If we feel good about ourselves and God’s opinion of us, that’s always a positive sign—right? Actually, God’s Word suggests otherwise! The Gospel isn’t about making ourselves acceptable to God; instead, it reveals what God has done on behalf of sinners to reconcile us to Himself. Alistair Begg teaches that it is only when we recognize ourselves as sinners who need forgiveness that we understand the significance of our need for a Savior.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to turn with me to the Gospel of Luke 18:9. It’s on page 877, if you care to use one of the Bibles that you’ll find around you. Page 877, Luke chapter 18. Now we’re going to turn for one last time to Titus, and that is why we are reading now from Luke. All will become apparent, I hope.
Verse 9: “He”—that is, Jesus—“also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” That’s very, very important. That opening sentence sets up the story that Jesus is about to tell and bears reading again. “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.”
And then the story: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 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.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Thanks be to God for his Word.
And you can keep a finger in there if you choose, or a marker, and then turn to Titus and to chapter 3 and to the final phrase of the letter: “Grace be with you all.” “Grace be with you all.”
And then we’ll pray together, shall we?
Make the Book live to me, O Lord,
Show me yourself within your Word,
Show me myself and show me my Savior,
And make the Book live to me.
For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Well, it’s not uncommon for us to come to the Scriptures with that prayer. I do so purposefully. I’m happy for it to become well-known and well-worn—and, along with it, the old Anglican prayer that we use from time to time with the three requests: “What we know not teach us. What we have not give us. What we are not make us.” And when we pray that before we come to the Bible, the obvious question is: On what basis—on what basis—do we anticipate that God will answer that prayer? And the answer, in one word, is on the basis of grace. Grace.
And Paul, in writing to Titus, began his letter with grace in 1:4. Right at the very heart of it all, in 2:11, he addresses the reality of grace appearing in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. And then, as you can see here, at the very end, he finishes with grace once again. And that’s not unique to Titus. In fact, it is true of the way in which Paul addresses all of his letters. And that is not actually unique, because it really is the story of the entire New Testament.
And anybody that was seeking to understand the New Testament who didn’t understand grace would make very heavy weather of it, would be open to the possibility of reading the New Testament simply as a series of exhortations whereby the reader is called upon to try and perform as well as they possibly can in the hope, somehow or another, of making themselves acceptable to God—which, of course, is the very opposite of what you find. The story of the good news is not good advice about what men and women are supposed to do to make themselves acceptable to God, but rather, it is the story of good news of what God has done on behalf of sinners to make it possible for them to know him. And so, repetitively, purposefully, I want to speak to you again this morning, on this final session and before I’m gone for a few weeks, to leave you with the phrase “Grace be with you all.” “Grace be with you all.”
Let’s, first of all, define grace. Let me give you two definitions that can run together, if you like: “The undeserved love of God to men and women, revealed in Jesus.” “The undeserved love of God to men and women, revealed in Jesus.” Or, if you prefer, this: “God’s acting in spontaneous goodness to save sinners.” “God’s acting in spontaneous goodness to save sinners.”
If we don’t get this right—and many don’t get it right—then the church that doesn’t get it right will fall into one of two gullies on either side of the pathway marked “Grace.” I’m just pointing these out to you. I’m not going to expand upon this just now; you can follow it up on your own. But on either side of the pathway of the life lived by grace in grace, you find gully number one is that of legalism—legalism—where if people do not understand the nature of the grace of God, then they will seek to obey God with a wrong motive; obeying God somehow or another seeking to put points on his scoreboard, if you like; seeking to perform in such a way as to secure a verdict in our favor: “And if I do this, and do that, and do that, and add to whatever has been done by Jesus, then I can probably put myself in a better position.” The person who is working on that basis has not understood the nature of grace.
