Do you know whether you’re saved? If you were to die today, are you absolutely certain that you’ll go to heaven? This question came up last Sunday at our Church Council retreat and I was quite surprised to find that some of those present weren’t absolutely certain of their salvation. On Monday, I read an article that talked about the vast number of Americans living in the so-called Bible belt who think they’re saved—when they’re really not. “The Bible Belt,” the author wrote, “is the most difficult place in America to pastor a local church.”
Now despite the fact that only the very southernmost counties of Iowa are included in the “official” Bible belt, the author of this article seemed to be speaking directly to me. God seemed to be speaking to me.
And I think it’s especially appropriate during this season of Lent, this season during which we move toward the cross of Jesus, that we spend time considering this question. If you were to die today, are you absolutely certain that you’ll go to heaven? And even if you say “yes,” do you know the criteria for getting into heaven? Are you aware that we don’t get into heaven just because we say we’re not atheists—just because we say that we believe in God and we pray and we send our kids to confirmation and sometimes we even go to church? Because many of the people who do those things are simply cultural Christians—not saved Christians.
Cultural Christians aren’t atheists or agnostics. Most of them would be offended if someone suggested that they’re not Christian. They absolutely believe in Jesus—but they don’t really think He’s necessary in their lives except in moments of crisis. Whether or not He is holy and people have sinned against Him is either irrelevant—or they’ve never really thought about it.
And, as I thought about it, I don’t know if I’ve ever really talked specifically about the doctrine of salvation. It is my hope that for many of us, this will be simply a reminder of who God is and what He requires of us. If there are others of you who have never heard the biblical doctrine of salvation before, my prayer is that it will change your life forever.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Then He created birds and fish and animals—and man. Why? Have you ever stopped to wonder why God created people? What was His purpose in doing so?
The world has a lot of different ideas about this:
- Some think we were created for pleasure—just to enjoy life. “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” (hedonism).
- Some think our purpose is to be productive, to work (communism).
- Some think we were created to be both a worker and a consumer (capitalism). We work for a living, but we live to shop.
- Some think we’re all part of universal being (pantheism). Hinduism and Buddhism believe this, along with many New Age philosophies. There is no Creator, only the creation, and they believe that human beings have no separate existence apart from creation.
- Muslims believes in a god that is the source of both good and evil and it is this god who leads people astray. Every human being is at the whim of God’s arbitrary will.
- Some people think we’re simply the result of meaningless chance (naturalist). This is often connected to the idea of evolution.
- Some believe that human life starts with nothing, ends with nothing, and means nothing in between (existentialism).
- Some believe that people are basically good and that sin or evil is the result of a bad environment(humanism).
The Bible, however, teaches that in the beginning there was both a Creator and a creation (which rules out pantheism). On the sixth day, God says, “Let us make man” (1:26), which rules out naturalism.
We learn that God not only made us, but He made us in His image. And because God is holy and righteous, to be like Him is to also be holy and righteous. But because we didn’t make ourselves, we don’t get to define ourselves—our Creator, God, gets to do that. And according to God, a human being is made for the glory of God.
Because we’re made in God’s image, He expects us to do the things God does. God works, and so does He expect His creatures to work. So from the very beginning, we had work to do. We’re called to represent God’s rule on this earth. Adam and Eve were the caretakers of Eden and the keepers of the Paradise Zoo. And they loved their jobs because they worked for the glory of God.
But we’re not just a workforce. God also rests—and in His rest, He enjoys relationship. So God created men and women to correspond to one another, to be in relationship, and to raise up children. Glorifying Him in all that we do.
We learn from creation that we were made for work, but not to be enslaved by it. We were made to play, but not simply for our own pleasure. We were made to have relationships, but not just for our own gratification.
We were made for many things, but we have only one primary purpose, and that is to live for God. And the only way to glorify God perfectly is to obey Him absolutely. To see if we would do this, God gave the first man and woman a test.
There was a tree in the garden that gave life—and next to it was a tree that threatened death. One tree represented God’s blessing, the other His curse. The Bible doesn’t call this arrangement a covenant, but that’s what it was. The covenant had two parties: God and the man. It had a promise and a condition: the promise was a life of continual happiness in God’s beautiful garden. The condition was perfect obedience. And there was a curse: death for disobedience. Any disobedience.
And that’s where we start to have a problem—because we want to define what disobedience is. Many of us wonder: really, what’s the big deal about eating a piece of fruit? What difference did it really make? After all, the devil made them do it. Did God really have to throw them out of the garden? What about second chances?
Isn’t God being a little harsh here?
We think about Korah’s rebellion when the Israelite people were in the wilderness and God struck 14,700 down with a plague just because a group of leaders criticized Moses and Aaron’s leadership (Numbers 16). And what about that time when King David was moving the ark of the covenant and Uzzah reached out to steady it so it wouldn’t slide off the cart that was carrying it and God immediately struck him dead (I Chronicles 13)? And how about Ananias and Sapphira? Sure, they told a lie, but is that really something they should have to die for?
