The Sinner-Sinner and the Religious-Sinner

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“But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’” (Luk 18:13)



The focus of this entry has to do with attitudes that are often seen in some who take to themselves the name Christian. The issue of self-righteousness has always been a  beset among those who belong to the Lord.

In the gospels, Jesus often confronted the self-righteous attitudes among many of Israel’s religious leaders. So let’s begin with the time of Jesus.

The most religious people during the time of Jesus were, by far, the Pharisees. No one could hold a candle to them. Let’s call certain ones of the Pharisee sect, religious sinners.

Then who were the sinner-sinners? The sinner-sinners were the harlots, the tax collectors, the multiple marriages, the thieves, and all the rest.

Keep in mind that the sinner-sinners of the gospels were also Israelites. They had just given up on religion. (Many discouraged Christians will identify with this easily enough.)

The sin of the sinner-sinner is readily seen. But what was the sin of the religious-sinner?

Let’s see if we can find it -

“The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.’” (Luk 18:11 )

Do you see it? The religious-sinner has a prideful heart. He tries to extract from God, saying, ‘God, You owe me. I’ve been especially good. I’m not like the sinner-sinner.’

We will come back to the Pharisee in a bit.

But for now let’s talk about…


The World’s Only Perfect Religion

Can there really be a perfect religion, that is, a religion that without fail continually demonstrates perfect mercy, and grace, and compassion?

Of course we have to define what ‘perfect means.’ This is what Peter tried to do.

When Jesus had taught the disciples about dealing with sin in the church, Peter asks a question about a person sinning against another believer.  -

“Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” (Mat 189:21)

Again keep in mind that Peter was talking about a personal sin against himself. He felt there needed to be a point of cutting off. And so he reaches for the number of perfection.

The number seven was the perfect number in Hebrew thinking. It spoke of that which was finished. It spoke of  completion. Peter felt to forgive a brother seven times was perfection.

Now, that really does sound like a lot of mercy. Take note of what Jesus did not say. He did not say,

“Be sure to keep a record of your brother’s offenses. When he reaches 490 times of asking for forgiveness, you have multiplied mercy 70 times. You can then cut him off.”

Wow! That is really being generous.

No it’s not. That wasn’t even the point. If we are keeping records, then our own heart is not right with God. Listen carefully to how Jesus responds to personal offenses -

“I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” (Mt18:21,22)

The term, ‘seventy times seven’ was a Hebraism for, “You must never stop forgiving.”

Please keep in mind that the Lord is addressing personal sins against a believer, and where repentance is in place. There are other instructions the church is to follow with regard to an unrepentant person.

By the way, the short side of things is that there is no perfect religion in the world. Jesus did not come to give us a religion. He came to give us the reality of the kingdom of God.

Listen with your heart -

“‘My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.’

“Therefore Pilate said to Him, ‘So You are a king?’ “

“Jesus answered, ‘You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.’” (Joh 18:36-37)

Again, did you catch it. Religions are what we do. The reality of the kingdom of God is that Jesus does.

This brings us back to the issue of …


Forgiveness and Consequences

The Lord’s response to Peter says something about God Himself. Does the Lord just keep on forgiving and forgiving and forgiving? The simple answer is, ‘You had better thank God that He does.’

However, a point must be made. The forgiveness of sin does not mean there are no consequences to sin. Sin carries its own sorrows and destructions.

Murderers have received the Lord’s forgiveness while on death row. This did not do away with the death penalty.

How about if we believers break one of the big ten commandments more times than once? Let’s continue with the story of the Pharisee and the tax-collector.

“The tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner.” (Cf. Mt18:9-14)

Did you hear what he said? He agreed with every point made by the Pharisee, ‘I have been a swindler, unjust, an adulterer. I don’t fast at all. I don’t pay tithes at all.’

Have you been there? I have.

The tax-collector felt unworthy to even pray towards the mercy-seat. The only prayer he could muster was, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.” He was saying, “I am guilty of all.”

How many times I’ve had to say, ‘Lord, I am guilty of all.’

But all this brings us to …


The Essence of True Repentance

Here is the essence of the parable. The Lord says,

“I tell you, this man [sinner-sinner] went to his house justified rather than the other [religious sinner]; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

To be justified is to be made right with God. The sinner-sinner became right with God. The religious sinner remained unjustified before God.

The sinner-sinner did not ask for justice. He asked for mercy.

And the great lesson for the religious-minded person is simple – As long as we see ourselves as more worthy than others, we stay with no justification before God. Mercy alone saves us.

Mercy is the great truth of the cross. God’s very throne is called the throne of grace. Our instructions are,

“Draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Heb4:16)


The Heart of the Cross

Yes, Jesus came down quite hard in defining the true nature of sin. At the same time all we see is mercy and compassion when He is dealing with sinners.

The woman at the well had been married five times and was then living in adultery. The Lord did not tell her to go back to her last husband. Why? It is the because people can only begin their life from where they are, right now. Oftentimes there is no way to go back and correct anything.

So, we must always begin with where we are, right now.

Then you have the woman caught in adultery. Jesus did not tell her to go show herself to the priests to receive her due from the Law. He simply said,

“‘Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?’ She said, ‘No one Lord.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘ I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.’” (Jn8)

This is another picture of mercy triumphing over judgment? Jesus did not condemn her. He simply told her not to return to the sin that had brought her to this place.

So, is there anything to …


Learning a Life of Holiness

Does continuous mercy mean we should not expect to live a life of holiness before God? Not hardly. What it means is that while we are in this world we will be subject to failures, and stumbling, even if it is no more than our thought life.

God knows this. None of this causes the blood of Jesus to lose its power. Nor does the Spirit of Christ ever leave us alone in sin. The Holy Spirit continues the work of conviction to the point of bringing us to the mercy-seat for cleansing.

And the Spirit also supplies power to help us live in a way where we have less and less failures.

The Scripture portion that states this is as follows -

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” (John 3:16-17 )


A Special Problem to Face

There is a special problem that must be attended to when it comes to judging others. We tend to judge others when we are doing well; ‘Well, I would never do that!’

How do you know you would never do that? Life isn’t over yet.

And how often have you sinned in your own thought life and in your heart? Jesus said the sin was not simply in the doing, it is in what goes on inside us.

And how about when we do have a failure? The very thing we thought we would never do, we did. This is why the apostle gave a certain instruction:

“Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.” (Ga6:1,2)

Once again, God never justifies sin but He can and does justify the sinner. He does this through the cross.

He can declare the repentant sinner to be just by the plenteous mercy that He alone can give. After all, Jesus died for all our sins, past, present, and future. He in turn gave us His own righteousness.

The reality is that believers will remain in the presence of sin as long as we are in this life. The continued truth is that sin cannot claim ownership over any believer.

The Lord redeemed us, restores us, keeps us, and cleanses us when the cleansing is needed. The Holy Spirit is continually at work to expose sin and to bring God’s mercy and correction on the scene.

Sure, the hurt remains. Yet it is in our sorrow over sin that we are reminded of God’s love, of His grace, and of His mercy.

And, yes, we should have sorrow over our sins. Having a Godly sorrow is one of the great signs of true repentance.


One Final Thought

Have you ever wondered why some believers who have so many failures in life, and yet the blessings of the Lord seem to follow them in life? Then you have others who try hard to do everything right, and yet they have more struggles than they can handle. There is an answer. It all has to do with an attitude of the heart.

Hopefully this article will help you understand why it


Now for a song. Let the Lord speak to you about, ‘Beauty for Ashes.’ 

In Christ always,