How to be Right With God
September 12, 1999
Listen to this Sermon
When a friend heard I was preaching on how to be right with God, he sent me this e-mail message:
What a great topic for a Sunday sermon. It’s one that is especially poignant for the alcoholic, addict, etc., because so much of our difficulty is not knowing that we can get right with God, the fear being that we’ve sunk too low, gone too far, done too much to ever be forgiven. Of course part of the problem is not understanding or knowing from Scripture that he loved us while we were still sinners and sent His Son to die for us.
We need to know how to be right with God, don’t we? After all, he created us and made us in his image. We were made to know God. Yet so many of us struggle because we don’t know God or we feel unworthy and inadequate and wonder what it would take for God to accept us into his family. If you ask the average person how to be right with God, they will mention being good or being religious or some mixture of both. But the problem is, how can you ever be sure you’ve been good enough or religious enough to meet God’s high standards? The answer is, you can’t, which leaves the whole human race in a state of uncertainty: Are we right with God or are we not?
I would like to talk to you about a story Jesus told that helps us understand how we can be right with God. Some of you may have seen a movie a few years ago called Reversal of Fortune. That would be a good subtitle for this passage because it contains the ultimate reversal of fortune.
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody 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 up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—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 everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14).
This story is about two men who were as different as they could be. One man had everything and appeared to be on his way to heaven … but he never made it. The other man appeared to have nothing to recommend himself to God … but he ended up saved. The man who looks so good ends up looking bad; the man who looks so bad ends up looking good. How can that be?
We’ll never fully grasp the answer to that question until we understand why Jesus told this story in the first place. Verse 9 says, “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable.” Here is the key to the passage—not in the story but in the audience. Jesus was speaking to people “who were confident in their own righteousness.” What kind of people are like that? They have two primary qualifications: 1) Because of their religiosity they think that they are better than everyone else. 2) Because they think they are better than everybody else, they look down their noses at everybody else. Evidently that was a major problem in Jesus’ day; it is certainly a major problem in our day.
That leads me to make a parenthetical comment. Please do not think this story is for someone else. It’s not. This story is for you. In fact, the more religious you are, the more you need to ponder this parable.
The Ultimate Reversal of Fortune
So Jesus told a short story about two men who came to the temple and prayed. One man was a Pharisee; the other was a tax collector.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure the story out. The Pharisee in this story is supposed to be the good guy; the tax collector in this story is supposed to be the bad guy. When you read the first part of this story, you’re supposed to cheer the Pharisee because he’s the one you’re supposed to want to be like. When you read the story about the tax collector you’re supposed to hiss and boo because you know that he’s the bad guy.
The amazing thing about this story is that Jesus starts with a good guy and a bad guy and by the time we get to the end of the story, the good guy has become the bad guy and the bad guy has become the good guy.
The Nicest Pharisee in Town
I want to make two comments about this story. First, the good man in this story is genuinely good. He is a Pharisee. Now I know to us in the 20th century, the word Pharisee is a dirty word. If somebody calls you a Pharisee you will probably be offended. It’s an insult to our way of thinking—”You Pharisee!” We don’t like it when someone calls us that. But in Jesus’ day to be a Pharisee was not an insult at all. In fact, to be a Pharisee was to be in the highest rank of religious people. Historians tell us that there were never very many Pharisees—a few thousand or so, but not more than that. They were a small group of men who were widely admired for their sincere devotion to the law of God. That’s why when you read this story and it says, “the Pharisee went to pray,” you’re not supposed to think—”Ugh! A Pharisee.” You’re supposed to say, “All right! A Pharisee!”
When you read about the tax collector, you’re supposed to hiss and boo because they were men who got rich by ripping off other people. They cheated the common man and were considered spiritually unclean because they did business with the hated Romans.
How Good Can You Be?
