This is part two of three of a series from a Thanksgiving sermon I preached Sunday from Luke 18:9-14. This part focuses on the quest for justification (and its relationship to thanksgiving).
The most important word in this passage (Luke 18:9-14) is found in verse 14. It is the word justified. If you don’t get what it means to be justified and how one can be justified, then you will not understand the good news of Jesus. That’s precisely the problem with this man’s thanksgiving. He thought he was the good news, and his good deeds were supposed to be evidence of that. But the fact is that his attempts of righteousness were not commendable to God. They were damnworthy because they could never justify him in the sight of God.
And yet this is precisely the problem with the majority of people today. Martin Luther was right when he said that “religion” is the basic default of the human heart. Perhaps this is where you are. No, you may not see yourself as good of a person as this man in his radical devotion, but you are striving for that in hopes that God would one day accept you. What makes the gospel such an offense to sinners today is that any contribution on your behalf to make you right with God is rejected by God himself. Not even your best attempts will considered as evidence in your favor of being justified in His sight.
What does it mean to be justified, then? It means to be declared righteous in the sight of God. It means to be fully and permanently accepted. Only perfectly righteous people “go to their home justified.” And the only way this happens is if God considers you righteous on the sole basis of the life, death, and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ.
This is what the gospel is all about. God declares people righteous because of Jesus and our identification with Him. The good news is not good for those who think they are good in themselves, who are convinced there are good works they must perform for God to accept them. Jesus made is clear that he did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. He was not looking for people requesting to make a sacrifice but for people requesting mercy (Matt. 9:12-13). The good news is not good for those seeking to mingle God’s mercy with their religious performances. The good news is only good for those who know and understand they have nothing to bring to God but their sin.
It is at this point you realize that not even the best public relations department can help your image in the sight of God. You give up on failed attempts of promoting yourself. Instead, you are forced to look outside yourself. The good news is for those who look outside themselves for acceptance, who look to God’s provision in giving us His Son who lived the perfectly righteous life we’re required to live but never can, who died the brutal death on the cross to set us free from both our slavery to sin and slavery to self-righteousness. Therefore, if you are here today and understand that Jesus died for sinners on the cross, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God (1 Pet. 3:18), and you are still attempting through your religious performances to gain approval with God, you don’t get the Gospel. God’s approval is bound up in the finished work of His Son, and He approves only those put all their confidence in Him for their salvation.
Getting justification is absolutely crucial to every aspect of the Christian life. If we don’t appreciate justification through the atoning work of Jesus, we will be tempted to seek self-justification through some work of our own. This is why the gospel of justification by faith must, as Luther asserted, continually be beaten into our heads. We are prone to shelve it, assume it, and ultimately forget it, sliding into self-justification. Even our expressions of thanksgiving can be a form of self-justification, and this is what we discover from this man in our text. Such self-justified thanksgiving is unacceptable to God.
Part three picks up with “justified thanksgiving,” show how a Christian deeply rooted in the gospel (of justification) will bear the fruit of “abounding in thanksgiving.”