There are three kinds of sinners – those who know they’re sinners and aren’t ready (yet) to change; those who don’t know they’re sinners, but believe all others not-like-them need to change; and those who know they’re sinners and want to change...
The way Jesus (who inhabited a fourth category – sinless) related to these three groups is instructive.
He befriended the first group (‘acceptance precedes repentance’) – much to the annoyance of the second group.
He challenged the second group (those who believed that ‘repentance precedes acceptance’); if they were intransigent, he sometimes advocated leaving them in their mess (eg. the pearls/swine metaphor).
He encouraged the third group towards spiritual growth and integrity – and modelled this in his own life.
What you see depends on where you stand. 'Christian' sinners come in two varieties, and for the sake of convenience I'll use two generic terms which might be misunderstood.
'Pharisees' are good people (in the worst sense of the word). They do not know they are in need of grace (despite their protestations to the contrary). They know what's/who's right, and despise heretics and the sort of riff-raff (especially sexual sinners) Jesus mixed with. Pharisees are still crucifying Jesus, but don't know it.
'Saints' are sinners who are ready to admit to being such, and who know their need of grace (they are not - yet - perfect). Although 'saint' is not used in the singular in the Bible - Pharisees are quick to point that out, though they employ plenty of other concepts, like 'Sunday School', which are also not in the Bible - the term has been employed by evangelicals - like the great Methodist Dr. W.E.Sangster - to denote people on the road to holiness. (So forget medieval stained- glass ideas about these people).
Pharisees think they've 'arrived' - they know it all. They believe almost precisely what their 'respected' Bible teachers taught them. They have nothing whatever to learn from those not-like-them. They're 'Word/Bible'-centred.
Saints know they haven't and don't. They are maturing, growing, in faith hope love and knowledge. They discover God's truth and God's will in all sorts of unlikely places. They're 'Word/Christ'-centred.
An easy way to pick a modern Pharisee: they emphasize 'truth' over love. Their creeds and systematic theologies have it all nailed down.
An easy way to pick someone who wants to be a saint: they emphasize love over (anyone's incomplete definition of) 'truth'.
Pharisees never - or hardly ever - preach about social justice. Jesus condemned them for this - see Matthew 23:23, Luke 11:42: those statements affirm that Justice and Love are the two key emphases of Jesus.
When saints read Jesus' diatribes against the Pharisees their first questions are: 'What is social justice?' 'How can I be faithful to these emphases of Jesus, which the Pharisees have neglected?'
You'll hardly ever hear a Pharisee apologize for being wrong. They can't be wrong - they're too insecure to admit they're ever wrong. Their gut-instinct is to justify themselves (Luke 18:9) and pour scorn over anyone who might teach them something different/new.
The saint's prayer is constantly 'Lord be merciful to me, a sinner!' (Luke 18:9ff). And regarding 'truth' they believe that 'God has yet more light and truth to break forth from His Holy Word'.
So: Pharisees have a pathological need to be 'right'.
Saints want desperately to be 'holy' - to be more like Jesus.
Now these are provocative generalizations, to get us thinking/praying (humbly).
But let's remember, the Pharisees aren't all bad, and the saints aren't all good. It's what they're doing about their badness/goodness that's important.
Here are some stanzas from Faber's great hymn 'There's a Wideness in God's Mercy' which Pharisees don't like. Figure out why...
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
Like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in His justice,
Which is more than liberty.
There is no place where earth’s sorrows
Are more felt than up in heaven;
There is no place where earth’s failings
Have such kindly judgment given.
There is welcome for the sinner,
And more graces for the good;
There is mercy with the Savior;
There is healing in His blood.
There is grace enough for thousands
Of new worlds as great as this;
There is room for fresh creations
In that upper home of bliss.
For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of our mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.
It is God: His love looks mighty,
But is mightier than it seems;
’Tis our Father: and His fondness
Goes far out beyond our dreams.
But we make His love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
With a zeal He will not own.
More on the various types of sinners: Antinomians – those ‘against the law’ – are sinners who do not want to change; Pharisees do not know they’re sinners – and also do not want to change; Saints know they’re sinners and do want to change. I see vestiges of all three attitudes in myself...
Remember saints are not proud of what they’ve ‘achieved’ – they are/have nothing not already given. Pharisees tend towards hubris: their cleverness (they think) is mainly of their own making...
Saints sincerely believe ‘God hasn’t finished with me yet’. Pharisees are stuck where they were: they find it difficult to say (of an idea, for example): ‘Hey, that’s interesting... I must do more thinking about that. Maybe God is in this new thought.’
Christian Pharisees mainly preach from Paul (an ex-Pharisee) – and resonate with his judgmental passages. Saints tend to centre on the parables of Jesus, and especially the Sermon on the Mount: so the epistle of James, our Lord’s brother, who exposed Judaistic legalism, is their favourite. They love this: ‘The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable , gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And the harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace’ (James 3:17,18).
Saints earth their missional imperative in Jesus’ mandate in Luke 4:18-19 (mission is compassion and justice, and more than words). Pharisees prefer Matthew 28:18-20 (authority, go, teach, baptize): they are polemical, adversarial (I’m here to change your thinking/behaving).
Pharisees are conformists: and desperately need others to be/believe like them. (Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge suggests that the source of our convictions lies more in social pressures than in independent thinking about the pros and cons of an idea. Peter Berger - Invitation to Sociology - writes about our being a prisoner or a puppet in the society which controls our behaviour, attitudes and faith).
(I haven’t been able to read the responses to these little homilies, but if anyone reacts totally negatively, they are declaring themselves: like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, they will avoid the central issues and attack the person – as an idiot, ignorant, ‘of the devil’ etc. ). The saint’s reflex question is ‘Lord is it I?’ believing that God has yet more light and truth to break forth from his Word. Pharisees prefer point-scoring.
Only one thing is important: to be a saint.
More – much more – to come...