The Way of Grace: Inviting to the Unrighteous and Threatening to the Self-righteous

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When Jesus began His ministry, He found the nation of Israel divided over the issue of personal righteousness; that is, how a person gains and maintains good standing with God. One camp argued that a person could earn a right standing with God by keeping the law. To do this, however, they had to perfect the art of self-delusion. In addition to that, they had to dumb down certain commandments to bring them in alignment with the behaviors they had no intention of changing.

On the other end of the righteousness spectrum were those who refused to live in a perpetual state of denial regarding their personal unrighteousness. If the Law was the standard, they knew they would never be good enough to earn God’s favor. So they simply kept their distance. Mutual contempt held the self-righteous and the self-condemned exiled in a perpetual dance of resentment. The self-righteous considered themselves better than the admittedly unrighteous. And the unrighteous felt judged by the so-called righteous, while at the same time seeing the hypocrisy between what they claimed to be and what they actually were.

By the time Jesus showed up, the temple had become the place where this division was most pronounced. Jesus illustrated the problem with a parable, most likely based on an actual event.

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”

But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” — Luke 18:10–14

That pretty much summed it up: one group who are not as good as they think they are, and another group who know they are not as good as they need to be. And there they were, together in the temple, the icon of God’s desire to dwell with men and atone for their sin. The very design of the temple with its various gates and plazas stood as an invitation to sinners, both Jewish and non-Jewish. The sacrificial system, with all its blood and gore, was a daily reminder of man’s inability to gain a right standing with God through right behavior. In the temple there was no room for self-righteousness and there was no need to cower behind one’s sinfulness. Alas, it seemed everyone had missed the point.

The self-righteous chased sinners away, and their own shame kept the sinners running.

And then Jesus showed up. He came to break the stalemate between self-deluded moralists and honest infidels. He came to shine a penetrating light of reality on the self-righteous and to offer those who were full of shame a way back. When Jesus met Levi, he certainly needed a way back. So when Jesus said, “Follow me,” that’s exactly what Levi did. He got up and followed. But Jesus didn’t lead him to the temple. He invited Himself over to Matthew’s house. And oddly enough, Matthew didn’t object. In fact, he got the word out to his friends that he was throwing an impromptu party and that everybody was invited.

Before long, Matthew’s home was filled with fellow tax collectors, along with a broad assortment of less-than-righteous riffraff from all around the city. The Rahabs, Bathshebas, Judahs, and Davids of Capernaum all showed up for this unique celebration. They dined on Matthew’s food and drank his wine, along with Jesus and his posse, who laughed and sang with Matthew’s motley collection of religious and social outcasts. There under one roof was righteousness personified, celebrating right alongside unrighteousness on steroids. On that hot Middle Eastern afternoon, Matthew’s home became a place of grace. For a brief time it served as a substitute temple of sorts. Here the righteous and the unrighteous had come together as they were, with no pretense for being anything other than who they knew themselves to be. And Jesus was supremely comfortable. Don’t rush by that too quickly.

Jesus, God in a body, was not uncomfortable surrounded by those who most needed the bridge back to God that only grace could provide.

But not everybody felt the way Jesus did. Standing on the outside of that sacred gathering were the religious icons of the community. The teachers of the Law. The Pharisees. The good people. Even if they were invited, they would never dream of entering a sinner’s home. To do so would be to compromise their ceremonial purity. One touch from a sinner such as Matthew would require hours of washing. For this group, sin was a communicable disease. So it was always best to keep one’s distance. As they huddled together, casting disparaging glances toward the party, they grumbled to some of Jesus’ disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with the tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” (Matthew 9:11).

Interesting question. We must assume they asked because they really did not understand how a man who claimed to be from God would get so close to those who were nothing like God. How was it that a man who was nothing like Matthew seemed to like Matthew? They had no category for this. And they had no patience for it either.

When Jesus heard about the objections of the religious elite gathered outside, He sent them a message: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Matthew 9:12). Jesus was playing to their categories for the moment. They assumed they were healthy. They assumed Matthew and his crew were sick. Jesus then quoted an Old Testament passage that would have been very familiar to the Pharisees. Matthew rendered the words of Jesus in Greek, but the Lord quoted the Hebrew text from Hosea 6:6. He said,

I desire mercy, not sacrifice.

The word translated “mercy” is the Hebrew term chesed. This was the term used to describe God’s grace. “I desire grace, not sacrifice.” His point?

God prioritizes grace over sacrifice.

