This is part three of three in a series based on a Thanksgiving sermon I preached this past Sunday based on Luke 18:9-14. In this section, I argue that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the source of all acceptable thanksgiving. Or, in other words, we should thank God for justification by faith!
So what kind of thanksgiving is justified? This is what I want to drive home to your hearts and minds this morning, so let’s take one final look into the text for the answer to this question.
The setting for this parable (Luke 18:9-14) was that two men went to the Temple to pray. One went home justified, and the person who did was NOT the person you would expect. Jesus turns things upside down, showing that the least qualified when it comes to self-righteousness is the most qualified to receive salvation because he knew there was nothing he could hope in except the mercy and grace of God.
The two men in this parable are placed side-by-side to show the stark contrast between religion based on performance and salvation based on grace. You see, not only do sinners need to repent of their sin, this parable shows that moral people also need to repent of their own righteousness. This contrast is highlighted in three places: (1) locating the problem, (2) locating the source of righteousness, and (3) locating the primary concern.
(a) What did these two men see as the problem? Where was it located? For the Pharisee, the problem existed outside himself. He saw the sinful lives of others as the problem—extortioners, unjust, and adulterers. But for the tax collector, the problem existed inside himself. He could not stop beating his breast, knowing that the location of the problem was inside his sinful heart.
The problem with most people today is that they are far more prone to look at the sins and shortcomings of others than they do of their own. Pharisees are always harder on others than they are on themselves. But when it comes to their own sin, rebellion, and wickedness, they can’t stand to look honestly, closely, and thoroughly. They can’t stand to have themselves exposed. This is why the Bible refers to sinners apart from salvation in Jesus being in “the domain of darkness” (Col. 1:13). The “god of this world,” Paul says is actively working in the minds of unbelievers to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel (2 Cor. 4:4). And as long as you think the problem is outside of yourself, the devil has you enchanted by his lies when you should be haunted by your present darkness.
(b) But notice also the location of righteousness. Where was it? For the Pharisee, it was located in himself. Notice how many times he said “I.” I give, I pray, I fast, I thank you that I am not like those people….” If you think about it, he was probably more righteous than anyone else around. I doubt there was anyone else who gave more, fasted more often, and could pray with such eloquence. Because of this, he was trusting in himself that he was righteous. Having the opportunity to work in the community, I regularly have the opportunity to engage people by asking them the diagnostic question, “In your opinion, what does it take for someone to go to heaven?” Almost invariably, the answer to that question begins the first person pronoun “I.” Like the Pharisee, people are looking within themselves as the source of righteousness. They have been told they are inherently good, and that is necessary is to self-actualize or modify your behavior to tap into your potential.
On the other hand, the tax collector had nothing to offer God. Usually there is at least one good work or attempt at righteousness that could be put on the table, but he was totally bankrupt, and his prayer was a confession of that bankruptcy of righteousness. He knew that his problem of sin could not be solved in himself. He needed help from another. He knew he needed to be rescued from himself.
Do you see the contrast here? The Pharisee saw that the problem was outside himself and that the solution for righteousness was inside himself. On the other hand, the tax collector saw the problem inside himself and the solution for righteousness was outside himself.
(c) These two points direct us to the third matter at hand, and that was locating their primary concern. For the Pharisee, his primary concern was horizontal—measuring himself up against the sinful lives of others. Because he believed in self-justification, the courtroom was in the halls of his peers whom he was determined to have their acknowledgement and approval. But for the tax collector, his primary concern was vertical. He knew that he could never measure up to his peers, but more than that, he knew he could never measure up to God’s righteous requirements. He was looking for a justification that only God could provide.
It is only when you recognize and declare bankruptcy in your own self-righteousness that you stop measuring yourself horizontally with others and your primary concern goes vertical with God. And this is a gift–to be brought to a place and perspective on your life where you get off the treadmill of your sin-tainted religious performances and know they will never appease a holy God. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). He is saying, “Blessed are those who recognize their spiritual impoverishment. Blessed are those who embrace their bankruptcy of self-righteousness. Blessed are those who know that in them there is no hope of salvation through their good works.”
And in that same chapter (Matt. 5), Jesus makes a most-shocking statement to those in his audience that day, saying “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). The strongest negation in the Bible is employed here by Jesus to make it plain that you’ve got to do better than the Pharisees when it comes to righteousness. In fact, Matthew 5 concludes with Jesus calling for perfection because God in heaven is perfect. What is Jesus doing here? He is pushing his listeners to the point of despair, to the point of giving up on their self-salvation projects, knowing they could never be perfect. He is calling them to embrace the perfect righteousness of Another as a gift–the righteousness provided through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Himself. The tax collector, poor in spirit because he looked to God for righteousness not his own, became an heir of the kingdom and surpassed the righteousness of the Pharisee in this parable.
Our problem is that we don’t think we are poor in spirit. We think we are middle-class in spirit. We are not that bad. There is something I can contribute to my salvation, right? We have a hard time accepting the Scripture indictment against our human nature–that we are really spiritually depraved, children of wrath, rebels to God’s reign, and enemies of God.
Perhaps nowhere else in the Bible is the contrast of the Pharisee’s self-righteousness and tax collector’s spiritual poverty than in the testimony of the Apostle Paul in Philippians 3. Turn with me there, as I would like you to see this parable of Jesus fleshed out in the story of his life. Beginning with verse 3, we read:
3 For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh, 4 though I also might have confidence in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: 5 circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; 6 concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.