We think God’s not being fair—and when we think like this, we’re thinking like Adam and Eve. We’re thinking that we should get to decide the terms of our relationship with God, that our ideas of fairness should be the determining factor—or that at least we should be able to negotiate some mutually agreeable arrangement.
We want to set the standards by which God judges us.
We’ve forgotten that God is the Creator and the judge, and that He gets to make the rules—and that perfect obedience is His standard. The real issue for Adam was whether he would let God tell him what was good and bad for him or whether he would seek to decide that for himself.
Like everything else God made, our first parents were created good. But they’d only remain good if they passed their probation by choosing to live for the glory of God instead of choosing to live for themselves.
There’s an enemy in the Garden. We’re not told how he got there, but the serpent was the world’s first Bible critic, casting doubt on God’s perfect Word and encouraging human judgment. Satan deliberately misquotes and misrepresents what God said and then he implies that God is a liar.
Satan was the liar: “Your eyes will be opened.” And, “You will be like God.” Adam and Eve were already like God, for they were made in His very image. And they already knew about good—they had a relationship with their good Creator. There was nothing new they could learn about goodness—except how costly it is to lose.
They chose to disobey God. It is absolutely critical that we understand that this event took place in human history. There was a man Adam, who took a piece of fruit from the woman, Eve, put it in his mouth, bit it with his teeth, and swallowed it. It is presented as an historical event, and it is treated as history everywhere else in the Bible. The Bible is the only book anywhere that identifies the beginning of evil in the world by showing its origin in a real historical event.
Adam is included in Luke’s genealogy of Jesus and is mentioned by the New Testament writers at least six other times as a real person. And yet many people, even among those who call themselves Christians, try to tell us today that the creation story didn’t happen as written in Scripture. But the reality of Adam and his sin are critical to our understanding of salvation.
We see in Adam and Eve that God is not the author of sin. This is one of the ways Christianity differs from Islam. God allowed Adam to sin, but the decision to commit that sin came from man’s free will. And the one who enticed him to sin was not God, but the devil.
The problem with human beings is our desire to take God’s place, to live for our own glory rather than for His glory. At the very heart of sin is the perverse desire to live for self rather than to live for God—and this is why we need to be saved. We are sinners who will not, cannot, glorify God until He saves us.
We can, and should, mourn what we have lost. The first sin and the loss of paradise is a disaster of cosmic consequence. Think of the perfect happiness of Adam and Eve as they were created. Then think of all the misery and suffering that has come from their sin.
So the first step toward our assurance of salvation is to understand the problem. The problem is the sin virus that has infected every single one of us as a result of the first sin in the garden. And, without a savior, that sin virus results in eternal death—every single time.
The problem that many of us have, however, is the problem that Jesus addressed in this morning’s gospel passage—and it’s the problem that’s often most prevalent in the church. Which is why, Luke says, Jesus “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9).
Many of your Bibles have titled this story, “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector,” or something similar. It’s a story of two men, two prayer, and two destinies. As you listened to this story earlier, which of these men did you relate to more?
Luk 18:10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
Already we’re surprised because everyone knows that tax collectors don’t go to the temple. And if they do, it’s certainly not to pray. A praying tax collector is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. In Jesus’ day, tax collectors were the lowest of the low in Jewish society. They worked for the Roman government and so were considered traitors by the Jewish people. Everyone knew they were greedy and dishonest, usually practicing extortion to make a healthy profit. They were barred by law from serving in public office or giving testimony in a court of law. So everyone listening to Jesus knew that the tax collector was a crook.
The Pharisee, on the other hand, represented everything that was right and good about Jewish society. The historian Josephus described Pharisees as “a certain group of Jews that appear more religious than others, and seem to interpret the law more accurately.” Their reputation was impeccable. Everyone would expect to see a Pharisee praying in the temple—unlike the tax collector, this is where he belonged. And which prayer sounds more like a prayer that you might make?
The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ (18:11-12)
So the Pharisee is what we would call a “good” man—a righteous man. He’s a man with a lot of virtues and few vices that we can see. He doesn’t steal (which everybody knew tax collectors always did). He doesn’t hang out with the wrong people. He’s faithful to his wife. He’s working hard to keep the whole law perfectly. Today, he’d be a famous seminary professor or a deacon in the congregation, maybe even the pastor.
And this Pharisee goes way beyond the law in his devotional practice. Not only can we clearly see that he prays in the temple, but he fasts twice a week. He gives tithes of all that he gets. Jewish law requires only one fast a year, so he’s fasting a hundred times more than the law requires. He’s also giving a tenth of everything he receives, while the law only requires a tithe of certain kinds of income. So the Pharisee is really religious and exceptionally devout.
The only problem he has is that, according to Jesus, he remains unsaved. God’s not impressed by our good deeds, He’s not impressed by our commitment to religion. God bases His judgement on our heart. Our salvation, then, is based on what’s inside of us.
