I was walking through a mall recently, and all the spring decorations and colors were starting to appear. It was refreshing to see the fresh colors and a change of scenery as I strolled through the mall. There was also a little village in the center of the mall that had been set up where kids could come to see and take pictures with the Easter bunny. The village had little, colorful, kid-sized town houses that wound around the area, forming a line which led to the Easter bunny. There were games and activities for the kids scattered throughout the village for while they waited for their turn. I was on the upper level of the mall looking down, and there was one thing in particular that caught my eye. One of the houses had a carrot painted on the side of the house, a measuring stick, and large text that read, “Tell the Easter bunny how much you’ve grown.”
I’m a graphic designer, so really the reason I stopped to look at this house in the first place was because of the typography that was chosen for this display. After thinking about the words on the way home, the sign on the house in the little village started reminding me of the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector. If I’m honest, it reminded me of the prayers I’m tempted to pray, and sometimes do pray. I’m tempted to pray prayers that bring my efforts, or whatever I consider to be growth, into play. It is the prayer of the Pharisee in this story that my Old Adam wants to pray.
“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. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” (Luke 18:11-12)
Like much of what we encounter in the world on a daily basis, that sign on the little house can be a statement of law. So how am I doing? Have I grown enough this year? How much did I need to grow this time? The Law has no assurance for me. Martin Luther summarizes the Law and states in one of his thesis on the Heidelberg disputation, “The Law says, “do this” and it is never done.”
The only measurement is perfection, and we all fall far, far short. We don’t measure up. There is only One who is good. (Mark 10:18) When it comes to God’s Law and our salvation, there is no growing into it, there is only perfection. (Matthew 5:48) We don’t get in by doing better and better each time.
That phrase at the mall, it had an alarmingly familiar ring to it. The Pharisee prays and wants to come to God on the basis of his own accomplishments and merits. He will come comparing himself to others. I think author, David Zahl, summarizes this very well when he writes, “All have fallen short of the glory of God, but that hasn’t stopped us from comparing distances.” My sinful nature wants to come to Jesus to tell Him how much I have grown, or will grow. This is part of my sinner/saint struggle. I am very often the Pharisee in this story.
The good news is that even though we fall short of God’s standards, and are dead in our sins, God still loves us. He loves us because His love for us stands outside of us. His love for us is shown on full display in Christ for us. The prayer of the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13) is answered before the tax collector or I can even think of saying those words. While we were still deep in sin Christ had mercy on us, sinners. (Romans 5:8) He became my sin and died in my place, forgiving me before I even got started. In Christ, my prayers reflective of the Pharisee are completely forgotten and replaced by the prayers of the tax collector.
God’s love for us does not grow with our growth, or decrease with our failure. God’s love for us is constant, unchanging, and faithful. He simply loves us because that’s who He is. Love always seeks after my good regardless of the cost. His love for me ultimately swallowed up His life, and my sin killed Him. He loved me and died for me, not because I was lovable or deserved anything, but so that I might live with Him, fully forgiven and embraced in His love forever.
We fully measure up in Christ. Martin Luther finishes that thesis by summarizing the Gospel by stating, “Grace says, “believe in this” and everything is already done.” Every standard for perfection has been met in Christ. We have loved God and neighbor perfectly in the eyes of God because Christ loved them perfectly on our behalf. The measuring tape of the Law is gone. Our history of sinful works is wiped out on the cross. Our history and everything we are is swallowed up, forgotten, and has died with Christ on the cross. Our history is replaced, and we are raised with Christ. I can come to Christ, not only without works, but with all my sinful works. He takes them from me and washes me. He replaces them with all His good works.
This is such good news to me, because I need assurance. I need something that will not change. Everyone and everything in the world around me, including myself, wants to measure growth and progress which is constantly changing either for the better or for the worse. My assurance is found in the work and words of Christ, “It is finished.” In the middle of my sin and doubt, when I am not actively running to Christ, Jesus is actively running to me, and embracing me with His absolution and peace to remind me that He has always been holding fast to me. He always will.
When I grow, I grow in my dependence on Christ and His work for me. There is nothing else that Christ hasn’t already accomplished on our behalf with His life, death and resurrection. We are now free to grow in love for our neighbor, in faith, knowing that the only works that God sees are Christ’s works for us. Martin Luther said it beautifully this way, “God doesn’t need our good works, but our neighbor does.”