On the other side—the gully on the other side—is the gully of antinomianism. That seems like a big word, but it isn’t, really. Nomos is Greek for “law.” “Anti-” is “against law.” And therefore, the antinomian is the person who says, “Since God has executed a ‘not guilty’ verdict on our behalf in Jesus, then there’s no place for the law anymore in our lives.” And you’ll hear people saying very proudly, “We’re not under law; we’re under grace”—which, of course, we are. The Bible says that—as a means of salvation. But the fact of the matter is that the law of God is written in the heart of a child of God in order that we might know what it is to love God. “If you love me,” Jesus said, “you will keep my commandments”—so that if you don’t understand grace, you either keep commandments like a crazy person, seeking to secure God’s favor by your deeds and your righteousness, or you say, “I don’t think we’ve got anything at all to do with deeds of righteousness and so on.” And the Scriptures help us out, don’t they? Because they balance us out in such a way that we understand that the grace of God humbles the proud heart that is committed to self-justification, and it condemns the lazy and the irresponsible, lax life that is the life of the person who is antinomian.
With that said, what I’d like to do is use the three requests of the prayer as the points or headings for this meditation on grace itself. So the first heading, then, is “What We Know Not, Grace Teaches.” What we know not, grace teaches.
The Bible doesn’t set out to give us a scientific textbook. Science is discovered as a result of empiricism, as a result of investigation. No, what the Bible gives us is the setting forth not of science but the setting forth of the story of salvation. And the whole story of the Bible is a story of what God has determined to do to put together a people that are his very own through his covenant expressed in the Lord Jesus Christ finally and savingly. So when you come to the Bible, you discover things that you don’t discover anywhere else. Well, they may have been written as a result of them being discovered in the Bible, but the truth of the Bible unearths, unfolds things to us that you don’t really bump up against otherwise. Let me just list them for you—not all of them but some of them.
First of all, the Bible tells us that we were created in God’s image. It’s the grace of God that teaches us this—that we’re not a random collection of molecules, as I often say; that we’re not just held in suspension; that we were not just created by chance; that we’re not a product of time plus matter plus chance. But the Bible tells us, grace tells us, what we would not otherwise know—namely, that we were created in his image.
It also goes on to tell us that that image in which we have been created, which gives us a dignity as men and women—that image has been marred, or it has been spoiled, by sin, so that when Adam and Eve fall, rebel against God, the image of God in man is spoiled at that point. And all of those who are included in Adam—all of humanity—fall with him.
The Bible then goes on to tell us that despite man’s rebellion, God is a continual lover and a seeker. And it tells us of his eternal plan—his plan from all of eternity—to save men and women. It tells us that in the execution of the plan, conceived of in eternity, one member of the Trinity—namely, the Son of God—came as a substitute for sinners. He didn’t come to show people how they can make themselves acceptable to God, but he came to those who by nature are unacceptable to God to die in their place. We’ll come back to that.
It is the Bible, then, that tells us that he triumphed over sin and over death and the grave and the Evil One in his resurrection. It then tells us that this same Jesus has been exalted to the highest place in heaven; that having gone to heaven, he has sent the Holy Spirit to indwell the lives of those who believe, to convince the world of the truth of Jesus, to convict men and women of their sins, and to rescue men and women from guilt and from alienation—and ultimately to rescue from mortality itself, so that the last enemy that will finally be destroyed is death itself. And in a new heaven and in a new earth, there will be no more death, there will be no more cancer, there will be no more of that stuff at all, because all things will have been made new.
Now, in saying that to you, if you want it summarized, you can use the summary that we often provide for one another. And that is that we say if we are talking to somebody over coffee and seeking to summarize this, we would tell them that the story goes, “The good, the bad, the new, the perfect.” Good, bad, new, perfect. You can write that on a napkin. And people say, “If this Jesus makes all things new, why does my mother have cancer? Why are all these horrible things going on in the world?” Because we’re living in between the period where the new and the old collide with one another, because we live in a fallen world. And the world that God made and the world that we know are two different worlds. The world that we know is not the world as God made it but is the world as we have spoiled it. We’re the bad ones. And this Jesus came for bad ones to make us new ones. And even when he makes us new ones, we’re still bad new ones. And that’s why he’s going to have to make us, finally, all that he intends for us to be in a new heaven and in a new earth.
