The Danger of Religion
Chris and Nigel are away in Greece with some FBC’ers. They have been in Thessaloniki, Philippi, Corinth and are headed towards Athens. We’ll be back in James next week. This week, we’re going to look at a parable in Luke 18. If you’re newer to the church and wondering who I am, my name is John Pleasnick—I’m a husband, father of three, pastor, elder involved in missions, Training Center, the new building, CGs, and a lot of shepherding leaders.
Chris and I are longtime friends and one of the things I’ve learned from him over the years is to be looking down the road. Being involved in the building project, and walking alongside our CG leaders, I am thinking a lot about the future right now. I am amazed every Sunday at what so many of you do to accomplish worship services here–from setup to children’s to worship and video, there is a lot of work done.
My brain is elsewhere, though. I’m thinking about what’s ahead of us in the next year and the years beyond that. What happens after we move into the tent? What will the first year in the building look like? What will we be like three to four years from now? Can you picture the time when meeting in this gym is a shadow of a memory? We’ll ask, “How many of you were at MV with us?” And many people won’t raise their hands!
Where will those people come from? Murrieta and Temecula, of course–but more from Menifee, Elsinore, even Wildomar. They saw the church as they drove by on the freeway. They heard about our counseling ministry and needed help. They were hurt at their church and found us online. They are friends and family of one of you and have seen God transforming your life.
I am not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet–but I believe that there are more people headed to our church in the days ahead—a lot more. And that’s exciting and terrifying. Many of our CGs are near capacity. Our children’s ministry already lacks workers for all the kids. Most of our women’s and men’s Bible studies are full up. And that’s right now.
The heart of the elders is to always make room, to find a way to squeeze in anyone who wants to grow. But it’s getting harder to do that. We need more of you to step up. If you’ve decided to make FBC your home and you’re not a member, it’s time to start the process. We need you fully on board. Early in the life of the church, we took lots of risks–allowing people to lead who were still learning. We are a church that trains people to minister. As the years have gone by, we’ve become comfortable with a higher and higher quality of ministry and leader.
But as we move towards living on the church property and, as we grow numerically, we are going to begin to take risks again. We are going to use people who are very much in process. We’re going to ask some of you who don’t feel ready to step up and serve. Faith Bible Church is a church where you can’t just sit there. To truly be a part of the church, you need to use your spiritual gifts to serve others. If you’re used to just sitting at church, then you’re going to feel uncomfortable.
God didn’t design the Church to simply be attended. Sunday worship is not a performance you go to enjoy. The Church is a community in which you serve God by serving others. The Church is a family where you are knit together with the rest of the body. God designed the Church so that believers would grow by serving one another. That’s the call of God on your life as a Christian–mutual ministry to one another.
You might not feel ready for this. You may be scared for people to know you. You may feel like you have nothing to offer. Or maybe you’re thinking, “Finally! I’ve been waiting for this!” No matter the thoughts running through your head, here’s the truth we all need to cling to.
God Delights in Dependence
That’s the main message of our passage this morning. And that’s the main thing we need to remember in the days ahead—God delights in dependence.
Open up your Bibles to Luke 18, if you’re not already there. I want to look at a short passage you’ve likely read before. It’s the second of two parables on prayer. It’s the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Focus in on Luke 18:9 to 14. Prior to this parable, Jesus just taught his disciples that God will ultimately answer our prayers for justice. And now He wants us to know that some surprises may await us on the day of His return.
Luke, at the very start of the story, gives us the interpretive key. He tells us the motivation and reason for the story. If you’re there in your Bible, look at verse 9 of Luke 18, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” The story is addressed to those who believe that they are righteous.
The rest of the story will show that they were trusting in their goodness. They were good people who lived well, though they looked down on others who didn’t live like them. These were people who would be at the temple every week. They dressed nice to go and were never late for worship. They were faithful in their prayers and sacrificed during the week. We tend to think of Pharisees as bad, but in Jesus’ day, these were the good guys–the people who sought to take God’s Word most seriously. But their heart had moved from humble dependence to contemptuous self-trust. God delights in dependence–and what Jesus shows us is that . . .
1. A Religious Life can be quite Deceptive Luke 18:9-12
Look at Luke 18:9 to 12, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 ‘Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 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. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” 13 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!”’”
Jesus starts the story by taking two opposites–a Pharisee and tax collector. These are the most polar opposite people within His culture. The Pharisees were the most pious and pure of all the Jews. They took the Word of God very seriously, devoting most of their life to studying it. They wanted all of Israel to be pure and devoted to God.
The tax collector was the exact opposite. He had embraced Roman rule. He was hated by his countrymen, being known for corruption. Their salary came from charging more in taxes than what they turned in to the government. He got ahead in life at a cost to others.
The Pharisee would’ve been respected. The tax collector would’ve been hated. And in Jesus’ story, the two men go up to the temple to pray. In Jerusalem, the temple was in an elevated area, so everyone went up to the temple. Both of these two men go up to the temple to pray and they look almost exactly alike from the outside.