When you read the story about the Pharisee, a number of specific statements are made about his piety. Please note this. Everything the man says about himself is true. For instance, when he says, “I thank you that I am not like other men,” indeed he wasn’t like other men. He had a standard of morality that was far above the standard of that day. When he said, “I fast twice a week;” it happens to be literally true. The Pharisees fasted on Monday and Thursday of every week. When he says, “I give tithes of all I possess,” he means he tithes on the gross and not on the net. He went beyond the Law of Moses. That’s no big deal; all the Pharisees did that. And when he says, “I am not a crook,” he really isn’t a crook. When he says, “I am not like this filthy tax collector,” he’s really not like that guy. When he says, “I do not commit adultery,” he really doesn’t commit adultery. He is faithful to his wife. When he says, “I am honest, I am faithful, I am zealous for my religion,” he means it and every word of it is true. He truly is a genuinely good man. When I read his prayer, I am reminded of that country song that says, “Oh, Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way.”
What we are to understand is this. When he prayed he was telling the truth. When he said, “Lord, you’re lucky to have a guy like me, because I’m one of the best guys I know,” it was really true. He really was a wonderful guy.
While he prayed, people would be standing around watching. And they would say, “He’s a fine man.” While he prayed, they probably applauded. He was the kind of guy you’d want living next door to you. A good citizen. A law-abiding man. A good, religious kind of person. If he were to come to this church today we’d love him because he would be faithful, loyal, and give us a lot of money. We’d probably make him an elder or a deacon. He’s just that kind of guy. He looks really good on the outside. Everything he says about himself is absolutely true.
Religious But Lost
That’s why this story is so shocking. Everything he says about himself is true. Yet Jesus said this man who looked so good on the outside was lost. This man who looked like what we think we’d like to look like—this man didn’t make it. Although he was a good man, Jesus said he was going to Hell.
My second comment on this story is that if the Pharisee is genuinely good, the tax collector is genuinely bad. When it says he was a tax collector, we should read between the lines words like “dirty, rotten, no-good tax collector.” That’s what it means. He was no good. He would rob you blind. Give a little money to the Romans, keep the rest himself. I’ll bet there wasn’t anyone in all of Israel who was more hated than this tax collector. Probably nobody had done more people wrong than this man had. When I say he was a dirty, rotten sinner, I’m not saying anymore than he said himself in this prayer. What was his prayer? “God be merciful to me a sinner.”
Now, there’s something in the original text you ought to know. The Greek reads this way: “God be merciful to me the sinner.” As if he were saying, “I am the chief of all sinners. I am the worst of all sinners. I am as bad as bad can be.” And when he said, “God be merciful to me the sinner,” we are to understand that the people who heard him pray said, “Amen. That’s right, brother. You are the worst of all possible sinners.”
Here we have the paradox of this story: A man as good as you can be on a moral basis. A man as bad as you can be in terms of the morality of this world. It’s as if Jesus told a story and said, “Over here we have a Supreme Court Justice and over here we have a rapist. Over here we have the president and over here we have a prostitute.”
And the shock of this story is the good man ends up lost and the bad man ends up saved. The ultimate reversal of fortunes.
A Scoundrel Saved By the Blood
Why was the bad man saved? The bad man was saved because of what he said when he prayed. He prayed “God be merciful to me a sinner.” God—he prayed to the right person. Be merciful—he made the right request. To me a sinner—he made the right confession.
It’s a simple prayer—only seven words in English. Someone has called it a “holy telegram” from a sinner to the Lord. It’s short and to the point. He doesn’t even add any adjectives, such as “penitent,” though surely he felt sorry for his sins, or “reformed,” though surely his life would never be the same, or “honest,” though surely he was more honest than the Pharisee. He clings to nothing but the naked mercy of God. If that can’t save him, he has no other hope.
Notice his request: “God be merciful to me.” The phrase refers back to Old Testament times when on the Day of Atonement the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies and sprinkle the blood of a goat on the “mercy seat,” the golden lid of the Ark of the Covenant. By the sprinkling of blood the High Priest demonstrated that God’s way of forgiveness always involves a blood sacrifice. The tax collector was praying, “God, be to me as you are when you look down and see the blood shed on the mercy seat.” He was praying, “O God, be merciful to me not on the basis of what I have done but on the basis of the blood shed by the substitute.”
What does that blood on the Mercy Seat point to in the New Testament? It points to our Lord Jesus Christ who died on the cross and who shed his blood so that the sins of the world could be forgiven. By virtue of the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, you and I can have our sins forgiven. And that’s what that bad man was praying for.