Now, when you just think about that for a moment, you realize it’s unique, don’t you? I mean, you don’t get this in People magazine or in Sports Illustrated or something—you open it up, and it outlines this for you. In fact, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find another religion that actually has this story, or an ideology, or a philosophy—a philosophy that begins with the offer of a free forgiveness; a forgiveness that is free, that is unearned; a religion that begins with grace and not with the attempts at self-righteousness; a story of a new life that is given to those who have done nothing to deserve it and who have done everything to deserve judgment. That’s the story of grace. So, what we don’t know, grace teaches us.
Secondly, what we don’t have, grace gives us. What we don’t have, grace provides.
C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, in chapter 5, makes this point. It’s quite a long quote, but it’s purposeful. He says, “If the universe is not governed by an absolute goodness, then all our efforts are in the long run hopeless. But if it is, then we are making ourselves enemies to that goodness every day, and are not in the least likely to do any better tomorrow, and so our case is hopeless again.” Then he goes on to say, “Christianity tells people to repent and [provides] them forgiveness. It therefore has nothing … to say to people who do not know … that they need … forgiveness.”
So, Christianity says, “If you will repent, you will find forgiveness.” So what possible relevance is that for somebody who’s like the fellow we just read in Luke chapter 18, who comes to church to feel good about himself, who goes to the temple to rehearse before God the fact that he feels absolutely super? In fact, if you probably asked him what he got out of going up to the temple, he would say, “I feel so much better about myself after I’ve gone up.” Well, it’s hardly surprising, ’cause he’s just talking about himself all the time, and about how fantastic he is, and how he isn’t like other poor bums that are apparently showing up there and can’t really look up into heaven the way that he does.
C. S. Lewis goes on to say, “It is after you have realized that there is a real Moral Law, and a Power behind the law, and that you have broken [the] law and put yourself in the wrong with that Power—it is after all this, and not a moment sooner, that Christianity begins to talk.” I find that very helpful. I wonder, do you? He says, “It is only after you’ve discovered that there is a moral law, that there is a God who is the creator of that moral law, that that moral law has been broken by you and that you can’t put yourself right in relation to that moral law—now we’ve got a story to tell! Now Christianity starts to speak to us! Because now we’ve found that there is a place somewhere that I can go that will resolve my predicament.” Because, you see, the real question that presses in upon us—and genuine faith does not begin until it does press in upon us—is: How can I get rid of my sins? How can I get rid of them?
We all have the Lady Macbeth in us somewhere, don’t we? The spots on our hands, the guilt? We think wrongly. We speak poorly. We act badly. We tell lies. We cheat. We get jealous. We lust. We’re spiteful. We’re gossips. We’re rude. We hurt people. We’re stuck on ourselves. Would you like me to go on? Or am I only describing me? I just started with my stuff. You want me to include yours? No, we get the point, don’t we? So what are we going to do with this? That’s what was going on with these two fellows that went up to the temple. They had two entirely different ways of tackling it. One was going to tackle it by religious therapy, and the other was going to tackle it by a radical transformation.
No, you see, it’s only when we see our predicament before God—when we see ourselves—that we then understand the significance of seeing our Savior. That was our prayer, wasn’t it? “Make the Book live to me, O Lord. I’m going to read the Bible now, for all these people, and they’re going to read it too. Make the Book live to us, O Lord. Show us yourself within your Word. Help us to know that this book is about you, Jesus. And then show me myself, and then show me my Savior.” See, the Bible has to first show us our predicament before the solution means anything to us at all.
