I used to think that what set Christianity apart from other religions was that in the other religions, people worked toward salvation on their own power, while we had the help of the Holy Spirit empowering us. Then I read an astute Puritan who showed how even the Pharisees credited God with their good works, while being graceless. As we are told, “The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector’” (Luke 20:11). His God was himself. You can have the idea of divine empowerment, and even think you’re seeing the results of it in your life, and be graceless. Now it won’t do to imagine that we could offer the Pharisee a few adjustments that could make all of this right. When Jesus addresses the situation, He contrasts the Pharisee to the tax collector, who, despite his life of sin, seemed to get one thing right. He recognized his own unworthiness. His prayer was, “God be merciful to me, the sinner!” This is a different prayer from what the Pharisee prayed, to be sure, not just in words, but in attitude toward others. The publican sees no point in mentioning others. He isn’t claiming to be better or that he will do better. He’s claiming to be a sinner, something the Pharisee would never wish to do.
You have surely heard the line, “There but for the grace of God go I.” It is something that people say when they see something unfortunate. It is usually itself in contrast to someone else’s more judgmental statement. You see a homeless person, and someone says, “Well, he’s going to have to make some different decisions if he ever wants to get off the street!” And another responds, “There but for the grace of God go I.” At its best, this probably recognizes that there is some element of luck in our fortunes. However hard we worked to get and stay where we are, one reversal at the wrong time might have upended the whole thing. I rather like the line taken this way.
But if we are REALLY talking about the grace of God here, grace unto salvation, we ought not to talk like this. This muddles two different kinds of grace together. Grace that leads to salvation, and grace in the sense of good help from God to keep things in a good direction are two very different things. God shows a lot of temporal favor and temporal disfavor that has nothing to do with salvation. Job’s afflictions had nothing to do with his behavior. Or if they did, his good behavior caused the afflictions, in a roundabout fashion. Yet he was still in God’s favor. The outward shape of our lives may well be as much a result of hidden divine decisions—with results for or against our temporal welfare—as they are a result of careful planning and self-control. As we have little idea what form such hidden decisions take, and are warned against speculating, “luck” might be a better term for it. “There, but for some good luck, go I.”
Yet taking it a little deeper, our Lord has told us not to be making these fine distinctions in grades of sin. We don’t know from the outside who is justified and who is not. Pastors and elder boards may have some responsibilities to discipline erring members, but this seems to be for the avoidance of scandal so that the Gospel can go forth. But what our Lord told us about the Pharisee and the publican invites us to hope we can be like the publican.
If the Pharisee could have seen the actual outcome of the story, he would have to watch the publican leave the Temple, and sadly say, “There despite the grace of God go I.” The publican walks away from the Temple, back to his life of sin. But he is justified. If the Pharisee could have recognized himself in the other man, he might have done the same. It isn’t a pretty picture, as nothing in the story indicates that the publican knew of his new status. Who would want to be in his shoes?
The next time you see someone down on their luck, you might say to yourself, “There despite the grace of God go I,” as a reminder that you are saved as they have been on account of Christ.