One of my dear friends moved to Columbia several years ago after living all over the world. We met, struck up a friendship, and I learned more from him in a couple years than I could describe with words.
He grew up in Michigan and taught in countries overseas, but this was his first time living in the Southeast. After getting his doctorate here, he moved to California to teach linguistics at a university.
Not long after his move, we were talking on the phone and I was asking him what were some of the major differences between California and South Carolina. His first response struck me:
“Well, it’s a lot easier to tell who is actually a Christian here, for one thing. If someone says they are a Christian here, it’s very likely that they are because it’s not just a cultural thing people go along with. Whereas in the South, not so much.”
I find this to so true doing ministry in the South. There are countless scores of people here who claim Christianity like they claim being American. Like they came out of the womb with it like their blue eyes. I cringe every time I hear someone say “I’ve been a Christian since birth,” because it reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about what a Christian is.
And the trickiest part of this is people sound so sure. Their certainty sounds eerily familiar to the Pharisee from Luke 18.
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 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. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 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!’ 14 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.”
But Jesus’ words are haunting. “This man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.”
Someone saying “I’m a Christian” in the South can mean a variety of things. It can mean, “I’m a Holy Spirit regenerated believer who has repented of my sins and trusted Jesus alone for salvation” or it can mean “Sure, I’ll check that box in light of the other options. I went to church some growing up.”
When someone from the South tells me that they are a Christian, I start the process of trying to discern whether they really are–or whether they are simply confused and covered in Christian camouflage.
Sometimes it’s very telling, and other times the churchiness and Christian lingo make it a lot harder. A pastor that I admire in the Southeast once said that the hardest part of his job is trying to convince “Christians” around his church that they actually don’t know Jesus so that they can truly come to know Him.
In the middle of all this confusion, sometimes I wish I had some kind of magic tool that I could put up against people’s foreheads that would tell me if they really are a believer or not. I don’t have that, unfortunately.
But thanks to Jesus, I have a pretty helpful story about a Pharisee and a tax collector that gets to the heart of the matter pretty quickly. I’ve told it often, whether using the characters from the parable, or modifying with something like a deacon and a drug dealer.
And a Pharisee’s heart–it usually comes out. Somehow. Especially when grace smacks it in its respectable face.
It tends to come out in two ways–the two ways Jesus mentions in verse 9. It comes out in self-trust–thinking that your standing with God is determined upon your religious performance; and in contempt–looking down on others who just can’t hit the ball as well as you can.
It is my belief that churches everywhere, but especially churches across the South, have their fair share of unconverted and self-trusting Pharisees sitting there every Sunday holding their “Christian” card like a badge of honor. An unfortunate number of them are likely in leadership positions at those churches. I’ve seen far too many personally to think that is an isolated event.
The scariest thing about the parable from Luke 18 is that the Pharisee walks away from the temple still thinking that he’s the one who is justified out of the two. He doesn’t realize the joke is on him. He walks away huffing, head held high, lips curled righteously upward.
So what do we do about the unconverted Pharisee hearts in our midst? This part, thankfully, is easier. We keep preaching the gospel to them, week in and week out. We keep inviting them into community, where their self-righteousness can be lovingly and directly exposed in conversations. We remind that we are encouraged to test ourselves to examine whether we’re really in the faith (2 Cor 13:5). We keep preaching the gracious offense of the gospel that grates on self-righteous hearts.
And to be sure, there is a little of the Pharisee’s heart left in all of us believers, because that’s what we all start with–self-trusting hearts. But inside someone who has been changed by the grace offered in Jesus, there is a newer and stronger heart growing. A heart of flesh where there was a heart of stone (Ezekiel 36:26). A heart that admits its wickedness instead of denying and performing. A heart that helps others up instead of kicking them down to feel religiously superior. A heart that smiles instead of scowls.
And the good news for us is that though grace may be slower than we want to overtake the deepest crevices of our Pharisee hearts, overtake them it certainly will (Phil 1:6). He who gave us the grace to realize we are actually tax collectors will not leave us to fend for ourselves. The Pharisee has no one to go to bat for him but himself. But tax collectors? We have the voice of an Advocate that reaches into places ours never could, and that voice has promised to finish what He started in us.
Because once a hopeless sinner has been declared righteous by no merits of his own, the game has officially changed. The Advocate has stepped into the ring and lifted the lowly tax collector’s arm in an unexpected and undeserved victory. That kind of grace cannot be camouflaged, and time will tell the story of it.