C. S. Lewis actually finishes out the little statement when he says, “When you … are sick, [then] you will listen to the doctor.” “When you[’re] … sick, you will listen to the doctor.” And some of us—we don’t like to go to the doctor, and when we go to the doctor, we tell him how wonderfully healthy we are and waste a tremendous amount of his time explaining that we shouldn’t even be there in the first place. “Everything’s working perfectly. No, I feel fine. No, I have put on a few pounds, but I’m really very good. Oh, yes, I can bend. Yes, I… Oh, yes. Everything. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.” You get that jolly questionnaire; you have to tick it all off: “Have you ever had this?” “Nope, nope, nope, nope. No, I feel terrific.” Couple of yeses over here, but by and large, finish it up, give it in, “There you go.” And then he examines you. And then everything changes. One blood test and you’re busted.
I took myself off my statin a few months ago ’cause I thought I was a genius. So I said, “I can handle this stuff. I can eat lettuce leaves like the rest of the world. I don’t need to take this Lipitor stuff.” It drives you crazy in the end. You can’t remember anything. So I stopped, and then I went to see him this week. And I started again real quick. ’Cause I’m not the genius I thought I was. In fact, I’m so vastly off the thing that it’s alarming. But I feel great!
How do you feel? “Terrific!” How do you feel about your standing before God? You say, “Terrific!” Oh, you mean like you feel like the guy in Luke 18? “I feel great. Been giving my offering. Been attending. Things are clicking nicely for me.”
No, you see, the problem is that the law of God demands complete obedience. Complete obedience! You have to get a hundred on the test. Ninety-nine’s no good. Forty-three’s certainly horrible. And not only does it demand complete obedience to the precepts of the law, but it demands the full endurance of the penalty for breaking those precepts. Well, if I haven’t kept the precepts, and there is a penalty to be endured for the fact that I haven’t, how in the world am I going to get out of this predicament? The answer to that, in a word, is grace.
Not the labors of my hands
[Could] fulfill your law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All [of that] for sin could not atone;
You must save [me], and you alone.
See, this is the wonderful story, the wonder of grace: that although we are sinners and we’ve placed ourselves where God ought to be, as it were, on the throne, Jesus has placed himself where we deserve to be, dying in the place of sinners. And that’s why we go again and again to 2 Corinthians 5:21: that he who knew no sin became sin for us in order that we might become the righteousness of God in him.
Now, if you’re tracking with me, you will recognize, too, that it is only, as we’ve said, grace that teaches us these things, and it is only grace that provides us with these things. It’s only when we start to read the Bible and start to listen to the story of the Bible that we might come to an understanding of the fact that this is actually the very truth of God. And when we come to the conviction that this is actually true, that doesn’t mean that we have now believed it, but we have actually advanced from simply saying, “I don’t know really what this is all about.” Now we find ourselves saying, “I think that’s true. I think that’s true.” Do you know what’s already started to happen to you?
You see, the Spirit of God is the one who says to you, “This is true.” It’s not “Trust Begg” or “Trust Joe” or whoever it is. No, he says, “This is true.” Now, how does that happen? Why doesn’t everybody just say, “This is true”? Why do you not say to a group of people like this, “Look, it’s the good, the bad, the new, the perfect. Fit in. Believe it. Let’s go.” Why doesn’t everybody just go, “That makes sense to me; let’s go”? The answer is in 2 Corinthians 4—not in 2 Corinthians 5, which we already quoted—and that is that the god of this age has blinded the minds of men and women so that they can’t believe. They’re blind! Blind! So you can show it to them again and again, you can write it on a napkin in the coffee shop, you can preach till you’re blue in the jolly face, and the people are going, “I don’t get that.” And then one day they go, “Oh, I get that!” What happened? God shone the light into the darkness. Grace shone through the darkness into the mind, into the soul, into the core entity of this person!
