How can you spot a saint? What makes him different from everyone else? For
starters, the word “saint” means “holy person.” So, what do you do? You
examine how someone lives, looking for holiness in his life.
Find someone who doesn’t cheat, steal, or defile marriage. A saint studies the
Bible and may set aside 10% or more of his income to the Lord. He works hard
at living a God-pleasing life. In other words, look for someone like the
Pharisee, whom Jesus tells us about in today’s Gospel.
The Pharisee prays, “I’m not like others.” He’s not lying. Not so with the
tax collector. He makes his money skirting the law, cheating on his
commission. The Pharisee didn’t earn a living by cheating. He worked to be
religious, setting aside 10% of his income and fasting twice a week. I met a
few who give 10% of their earnings to church, but I am still waiting to meet
someone who fasts twice a week like the Pharisee.
Jesus smashes down the idol of the works-righteous man: The Pharisee did not go
home a righteous man. Despite all his goodness, the Pharisee did not make
himself into a saint. Oh, he remembered everything he did right, but nothing
he did wrong. He refused to believe he needed God or God’s forgiveness.
So, we come to the crux of the matter. For no matter how you slice it, or what
you call it, only two religions exist in this world: The way of the Law or the
way of the Gospel.
With the Law, you work your way up to God. With the Gospel, God comes down to
you. With the Law, you need to earn God’s favor; with the Gospel, God’s favor
comes to you, undeserved though it is. In the religion of the Law, you try to
justify yourself. Not so with the Gospel—God justifies you.
The Pharisee did what he did to try to make himself right with God. He tried
to do what was right, but no matter what he did or how hard he tried, he always
So, we come to the tax collector. This truth seeped into the tax collector’s
consciousness: no matter how much he tries to do what is right, he can’t
survive without God’s goodness. So, he cries out: “God, be merciful to me, the
sinner.” Jesus misses nothing and declares, “The tax collector went home
righteous.” Despite his sin, the tax collector is a saint.
If you exalt yourself through the Law, it will knock you in the dirt. The Law
will strip you naked and unmask you as a sinner. No matter how good you may
be, the Law will still accuse you and cut you down. The Law will stop your
mouth, expose your sin, and kill you in the end; it does that to the sinner.
So, if you try to get close to God through the Law, trying to earn His favor
with your commandment keeping and noble deeds, you will not be justified. The
Law only condemns. For you are putting your trust in what you did or do—and it
is never enough!
Should we then not bother trying to live holy lives? Or worse, should we try
to become a worse sinner so we can qualify for sainthood? No. The tax
collector did not become a saint because he lived a better life, but neither
was he a saint because he lived a hideous life. He was a saint because he
trusted in Jesus, who would make right what sin brought into ruin.
Did Jesus sacrifice His sinless, spotless life for you? If you trust He did,
you are a saint. God recognizes you as living a holy life.
So, what happens after Jesus tells the parable? People bring infants, tiny
babies to Jesus—and He wants to bless them. What do those squirming, helpless
little ones offer to Jesus to deserve His blessing? Nothing.
Who is better able to do something, the adult or the infant? Who is more
helpless than an infant? He’s a waste of Jesus’ time. Jesus is building a
kingdom, and people are bringing newborn babies to Jesus. The disciples soon
realize what’s going on, so they belittle those parents for wasting His time.
Jesus’ response reveals to all this truth: The infants, the helpless, worship
God in the way of the Gospel. They can’t do the Law. They can’t decide for
Jesus and speak on their own. We can’t do the Law either, but we know just
enough to think we can!
Here’s the truth: we are no better off than those helpless babies whom others
must bring to Jesus. Scripture pounds in that point by bringing up infants
after the failure of the Pharisee. “Don’t stop the little children from coming
to me! Don’t try to stop them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as
these” (Luke 18:16).
Are you now beginning to understand infant baptism? Infants are the perfect
candidates for baptism because they can’t do what God’s Law demands. Others
need to bring them to Jesus. They can’t bring themselves. So the picture for
every person becomes one of being brought back into infancy, of becoming
helpless, where you can’t do anything.
Here’s the irony: All baptism is infant baptism, even if an adult is getting
baptized. Why? Babies need someone to give to them. They can’t do what’s
needed or meet the standard. Neither can we when it comes to salvation—but we
are often dumb enough to think we can!
“Whoever doesn’t receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter
it” (Luke 18:17). The child does nothing; God does everything. We can
understand this with the infant, which is the point Jesus is making.
So, what makes a saint different from everyone else? Every saint approaches
the Lord the way the tax collector did—with nothing to offer. Repentance is
recognizing everything you can offer God to be right with Him is never enough.
At the Temple, the tax collector stood far away. He realized his worthlessness
before his Lord—and that truth had now become part of his DNA. He doesn’t pray
how good he is. He confesses how corrupt he is: “God, be merciful to me, the
Those aren’t hollow words, for he’s not praying: “Forgive me today so I can go
back to cheating as a tax collector tomorrow.” So also are we not to repent
with hollow words. To do so is not real repentance—if you are saying something
with your lips when planning in your heart to commit the same sin.
Do not make a mockery of confession if you intend to keep right on sinning.
Yes, you and I all sin out of weakness, which is not the same as planning to
Real repentance wants to change but realizes you can’t without the strength of
your Lord. True repentance recognizes you are unworthy to ask for God’s mercy
but believes, all the more, our Savior wants to give it. So, if you want to
live a life pleasing to God but realize temptations can crush and disembowel
you, confess with the tax collector. Cry out: “God, be merciful to me, the
Drink in God’s promise: “Though your sins are as scarlet, they will become
white as snow. Though they are like crimson, they will become white as wool”
(Isaiah 1:18). Our Lord’s blood purifies you, which He shed on the cross for
Picture your life stained red by sin. So, Jesus comes to you and declares: “I
forgive you.” He later speaks a reality into being: “This is my body, given
for you; this is my blood, shed for you.” Picture His blood flowing from the
cross and over your life. Here’s what happens: His blood doesn’t stain you
redder as it courses your way. No, His cleansing blood turns you spotless,
sinless white, washing away everything unholy within you.
Jesus, who told the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, is the only
person in human history who lived a righteous life. He could boast to God
about His goodness and be speaking the truth. But instead of boasting, Jesus
comes to serve. He brings His holy life to this Temple today, into this
church, so He can give you what you cannot do for yourself.
“You were all baptized into Christ, and so you were all clothed with Christ”
(Galatians 3:27). At your baptism, the Holy Spirit poured Jesus’ holy life
over your unholy life. Now, God looks at you, dear baptized believer, and His
eyes only see the purest saint who ever lived. “Behold a host arrayed in
white,” a multitude of saints, which also includes you. You are washed white
in our Lord’s blood.
Saints come to church, but not to tell God about their righteous lives. Like
the tax collector, we come to church to give God our unrighteous lives—and our
Lord dresses us in Jesus’ holy life. The church is not a museum where we
display saints; no, this church is a hospital where the Doctor from all
eternity, Jesus, cures sinners and makes them saints. Jesus comes to make you
and me into saints!
Why are you different from all the other people in the world? Because of God.
He makes you into a saint, who cries out as he turns away from sin: “God, be
merciful to me, the sinner.” Faith believes God is merciful—all because Jesus’
blood makes you nothing less than a saint. Amen.
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