The Christian life is surrender to a sovereign mercy. It all comes down to this for every believer. Either God is sovereign or he is not. Either God is merciful or he is not.
“Let now the proud Pharisee come and boast his righteousness, his duties, his worship, and performances;—the eye of God is on the poor creature behind the door, that is crying, ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner;’ that is, giving himself up to sovereign mercy, and following after him upon that account. We have got a holiness that puffeth up, that in some hath little other fruit but ‘Stand from me; I am holier than thou.’ God delights not in it. It is a hard thing to excel in humble walking; it [i.e., to excel, distinction] is easier obtained by other ways; but God delights not in them.”~ John Owen, from a sermon entitled Of Walking Humbly With God, volume 9 of Works (H/T: The Essential Owen)
If God is not merciful, we are truly doomed, for we deserve the wrath that a sovereign God would dispense. We—all of us, for all fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23)—have “trampled underfoot the Son of God, and [have] profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and [have] outraged the Spirit of grace.” This passage in Hebrews 10:29 describes the rebel heart, which for some sadly never changes despite attempts to get by with religious cosmetic surgery.
And yet, only a sovereign God can be savingly merciful. It was his beloved Son whose blood was spilled on the altar because none other could atone for the ugly guilt of our sins. Who else could serve as both the perfectly just Judge and the justifying propitiation that we needed? Certainly not a religious Pharisee whose measly list of righteous acts by their very essence condemn him rather than save him. And not a less-than-sovereign god merely acting within the paradigm of fate, but only a Divine Ruler of the Universe who determined this display of love and glory from before the foundation of the world.
Owen’s imagery—“the eye of God is on the poor creature behind the door” —draws from God’s tender nature displayed in the biblical accounts where he has plucked men and women from the vain wanderings of the desert, the horrors of war, the searching gaze of the enemy, the extremes of nature—flood, tempest, earthquakes, famine, pestilence, drought, the man-made rules of politics and government, the depths of guilty despair, the insecurities of human weakness, the frailty of family, and friendships under siege. God has benevolently gathered and protected his brood for generations, unhindered in his purposes by the messes we make for ourselves in this fallen world—in fact, decreeing them and using them to his glory and our good so that none may boast.
The man in Jesus’s parable bemoans his sorry state. Boy, do I empathize with the angst-ridden feeling of faint-heartedness, being a pathetic creature hiding behind a door when the convicting knock of the Spirit comes upon my heart; I wring my hands and nod my head and say, “I hate it when that happens.” But the tax collector isn’t focused on himself or his feelings. That’s the difference between my self-absorbed inclination and what we see from him. I tend to run into paralysis—or run to others for affirmation and a safe space from the threat of self-examining guilt. The tax collector is beyond caring about how he feels. Whether he has been treated unfairly, whether he has honed just the right tone to signal his repentance, whether he was a victim of discrimination by the masses is inconsequential to his ability to enter heaven. He knows his own perceptions are untrustworthy (Jeremiah 17:9); the masses follow culture’s rules and culture’s rules are capricious and arbitrary. Neither change the reality. “God, be merciful to me—a sinner” is what he said.
“I need your mercy because I am a sinner. It has nothing to do with anyone else. No excuses, no blame, no victimhood.~ Owen
Because of the charges against me, I am destined to be overswept by your wrath unless I see your face, Lord, and know that I have found mercy in your sight.
I have nothing to bring that merits your grace. I have given up trying to reshape who you are or who I am to make my deeds acceptable or to draw vain sympathy for my condition. Your word declares my portion, but it also promises that another has consumed it on my behalf. (Matthew 26:39) If you accept that in my place, you are truly merciful. Because you decreed that one to take my place (Ephesians 1:4), you are wholly sovereign.”
In a further example of sovereign mercy, God molds us to be citizens fit for the kingdom of heaven. Grateful, humble, walking in newness of life, filled with the Spirit of love, putting off the old and putting on the new, submitting to the Spirit and denying the flesh—and more and more like him. When Christ walked with his disciples, the first New Testament citizens of his kingdom, he outlined the life of greatness they would experience. It would be like his, he said. That sounds pretty good, right?
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)
Obedience, service, sacrifice . . . love. No wonder the tax collector hid and pleaded for mercy. In the divine court, his case would have been thrown out because with no mercy, and thus no holiness, he couldn’t even begin to be a servant, a slave, a sacrifice. The natural man doesn’t have it in him to be a citizen in the kingdom of heaven—What, be humbly obedient? contentedly serve even my enemies? give up anything for another’s sake? But take the man who has received mercy, who lifts his eyes up only to see the wrath-laden cross, who recognizes both the trustworthiness and the sovereignty of a forgiving God, and you will find this man (or woman) supernaturally empowered to achieve heavenly stature through Christlike humility.
Which am I, the Pharisee or the tax collector? In Les Mis, Jean Valjean encounters merciful obedience inspired by devotion to God and is astounded by the otherworldliness of it. We can debate the error behind Hugo’s understanding of priestly representation, but we can’t dispute the message of supernaturally empowered sacrifice and mercy from these lyrics early in the musical:
Yet why did I allow this man
To touch my soul and teach me love?
He treated me like any other
He gave me his trust
He called me brother
My life he claims for God above
Can such things be?
For I had come to hate this world
This world that always hated me
Take an eye for an eye!
Turn your heart into stone!
This is all I have lived for!
This is all I have known!
One word from him and I’d be back
Beneath the lash, upon the rack
Instead he offers me my freedom,
I feel my shame inside me like a knife
He told me that I have a soul,
How does he know?
What spirit came to move my life?
Is there another way to go?
Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Knock hard on my stubborn heart to convict me of pride and self-righteousness.
Dismiss from your court of justice any claim of greatness on my behalf and see only the meek and tender Christ in my place.
Make me a cheerful and willing servant for your kingdom.
If I am to excel at anything, Lord, may it be humble walking—and nothing else at all.