That’s what happened to Saul of Tarsus, isn’t it? I mean, Saul of Tarsus didn’t come to a church service and decide to become a follower of Jesus. Saul of Tarsus wasn’t going to any church services except to kill people. He was going to synagogue services to pull these people out, take them away, chain them up, get rid of them. He was the fellow who was present when Stephen was martyred. And what happened to Saul of Tarsus was that the grace of God intervened in his life, gradually, progressively, gently, unmistakably, so that when the light shone from heaven that was brighter than the noonday sun—you can read about it in Acts chapter 9—it wasn’t simply that it blinded him physically, but it shone into the darkness of his blindness and opened his eyes to the reality of the fact that he was actually persecuting the risen Lord Jesus Christ. And suddenly, a lot of things must have fallen into place. He must have said to himself, “Well, that explains why that Stephen guy was able to face that stoning death with such amazing faith and confidence.”
Later on, elsewhere, he says that he was provoked by that. He was provoked to jealousy. “When the law provoked him to jealousy.” I couldn’t find it. I went looking for it this morning. Someone else can find it and tell me where it is. But he was provoked to jealousy. I think that his provoking to jealousy was when he saw Stephen, and he realized, “I’m a righteous man. I’m a Pharisee. I’m from a good background. I should know God. I don’t know God like this.” And the grace of God shone into his darkness. Has the grace of God ever shone into your heart in the darkness like this?
Thirdly and finally, what we know not, grace teaches; what we have not, grace gives; and finally, what we are not, grace makes us. We were in Titus 3:7 at the beginning of July—“so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life”—and here we are, really in the same spot at the very end of July. I’m very happy for this to be the case.
Incidentally, when the Sunday school teachers taught me about grace, they gave me an acronym. Do you know this? “God’s riches at Christ’s expense.” When they taught me the nature of justification, they told me that it was “When we trusted in Christ, we were justified by grace, and then God viewed us just as if we’d never sinned.” “Just as if.” So it’s kind of like just-if-ication. “Just as if we’d never sinned.” That’s good, but it’s not really accurate. Because in Christ, we are not simply put back to the garden of Eden, which would be to be back in the position of Adam and Eve, pre-sin; but in Christ, all of his righteousness is credited to our account. It’s not simply that we have now got a zero balance but that all of the righteousness of God has been granted to us, and we have become heirs of eternal life.
You see what this means? It sets us free from the dreadful tyranny of trying to make ourselves acceptable to God. It allows us to find our identity in the Lord Jesus Christ. It engenders within the believer a humility that doesn’t have to see everything in terms of one’s self. And it provides a security for time and for eternity, because once we’re in Christ, we’re in him forever.
Let me finish in this way: this forgiveness is not mechanical or impersonal. Jesus doesn’t impose salvation on those who don’t want it. That’s one of the great caricatures that I hear all the time: that somehow or another, that people are saved even though they didn’t want to be saved. They might be reluctant, but they wanted to be saved. So he doesn’t impose salvation on those who don’t want it, and he doesn’t deny salvation to those who do want it. But because Jesus Christ made provision for sin, all men and women are not automatically forgiven. That’s why when Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5, he says, “We beseech you on Christ’s behalf,” or “We implore you on Christ’s behalf to receive this reconciliation”—this reconciliation that has been provided for you in Jesus, in taking your place, in dying in the place of a sinner. You appropriate this to yourself. You take it to yourself. That’s our other acronym, isn’t it? Faith: “Forsaking all, I trust him.” “Forsaking all, I trust him.”
Let me finish where we began, with the two men back in the temple. The Pharisee is a picture of self-justification. He felt good about things, but his feelings didn’t correspond to the state of his soul. Do you get that? If somebody had said to him, “So, how do you feel about things?”—“I feel great. I come up here regularly. I do more than my fair share. I’m a legalistic, obedient soul. I fast, and I tithe, and I’ve stopped doing a lot of other things, and I’m certainly not like a lot of the people that are coming here to Parkside Church. I’m really feeling pretty good about myself, all in.” Yeah, his feelings were great, but they didn’t correspond to his soul.
Incidentally, for those of you who would like me, Sunday by Sunday, to send you away feeling good about yourselves, you realize it’s a really—it’s a tall order for me to do, isn’t it? Indeed, if I’m sending you away, sending myself away, from the Bible, continually, saying, “I feel great about myself,” the chances are we’re not getting it. That doesn’t mean that we should go away feeling horrible about ourselves. It means that we should go away with a true understanding of ourselves and a true understanding of Jesus and a true understanding of grace.
