Spiritual growth should do something to our self-image. It did something to Paul's. When he wrote to the Corinthians in about AD 59, Paul called himself "the least of the apostles" (1CO 15:9). Four years later, he had grown to the point that he saw himself as "the least of the saints" (EPH 3:8). A few years—and many tribulations—later, writing his last letters to the young pastor Timothy, Paul declared himself to be the worst sinner in the world (1TI 1:15).
As he matured and his intimacy with Jesus Christ deepened, Paul saw both God and himself more clearly. Instead of causing him to feel better about himself, growth opened Paul's eyes to the fact that his sin nature was worse than he had ever imagined; it was incorrigible. He saw with greater clarity every day the depth of his need for grace from God. And that was the secret of his greatness.
"Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand." (ROM 5:1-2)
We stand in grace or we do not stand at all. Grace is all that God is free to do for mankind on the basis of the work of Jesus Christ. It is a resource that can never be earned or deserved, but only received as a gift. We are saved by grace through faith; we grow in the Christian life by grace through faith.
Because grace can be initiated and sustained only by God, anything we try to do other than respond is worthless. Anything we try to do on our own takes us out of the sphere of grace and puts us into the sphere of "works" or "law." Paul explained this to the Romans when he said, "If it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace" (ROM 11:6).
No one can work his way to God or earn God's approval through human effort. Paul, the former Pharisee who had been found "blameless" by the strictest standard of righteousness that had ever been devised (PHI 3:4-7), knew about trying to work his way to God. He understood how the legalistic mind sets itself against grace, refusing to accept the fact that in man there dwells no good thing (ROM 7:18).
Most people can see that sin is a violation of the righteousness of God, so they understand why it had to be judged on the cross. But not very many people are reconciled to the fact that the good things man does on his own are abhorrent and are absolutely unacceptable to God.
In the Hebrew, ISA 64:6 is graphic in its description of the good that man can produce. "All our righteousness," it says, "is as the rag of a menstruous woman." Why would the Holy Spirit inspire Isaiah to use this particular analogy? Because the flow of blood in the menstrual cycle is evidence that there has been no conception. No conception means there will be no birth, and no birth means no life. Isaiah is saying that all human good is dead in God's sight.
That is exactly why human good is referred to as "dead works" in HEB 6:1-2. The author is not talking about sins here. Sins are never called "dead works" in the Bible. "Dead works" is a reference to man's attempts to work his way to God, to earn His approval. But he cannot do it. All our good is relative good; all our righteousness is relative righteousness. Compared to other men, we may appear good, righteous. But compared to the absolute goodness and righteousness of God, we are less than nothing.
At every moment we have two choices: we can trust in ourselves—relying on our intellect and our strength and our goodness—or we can take a realistic look at ourselves and see that our only hope is to trust in God and rely on the riches of His grace. In Luke 18, the Lord has a story to tell about two men and who they chose to trust.
And He also told this parable to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt ... (LUK 18:9)
The most natural thing in the world is for men to use one standard to measure themselves and another to judge everyone else. The men to whom Jesus directs this parable look at themselves from the standpoint of all their virtues. They are preoccupied with all the wonderful things they do. But when they look at others, they minimize anything that might be worthwhile and magnify the flaws they see. They measure themselves by comparing their strengths to other men's weaknesses. By this kind of comparison they tower above others. So of course they look at others with contempt.
Exoutheneo means "to make of no account, to despise utterly." This is the mental attitude sin of scornfulness—the basis of hatred, hostility, enmity. The word translated "others" is loipos. It means "the rest." As far as these men were concerned, everyone who was outside of their little sect was not worth spitting on.
"Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax-gatherer." (LUK 18:10)
The Pharisees were pillars of the community. They were respected and honored. The name "Pharisee" means "the separated ones." The Pharisees were, first of all, separatists. They stood apart, aloof. They wore special clothing to make sure that everyone would be properly impressed with who they were. They were legalists—preoccupied with keeping not just the Mosaic Law but the thousands of regulations that had been added to it through the years. They especially liked to concern themselves with the externals like tithing and ritual purity. The Pharisees thought they could meet God's standards by keeping all the outward rules. Like all legalists, they were very proud of themselves, of their association, of their own righteousness. They expected to be looked up to.
Tax-collectors, on the other hand, expected nothing but contempt. They did, after all, work for the hated Roman conquerors. The Romans did not pay the tax collectors, but gave them total freedom in collecting taxes from their fellow Jews. Everything they could weasel out of people above what was owed to the Romans was theirs. So they became very adept at chiseling people out of their money. It was a lucrative business. They were considered traitors and were despised by almost everyone. Especially did the Pharisees look down on these "sinners," classing them with harlots and Gentiles.