Both knew to pray. Both stand alone to pray. Both address their prayers to God and start the same way. Both speak with truth. Both wrap up and go home. From someone watching the two, most everything would look the same. The Pharisee stood by himself–a little more towards the center of the temple, but away from anyone who could defile him. The tax collector stood far off–away from the center of the temple, but purposefully isolating himself from others. The Pharisee prayed quietly or silently, with his head skyward. The tax collector did the same, only with his head down and repeatedly pounding his chest.
We don’t know if they both came at the regular time of prayer—9 am or 3 pm. They may have come privately to pray. But what we see is that the most religious man is also the most self-focused.
His prayer in verse 11 looks like thankfulness. But after a first mention of God, his attention goes to self. There are five I’s in his prayer. While everything he says is true, his attention is on himself. “Lord, I thank you that I don’t act like the men around me. I don’t extort. I am not partial. I don’t cheat on my wife. I don’t steal from others in order to earn a living. Lord, I thank you that I am able to fast twice a week, even though you only command it once a year. I make sure to give you some of everything I have.”
The guy sounds awesome. He’s the sort of man you’d expect to see elevated in a church today. He’s honest. He’s a giver. He’s committed. He did more than what’s required. He would have been praised in his community for his devotion. He would be a guy you’d see here every week, every meeting–serving, talking, taking notes during the sermon. Everyone around him, and he himself thought this guy is righteous. The problem is that a religious life can be quite deceptive.
Proverbs 30:12 to 13, “There are those who are clean in their own eyes but are not washed of their filth. 13There are those—how lofty are their eyes, how high their eyelids lift!”
This is what Paul confesses in Romans 7:11, “For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.” As a Pharisee like this man, he had sought to follow God’s law. But sin in his heart used the law of God to deceive him, give him false assurance, and lead him towards death.
Like Paul, this Pharisee’s bent was to trust in his righteousness and rule-following as the basis of God’s acceptance of him. He saw himself as better than other men. He did more than God required. Without Jesus’ commentary, we might think this guy is a stud, because a religious life can be quite deceptive.
You can do all the right things for all the wrong reasons. Trusting in ourselves is the normal gravity of our hearts. We are naturally bent to live like this man. We are prone to love people who are like us. We naturally find fault with people who are different than us. At Walmart, you roll your eyes at some of the people shopping there. This is why there’s a people of Walmart blog.
On the patio, you gravitate towards people you know and are similar to you. During worship, our eyes are prone to wander–watching and judging others. How is it possible that a person can be singing, while also watching others? How is it that we can be belting out a song, while critiquing someone’s parenting, or clothing choice, or tardiness to church?
Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” It is surprisingly easy to be satisfied with external righteousness and led to think that our souls are just fine. Maybe you’ve been living in your own strength. You show up every Sunday. You think you’re doing everything perfect. You can’t believe how many people don’t do the simple things you do. You watch various people on Sunday and think I would never do that.
First Samuel 16:7, “For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Our Lord cares about more than just your actions. God delights in dependence. He is looking for hearts that cling to Him in hope. That is the truth that leads to . . .
2. A Sinner Knows His True State Luke 18:13
Look at Luke 18:13, “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!’” Just like the Pharisee, the man was standing alone. He probably stood clear, because he was aware how much he was hated. He definitely sensed his unworthiness to be in the temple.
His prayer starts with the same form of address, but rather than the one mention of God–there is only one mention of self. If you came across this man, you might think that he has low self-esteem. The common way to pray was with your head lifted and your eyes closed. His head is down. He is pounding his chest over and over. The grammar actually emphasizes that.
He feels the weight of his sin before God. His unworthiness is at the forefront of his mind. He is a sinner. The Pharisee identified him that way. The tax collector agrees with him. He offers no declaration of his purity. He offers no list of works. He surely didn’t read the Bible as much as the Pharisee. He didn’t fast as much as the Pharisee. He wasn’t as aggressive in his giving as the Pharisee. He didn’t have the friends, community or respect that the Pharisee had.
He knew the state of his soul. And so he pounds his chest, praying this one thing—“God, be merciful to me, a sinner! God, be merciful to me, a sinner! God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” He is not deceived. He knows his true state. He is hopeless, apart from the saving work of God.
That cry for mercy is literally a command to God. Grant me atonement. Let your anger be removed from me. Let my sins be paid for. Now I get it–you’re thinking, “Of course he’s pleading this. He’s a tax collector. He probably did something rotten.” If you’ve been a Christian for awhile, I would bet that at some point you were overcome with grief over a specific and terrible sin in your life. Maybe you realized the hurt that it caused others. Maybe you were feeling the pain it brought to you. The guilt became overwhelming and you cried out to God. That’s a good response when convicted by sin. But I don’t think that’s entirely what’s going on here.