That bad man, that dissolute man, that man who had wasted his life, that scoundrel, that crook, that cheat, that truly bad man came to God and asked for mercy. Looking back from our perspective, he was praying like this: “O God be merciful to me on the basis of the sacrifice of your Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. God be merciful to me a sinner. God forgive me, not because of what I have done, not because I deserve it, but by virtue of the sprinkled blood of your Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Why the Good Man Was Lost
Jesus gives us the shocking end of the story in verse 14: “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.” This man—this bad man, this sinful man, this scoundrel, this thief, this sinful tax collector went home justified. What about that other man—that good man, that Pharisee, that moral man, that law-abiding man? He went home still in his sin.
The bad man went home justified. He went home forgiven. He went home with his sins washed away. He went home in possession of eternal life.
And the Pharisee went home lost.
Why? Because when this man prayed all he did was boast about his goodness before God. Do you see what the text says? “Two men went to the temple. The Pharisee stood up and prayed to himself.” Did you get that? He prayed “to himself.” When the Pharisee prayed, he was informing God about how good he was. It was spiritual self-congratulation. “God, I’m such a wonderful man. You’re lucky to have a guy like me.” This man who prayed that way went home lost and self-deceived.
And the tax collector went home justified on the basis of the mercy of God expressed in the bloody sacrificial death of Jesus Christ.
I want you to notice one other point. This is immediate salvation. He prays and he’s saved. Just like that. You say, “No, sir. It’s not that easy.” Yes it is. “I think you have to do something to be saved.” This man didn’t do anything. “You’ve got to promise something.” This man didn’t promise anything. “You’ve got to make a deal with God.” This man didn’t make a deal. He didn’t have a deal to make. Nothing to offer. He didn’t promise anything. He didn’t do anything. He didn’t offer anything. He cried out for the mercy of God and the mercy of God was given to him. He didn’t deserve it and yet it was given to him.
The Pharisee thought he deserved it and therefore he missed it. The tax collector knew he didn’t deserve it and because he knew he didn’t deserve it therefore he received it. Isn’t that amazing? The mercy of God comes to the people who seem to deserve it the least. The mercy of God misses the people who think they deserve it the most.
Points to Ponder
Why is this story in the Bible? I think Jesus intends to teach us several crucial truths.
1. This story teaches us about the tremendous danger of religious self-deception.
The Pharisee went through all the religious motions and the motions he went through were good. Not a thing he claimed was untrue. And the things he was doing were actually good things. But because it was all outward, he walked away deceived and unjustified. Religion, even good religion, leads you to Hell instead of Heaven if it is not accompanied by a life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ. Because, number one, it makes you focus on the external. Number two, it makes you feel spiritually superior. Number three, it makes you look down your nose at other people. Number four, it draws you away from a total dependence upon God. Religion, even good religion, without Jesus Christ will send you to Hell. Do you know what’s so dangerous about it? Without a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ, religion leads you to Hell while making you think you are going to Heaven. That’s the shocking truth.
2. The worse sinners often make the best candidates for salvation.
Why? Because they know they need to be saved. The tax collector knew he didn’t have a chance. The Pharisee thought he was doing God a favor by showing up and praying. The worst sinners often make the best candidate for salvation. Anybody here been sleeping around? You could be saved today. Anybody here who used drugs this week? You could be saved today. Anybody here who has killed a person with your own hands? You could be saved today. Anybody here far away from God and you feel like you don’t belong in this beautiful sanctuary? Good news, brother. Good news, sister. I have good news for you. The worst sinners often make the best candidates for salvation and if you fit into the general category of sinner this morning, I bid you run to the cross of Christ and embrace the cross of Jesus Christ as your only hope for salvation. The worst sinners can be saved.
3. Your only hope of going to heaven is to do what this bad man did.
Cry out to God for his mercy on the basis of the blood of Jesus Christ. That’s as plain as I can say it. That’s a prayer God delights to answer.
