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Luke 18:9-14 | “Humility, Faith, and Justification”
The 11th Sunday after Trinity | 7 August 2016

Dear Saints,

When you are brought into court the first order of business is the plea. “How to do you plea?” the judge asks you, “Innocent or guilty?” And how you answer that question determines how it will go with you through the case.

Something like this is happening in the parable today. There are two men, and they do not enter an earthly court, but the court of God, the temple, and they make a plea.

One, a Pharisee, pleads innocent, righteous. He brings to the judge the evidence of his goodness. He uses the other man, the sinner, as further evidence of his case. “Dear judge, if you want to see a sinner, take a look at that guy…”

That guy, on the other hand, a tax-collector, a sinner, makes a different plea. He pleads guilty. “I’m a sinner. You don’t need evidence. You know it. My only hope is mercy. ‘Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.’”

Two very different men. Two very different pleas. Two very different outcomes. And this is for us, for our instruction, our repentance, and our comfort this morning.

Jesus has us in the crosshairs of this parable. He’s aiming at our sinful flesh, and especially that part of us that is always busy justifying ourselves.

It is a strange thing, our sinful flesh, our inherited unrighteousness. We know that our flesh is always tempted to sin, to rebellion and anger and lust and greed, to godlessness and despair. We know, we feel it every day, that our flesh is drawn to sin this way and that, like the dog on a leash that keeps getting the smell of a rabbit or squirrel, and pulls you off the path. We know that about our flesh.

But there is something else the flesh does, something more subtle perhaps, and seemingly entirely different than tempting us to sin. The flesh justifies itself. The flesh is proud of its good works. The flesh boasts of its own righteousness and excuses its own sin, a sweeps it away.

This is why we talk about the little Pharisee that lives in all of us, and if we want to see what he’s up too, we can listen to Jesus describe him in the parable. “The Pharisee stood and prayed to himself [this probably is, “he stood off by himself”] like this: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of men, extortionists, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I get,’” (Luke 18:12-13).

That’s the voice of the Pharisee that lives in each of us, which is very impressed with itself, and is convinced that God is also very proud of me. The little Pharisee, you will also notice, despises his neighbor. The little Pharisee puts everyone else up here and everyone else done here.

Now, it is something that the same sinful flesh has the two seemingly opposite effects, to push us to sin on the one hand and to exalt our goodness on the other. What about this for an illustration. Imagine drinking tequila and playing golf. Two things are happening at the same time. The tequila is making you a much worse golfer, but it also makes you think that you are a great golfer. So there you are, shouting for everyone to come and watch you putt, and you can barely walk to the green.

That’s your sinful flesh. Sinning more and more, and at the same time growing more and more proud of your works.

The old theologians had a name for the theology of the sinful flesh, the opinio legis, the opinion of the law, and this is the logic: if God is mad at me because of my sin, then He must be happy with me because of my good works.

We see the opinio legis whenever we ask a person if they will be in heaven, and you know how it goes, “Sure I will, I’m a good person.” We see the opinio legis in the parable when the Pharisee goes into the temple to pray. We recognize the opinio legis in the meditations of our own mind and heart when it is time to hear the preaching of the law, when it is time to repent, when it’s time to make a plea.

The little Pharisee wants you to stand before God and plead “innocent.” I’m a good person. I’ve tried hard. I helped people. I had good intentions. Whatever.

God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of men, extortionists, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I get.

But look, when you plead innocent before the throne of God the court takes shape this way: The devil is your only friend; he serves as your defense attorney. Moses and Jesus team up, and they are the prosecution. And the evidence that the court sees is your sin, all of it, and the judgement is passed on the law. You are found guilty, condemned, and the wrath you suffer is God’s eternal wrath.

But there is another way. To plead guilty.

But the tax collector, standing far away, wouldn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

When you stand before the throne of God and plead guilty, then the court shapes up in an entirely different way. The devil is your accuser, but Jesus is your defense. The devil might even call Moses to be his expert witness, but Moses is the guy who brought you to the court that morning! The devil will try to bring all of your sins into court as evidence, but Jesus presents as the counter-evidence His blood, His cross, His suffering.

Remember the picture? I hope you can see it in your head. The devil says, “I’d like to present this evidence, Bryan’s sin.” You’re sitting there, you see it, and you hang your head. I know I did that, I sinned, I broke God’s law. This evidence will do me in. But Jesus stands up next to you and says, “Objection, that sin is died for.” “Sustained!” the judge says, and your sin is not admitted as evidence.

So the devil runs around looking for more evidence and brings some more of your sin into the court, “Here’s some more sin,” he says. “Objection! That sin is died for.” “Sustained.” Every time. Objection, Jesus says, see these wounds. Objection, the holes in My hands. Objection, see here My side. Objection, the cross. Objection, My blood. Objection. And your sin cannot stand. It cannot condemn.

Who can be against us? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? Who will condemn? It is God who justifies, who forgives, who puts the righteousness of Christ to our account, so that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. No condemnation.

I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.

Dear saints, it is no accident that the first thing we do when we come into church is to confess our sins, to plead guilty, to beg for mercy. We stand before God with nothing to offer, nothing to argue, nothing to give but our sin and death, and He has for us Jesus, His death and resurrection, His blood, His righteousness, and with Jesus the verdict is this, “Your sins are forgiven.”

By this word we are among the company of the blessed who god home justified. God be praised! Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding guard your heart and mind through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Pastor Bryan Wolfmueller
Hope Lutheran Church | Aurora, CO