The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, "God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get." (LUK 18:11-12)
Notice that Jesus says that the Pharisee was praying to himself. It is no wonder, because in his mind he really was god. He was convinced that God was made in his image; he was convinced God held his standard.
The Pharisee said "thank you," but there was no thanksgiving here. He was thankful that he was not like other people, which of course was a bold-faced lie. He was exactly like other people.
He made no request of God. Why would he ask God for anything when he was unconscious of any need? He did not feel that he needed anything; he was very content with himself.
He had no praise for God. In the place of praise was self-exaltation. He congratulated himself first for all the things he did not do and for being such a fine individual. As he prayed, he looked around, because he had to look around at other people to remind himself of how wonderful he was. As his eyes fell on the tax-collector, he reminded himself how much better he was than all the others. Of course, he measured himself and others by the human standard of relative righteousness. He built himself up by beating others down. By zeroing in on the failures of others, he could make himself look pretty good. But not to God. Relative righteousness is despicable in God's sight.
Finally, he began to list his good deeds, and everything he had to say was an expression of law and of the externals. Jesus cuts the account of the Pharisee's prayer at this point, but you can bet that his prayer went on and on and on, into all the details of how many good things he did and how wonderful he was.
This man had a system based on two things: what he did and what he did not do. But nowhere was there a place in his system for what he was. Everything he was concerned with was external; there was nothing inside—no relationship with God, no fellowship, no faith.
But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, "God, be merciful to me, the sinner!" (LUK 18:13)
The tax-gatherer—hated, rejected, an outcast in his own nation—stood in the temple and uttered seven words. The fact that he felt he must stand apart from God, as well as from the Pharisee, indicates that he knew he was an outcast. He did not have any inflated ideas about being good enough for God.
The Pharisee acted as if he and God were old buddies; the publican had a reverent fear of God. It shows in his posture and in his refusal even to look up.
Beating his breast, he cried for mercy. Everything about this man said that he was defeated, ashamed, grieved. He saw how great his need was, and he knew that nothing but God's mercy could sustain him.
Whereas the Pharisee chose to magnify his good points, this man focused on his flaws. The Pharisee saw himself as better than everyone else. The tax-gatherer saw himself as worse than everyone else. He was so concerned about his sinfulness that he did not even have time to think about the Pharisee's flaws. He considered himself the sinner of sinners, the worst of all, and all he asked for was mercy.
God's mercy withholds from us what we deserve. Because God judged Jesus Christ on the cross for all our sins, He can offer us mercy. He can also offer us grace. God's grace gives us what we do not deserve—the righteousness of Jesus Christ, the riches of His glory, inheritance, power, and much more. But the only people who can lay hold of grace are those who realize a their need for mercy.
What was Jesus' evaluation of these two men and their prayers?
I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself shall be exalted. (LUK 18:14)
The word "justified" from dikaioo, means "declared righteous." No matter how proud and righteous the Pharisee felt when he walked out of that temple, he was not justified before God. "The sacrifices of God," David wrote in PSA 51:17, "are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart, 0 God, thou wilt not despise." We are not told how the tax collector felt when he left the temple, we only know how God saw him. A part of maturity is being able to see ourselves as God sees us—knowing absolutely when we are out of fellowship and displeasing to Him and just as absolutely when we are functioning in His grace and causing Him pleasure.
But by the grace of God, I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me. (1CO 15:10)
Grace is a resource that we choose whether or not to use. Every believer stands in the sphere of grace, in an encapsulated environment where all the riches of God are available to us. The same power, the same wisdom, and the same historical impact that was available to Paul is available to each of us.
Why then do some believers seem to be blessed and prospered while others are not? Maybe it is because some work harder. Paul took the resources of God's grace and he worked and sweat and did without sleep and went without all kinds of comforts so he could accomplish the plan of God for his life. He labored past physical and mental exhaustion, because he knew that he would never understand divine power until he had pushed past Paul's strengths and abilities. God honored that, and it was all grace because, on Paul's part, it was all faith.
A German proverb says, "God gave us nuts, but He didn't crack them." O.A. Baptiste said, "God gave us wheat, but we must bake the bread. He gives us cotton, but we must make the clothes; He gives us trees, but we must make our homes. He provides raw materials, we must make the finished product." This is the principle of grace at work.