An Uncompromising Faith Lived Out with Grace

The following message was delivered in Chicago, Illinois, in November 2008

I recall a story about a man who used to manage a bank. When he retired at the end of the 1980s, the chairman of the bank remarked, “Thomas, you’ve been with the bank for forty-five years. What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in that time?” The man paused and then replied, “Air conditioning.”

Of course, anyone familiar with the financial industry will know that there has been an awful lot more change than air conditioning—even in the past five years. I’ve just been with my brother in New York, and he represents one sign of the uncertain times. He’s a senior partner and head of global banking in a well-known Wall Street firm, a household name. It’s really interesting. Up until a few weeks ago, when someone asked what my brother was doing in the States and I told them, they’d reply, “Wow!” I was just speaking at a conference for ministry in the workplace and a woman asked me, “What does your brother do?” When I told her she immediately replied, “Oh dear, is he okay?”

That just simply shows how fast things have changed in a relatively short period of time. And in such seasons, having an uncompromising faith that is lived out with grace can be a difficult challenge. Indeed, in apologetics and evangelism one thing is certain: it’s much easier to preach it than it is to live it. One reason is that sometimes there are just no words to describe the situation in which you find yourself. I think for many of us, that is the world that we’re experiencing right now. We’re simply struggling to find some kind of points of contact. It is really difficult. The world is changing rapidly and that’s disorientating.

A Parable of Two Men

I want to address this difficult theme of uncompromising faith by looking at a parable from Luke. Here is what Jesus says in Luke 18:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.' "But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (verses 9-14).

This is a fascinating story. But many of these parables that Jesus tells become dulled to us because we’re so used to reading them in a certain way. That is, in this instance we hear the word Pharisee and we automatically respond, “Boo! Bad!” We hear the word tax collector and we think, “Hurray! Good!” Yet if we put ourselves back into Jesus’s time, then the most righteous, upright, moral people of his day were widely regarded as being the Pharisees. They were not despised and hated by everybody else. They were held up as pinnacles, ideals, people who really made the effort, people who were not prepared to compromise. They would not compromise on anything. They would even be careful who they’d eat with, which is why in Luke 15:2 they complain about Jesus: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” To them, this was moving towards compromising. After all, Jesus was welcoming people, extending hospitality to people who were sinners. How could he sit down and eat with people like that and remain morally pure?

So what we must keep in mind is that when Jesus singled out the Pharisees in this way, to his audience his words were shocking. And as disturbing as it may be to say, if Pharisees were here today, the most likely place that you would find them would be in our own Christian community. These people were respected. They were admired. They had determined to live in a certain way and there was nothing that was going to steer them away from this course. Nothing whatsoever.

The tax collectors, on the other hand, were seen as weak collaborators. They were hated by everybody. Nobody likes paying their taxes, even today. The tax collectors were seen through political eyes. It wasn’t the fact that they collected taxes that made them unpopular; it was the fact that they were collaborating with the Roman Empire. The Jewish nation was being oppressed and these guys were working for the enemy. They were hated.

Furthermore, the way we often interpret this particular parable is that it’s teaching us about private prayer—we have to be humble in private prayer. Now humility is absolutely a key part of what Jesus is saying here, but it’s not a parable about private prayer. Because in Jesus’ time, whenever you talked about going somewhere to pray, that meant one of two things. If you said, “I’m going to the temple to pray,” it either meant “I’m going to the temple to offer private devotions” or “I’m going to a worship service” (a prayer service). This prayer was given either in the morning or in the evening during a public worship service. That’s absolutely clear from the rest of the story.

So these two men go to the temple to pray. They go at the same time, they leave at the same time, they pray at the same time in an act of worship. How do we know that it’s a worship service? Well, yes, they offered their own public prayers. But there were only two services that were performed every morning and every evening in the temple. When a sacrificial lamb was sacrificed, the priest went in to burn incense. When the priest was burning incense in the inner courtyard, the people outside couldn’t see what was happening and so they stood outside praying. Thus we see in Luke 1:10 that when it came to Zechariah’s turn, after the sacrifice was made, he went inside and burned incense and everyone stood outside praying. That’s what takes place in the liturgy.

