous those who have declared themselves righteous and free from sin. He only justifies those, who have admitted their own sin and unworthiness. This is why it is important to preach the law. The law tells you how to live rightly before God. This is why people think that if they try to live according to God’s law, then they will be righteous. But what does Scripture say? “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” (Romans 3:20) And this reveals the main reason people need to hear the preaching of the law. People need to know that they are sinners, so that they know that they cannot justify themselves, but can only be justified by God.
The law told the tax collector he was a sinner. The law called him a cheat and a thief. The tax collector didn’t argue with the law. He confessed that what the law said was right. He was a sinner. So, he did not seek to justify himself by means of the law, but he went to God to be justified by grace as a gift. The Pharisee did not understand the chief purpose of the law. He thought the law gave him simple directions to justify himself, so he simply did more than the directions required, he fasted twice in a week, he tithed all that he took in. But he failed to realize that the law doesn’t rule just outward actions, but the very heart. The law commands you to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind and to love your neighbor as yourself. But the Pharisee didn’t love. He hated. He was a sinner, but he did not acknowledge himself as a sinner. He exalted himself instead. And so, he went home condemned.
God justifies for Christ’s sake. God doesn’t simply say that sin isn’t a big deal. No, God agrees with the law. The law is good. The law reveals God’s eternal will. When God justifies sinners, he doesn’t call good evil and evil good. No, he always and only justifies sinners for the sake of Jesus’ suffering and death for sin. When the tax collector beat his breast and pleaded to God for mercy, he used a special word for mercy. The word he used meant be propitiated, that is, be appeased by this sacrifice; let your wrath be taken away from me on account of this sacrifice. The tax collector is in the temple after all during the sacrifice. Of course, a lamb on the altar is not what actually appeases God’s wrath against sinners, but rather, the Lamb whom that lamb proclaims, Christ Jesus. St. Paul writes in Romans 3 that all are justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”
It is Jesus’ blood that makes propitiation for our sins. Jesus’ innocent suffering and death is the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. Jesus is the only human being who ever lived without sin. He did not deserve to be damned. Yet, he endured damnation on the cross for sins he did not commit. As a man he lived under the law and fulfilled all the law’s demands. And as a man he suffered the punishment of all mankind for all our sins. And Jesus is God. You cannot separate the man Jesus dying on the cross for all sins from the God Jesus. This means his death is a more than sufficient price to pay the debt of all people. When the tax collector said, “Be propitiated to me a sinner,” he was confessing that Christ took all his sins away.
When we talk about being justified before God by grace, we cannot speak of it apart from what Jesus Christ has done for us. Only through Jesus’ obedience and passion for our sins are we justified before God. This is why St. Paul said in our Epistle lesson, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ Jesus died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4) This is of first importance, because without Jesus dying for us, we are still in our sins. But since Christ has died for us and has risen for us, we have peace with God.
To be justified means to be forgiven. If you are a sinner, then you are not righteous. God declares sinners righteous by forgiving them. St. Paul makes this clear in Romans chapter 4, “David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.’” (vss. 6-8) How does God count a person righteous apart from works? By forgiving his lawless deeds; by covering his sins in Jesus’ blood and not counting them anymore.
God justifies a sinner through faith alone. Scripture says, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28) and “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” (Romans 4:5) It is through faith, so that it can be by grace. Grace means that it is a gift. Faith receives the gift. Faith means to believe and trust that God forgives you for Christ’s sake. The tax collector expressed his faith by asking God to be propitiated to him. He had faith in Christ. Faith is not a good work we do. Rather, faith is trusting in the promise that God forgives sinners by grace for Christ’s sake.
You cannot have saving faith while you are not sorry for your sins. Saving faith means that you acknowledge yourself to be a sinner, who deserves to go to hell; that you are sorry for those sins and want to do better, and that you trust that God will forgive you for Christ’s sake alone. Faith does not believe that God is indifferent toward sin or pleased with sin. Rather, faith confesses what God says is true. And God says that he has placed all our sins on Jesus. Jesus died for the sins of the whole world. All people are justified by his death and resurrection. Faith alone receives this justification.
Faith itself is a gift from God given by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel. It is the words of Christ that create faith in our hearts. This is why Christians go to church. The righteous shall live by faith. Faith comes from hearing. If we don’t hear the promises of God, our faith will die. If our faith dies, we lose our justification. If we lose our justification, we cannot stand before God.
If you are justified then you are regenerated, that is, you are born again. A sinner cannot by his own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ. But the Holy Spirit creates faith in our hearts through the Gospel. He does this by giving us a new birth, so that we trust in God’s promise. To be regenerated means that you will not only believe God’s promise, but also love God and desire to do what he desires, of course, in great weakness, because of your sinful flesh. So, Christians do good works, but it is not their good works that justify them. The regenerate Christian is justified through faith alone. The righteousness that justifies the Christian is not his own righteousness, but Christ’s righteousness given to him as a gift. This gives you confidence in your justification, because it always depends on Jesus and not on you.
Finally, to be justified means that you are God’s own child. Justification is courtroom language. God is the judge declaring you guilty or innocent, a sinner or righteous. But to be justified doesn’t simply mean God declares you not guilty and sends you on your way. It means that you are clothed in Christ’s righteousness. It means that you are God’s beloved child. He loves you. And he has chosen you to live with him in peace forever. Amen.