The tax collector—his speech is much shorter. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” He’s not appealing to God’s better nature. He’s not thinking to himself, “Well, maybe God will let me off. I’ve been such a horrible rascal.” No, he’s the kind of person, he’s the kind of girl, who sits in church like this, and they say to themselves, “I hope nobody in here knows what I’m really like. I hope nobody in here knows all the things that I have done. In fact, I’m surprised that a large chunk of the ceiling has not fallen down and hit me on the head just for coming in here. If there’s any way, God, that I can be forgiven, if there’s any way that I can be cleansed…” You see, this fellow must have looked across in the temple area and seen the altar, with the blood on the altar, and realized to himself that that forgiveness that is offered via that altar is at some great cost. But he had no speech to make, only a plea.
There’s little doubt that some of you who are listening to me now have never asked God to pardon you as this man did. You just haven’t. Deep down inside, you know yourself to be guilty. Deep down inside, you know that you’re in the wrong with God. But instead of outing it and crying out for forgiveness and acknowledging that you’re a sinner, you bury it. And you bury it in religious professionalism. You tell yourself things about how much better you’ve been doing from how you were previously doing. Why are you doing that? Because you don’t understand the grace of God. You don’t understand that you can never deal with that predicament in that way. The only way to deal with it is to look away from yourself, to look away to that bloodstained altar, to look away to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, and to say, “Lord, be merciful to me, the sinner.”
The sting in the tail of this story, of course, is robbed for us, because we know too much about these things. But for the first listeners to this story, their eyes must have been as big as saucers! Because as Jesus starts to tell the story and he’s telling it to a group of people who are confident in themselves and look down on everybody else, to religious smart alecks—“There was a Pharisee, and there was a tax collector”—in their minds, they’re going, “I know where this is going. Religious fellow, does religious things, feels good about himself, acceptable to God. This critter, this creature here, this miserable wretch of a person? No, he doesn’t deserve to be anywhere at all. So we know how it’s going to end.” No, you don’t! And Jesus said, “I tell you [that it was] this man [that] went down to his house justified”—declared righteous, set free from the condemnation that marked him.
I ask you again: Have you ever—have you ever—asked God to pardon you like this man did? And if you find yourself saying, “Yeah, I get all of this, and actually, I do believe the light is shining into my heart. What am I supposed to do?”—well, the answer to that is very, very straightforward. One of the jailers who was looking after Paul asked the very same question. He said, “What must I do to be saved?” And Paul said, “Believe.” “Believe.” “Yeah, but am I not supposed to join a class or something? Is there not… Supposed to do something? Give something?” “Believe. Believe.”
The vilest offender who truly believes
That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.
Lord, look upon us. Shine into the darkness of our hearts and the blindness of our minds with the truth of your Word. Teach us by your grace. Give us by your grace. Make us new creations by your grace. And then enable us, finding our identity in Jesus, to commit all of our activity in living for Jesus, so that no matter where, no matter what, transformed and energized by your grace, we’re going to be prepared to do what you ask us. Help us to this end, we pray. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
 R. Hudson Pope, “Make the Book Live to Me” (1943). Language modernized.
 John 14:15 (ESV).
 See Genesis 1:26–27.
 See 1 Corinthians 15:26.
 See Revelation 21:1–5.
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952), chap. 5.
 Lewis, chap. 5.
 Lewis, chap. 5.
 Augustus Toplady, “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me” (1776). Language modernized.
 See 2 Corinthians 5:21.
 See 2 Corinthians 4:4.
 See Acts 7:58; 8:1–3; 9:1–2.
 See Acts 9:3–9.
 2 Corinthians 5:20 (paraphrased).
 Acts 16:30–31 (ESV).
 Fanny J. Crosby, “To God Be the Glory” (1875).
Copyright © 2022, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.