This year Ash Wednesday falls on March 9. This marks the beginning of Lent, 40 days to consider how well we are doing.
We could start by thinking about how Jesus got along so well with everyone. Even a casual reader of the Bible will soon learn, however, that one particular group of people didn’t like Jesus. They were the Pharisees.
It’s a good thing that there is no First Pharisaical Church anywhere today. This way we can talk about Pharisees and not be accused of being prejudiced or intolerant.
The Pharisees of old were very religious. They read the laws of God, and they were very zealous in their attempt to live according to those laws. Many of the common people admired their way of life, but Jesus labeled their outward display of religion hypocrisy.
The Pharisees criticized Jesus for associating with “sinners.” Their way of living led them into an attitude of self-righteousness.
In spite of all this, Jesus included them in His offer of forgiveness if they would come to Him. Remember that both Nicodemus, who came to Jesus at night and to whom Jesus spoke about the new birth, and St. Paul were Pharisees.
The word “pharisaical” is used today to describe a self-righteous person. Many people today assume that we human beings gain a favorable relationship with God by what we do. To be sure, good deeds are commendable, such as a random act of kindness. But if we trust in the idea that we make ourselves commendable to God by doing good deeds, we shall soon fall into the trap of self-righteousness.
How can we avoid making this mistake? This must be a very important question. I am surprised that I do not hear more sermons or read more articles about it. I certainly hear much about salvation by faith alone, but I am also aware that the Bible is filled with reminders to do good deeds and to remember that faith without works is dead.
After many years of thinking about this, it seems to me that, first of all, we must be sure that we really understand the Gospel. The Good News is that we receive forgiveness of our sins and new life, not by what we do for others, but by what Jesus did for us in the focal point of His ministry.
This is what we remember in the last week of Lent: Jesus died on the cross to atone for all sins and to make forgiveness available to us through faith alone. The Reformation was centered precisely on this issue: Are we saved by the good deeds we do or by what God has done for us?
Five hundred years later we are still discussing this issue, though I do observe that we have learned to listen to one another and to appreciate the replies given by those on both sides of this issue.
Let me summarize: We are saved by the grace of God through faith alone in Jesus Christ as our personal Savior. Faith is not a work, not at all. It is a completely different thing. It comes from hearing the Good News, and when we understand it and believe it, faith is choosing to trust in Jesus as our personal Savior and Lord. That’s it.
I haven’t done a thing to commend myself to God. I confess my sin and hold my hand open to God and receive His blessing of forgiveness. I receive this gift and say: “Thank You, God.” I am like the prodigal son who came home and received a welcome party from his father.
The question is now: What did the prodigal son do the day after the party? We’d like to think that he was so grateful for his welcome home that he lived out the rest of his life as a grateful member of the family.
If we can keep this in mind from day to day, remembering that everything we do in our Christian life must be done with thanks to God for His unconditional love, then we can be sure that all our deeds will be done, not to earn His love, but to express our gratitude to Him. We must catch ourselves before we fall into that pharisaical trap.
Nevertheless, if and when we do fall, we pray: We have done those things that we ought not to have done, and we have left undone those things that we ought to have done.
Sadly, we do fail to remember. We are sinners, always in need of the Holy Spirit to remind us and to empower us. So we do not lose heart. We turn again to Him with a grateful heart and get on with living the Christian life, doing good deeds in Jesus’ name, in order to express His love working through our lives.
Remember what St. Paul wrote: “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17, NIV).
The Rev. Richard H. Petersen, Ph.D., is the retired pastor of the Evangelical Covenant Church.