Then Jesus offered them His one-sentence mission statement:

I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. — Matthew 9:13

Here, Jesus used the terms righteous and sinners with pointed sarcasm. It was His way of saying, “I have not come to call those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” If we could freeze that moment in time, we would be left with a startling and perhaps uncomfortable truth: grace is inviting to the unrighteous and threatening to the self-righteous.

Jesus’ invitation for Matthew to become His follower, combined with His presence at Matthew’s home, confirmed beyond all doubt that grace is not earned; it is offered. This was not a new idea. It was as old as the garden of Eden. But as would happen time and time again, the simple message of grace had been buried under a mountain of religious complexity — complexity created by men who sought to earn their righteousness rather than admit, and rest in, the truth that there is no righteousness apart from that which is given by grace.

In the years that followed, it would become clear to Matthew that Christ was God’s grace personified. He would watch Jesus touch the untouchable and socialize with those who survived on the fringe of society. He would witness miracles performed on behalf of those who had done nothing to deserve them and could do nothing to repay Him. Jesus would uphold the Law while embracing the law-breaker. He elevated the status of women and children. He paid His taxes, fed strangers, and loved His enemies.

As Matthew and his new friends traipsed along with Jesus from city to city, they would see only one thing that raised His ire: graceless religion. His conflict was not with Rome. It was always with the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the teachers of the Law — those who knew best the stories of God’s grace scattered throughout Israel’s rich history. They were the stewards of Israel’s story. It was their responsibility to keep the narrative of God’s activity through Israel front and center in the minds of the people. But in this they had failed. On their watch there emerged a form of Judaism that was almost completely void of grace. It was this graceless religion that surfaced in Jesus a righteous anger that so set Him at odds with the religious elite that they had Him arrested, tried, and crucified. They leveraged the power of Rome, their sworn enemy, broke their own laws, and silenced the voice of grace.

But only for a moment.

Matthew had a ringside seat for all of this. And he was there when the news of an empty tomb was announced by Mary and her companions. Later he would see, touch, eat with, and worship a risen Jesus. And he would be given the privilege of penning a gospel. Not surprisingly, it’s the gospel that contains the clearest proclamation of grace for the world at large. It is often referred to as the Great Commission. But perhaps it would be better entitled the Grace Commission:

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations. — Matthew 28:19

All nations. This was a message for everybody. But perhaps the phrase Matthew connected with most was “make disciples.” Literally, create followers. That’s exactly what Jesus had done with him. He had made him a follower — a transformation that didn’t begin with a command but with an invitation. It’s an invitation that Matthew now understood was being extended to everyone: follow Me.

The tension between the self-righteous and the self-exiled did not end with the coming of Jesus. It is a tension that exists to this very day. So maybe this would be a good time to stop and ask yourself, “To which side of the aisle do I tend to lean?” If you had been invited to Matthew’s party, would you have been a bit conflicted? Would your first inclination be to stand on the outside and wonder? Would you wonder why Jesus would fellowship with sinners before confronting their sin? Would you be concerned that by not addressing their sin Jesus was in some way condoning it?

Or would you lean the other way? Are there things about your current lifestyle or perhaps your past that would give you pause before walking into the presence of Jesus? Would a cloud of shame form overhead? Would you be tempted to stand outside in the hopes of catching a glimpse while avoiding eye contact? After all, you know. You know who you are and who you pretend to be. To bring all of that into the presence of pure righteousness? You would be crazy not to pause. Or would you?

Chances are, there’s a little bit of both in all of us. We are judgmental of certain types of people or behaviors, and then we can turn around and put ourselves in time-out — self-inflicted exile from the presence of God. But in either case we step onto the well-worn path of graceless religion. Either way you choose you find yourself further from the grace of God. After all, the flip side of “I’m not worthy” is “But with enough time and effort I could be.”

Here’s what I think Matthew would tell us after watching Jesus: there’s a third way. The way of grace.

The way of grace is offered; it is not earned. It is offered to all people, regardless of who they are.

So when you catch yourself bouncing back and forth between judging others and condemning yourself, pause. Pause and remember: you can’t be good enough; you don’t even have to be. That is the way of grace.

Excerpted with permission from The Grace of God by Andy Stanley, copyright Andy Stanley.

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Andy Stanley

Andy Stanley is a pastor, communicator, author, and the founder of North Point Ministries (NPM). Since its inception in 1995, North Point Ministries has grown from one church to five in the Atlanta area and has developed a global network of more than 30 churches. Each Sunday, more than 33,000 people attend worship services at NPM's five Atlanta-area churches. Andy's books include the recently released Deep & Wide, as well as Enemies of the Heart, The Grace of God, The Next Generation Leader, How Good Is Good Enough?, and many more. Andy and his wife, Sandra, live in Alpharetta, Georgia, with their three children.

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