The Two Faces of Pride

Let’s examine what this parable reveals about these two men. The Pharisee, after the sacrifice is made, stands there and says, “God, I thank you I’m not like everybody else.” He offers this incredibly boastful, arrogant, and proud prayer. He’s self-righteous. He’s religiously self-righteous. But there are only two ways we can view righteousness: either it comes from the self or it comes from somewhere else. And obviously, the Scriptures tell us it is from God. But it’s so easy, isn’t it, in our Christian walk, to get caught up in our own self-righteousness: how good we are, how well we’re doing, what amazing people we are. This Pharisee was leading a life that he thought would bring him closer to God. He’s not only doing everything he thinks has been commanded for him to do, he’s doing more. And yet the heart is wrong and the prayer is proud. He’s absolutely, utterly, totally, and completely convinced in himself. He’s sure he is right with God.

The tax collector, on the other hand, is unhappy. He beats his breast. This is a very unusual action. As a matter of fact, in the Gospel of Luke, you will only hear about men beating their breast in one other instance, and it’s at the cross of Christ. In Middle Eastern cultures, women actually beat their breast, not men. So the action described of the tax collector here is a female one. He is crying and beating his breast. He is that upset.

Perhaps when we see people that upset, we think in terms of self-pity. That would be completely wrong here because this is not self-pity. Conversely, we may think that self-righteousness and boasting come from success. But self-righteousness and boasting can also come when we’re in difficulty.

John Piper puts it very well:

Philanthropists can boast. Welfare recipients can’t. The primary experience of the Christian Hedonist is need. When a little, helpless child is swept off his feet by the undercurrent on the beach, and his father catches him just in time, the child does not boast; he hugs.

The nature and depth of human pride are illuminated by comparing boasting to self-pity. Both are manifestations of pride. Boasting is the response of pride to success. Self-pity is the response of pride to suffering. Boasting says, ‘I deserve admiration because I have achieved so much.’ Self-pity says, ‘I deserve admiration because I have sacrificed so much.’ Boasting is the voice of pride in the heart of the strong. Self-pity is the voice of pride in the heart of the weak. Boasting sounds self-sufficient. Self-pity sounds self-sacrificing.

The reason self-pity does not look like pride is that it appears to be needy. But the need arises from a wounded ego, and the desire of the self-pitying is not really for others to see them as helpless, but as heroes. The need self-pity feels does not come from a sense of unworthiness, but from a sense of unrecognized unworthiness. It is the response of unapplauded pride.”1

I think Piper is absolutely right. It’s very easy, isn’t it, when times get tough and things get hard, to say, “Woe is me.” We often try to win peoples’ affection because of self-pity. It’s a temptation if you’re in the ministry to say, “Look how difficult things are, look at the things that we’ve sacrificed, look at the things we’ve given up.” We may respond similarly when times get economically hard. But both of these responses are actually manifested by pride.

Two Distinct Responses to God

But the tax collector is not motivated by pride. This is not a prayer of self-pity. What the tax collector actually prays is not, “Lord, have mercy on me,” which is a bit of shame that it’s translated that way. The common Greek word for mercy is eleison and you might pray Kyrie eleison, “Lord, have mercy on me” in some churches.

But these are not the words used here. The words used here, which are translated in the NIV as “have mercy on me,” are hilastheti moi. The phrase means “make a propitiation for me.” So what he actually prays is “be propitious to me.” That’s how we know that this prayer is offered in the context of public sacrifice and service in the temple.

Again, these two men are praying at the same time in the temple, in the house of God. The Pharisee stands up after the sacrificial lamb has been sacrificed and says, “Look at me, God. Look how fantastic I am. I’m much better than everybody else.” And the tax collector hangs his head in shame, beats his breast, and says, “Lord, be propitious to me. May this sacrifice for sin, this propitiation, this satisfaction for sin, may it be for me.”

