King Frederick II, an eighteenth-century king of Prussia, was visiting a prison in Berlin. The inmates all tried to prove to him how they had been unjustly imprisoned. “It wasn’t my fault!” “I was framed!” “It is so wrong for me to be here!” “I’m innocent!” were their typical claims. All except one. That one sat quietly in a corner, while all the rest protested their innocence.
Seeing him sitting there oblivious to all the commotion, the king was intrigued. He walked over to the man and asked what he was there for.
“Armed robbery, Your Highness.”
The king asked, “Were you guilty?”
“Yes, Sir,” he answered. “I entirely deserve my punishment.”
The king then gave an order to the guard: “Release this guilty man. I don’t want him corrupting all these innocent people!”
“Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a dishonest tax collector. The proud Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else, especially like that tax collector over there! For I never cheat, I don’t sin, I don’t commit adultery, I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’
But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’
I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For the proud will be humbled, but the humble will be honored.”
(This story was told by Jesus to some who had great self-confidence and who scorned everyone else. It’s recorded in Luke 18:9-14.)
A relationship with God is open to all (without exception) who honestly admit they are sinners. Those who simply cry out for mercy receive it on the basis of Jesus’ love demonstrated in his death in our place, for our sins. That’s the gospel (the good news). It’s simple like that. You just accept it by faith, trusting it to be true, and it’s yours. The dishonest tax collector admitted that he entirely deserved his punishment, and cried out for mercy. He went home “justified” before God. That meant he was, from that moment on, right in God’s sight by faith and at peace with His Creator. That’s the gospel.
Don’t think that it has anything to do with whether you’re religious or not. The Pharisee was a very “religious” man, but he was still not right with God. You can also be very “secular” in your mindset and still be self-righteous and smug about doing good things or being right or whatever. The gospel is for you. It’s for all.
I love what King Frederick said: “Release this guilty man. I don’t want him corrupting all these innocent people!” I’ve got the feeling that those words reflect God’s heart toward anyone who humbles himself or herself before God and comes to Jesus.