II Samuel 11
26 When the wife of Uriah heard that Uriah her husband was dead, she lamented over her husband. 27 And when the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and w she became his wife and bore him a son. But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD.
II Samuel 12
And the LORD sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had very many flocks and herds, 3 but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. 4 Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man's lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.” 5 Then David's anger was greatly kindled against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, 6 and he shall restore the lamb a fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” 7 Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul. 8 And I gave you your master's house and your master's wives into your arms and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more. 9 Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be your wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10 Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.’ 11 Thus says the LORD, ‘Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house. And I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. 12 For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel and before the sun.’” 13 David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” And Nathan said to David, “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die. 14 Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD, the child who is born to you shall die.” 15 Then Nathan went to his house.
Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. 2 Blessed is the man against whom the LORD l counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. 3 For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. 4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah 5 I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah 6 Therefore let everyone who is godly offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found; surely in the rush of great waters, they shall not reach him. 7 You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance. Selah 8 I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. 9 Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you. 10 Many are the sorrows of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the LORD. 11 Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!
15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. 17 But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! 18 For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. 19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.
36 One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and reclined at the table. 37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.” 41 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
"There but for the grace of God go I." This is a familiar statement, either in those words or similar words.. It is usually said by someone who sees another who is in a bad way, maybe a drunken man, or a loose woman, or even someone whose hardships are not necessarily through their own faults. Perhaps it is not always a bad statement in itself, but I think it can become bad if it is said in certain ways.
Let me tell you what it reminds me of. Jesus told another parable, this one of two men praying in the Temple, a Pharisee and a tax-collector.
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 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 l 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.”
The Pharisee prayed, thanking God that he was not like other people, for example the tax collector. He considered himself righteous, he did all the correct things, he considered himself acceptable to God. The tax collector prayed very differenly, stand and beating his chest, praying "God be merciful to me a sinner". Jesus said that it was the tax collector who went away justified, not the Pharisee.
"There but for the grace of God go I" seems to be far too similar to the Pharisee's prayer of thanksgiving that he was not like other men. In the Pharisee's prayer, the pride is evident, and we are rightly put off by it. But much the same kind of pride may well be found when something like "There but for the grace of God goes I" is said.
The problem is comparison, a common enough fault in all of us. There are times when I may be tempted to justify myself by thinking of the things wrong that I haven't done, especially by comparing myself to someone who is doing something sinful. "I thank you, God, that I have not had sex with a woman I am not married to, unlike so many people I know." "My thanks to you, Father, that I have not murdered anyone." "I am grateful, O Lord, that unlike so many other men I do not speak in curses and profanities."
I could, for example, put myself above King David. He was an adulterer, and then to cover up that sin, he also became a murderer. Let's be honest, those are horrible things, serious sins. The prophet Nathan did not try to downplay what the King had done, but showed him instead how serious it was. And the consequences were also serious--things in David's family would not be peaceful, his wives would be publicly violated, and the child born of this adultery would die. Even David's repentance could not keep these judgments from happening.
I'm not sure if David wrote Psalm 32 with this incident in mind, but it does seem to be that way. This part of it may well describe what it was like in that time between commiting these sins and the coming of the prophet, "4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah 5 I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah". It could have been about that time, or he may have been writing about other occasions, other sins that weighed him down.
"There but for the grace of God go I" may also be like the Pharisee in the Gospel passage above. He thought that a prophet would have had nothing to do with this woman. I'm not sure why she was called a "sinner", but considering that some Pharisees tried to put that same label onto Jesus, it may have simply meant that she wasn't as devoted to keeping the Law as the Pharisees were. Or it may have meant that she was a horrible person, a loose woman. I'm not sure. The important thing is, the Pharisee Simon looked down on her, as the Pharisee in the parable looked down on the tax collector.
Yet, look at the similarities between the real incident and the parable! Who is it that is justified? In the parable, it was the tax collector who grieved over his own sinfulness that left justified, and in the account it is the woman, though she speaks no words yet her actions show a great love for Jesus and faith in Him, whose sins are forgiven, and whose actions are defended by Jesus Himself.