Then Jesus concludes his parable with these remarks, “I tell you that this man (the tax collector), rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."

It is an incredible teaching. They are both in the house of God. They both see the same sacrifice. They both observe the same ceremony. But one of them receives it with a hardened heart—and the other one is broken in tears. Not self-pity, but simply an honest reflection of, “Lord, I need this—this sacrifice, this propitiation, this lamb—this needs to be for me. May it be for me.” That’s what he prays.

You know, it’s very interesting, even for us as Christians: we can be in the house of God, we can look upon the sacrifice that God Himself has made and offered, and it can make us hard. We can be so sure that we’re doing so right and so well that we become self-sufficient, we become hard. We become self-righteous.

Galatians 5 says this,

“So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law…. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other” (verses 16-18, 22-26).

The apostle Paul is contrasting the law and the spirit—those who try to live by the law and achieve their own self-righteousness even after they have become Christians. This is really shocking because the book of Galatians is written to people who’ve been set free from the law but who are now trying to live by the law. They’ve come into relationship with God through the sacrifice that God himself has made, but are now putting themselves back under the curse of the law only to become self-righteous. And Paul says, “Let us keep in step with the Spirit, and let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.”

Isn’t that an interesting way to end that passage? We walk in step with the Spirit so we don’t provoke and envy each other. Isn’t that incredible? You know, it’s entirely possible to project the image that you’re leading such a good Christian life while goading people into some kind of Christian self-righteousness. Of course, we need to make a hard effort, but again, there are only two possible ways that we could be right with God. Either we believe it comes from ourselves because we are self-righteous, or we realize that it comes from God.

A Long Look in the Mirror

In all other religious systems, sacrifice is the price that we pay to get ourselves right with God. Under the Christian Gospel, sacrifice is the price that God pays in order to give Himself to us. Do you see the difference? Yet it’s so easy as Christians to fall under the other mindset: “Because I’m doing this, I’m trying so hard, I’m getting myself close to you, God, you owe me.” Then we begin to despise those who we see struggling and falling. And all of a sudden, we may have something that looks like uncompromising faith, but at the same time it is incredibly harsh. And it is amazingly unattractive.

I’ve heard some interesting things in response to what’s happening in the financial markets right now, and from some people and politicians, you get the impression that bankers were basically the agents of Beelzebub. It’s really interesting how politicians and indeed, even churches, are very happy to take money from people involved in that industry when they’re doing well. But they are also equally happy to simply load them up with blame when things seem to suddenly be going very badly. But we have to ask ourselves the question, has anyone done anything illegal? Has anyone actually broken the law? We created these markets. We pass laws to regulate them. When someone does something that is completely wrong and is illegal, we have every right to blame them. But when people are operating within the parameters of the law—that’s not to say everything that’s happening right now is okay—but it’s very easy, isn’t it, to slip into self-righteousness when we feel everybody’s with us. It’s very easy to simply tell everybody else that they’re completely, totally, and utterly wrong when we feel that we’ve got a wave of public opinion behind us and we’re riding it well. Christian self-righteousness is so easy, isn’t it?

But the simple truth is we all want to make more money than we currently have. We all would love to have the extra percent, to chase a bigger yield. We’d all love to stretch things a little bit further, to have more for less. That’s simply true for all of us. Yet we are living in a world at the moment that is literally breaking at the seams. And as someone who’s done doctoral level research into derivative markets and systemic risk in financial systems, I would offer that what’s happening is that the light at the end of the economic tunnel has been turned off. It’s very easy when we find ourselves in this situation simply to point the finger. It’s much harder to hold up the mirror and say, “Lord, is this true of me?”

That is, it’s not the fact that we go to church, we confess the right things, we say the right things—the Pharisees did that. They did that brilliantly. The mirror’s being held up to our face right now for many of us in the West. We’re looking into it; we don’t like what we see. The righteousness that comes from God is always humbling. It’s always humbling. Because none of us deserved it. None of us deserved to get right with God.

