According to Dr. Tim Keller, there are 3 ways to live. There is the irreligious way, which is a rejection of the Christian view of God, the Bible, etc. That’s easy to spot and understand. Then there’s the religious way. Unfortunately, most Christians and most churches are stuck in this way. This way doesn’t actually lead to God, to forgiveness, to salvation. Then there’s grace. This is the only way that connects us with God, that overcomes our sin, that provides forgiveness. This is the way we claim we follow. However, while we say we follow this way, we often don’t. We more often follow the religious way.
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “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.” – Luke 18:9-14, ESV
If you’ve ever said to yourself, “I need to go to church more,” or “I need to pray more,” or “I need to read my Bible more,” you were probably following the religious way. This isn’t to say attending church, praying, or studing God’s Word aren’t important. They are. The Bible tells us we should be doing these things. However, we should be doing these things out of a love and adoration of God, not because we expect that this is the way we should behave.
Consider the Pharisee. For him, holiness and righteousness was about completing a checklist. By his own words, though, we know he wasn’t holy or righteous. Even his offer of thanks to God isn’t actually thanking God. Note what he gives thanks for, “I am not like other men.” There’s nothing about God in that thanks. That’s all about the Pharisee. The Pharisee followed the religious way. He was seeking holiness and righteousness, but on his own terms. It wasn’t about God. Too often, this is exactly where we are, too. Volunteering at church, putting on a program, singing in the choir, even the simple act of attending church are good things we do but for wrong reasons.
Then look at the tax collector. The NASB translates, “THE sinner!” instead of “a sinner!” like most other translations. Why is the NASB different? In the Greek, the word is “the.” It is a definite article. The other translations use “a” because that’s typically how our language works. Because of this, we lose get as strongly as we should how the tax collector was looking only at himself. The tax collector was not looking past his own sin. He was remorseful. He was quite aware of God’s view of sin. And he threw himself on the mercy of God, begging for forgiveness. The tax collector was following that last way, the way of grace.
Why do you do what you do? Are you doing those things because they’re expected? Are you doing them because that’s what a good person does, because that’s what a “good Christian” does? If so, realize that God isn’t going to love you less because of a sin and He isn’t going to love you more because you happen to get something right. That’s not perfect love. Also, it doesn’t matter how much you do right or how much you get wrong with respect to “earning” forgiveness and righteousness. We can’t earn those things. Once lost, we cannot get them back by anything we do. We must cast ourselves on the mercy of God for forgiveness and righteousness to be granted upon us. We must rely wholly on grace.
We should continue to do good works, but our motivation must be right. Doing the right thing for the wrong reason is just as much a sin as doing the wrong thing. Do what you do out of a sincere love of God, seeking to please Him. Life in Christ is not a competition with anyone else. It’s not a checklist that needs to be filled out. Life is about loving Jesus with everything and our everything being done because it pleases Him. That’s the standard.