I know this sounds strange. Why would anyone who is perfect need redeeming? Perhaps because they only think they are perfect rather than their really being. In Luke’s account of the good news of Jesus he told three stories that illustrate this concept. The first was of the Pharisee who invited Jesus to dinner at his house. While they were eating a sinful woman came up behind Jesus and was crying so that her tears began to fall on his feet and wet them, so she took her hair down and wiped his feet with her hair. The Pharisee was thinking the whole time, “If this man were really a prophet he would know what kind of woman this is and wouldn’t allow her to get so close to him.” Jesus knew all about the woman and her past. So he told a story to he Pharisee. A wealthy man had loaned a large amount of money to one man and a smaller amount to another. Neither could repay him so in mercy he forgave both of them for the debt and set them free. Jesus then asked the Pharisee, “Which of these two do you think will love the master most after having their debt forgiven?” He said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave most.” Jesus said he had judged correctly. When he came into this man’s house he didn’t wash his feet or anoint them with oil. He hadn’t even offered a pan of water for him to wash his own feet. But this sinful woman had washed his feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. “Her sins that are many, I forgive.” The implications were that his sins that he thought were so few may not have been forgiven.
The second story was of the prodigal son and his older brother. Remember when the younger son came home after wasting his inheritance in wild living, the older son heard the music and dancing and refused to go inside. So the Father came out to him and pleaded with him to come in and enjoy his presence along with his brother. But the older son said, “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never one time transgressed your law, yet you never gave me a young goat that I might rejoice with my friends. But when this son of yours comes home who has wasted your living with prostitutes you kill for him the fattened calf.” Notice he saw his work for his father as slavery, not sonship, not joyful and certainly not one of loving fellowship with his dad. He couldn’t see a single thing he had done wrong. In his mind he had fully carried out every wish the father offered. Envy, jealousy, and revenge had taken over his whole mental framework. Brotherhood was gone. Instead of “My brother” it was “Your son. And he, the one who inherited two-thirds of his father’s wealth was upset because he hadn’t been given a goat to party with his friends.
One more story found in Luke 18 is a short one. A tax collector and a Pharisee went down to the temple to pray. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I think you that I am not like other people – 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 his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” The shocking part of this story came next when Jesus said, “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
There are a lot of “perfect” people in church and quite a number outside church as well. They are very quick to explain to you just how good and righteous they really are if you want to know and many times even if you don’t want to know. These are the ones who seldom come to you with prayer request, especially for themselves. Instead they inform you of either what you are doing wrong or what someone else at church is doing wrong. Quite often the huge wrong that the other person is doing is that they aren’t doing the things they are doing.
Let me tell you about some of the people I’ve met along the way who would fit very well with either of the Pharisees in these stories and with the older brother in the prodigal son story. Quite often in his been the husband or wife of a sinner. I’ve had many occasions where this perfect partner called to tell me their mate needed help, counsel or some time of intervention. When I suggest they both come in for a visit and let’s talk about the whole situation, their response is usually, “I don’t have a problem. I just need someone to fix them and everything would be great.” Many times that need for fixing related to a partner drinking too much or their failure to earn as much money as their partner thought they should. When I’ve tried to explain that I’ve never known of a case in marriage where all the fault lay on one person, that we are all human and make mistakes and even if it is a problem with drinking too much, it becomes a family problem and needs to be solved as a family not just the person, it normally doesn’t receive a great reception.
If it is the critic at church that is sold out to one particular area of the Lord’s work and who is certain that everyone who doesn’t have that same interest and involvement must not be really Christians, it is a different kind of challenge. If you read Philippians 3:1-6 it is obvious that the apostle Paul had been one of these “perfect” people. He laid out his background as a Jew, Pharisee, tribe of Benjamin, zeal for law and the whole thing. But he reached that point when Jesus confronted him that he “counted all that but rubbish to win Christ and be found in him, not with a righteousness from the law, but with the righteousness that comes through faith in Jesus.” Until all of us understand that we are in desperate need of God’s grace and that all our righteousness are but filthy rags before God we are in trouble. When Isaiah made the statement about our righteousness being as filthy rags, it is interesting that it is literally translated, “used menstrual cloths.” We can’t impress God by telling him how good we are or how much better we are than someone else. We are all dead in our trespasses and sins and need God’s amazing love and mercy to pull us out of that death and give us life in him. But, you may say, “I know the one who has never obeyed the gospel is dead in sin, but I’ve been redeemed and now am living a holy life before God.” Well, isn’t that special? It seems to me that I remember John the apostle writing in I John 1:8-10 “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.”
Certainly, we can live as one in the flow of Christ’s cleansing blood all the time. But it is our God that is always to be praised for how much he loves us and was willing to suffer that we might have salvation in Christ. Think of all the work Paul had done to build up the kingdom of Christ when he wrote “I am the worst of the sinners.” “I am the least of all the apostles and do not deserve to be an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace in me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them – yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” “I am less than the least of all the Lord’s holy people.” It just seemed that deep in the recesses of Paul’s mind there was that constant reminder that were it not for God’s phenomenal grace I would have had no chance. I messed up so royally in what I did.
How did God change Paul or Saul so that he moved from the “perfect” servant of God ready to destroy all who saw things differently than he did, into this man amazed that God would save such a horrible sinner as he was? It came with a confrontation from Jesus while he was on his way to persecute more Christians. God struck Paul down. A light shined like the sun all around him. Jesus spoke to him in Hebrew or Aramaic to ask, “Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me?” Notice, Saul had been terrorizing Christians all around Jerusalem and was now on his way to the city of Damascus in Syria. But Jesus identified so strongly with the Christians that he saw it as persecution of him personally. Saul asked, “Who are you Lord?” “I’m Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Suddenly Saul’s world came tumbling down around him. For the next three days he was blind physically but his eyes had been opened spiritually so that for three days he fasted and prayed. When Ananias was sent to lay hands on him and give him sight and to tell him to arise and be baptized to have his sins washed away it was the start of a massive change. He went away from there down into Arabia where he spent three years growing, learning, understanding and seeing the light of the Lord’s will. He received revelations from God to guide him and his thinking and life were forever changed. He went from being this person who was so sure of himself and his beliefs that for anyone to differ with him was to have him think they were complete aliens from God. Jesus, grace, God, the Holy Spirit, stepped into his life and turned it all around. Now it is God and his will that matters and he now has a heart of grace toward others, longing to see them turn to God through Jesus as well.
So, today, how can we help turn a “perfect” Christian into one that sees their own sin and failure instead of the other persons and actually understands that were it not for the grace of God, there go I? We may help one to see such but it will always take something bigger and more powerful than any of us to work on that person’s heart. When we actually begin to look inside at our own heart and see our failures, it is amazing to us that God can save one like me and if we constantly remember we are saved by grace, we become much more considerate of others with the failures they have. Whatever my problems, they do seem to be small compared to the problems the people around me have. For example, I may gossip, but I sure wouldn’t get drunk or become involved in an affair. See, my sin seems small by comparison. But do we really think God measures our sins like that? Jesus who came to show us what the Father is like was always most frustrated with the ones who thought they already had it all together and didn’t need a Savior as the prostitutes and the drunks did. We need to develop the same heart as Jesus on the matter.