Consider Jesus' own parable in the passage above. Two men are debtors, one much more than the other, both equally unable to pay. The moneylender forgives both of them. Jesus asks the Pharisee which man would love the moneylender more, and the Pharisee answers that the man who was forgiven more, and Jesus agreed with that answer.
Now, consider what I said earlier, that I could be tempted to boast when I looked at what David had done, because I am not an adulterer and murderer like David was. I could be like the man in Jesus' parable who was not forgiven for as deep a debt as the other man. I'm grateful to be forgiven, I'm glad the debt is gone, but I will likely not feel as grateful as the other man with the greater debt.
But would my view of myself be true?
Consider what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, particularly about adultery and murder. If I have looked on a woman to lust for her, my sexual sin is just as real and wrong as any who actually commit adultery or fornication. If I have been angry with someone without just cause, my sin is just as real and wrong as one who commits murder. I will not go into details, but I have commited those sins.
Outwardly, most of us may look to be much better persons than a David, or a serial killer, or a frat boy who sleeps with a different girl every week, or a man who in a fit of anger injures someone. But I know that I'm not. I can echo the words that Paul wrote, "In me, in my flesh, there is no good thing". I can lament as he did that I do the things I know I should not do, and do not do the things I know that I should do. I can long like he did to be saved from this body of death.
Can any of us look at how Jesus applies the Law, not only to our outer actions but also our thoughts and desires, and say that we have not sinned? Would it not be wiser to acknowledge that sins are like a mountain?
Paul says in the Galatians passage that he and fellow believing Jews were not Gentile sinners. In the context, he is relating a time he rebuked Peter, so that the "we" in v 15 seems to be referring to himself and Peter, fellow Jewish believers in Christ. They could have thought of themselves as being above the Gentiles, but in reality Jews and Gentiles are in the same situation. No one, Jew or Gentile, is justified by keeping the Law. Anyone, Jew or Gentile, can be justified through faith in Jesus Christ.
In the end, we are all like the two men in Jesus' parable. The important thing is not that my own debt may seem small compared to another person's, or that someone else may think theirs is small compared to mine, but that I am like every other person in being unable to pay that debt. Christ is the one who paid that debt of sin, who has forgiven us, as He forgave the woman.
Let us be careful of coming to God in pride, holding up the filthy rags of our own attempts at works of righteousness, trying to win his approval through those rags. Let us be careful of thinking ourselves such splendid folks, because we do not act like those out in the world. It is not those rags that justify us, it is ever and always through faith in Jesus Christ that we are justified. We walk on dangerous ground when we try to make ourselves righteous through our works.
Let me give you one more passage, a very cautionary one.
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
There is something frightening about this teaching of Jesus', I will admit that. Consider the works these people claim to have done--prophecy, cast out demons, and many other mighty works, all done, so they supposed, in Jesus' name. On whatever scale of works we may create, casting out demons would rank among the highest of works. Yet in this account of that future day, Jesus is unimpressed. Whatever else they were doing, they were not doing "the will of my Father who is in heaven".
That such works, such outward manifestations, should not be enough, that we cannot even gain any assurance if we should ourselves perform such great miraculous works, should put a final fatal shot into the head of any dependence we might have in our works. We cannot be like the Pharisees, who put their faith in their keeping of the Law, nor can we be like any wonder-workers who may think they are accepted because they do great miracles while proclaiming the name of Jesus. One more passge may help us see what our attitute is to be.
17 The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” 18 And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. 20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
Our faith must be in Christ, not in ourselves or anything we can do. Only by faith in Christ are we justified. Look well to what the fictitious tax collector and the real-life woman can teach us, that we should humble ourselves before God, asking that he have mercy on sinners such as we are, setting aside all pride and boasting in our own self-righteousness. It is then that we can go away justified and forgiven. Look well at what our Lord taught his disciples and us, that we should not rejoice at the power He has given us, but rather that our names are written in Heaven, that we have been justified by faith in Christ, that our sins are forgiven through His life and sacrificial death.