Justification: Forgiveness of Sins
Romans 5:1-11, Luke 18:9-14
A new seminary graduate decided to ‘assist’ a wise, experienced preacher: He said, “In order to effectively instruct the masses; it is incumbent upon us that we in a most articulative austeludicating fashion; rightly disseminate the word of truth, in order to avoid the presence of psychological processing and theoretical reasoning. This only capitulates to philosophicative conclusiveness and diminishes one’s assiduous approach to the charismatic overview of the divine HOLY WRIT; which in the end, ultimately leads to spiritual interposition and characteristic nullification in the Christianic life……” The experienced preacher responded to the seminary graduate saying, “In other words, ‘Preach the gospel; use words when necessary.’”
[Quote credited to St. Francis of Assisi. Story: www.desperatepreacher.com]
I have to admit at being a bit challenged when reading the sermons as part of our series. As Christians we often use terms that may be a bit confusing to others and I think today’s term of ‘justification’ is one of those. What exactly is justification? How do we know when we are justified? Why do we need justification?
Wesley notes, “The plain scriptural notion of justification is pardon, the forgiveness of sins.” That’s it. We have heard and studied the term prevenient grace which in essence is God’s grace extended to us even before we consider the need for it. It is God’s grace that nudges us toward the need to be in right relationship with God. As we talked about a couple weeks ago, it is God’s grace that beacons us to Wake Up and realize that we are sinners. We have strayed from God’s will for our lives and we need to turn toward God instead of pulling away which is our natural tendency to do.
Here is the point I want to hone in on – once we realize the need for God’s abundant grace, we are the ones who need to take the next step and accept God’s grace for ourselves. God is not a forceful God. God is not one to take away our free will. We have to make the choice to turn toward God and repent (Hebrew word ‘shueb’) of our sin or remain distant from God. God extends the hand of forgiveness to us through prevenient grace. We need to step forward and accept that gift for ourselves through justifying grace.
I find myself drawn to the story noted for us in the gospel of Luke concerning the Pharisee and the tax collector. Pharisees tend to never look good in the gospels. They are haughty, having put themselves on a pedestal. They have a tendency to look down on others, displaying their personal holiness as setting themselves above everyone else. We like to dislike the Pharisees because they are so enraptured with themselves they cannot even recognize the Messiah when he is in their midst.
We have a scene in the temple where a Pharisee and a tax collector find themselves praying together in the same place at the same time. But their prayers are vastly different. The Pharisee is thanking God for making him better than most. He then proceeds to detail what he has done for God by fasting twice a week and giving a tenth of his income to the church. He most certainly feels his good works are enough to keep him in the good graces of God.
On the other side we find a tax collector. These were considered the lowest of the low. Tax collectors were employed by Rome to see to it that everyone paid their dues to the government. They were seen as co-conspirators with the Romans who were known for oppressing the people in every way. And if that wasn’t bad enough, tax collectors were also known for skimming money off the top which means they would charge a higher amount than what was due, pay the correct amount to the Roman government, and pocket the rest. They were considered thieves of the worst kind, like those who would literally steal from helpless children.
But the tax collector in this parable is a bit out of the ordinary. We find him in the temple, completely humbled to the point where he cannot even look toward heaven. He is repentant for his actions and seeks God’s grace. He is asking God for forgiveness of his sins. He is asking God to be merciful to him. He knows he is a sinner and he cries out to the one who can take away his sin. He wears no crown of pride, only the crown of humility. According to Jesus, this man is the one who leaves justified because he looks to God for help and forgiveness, not with boastfulness and pride but with humility and sincerity.
We cheer for the tax collector. We are on his side. We are pleased with the outcome of this parable. Yet how many of us can truly see ourselves as the tax collector? Maybe some have had to come back from a hard road of sins against God, but I’m thinking most of us haven’t taken on the criminal life at all. Many of us have been church goers for a long time. Most of us have never robbed a bank or done drugs or embezzled funds from our employer. Most of us can relate better to the Pharisee than the tax collector.
Consider the Pharisee. He is one who attends temple regularly, fasts and prays as he was taught to do, and gives his portion to the church. Do we not do this as well? Last week we learned about the Almost Christian – here we see someone who appears holy, but only on the outside. The Pharisee is not the good guy in this parable. The Pharisee is not the one who receives the blessing of forgiveness from God. Perhaps it is because the Pharisee doesn’t think he needs forgiveness; hence he doesn’t need to ask for it. The Pharisee seems convinced that he is doing just fine without God’s help. The Pharisee displays his acts of holiness like a red badge of courage, and his pride becomes his greatest enemy.
How can we prevent falling into the same trap as the Pharisee? He truly felt his actions were enough to grant him the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Here’s the difference – the Pharisee was doing good works in order to earn his way into heaven. Wesley notes that the only true good works are those done as a result of our seeking forgiveness for sin. Once we step forward and claim God’s grace for ourselves, seeking forgiveness for our sins, we cannot help but share God’s love with others. Our good works then are not a means to earn salvation but a response to salvation.
We are all sinners. We have all fallen short of God’s glory. As much as we may try we cannot earn our forgiveness. God provided the key to salvation through Jesus Christ, who willingly gave his life for others. Scriptures teach us that God’s grace is bountiful and available to anyone who seeks it – but we need to seek it. When we truly humble ourselves before our Creator, and accept the fact that we are loved by God in spite of our faults, only then can we have the assurance that Christ died even for us. There is a popular hymn that says, “Jesus paid it all. All to him I owe. Sin had left a crimson stain. He washed it white as snow.” We are no longer bound to the punishment that we deserve as those who have strayed from God’s love. Like the tax collector in the parable, we are forgiven. When we step forward and accept God’s grace for ourselves, we are set free from the chains of sin.
Is God calling you to take that step of faith? Are you feeling the extended hand of God’s grace that is outstretched for you? Perhaps it is time to step forward and claim God’s justifying grace. Perhaps it is time to admit that we do not have all the answers; we are not in control of everything around us; we have not asked God for grace because we do not think we need it. Only when we humble ourselves before God and accept the prevenient grace extended to us will we know that Christ died even for us. We are justified. Amen.