“And he spoke this parable to certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank you, that I am not as other men are, extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes to heaven, but smote on his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalts himself shall be abased; and he that humbles himself shall be exalted.” Luke 18:9-14 AKJV
How do you appear before God? On the basis of your life and works? Or, by an appeal to God’s mercy for the sake of His Son, Jesus Christ?
If you noticed, our liturgy provides the answer. The first thing we do in our worship service is to confess our sins and seek God’s mercy and forgiveness for the sake of the holy life and innocent sufferings and death of His Son, Jesus Christ. It is only then, when we have heard and received God’s absolution in Christ Jesus, that we come before God with our worship and prayers. (Cf. Lutheran Service Book, Divine Service, Setting 3, Page 184.)
In today’s epistle lesson, Ephesians 2:1-10, we learn that we are justified and acceptable to God by God’s grace alone and through faith alone in Jesus Christ, and even that faith is of God’s working.
The Apostle Paul, in His letter to the Romans (3:20-25), writes: “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ to all and on all them that believe: for there is no difference: for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God has set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood.”
And in the Gospel, we have the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. This parable was told by Jesus to those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.”
When we feel that God will be pleased with us, hear and answer our prayers, accept our worship, or receive us into His everlasting kingdom because we have been faithful Christians and are not unfaithful and sinful as others are, we are praying in a similar fashion to the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable. Rather, we should come to God as did the humble tax collector who acknowledged his own sinfulness and unworthiness before God. When coming before God, we should come humbly, confessing our sins and looking to Him for mercy and forgiveness. With the publican, we join in praying: “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
And Jesus said: “this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalts himself shall be abased; and he that humbles himself shall be exalted.”
We also have it spelled out for us in 1 John 1 and 2 (1:8-9; 2:1-2): “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. … My little children, these things write I to you, that you sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for our’s only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” Cf. Psalm 32:1-5.
Since Christ died for our sins and rose again, we can come before God with the assurance that He will forgive our sins and hear and answer all our proper prayers (cf. 1 John 5:11-15). One might even say that we come to the LORD God in humble boldness — humble because we are unworthy sinners, but in boldness because Christ died for us and redeemed us (cf. Heb. 10:19ff.).
And, when our last hour comes, we can have the assurance that we are counted just and righteous and have eternal salvation entirely of God’s grace and mercy in Jesus Christ.
Before Thee, God, who knowest all, with grief and shame I prostrate fall. I see my sins against Thee, Lord, the sins of thought, of deed, and word. They press me sore; I cry to Thee: O God, be merciful to me! O Jesus, let Thy precious blood be to my soul a cleansing flood. Turn not, O Lord, Thy guest away, but grant that justified I may go to my house at peace with Thee. O God, be merciful to me! Amen.” — “Before Thee, God, Who Knowest All,” The Lutheran Hymnal, Hymn #318, Verses 1,3.