Throughout the Bible, you will find the greatest saints acting the same way. Job, as he’s convicted of his pride. Job 42:6, “Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” King David, as he fled from his enemies. Psalm 25:11, “For your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my guilt, for it is great.”
Isaiah, as he sees the incarnate deity. Isaiah 6:5, “And I said: ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.’” Ezra, as he considers himself before God. Ezra 9:6, “O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens.”
Peter, as he sees evidence of Jesus’ deity. Luke 5:8, “But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’” Isn’t it ironic that the men who appear the most religious have the least to confess? And the saints whose names we know are the ones who drop to their knees in fear before God. God delights in dependence.
When I think about the future of our church and the people we need at the core, this is the kind of people God wants to use. He wants people like this tax collector. He is not looking for the perfect. He is not looking for your life to be perfectly put together. Practically perfect people are not the most effective people for God.
The people of the Bible had flaws. Great men and women of church history have flaws. None of us are perfect–not me, not Chris, not Nigel. And God wants you, with all your glorious flaws, to cry out to Him. This is how you are saved–by acknowledging that you are a sinner and you need His mercy through Jesus. And this is the same way you live as a Christian–10, 15, 25 years later. You recognize that you are a sinner who is saved solely through the mercy of Jesus Christ. We do not follow the Bible in order to be saved. We follow God’s Word out of gratitude, because we want to look like our Savior.
This is why we sing, “What is our hope in life and death? Christ alone, Christ alone.” We live every day dependent on the mercy of our Savior. Every sinner knows the true state of their soul. Every day is lived acknowledging your deep need for God and His mercy. You give yourself fully to the one who gave Himself fully for you. God delights in dependence. First John 4:10 to 11, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
And at the end of this parable, Jesus does something you don’t hear that often. In verse 14, Jesus judges their prayers. Luke 18:14, “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.” Now we know from the start of the parable that his goal is not to teach on prayer. His focus is on the heart. And this conclusion teaches us that . . .
3. God Honors Humility more than Sacrifice Luke 18:14
Our tendency is to extol and think highly of those who are most outwardly religious. The more faithful their attendance, the more loudly they sing, the less visible their sins, then they must be the truly devoted. Jesus’ conclusion in verse 14 tells us that position doesn’t matter. Both men go home. But only the tax collector is forgiven of his sins. God honors humility. This to me is profound. The Creator of the universe doesn’t want your best every day. He doesn’t want you to run and strive and sweat to prove your devotion. He made everything perfectly and He knows no sin. Yet He is not bothered by your imperfections. He is willing to forgive your sin.
He doesn’t need your sacrifices. He doesn’t demand your worship. He will only accept them when given freely. He will honor and exalt the humble–not the charitable. Luke 1:52, “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate.” First Peter 5:5, “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’” James 4:10, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”
This is the promise of Scripture over and over and over again. But many times we don’t listen. We think it’s better to hide our sin than to confess it. We’d rather excuse our sin than admit to having it. Or we act like a spoiled teenager, providing grudging, grumbling obedience. We do what we think God wants while complaining in our hearts. God promises to exalt the humble.
Verse 14 of Luke 18, the humble man is justified, declared righteous. And this is the craziest part–the way to be righteous is to admit you aren’t. Declaring your greatness brings separation from God. Owning your failures brings acceptance from God. It’s an amazing truth. God loves the humble. He delights in those who depend on Him. And as I look towards our future, those are the people I’m praying that our church is filled with–humble, dependent believers will have an outsized witness in our valley. We don’t need visually perfect people. We can have the tatted, the pierced, alongside the elderly and soccer moms. We don’t need perfect families. We can acknowledge our struggles and tears, our crazy uncles and bad decisions.
Whether we continue to grow in size or stay just as we are, I am confident in this–God honors humility. And He is opposed to the proud. A self-righteous church is a dying church. A self-righteous person is self-deceived. You are absolutely unable to generate and maintain your own righteousness. God delights in dependence. He honors humility. As Jesus says a chapter earlier in Luke, the proper response of God’s children is humble service to our Savior. Luke 17:10, “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’ ”
This is the heart of a true child of God. And my prayer today is that you’re seeing ways you need to repent. A religious life can be quite deceptive. The greatest danger is that you walk out of here and think, “I’m not like that Pharisee.” That is exactly what he prayed—”Thank you that I’m not like that.” My great fear is that some of you have been thinking that same thing. The Lord is pleading with you to see the self-righteousness of your life–to confess it and to repent. To exchange all that you were for all that He is. Whether you judge people who show up for church late, or people who drive too slow or too fast for your taste. You look down on people with more or less money than you. You think that everyone is being stupid about the Covid vaccine. Or you’re simply self-satisfied by your present service to God.
I want you to hear the words of a repentant Pharisee. Philippians 3:7 to 9, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” That is the proper response, a life of humble, dependent obedience.