I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. – Luke 15:7 NASB
Who in the world wouldn't need repentance? Is there really anybody out there who is so righteous that they don't need to turn from their sin and be rescued? Well, in Jesus' day there was a group of religious leaders who truly believed they were beyond the need for repentance. They viewed themselves as righteous and certainly in no need of a Savior. The Pharisees were a group of self-righteous, pride-filled individuals who saw no need for repenting because they did not view themselves as sinners. They were taking care of their own sin by living in obedience to the law. They were their own saviors. Their righteousness was self-produced.
But sadly, they were delusional. They only thought they were righteous. There would be no celebrating in heaven over their pitiful attempts at redeeming themselves. In fact, Jesus said, "Count on it--there's more joy in heaven over one sinner's rescued life than over ninety-nine good people in no need of rescue" (Luke 15:7 MSG). These guys had no need of rescue. In their minds they weren't drowning. They saw all those around them as the ones who were in trouble. They despised their own people and viewed them as little more than dogs. They viewed themselves as the healthy ones and everyone else as sinners who were holding back the kingdom of God. That's why they had such a hard time with Jesus and his association with the common people of His day. On one occasion, they confronted Jesus about his poor choice of dinner guests. "But when some of the teachers of religious law who were Pharisees saw him eating with people like that, they said to his disciples, 'Why does he eat with such scum?' When Jesus heard this, he told them, 'Healthy people don’t need a doctor––sick people do. I have come to call sinners, not those who think they are already good enough.'" (Mark 2:16-17 NLT).
One of the first things we have to do before coming to Christ is to acknowledge that we are sinners in need of a Savior. But if we can somehow justify ourselves before God and earn his favor by our own efforts, then we eliminate the need for the cross. We also devalue Christ's death on the cross. He died in vain. What He did was unnecessary if we could save ourselves. Self-righteousness turns grace on its head because it views the sinner as somehow capable of earning God's grace through human effort. It is no longer a gift, but a payment for our performance.
But twice in this passage, Jesus says, "there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents" (Luke 15:10 NLT). Repentance is an acknowledgment of our sin and our awareness of our need for a Savior. But not just at salvation. The truth is, many of us as believers still rely on our self-righteous activities to somehow earn us favor with God. We try to keep Him pleased with us by doing things for Him. In his book, The Practice of Godliness, Jerry Bridges says, "So often we try to develop Christian character and conduct without taking the time to develop God-centered devotion. We try to please God without taking the time to walk with Him and develop a relationship with Him. This is impossible to do." This is, in essence, nothing more than an attempt at self-righteousness. We don't really need the Savior or a deepening relationship with Him. We think we can somehow develop Christ-like character on our own. This is exactly what the Pharisees were guilty of. That's why Jesus told His disciples, "that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven" (Mark 5:20 NASB). Where do we get that kind of righteousness from? The Savior Himself. So every day I am to repent of my own self-righteousness and embrace the fact that I stand as righteous before God because of what Jesus Christ has done for me on the cross. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!
Father, I am a sinner in need of a Savior – as much today as ever. I still have need of Christ's power, forgiveness, grace and mercy. I can't live this life without Him. I try, but I always fail. I can't sanctify myself any more than I could have saved myself. Your Son and the indwelling Holy Spirit make it possible. Never let me forget that. Amen.