7 But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. 8 Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith;
Do you see it? Verses 4 through 6 is Paul the Pharisee, blameless in self-righteousness, confident in himself. But in verses 7 through 9 we see Paul the Christian, justified by faith, not with a righteousness of his own, but from Jesus Christ. What was the game changer? God mercifully opened his eyes to see “the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord!” Only beggars for mercy can gain Christ by faith!
Now what does this have to do with Thanksgiving and in particular the prayer of thanksgiving in Luke 18? As I stated earlier, the man giving thanks went home unjustified and rejected by God. This prayer of thanksgiving is not to be taken as an isolated event. Rather, it is to be seen as part and parcel of his religion which Jesus rejects. So if Jesus rejects his religion and personal attempts of being righteous, then Jesus necessarily rejects the thanksgiving as well.
To put it in a simple formula, it goes like this:
I do, therefore I’m thankful (the Pharisee)
I’m accepted, therefore I’m thankful (the tax collector)
Now there are two expressions of thanksgiving, but they are on entirely different grounds. “I do, therefore I’m thankful” is grounded in one’s good works (religion). “I’m accepted, therefore I’m thankful” is grounded in one’s acceptance and justification because God freely bestowed mercy.
Therefore, to have an acceptable thanksgiving is to ground that giving of thanks in having been accepted by God through the finished work of Jesus Christ. If your thanksgiving is not mediated through the person and work of Christ, then that giving of thanks is unacceptable, even if it is addressing God. Thanksgiving apart from the gospel is a deadly deception because though you’re heart may be right in appreciation of things, you have not appreciated the most important thing in the world—the good news of Jesus Christ!
In summary then, what this texts teaches us is this:
The gospel of Jesus Christ is the source of all acceptable expressions of thanksgiving.
Why is so? Because all that we are, all that we have, and all that we ever will be in this life and the life to come is purchased for us through the life and death of Jesus Christ. Every breath we breathe is given by Christ, and every breath should be an exhalation of gratitude for God’s mercy and kindness in justifying us and accepting us into His family. Without our hearts being deeply rooted in the gospel, we will not see genuine fruit of thankfulness in our lives. This is what Paul argues in Colossians 2:6-7 when he said:
6 Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, 7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.
A life abounding in thanksgiving is the fruit of having been rooted in the gospel. Therefore, justified thanksgiving is based on our justification in Christ. A thankless Christian scandalizes the gospel and calls into question their appreciation of it.
Over the past week, I have been thinking about what really happens when you give thanks. In an age of entitlement and discontented covetousness, being thoughtful about being thankful I would assume is a rather rare thing. But when a person gives thanks, what they are doing is publicly acknowledging, recognizing, appreciating, and celebrating the benefit of something received. On an occasion, I find myself at night flipping through the channels and come across an awards ceremony, which is basically an evening where people get up stage and give thanks.
But the more I thought about those awards ceremonies and thanksgiving speeches, the more it hit me. They are not really giving thanks for someone else. They are giving thanks for others recognizing the work they themselves have done. They are thanking others for celebrating his or her talents. It is a kind of thanksgiving that is really self-referential. The occasion for giving thanks is due to the public’s recognition of the work they had done, and the person comes to the microphone to express thanksgiving for others seeing the quality and excellence of his or her work. So at the center is a celebration of oneself and thanking the public for joining in the celebration too.
This is precisely what was going on with the kind of thanksgiving in with the Pharisee. He was thanking God; his thanks was wrapped up in himself. He was putting himself, his accomplishments, his moral superiority on display, and attempting to smooth it over by giving a hat tip to God.
But for the Christian, thanksgiving is altogether different. We don’t offer thanksgiving because of work we have done but because of the work Christ has done on our behalf. So we do not celebrate our accomplishments, but the accomplishments of Christ, and our lives are on display before a watching world with a microphone in our hands expressing thanksgiving to God not because of us but in spite of us. Our thanksgiving begins with, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Our thanksgiving is bound up in the gospel—all that Jesus is for us and has done for us.
What this means for us this morning is that…
Your standing is not based on what your performance but in Christ alone; so be thankful!
You are never more loved or more accepted than when you have rested in Jesus’ life lived on your behalf; so be thankful!
Your righteousness is sealed by the blood of Christ and secured in heaven; so be thankful!
The full and final purchase for every last one of your sins—past, present, and future—is sealed in the covenant of redemption; so be thankful!
The law can no longer condemn because Christ has fulfilled it on your behalf; so be thankful!
When you feel like a failure and the accusations of the enemy assault you, lift up your eyes to the one who had more mercy in his wounds than you had sin in your heart, and be thankful!
Though it feels like right now you are walking through the valley of the shadow of death, you have a shepherd who put death to death in his death on the cross; so be thankful!
Because God is for you through the merits of His Son’s life and atoning death, you have unlimited access to the throne of our heavenly Father; so be thankful!
And when you face death and breathe your last breath, the sure promise that nothing shall be able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus will bring you infinite comfort and peace; so be thankful!
Brothers and sisters, this is what I call justified thanksgiving!
So this Thanksgiving, when you gather around the table to share a meal together and give thanks, let that be a reminder and a foretaste of the banqueting table to come where we will feast in the presence of our God and King, when we will gather around the throne with eternal thanksgiving, as the Apostle John wrote:
9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”