Most of us go to great lengths to look good in the eyes of others, but according to Jesus, it is only when we honestly see ourselves as we really are that we can become who God has made us to be. Life has much more to offer than the frustrating rat race of "keeping up appearances."
The night Jesus was arrested, he spent some time telling the disciples about the Holy Spirit. He referred to the Holy Spirit with a word that was translated into Greek as parakletos, a word conveying the sense of "advocate," "friend" or "supporter." Parakletos was used to describe, for example, a person who would stand beside you in court to support you and your cause, to speak up for you, to hearten you.
"Mercy triumphs over justice," James wrote in James 2:13. The kind of justice God is interested in is the kind that is tempered with mercy. Jesus said, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy" (Matthew 5:7), and "I desire mercy, not sacrifice" (Matthew 9:13; 12:7).
Jesus knew that things were about to get hard, not just for him, but also for those who would follow him. So he said to the 11 disciples (Judas had already left to betray him), "I’ve told you these things to prepare you for rough times ahead. They are going to throw you out of the meeting places. There will even come a time when anyone who kills you will think he’s doing God a favor. They will do these things because they never really understood the Father. I’ve told you these things so that when the time comes and they start in on you, you’ll be well-warned and ready for them" (John 16:1-4a, Message paraphrase).
What is it that these persecutors did not understand about the Father? For starters, they did not understand that the Father loved the world so much that he would send his Son to save it from its sins. They did not understand the "mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God…which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Ephesians 3:9, 11). And they didn’t understand that "in him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence" (verse 12).
Jesus went on: "I didn’t tell you this earlier because I was with you every day. But now I am on my way to the One who sent me. Not one of you has asked, ‘Where are you going?’ Instead, the longer I’ve talked, the sadder you’ve become. So let me say it again, this truth: It’s better for you that I leave. If I don’t leave, the Friend won’t come. But if I go, I’ll send him to you" (John 16:4b-7, The Message).
The disciples were sad because Jesus was leaving them. But what they didn’t yet understand was that his going to the Father would result not in their loss of him, but rather in their union with him and with the Father. How? Because he would send the Holy Spirit, the Friend, who would draw them into the eternal relationship of love that exists between the Father and the Son.
Sin, righteousness and judgment
"When he comes," Jesus continued, "he’ll expose the error of the godless world’s view of sin, righteousness, and judgment: He’ll show them that their refusal to believe in me is their basic sin; that righteousness comes from above, where I am with the Father, out of their sight and control; that judgment takes place as the ruler of this godless world is brought to trial and convicted" (John 16:8-11, The Message).
People who understand the grace they have received from God, are not quick to hold a grudge or to withhold forgiveness.
How is the world wrong about sin? The world thinks sinners can atone for their sins by doing works of goodness. But here is the fascinating thing. Now that Jesus has come to forgive all sin and reconcile all things to God, the only kind of sin that can remain is the sin of not trusting in him who takes away all sin. The root of all sin is unbelief in God’s own atonement for human sin through Jesus Christ.
How is the world wrong about righteousness? The world thinks of righteousness in terms of human virtue and goodness. But here is the fascinating thing. Now that the Son of God has lived a sinless human life and has been accepted by the Father as the perfect offering of humanity in sinful humanity’s place, righteousness can be defined only in terms of the gift of God, a gift rooted in Jesus Christ, who, in our place and as one of us, did everything his Father commanded him to do for our sakes.
How is the world wrong about judgment? The world thinks people who endure great suffering in this world are great sinners under God’s curse, and that people whose lives are abundant have been judged worthy and are under God’s favor. But here is the fascinating thing. Now that the Son of God has destroyed the works of the devil, the pioneer of sin, judgment can be defined only in terms of the condemnation of the god of this world, not in terms of the condemnation of the very people Jesus came to save.
But the Holy Spirit, Jesus said, would bring the truth about sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:13-14). To be forgiven of sin, to be judged righteous, and to be freed from the grip of sin are all gifts of the Father to us through Jesus Christ. We experience them only by trust in God’s word of grace and salvation, which he gives us by the Holy Spirit. In Christ, we are reconciled to the Father, partakers of Christ’s righteousness and of Christ’s union and communion with the Father.
In the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14), Jesus illustrated the difference between the world’s view of sin, righteousness and judgment and the true view that the Spirit would lead us to see. The two men went up to the temple to pray, one a tax collector and the other a Pharisee. You can read the story. But take special notice of verse 9: Jesus told this story for the sake of those "who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else."
Such people don’t feel the need to pray for God’s mercy like the tax collector did. But it was the tax collector, the one who saw himself before God as he really was — a sinner in great need of mercy, who "went home justified before God" (verse 14). And think about this: The tax collector had to trust God with his life, didn’t he? He knew he deserved nothing, but he trusted God to be the way God says he is: "the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness" (Exodus 34:6).
When we go to the judgment seat of God, honestly confessing our sinfulness and asking for mercy, the Judge turns out to be the Defense Attorney who turns out to have taken our crimes on himself and then declared us innocent and set us free. That is why we live in the world as people who understand grace, mercy and compassion and who devote ourselves to extending these to others.
The Prodigal Son in the Luke 15 parable knew he needed mercy, and that is all he knew, so he went to ask for it. When he did, he found out that he had had it all along — but only now that he had come home, trusting his father to be merciful, was he able to start enjoying it.
Forgiven and forgiving
The instruction in the story of the Prodigal Son goes hand in hand with what is called the Lord’s Prayer, because the Holy Spirit leads us to forgive others as he has forgiven us. Jesus told the disciples to pray, "Forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors." This is not a new form of legalism. It is, rather, a description of what life is like among those who are in Christ. People who cannot see their own condition of sinfulness, and therefore do not feel their own need for mercy, do not extend mercy to others. People who do understand the grace they have received from God, on the other hand, are not quick to hold a grudge or to withhold forgiveness. Because we are in Christ, we are forgivers and we trust God to forgive us.
When we pray, "Forgive us our debts," we do not ask as though God might not do it. In Christ, God has already forgiven us. Our asking is both a reminder of and a participation in the forgiveness we already have in Christ. In the same way, the prayer "as we forgive our debtors" is also a reminder of and a participation in our new life in Christ in which we forgive as we have been forgiven (compare Ephesians 4:32-5:1-2).
Turn and trust
We can trust God to give us everything we need for life, godliness and salvation. Because he is the Judge, we have nothing to fear in the judgment. And more than that, God does what he does for us because it is his good pleasure to do so (Luke 12:32). He is for us.
We don’t have to be prisoners of "keeping up appearances." We don’t have to carry around anxiety about whether we will "make it into the kingdom." We can live carefree before God, casting all our anxieties, all our cares, upon him, because we know he cares for us (see 1 Peter 5:7).
With God, we can "get real." We can be perfectly honest with ourselves and with him. We don’t have to hide anything. We can unload all our sinfulness, all our failures, all our fears on the One who loves us and gave himself for us — and who makes all things new, including us!