Sacrifice isn’t the price we pay to get ourselves right with God. Sacrifice is what He provided so that He could give Himself to us so that we could come to know Him. He’s the one who called us. He’s the one who paid the price. He’s the one who initiated salvation. He’s the one who’s done everything. That’s incredibly humbling. Thus, one of the true marks of anyone who’s really walking in Christ is brokenness and humility. It ought to come from every pore.

We live in a world right now that’s broken and hurting, and I’m afraid that the pain could get an awful lot worse. So I don’t think we need a whole series of moralizing sermons telling us how bad everybody is. What we’re in desperate need of is some clear thinking and some honesty about what we’re all lacking. You know, it’s very hard to be hard and self-righteous when you realize how awfully fallen you are.

When I travel around, something that makes an initial impression—indeed, I learned it from Ravi—was the fact that my wife has complete control of my diary. Some people think, “Wow, what a romantic gesture.” That’s not a romantic gesture. I enjoy what I’m doing. I love it. But I love it so much that there are times I can think that really, I’m the only person who can do it. So when an invitation comes along, of course I have to say yes. How can I possibly say no? I mean, who else is there?

I had the enormous privilege of speaking at the European Parliament this year. I gave the title—I never thought they’d even choose it—“Without God, Where Is Europe Heading?” They said, “That’s exactly what we want. And how about something to give at NATO headquarters?” So I suggested “Is Tolerance a Virtue?” They received the talks with enthusiasm and afterwards one of the organizers, a non-Christian group, said, “We have offices with one hundred parliaments around the world. We would like you to give messages like that in every single one if you’re prepared to get yourself there.” And I think, “Wow, I have to do that. It’s so important. Of course, I’m the only one who could possibly do that.”

Another person said, “Michael, we’re organizing this event. There’s going to be a big open-air evangelistic rally. We’re going to have a million people there every night for five nights.” Now if you’re an evangelist, that’s like offering a boy in a candy store with all the lids taken off the jars an electric wheelbarrow. I turned to my wife and said, “I have to do this.” She said, “No, you can’t. You’re speaking at one country the week before; you’re speaking in another country a week after. If you go to this country in between, you will be exhausted. You won’t be able to do it.” I replied, “No, I’m sure I can. I mean, there’s no one else who could do this. It has to be me.” Then I took one look at her face and I said, “I’m sorry.”

The reason she has control of my diary is I can be too proud to say no. Christian pride is a very subtle thing. It creeps in. It’s like light—shutting it out is really difficult. The tiniest crack, it appears. We all need those kinds of people around us who keep us humble because if this Gospel needs to do one thing, it needs to breed a deep humility within all of us. We didn’t deserve it, we didn’t earn it, we’ve done nothing, and yet it’s been given to us. It’s the most incredible gift. And it’s very humbling. There’s no room for pride. Uncompromising faith.

The trouble with the word uncompromising is it sounds so harsh. Yet here’s what we should be uncompromising about—let’s be completely uncompromising on this: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. Let’s not compromise on the fruit of the Spirit. An uncompromising Christian’s faith doesn’t look hard; it is beautiful. It almost doesn’t make sense to the world in which we live. We can’t afford to compromise now. We can’t.

A Time to Shine

You know, we’ve been given so much and yet everybody in this room has lost something. If you have a pension, you’ve lost something whether you know it or not right now. Most of you do know it. But we have so much. If you’re sitting here right now and you have a home, a car, and a washing machine, you’re in the top two and a half percent of the richest people in the entire world. That’s me. I fall into that category. And the world right now is in difficulty. So let’s not shrink back from generosity, from kindness, from peace, love, joy, patience, longsuffering. Let’s run with it.

This is a time to shine. This is a time for people to see how different the Gospel is. A former chairman of our board in Europe is from Iran. I remember the first time I met him. On his desk was a picture. I picked it up and asked, “Who are these people?” “These are all ministers in Iran,” he replied. And at that point, half of the people in that picture had been martyred for their faith.

