Doubtlessly, one of the most widely-sung and best-known hymns of Christianity is “Amazing Grace”:
Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
Perhaps familiarity has bred dull thinking. Have we lost the significance of the words “amazing” and “grace”?
I think that there is far too much of the Pharisee within all of us. You remember our Lord’s parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9-14. Luke records that Jesus “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt.” A Pharisee and a tax collector went into the temple to pray. In our culture we hold neither Pharisees nor tax collectors in esteem, especially with the nefarious activities of the Internal Revenue Service coming to light in recent months. In Jesus’ day, Pharisees were among the most highly esteems persons in Judaism. They were conservative, hard-working, and honorable men.
We often think of Pharisees as those self-righteous Jews who went around condemning anyone having a good time because some religious law somewhere was being violated. That the Pharisees were self-righteous is true. The reality of the matter, however, is that most people who condemn the Pharisees as being self-righteous are themselves self-righteous. Excusing one’s own trespasses while denouncing those of others is a ubiquitous human trait.
The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable does little more than articulate a pervasive human condition: “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.”
We would not be so crass as to voice such a description of ourselves. When we observe the sinful lifestyles of others, however, how often do we have the attitude of the Pharisee?
Clay Layfield, minister of worship at First Baptist Church in Eastman, Georgia, pointed me to a new hymn entitled “Not in Me.” We plan to introduce it to our congregation one Sunday evening soon. “Not in Me” was composed by Eric Schumacher and David Ward with the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector in mind, and you can hear it here. Look at the first verse:
No list of sins I have not done,
No list of virtues I pursue,
No list of those I am not like,
Can earn myself a place with You.
O God! Be merciful to me—
I am a sinner through and through!
My only hope of righteousness
Is not in me, but only You.
The hymn rightly notes that nothing in us warrants God’s acceptance of us—not the sins we have not done, not the virtues we have esteemed, not a comparison with those we deem less worthy for whatever reason. Our depravity permeates all of our being; our “only hope of righteousness is Christ alone.”
The second and third verses continue the theme:
No humble dress, no fervent prayer,
No lifted hands, no tearful song,
No recitation of the truth
Can justify a single wrong.
My righteousness is Jesus’ life,
My debt was paid by Jesus’ death,
My weary load was borne by Him
And He alone can give me rest.
No separation from the world,
No work I do, no gift I give,
Can cleanse my conscience, cleanse my hands;
I cannot cause my soul to live.
But Jesus died and rose again—
The pow’r of death is overthrown!
My God is merciful to me
And merciful in Christ alone.
Only an awareness of ourselves in our sinful state and an awareness of what God has done on our behalf can help us understand that God’s grace is indeed amazing.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.