Do You Really Believe the Ground is Level at the Cross?
Four words that help us push back against the deceptive Pharisee spirit that lurks within each of us.
I posted an article recently exploring the distinction between the Pharisee and tax collector in Jesus' parable in Luke 18:9-14. The title was "Taking the Low Ground." I had the opportunity to preach that message this past Sunday for a church in Atlanta.
As I revisited the post and tweaked it for a 25-minute sermon, a question kept nagging. Do I really believe the ground is level at the foot of the cross?
I used to say that all the time as a pastor for the church I planted in Dahlonega. But do I really believe that? Do you?
Is the ground really level at the cross?
Am I Deluded, Too?
As Jesus tells the story, the Pharisee prays,
"I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector."
At this point, we’re tempted to say, "I thank you, God, that I'm not like the Pharisee!"
I can’t imagine praying such a brazenly self-righteous prayer. Can you? No way. This guy is seriously lacking self-awareness. He's blind, deluded, and deceived.
Okay. I may not pray like that. But can we be honest? Many of us think like that. Don’t we? Most of us have someone we look down upon. Someone, or a group of people, whom we despise—over whom we feel morally superior.
Just like a Pharisee.
The Problem with Pharisee Theology
The biggest problem with Pharisee theology may be that, when it comes to acceptance with God, they believed the good were in and the bad were out.1
But in verse 14, Jesus overturns such conventional religious wisdom by putting a point on the parable, saying, "Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted."
Instead of the good being in and the bad being out, Jesus says it is the humble who are in and the proud who are out.
Why? Because grace flows downhill.
If anyone could have claimed the high ground, it was Jesus. But he chose the low ground — the lowest ground.
Phil. 2:7, [Jesus] made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross!
How Should We Respond?
Four words help me.
Since the ground is level at the foot of the cross, we want to make sure we are not looking down on anyone else from higher ground. As you know, an altimeter is an instrument that measures altitude. Not a bad metaphor for a gospel instrument, huh?
When you feel the heat of moral superiority, when you are tempted to diss someone with a snide, self-righteous, "I can't believe...,” check your gospel altimeter. If it altimeter reveals that you are looking down upon another sinner, move to the second word.
Confess your hypocrisy and need for mercy. Let's call the delusion of moral superiority what it is: hypocrisy. Whether through social climbing, educational attainment, vocational success, or some other means, we've just found a way to fake it. Truth is, I'm not merely a sinner but as the sinner. I am the hypocrite.
From this posture of low ground we are able to hear and act upon the third word, which comes as the relief we need—good news flowing downhill.
Receive the gift-righteousness of Jesus by faith as a fully forgiven, beloved son or daughter of the Father.
Paul writes in Galatians 4:4-5, “When the time had fully come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive our adoption as sons.”
Don’t miss the cosmic purpose of Jesus’ mission: “God sent His Son… that we might receive our adoption as sons.”
So receive. With the empty hands of a child, be filled to overflowing with the love, kindness, mercy, and grace of the Father expressed to you in Jesus!
Check, confess, and receive. Check, confess, and receive. Check, confess, and receive. Receiving is so crucial and is what enables us to move to the fourth word.
Then, compelled by grace and empowered by the Spirit, for the honor of Jesus and for the good of the relationships in your life, as you receive, possess, and abide in the gift-righteousness of Jesus, you will no longer need to pursue the moral high ground. Instead, you will come to despise it. Instead, you'll seek out and camp out at the low ground.
Why? Because grace flows downhill.
Thank you, Tim Keller, for this illuminating, helpful insight.