The self-righteous spirit seeks to establish commerce with God, where a good done or a bad avoided moves God to accept us favorably. It is an old evil. It is asking God to boast in the works of sinful man. We never draw God’s favor by pointing to something within ourselves.
If I could preach only one sermon, I would preach my one allotted message to the visible church.
I would preach with the weighty concern that the baptized are on an irreversible course toward eternity. And the baptized, those well-ordered around the outward expressions of the covenant, are most likely to be the ones who “trust in themselves that they are righteous and treat others with contempt” (Lk. 18:9).
Why are the baptized prone to trusting in themselves? If I may borrow from Paul’s style and cadence in Romans 9, it is because the baptized have the church, the Word, the sacraments, the church officers. The baptized have the confessions, the catechisms, the hymns, the psalms, the Sunday Schools and the Christian publishers. They have the necessary outward things, but do they have the righteousness obtained only by faith? (Rom. 9:30)
By preaching on the Pharisee and the tax-collector (Luke 18:9-14), I might then, with the blessing of the Holy Spirit, dislodge those within the baptized church who are currently wedged under the heavy millstone of their own righteousness.
The passage begins with Jesus revealing his own zeal to save those elect souls in the visible church still dedicated to their own righteousness.
The passage divides nicely in two parts as God examines the hearts of two men. The first, the Pharisee, is covered with superficial virtues. He shines. He is mesmerized with himself. The second man abhors himself. He dwells in shadow. A tax-collector, covered with vice. Not superficial vices. Real, deep, on the inside vices. And his smoldering sins are choking him in the presence of the living God.
The parable is a great help in exposing the self-righteousness the baptized might take shelter behind. The Pharisee is an addict of self-righteousness. He is the productive fool described by Lewis in The Screwtape Letters: “To be greatly and effectively wicked a man needs some virtue.”
The reeking virtue of this Pharisee is his gratitude. He is thankful he is not like other men. He has so polished his virtues he has blinded himself. He thinks he is blessed of God, when he is cursed. Cursed because he refuses to take shelter in the alien righteousness of Christ. His own virtues are his shelter. The good he has done. The bad he has avoided. His own works shine in his heart, not the light of the gospel of the glory of Jesus Christ. He does not commend the Savior. He commends virtue.