In one of his books, John Warwick Montgomery imagines a scene at the entrance to heaven where Saint Peter is manning the entrance desk by the pearly gates. Up comes a fine looking man, all dressed up. When he rings the bell St. Peter says, “Can I help you?” And the man says, “I would like to have entrance into heaven.” And St. Peter said, “Excellent. We’re certainly glad to have you. We always want more people in heaven.”
Then St. Peter says, “In order to enter heaven you have to earn 1000 points. The man said, “That shouldn’t be any problem. I have been a very good man all my life. I’ve been very involved in civic things. I have always given a lot of money to charitable causes. For 25 years I was the chairman of the Community Chest fund drive.” As St. Peter wrote it all down he said, “That’s a marvelous record. That’s one point.”
Taken aback, the man added, “I was married to my wife for 45 years. I was always faithful. We had five children—three boys and two girls. I always loved them and spent a lot of time with them and made sure they got a good education. I always took good care of them and they turned out so well. I’m a real family man.” St. Peter said, “I’m very impressed. We don’t get too many people up here like you. That’s another point.”
Sweating freely by now, the man started shaking. “You don’t understand. I was active in my church. I went every Sunday. I gave money every time they passed the plate. I was a deacon and an elder. I taught Sunday school for 20 years.” And St. Peter said, “Your record is certainly admirable. That’s another point.” Then he adds, “Let me add this up. That’s one. That’s two. That’s three points. Only 997 to go.”
Trembling, the man fell to his knees. In desperation he cried out, “But for the grace of God nobody could get in here!” St. Peter looked at him and smiled, “Congratulations, you’ve just received 1000 points” (from How Do We Know There is a God?, pp. 60-61).
For Sinners Only
Do you want to go to heaven? You’ve got to get there by the grace of God or you won’t get there at all. Salvation begins when a person understands that he cannot save himself. The door to heaven has a sign over the top and the sign says FOR SINNERS ONLY. If you qualify, come on in.
Jesus died for sinners and for no one else. That’s why the Pharisee was lost although he was good and the tax collector was saved although he was bad. One man held on to his good works while the other clung to the mercy of God.
The Rev. Eddie Martin once conducted a crusade in Bluefield, West Virginia. At the altar call a well-dressed woman came forward. It was Rev. Martin’s custom to have them repeat the sinner’s prayer with him. He took her hand and prayed, “Dear Lord, I know that I am a sinner. I know I can’t save myself. I need forgiveness for my awful sins. Please accept me, Jesus.” But as he prayed with the woman, she was silent. He looked at her and asked, “Don’t you want to be saved?” She said, “Yes, I want to be saved, but I’m not a sinner.” “Then you can’t be saved,” he said. “Jesus only died for sinners.” “But Rev. Martin—I’m a good sinner!”
But there is no place in heaven for “good” sinners. As long as you cling to a shred of your “goodness,” you cannot be saved. But if you are willing to call yourself what you are—a sinner—you can be saved right now.
Saved Here and Now
It’s such a simple prayer. “God be merciful to me a sinner.” If you would say that prayer and understand it in its fullest meaning, you could make sure of heaven right now. What is the full meaning? “God be merciful to me on the basis of what Jesus Christ did on the cross.” If you would say it and pray it and mean it you could be sure of heaven right now.
Would you like a simple prayer you could pray? I’m going to suggest this prayer to you. Remember that prayer alone cannot save or help to save. But perhaps these words will help you trust in Christ with all your heart. You might want to say them out loud or write them down where you can read them again.
Dear God, I know that I am a sinner. I know that I cannot save myself. I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. I believe he died on the cross for my sins. I believe he rose from the dead on the third day. I confess that I am a sinner in need of a Savior. Lord Jesus, come into my heart and save me now. I ask for a brand-new life. I ask you to forgive me of all my sins. Here and now I receive Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. Amen.
Whenever an invitation such as this is given, something in us objects that it can’t be this easy. My response is that the “hard part” was done by the Lord Jesus when he died on the cross. If we understand what Jesus did, our only response can be to come to him in love and trust, asking him to save us. I urge you to open your heart to Jesus in this holy moment. If you have doubts, come and see for yourself. The way to heaven has been opened by the Son of God. Come just as you are, holding nothing back, making no excuses. Come, and as you come to Christ, he will come to you.