He told me a story about one minister in the picture, who was driving through northern Iran with his wife. They came to a small village where he decided to buy water. As he stops his car he notices a man leaning against the wall of the shop with a beard and a machine gun. The wife sees the man’s gun and face, takes a Bible in Farsi, and puts it in her husband’s pocket. She says, “Give that man a Bible.” Her husband looks at the beard, looks at the gun, and says, “No.” She says, ‘No, no, no. Seriously. Give it to him. Really. Please. Give it to him. Give him the Bible.”

So he says, “I’ll pray about it.” He goes into the shop, comes out with bottles of water, and they drive away. The wife looks at her husband. “You didn’t give him the Bible, did you?” He said, “No, I prayed about it. It wasn’t the right thing to do.” She said, “You should have given him one.” He disagrees and they go back and forth. So the wife bows her head and prays out loud fervently that her husband might listen to God. At that point, they have a friendly discussion that married couples have from time to time that ends with the words, “Fine! If you want me to die, I will.”

The husband turns the car around and goes back into the village. He gets out of the car, walks up to the man, and places a Bible in his hands. The man opens it and starts to cry. He said, “I don’t live here. I live three days’ walk from here. But three days ago an angel came and appeared to me and told me to walk to this village and wait until someone had given me the Book of Life. Thank you for giving me this book.”

We have an awesome Gospel and we worship an awesome God. The opportunities we’re going to have before us for evangelism over the next few months and years are going to be absolutely tremendous. People’s firmest foundations for hope and security have been taken away from them. C.S. Lewis said he welcomed these moments. When he wrote about the Second World War, he said the reason why the early church fathers would have embraced war was because it revealed that we can’t build an enduring kingdom on this earth though that’s what everyone is trying to do.

We have an incredible Gospel. We can’t afford to compromise. Uncompromising faith doesn’t mean that somehow we don’t care because we are told and commanded to care and to love as part of our not compromising. So let’s live it out with gusto. Let’s live it out with enthusiasm. And let’s see this world change for Christ.

My prayer for you is that the Lord will bless you. Let’s not make the trap of falling into self-pity. The prayer of the tax collector wasn’t a prayer of self-pity or pride. He was broken before the Cross. He threw himself on Christ: “May this propitiation, may this sacrifice be for me.” And he went home having been justified. Humility, then, is the fruit that comes from it. He humbled himself in the face of the Cross and God exalted him. The man who exalted himself, well, he was nowhere.

I’m not at all discouraged by what I see happening right now. If I were to say to you ten years ago that the number one question on most political agendas around the world would be God, would you have believed me? And yet right now it is. Markets around the world right now are trying to avoid systemic risks and examining the moral frameworks always assumed in the past but never put into legislation. Christians are going to have the most amazing set of opportunities to speak. So let us speak. Let us not boast. Let us not be proud. Let us recognize the difficulty that we were in and the graciousness by which God rescued us, and let us take that message of the Gospel—a message of repentance and faith—out into this world and see fruit with Him.

May I pray with you? Father, it’s incredible to find ourselves living in a time where we shall probably go down in history books. To be living in a world where, in decades or maybe even in centuries to come, people will write about these days and this year and what has happened now as one of the most globally significant economic events of this century. And Father, at the same time we pray that You would protect us against self-righteousness and self-pity. May we not boast in ourselves nor seek praise from others by portraying ourselves in a way that isn’t true. But rather may it also be recorded in the books that this was the time when Christians threw themselves on You, where they turned and looked to You, where they called on You and, Lord, where you stepped into people’s hearts and lives. Lord, we know You’re the Lord of history. And Father, we place ourselves afresh into your hands. We ask for forgiveness where we have failed and we pray for strength where we need it. Lord, we ask that we may serve You and glorify you. Amen.

Michael Ramsden is the European Director of RZIM Zacharias Trust in Oxford, England.

1 John Piper, Desiring God: Mediations of a Christian Hedonist, 10th anniversary expanded edition (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishing, 1996), 249-250.

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