And whatever else we might say about the Pharisee, it should be extremely obvious that he has a huge problem with pride. In the study that I began with the council last Sunday, based on the book Letters to the Church by Francis Chan, Francis begins by talking about the need for anyone who wants to be a part of Christ’s body, especially if they are a pastor or leader in the church, to be humble. And he reminds us that pride is one of those sins that we never recognize in ourselves. Everybody else can see it—but not us.
How can we recognize pride in this Pharisee? Well, the Pharisee’s prayer is all about him. He wasn’t praying to God at all. For the Pharisee, prayer was a way of reminding himself what a great guy he was! He was so conceited that he refused even to admit to himself that he was a sinner.
And, unfortunately for him, God’s offer of salvation by grace is only for sinners. So being saved begins with our confession of sin, with our acknowledgement that we are sinful people. Because if we don’t recognize our own sinful nature, if we’re not convinced of our own guilt and our own desperate need for a savior, we’ll never even ask God to save us.
Instead we just assume, like the Pharisee, that because of our own goodness, of course we’ll be saved.
Maybe we even, like this Pharisee, not only refuse to recognize our own sin, but we even thank God that we’re not like all those other sinners out there. The Pharisee was certainly able to see that there was a problem with sinful humanity—he just couldn’t see that he was part of it.
Is that a problem you struggle with?
The Pharisee didn’t understand the first and most important part of salvation: his own need to be saved from sin. He also didn’t understand that he could be saved only by God’s grace—he thought that he could save himself by doing good works. After all, he was a good person—actually better than almost everybody else.
Unfortunately for him, and for everyone else who thinks like him, “pretty good” or even “really good” isn’t God’s standard.
The Pharisee in Jesus’ story is exactly like the crowd listening to the story—he “trusted in himself and that he was righteous, and treated others with contempt.” All those religious people who thought that they were better than others who didn’t meet their standards for righteousness.
They, like the Pharisee in Jesus’ story, didn’t need God—they had total faith in their own ability.
But according to the doctrine of total inability, we are sinners who cannot and will not come to God on our own. Only God can save us, and only by his grace.
Some of you might right now be thinking, “Well, but I really am better than a lot of other people. I try not to sin, I try to do the right thing.”
We don’t understand how holy God is—how being pretty good can never be his standard. Only that which is completely pure and holy can stand before a holy and perfect God.
Last Sunday, we read the passage in Deuteronomy that showed Moses at the end of his life; God is showing him the promised land—the land that God will not allow Moses to enter. We often hear that Moses is being kept out of the Promised Land because he struck a rock with his staff—not just once but twice—when God told him to speak to the rock. But the real reason that Moses could not enter into that land was because he was a sinner. If God graded on a curve, surely Moses would have been at the head of the class. But he’s still not good enough.
Now we come to the second man praying at the temple, the tax collector.
But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat 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 everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (18:13-14)
This is the man that Jesus says will receive forgiveness. While the Pharisee was reminding God of how deserving he was of God’s grace and forgiveness, the tax collector was begging for mercy. He began his prayer with God—which is, of course, where all prayers should begin. It’s where the Pharisee began his prayer, too. The difference is that while the Pharisee had no idea who God really is, the tax collector somehow did have some idea who it was that he was addressing. We see this in the fact that he stood far off and wouldn’t even raise his eyes up to heaven.
The Pharisee was closer to the altar, but much farther from God. He was so full of himself that there was no room for God. The tax collector was far from the altar, but close to the heart of God, because he came in reverent fear.
The reason for the tax collector’s fear was that he knew that he was a sinner. His prayer began with God and ended with himself, a sinner. Rather than comparing himself to others, the way the Pharisee did, the tax collector compared himself to God’s perfect holiness. He knew that he was a sinner who deserved nothing but wrath from God—it was this knowledge that prepared him to receive forgiveness for his sins.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the tax collector must not really have been so bad—he was. He was at least as bad as he said he was. He was a dirty rotten sinner—and he knew it. He asked for God’s mercy because mercy was the only thing he dared to ask.
There’s a lot more to this doctrine of salvation and we’ll continue to talk about this next Sunday. But as you go through this week, spend some time searching your own heart and mind and soul. Are you more like the Pharisee in Jesus’ story—or more like the tax collector? And I don’t mean are you guilty of lots of visible sin like the tax collector or do people look at you and think you’re a pretty good person? I mean, when you’re being really honest with yourself, do you see how desperately you need a savior? Do you really understand that you can never be good enough to save yourself? That you’re not good enough to save yourself? No matter how regularly you come to church or how much you pray or how much money you give to missions?
When we can look at ourselves and see what God sees—a dirty rotten sinner—we’ll begin to be able to recognize the great love that He has for us. A love so great that He sent His only beloved Son to die for us that we might have eternal life.
Let us pray.