Surely, we must rank the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector among the most well known of all of the parables of Jesus (Luke 18:9–14). Our Savior told this parable in order to illustrate the means by which we are declared righteous before God. We are not justified by appealing to our own works, as the Pharisee did, but instead by admitting our sin and casting ourselves on the mercy of God, trusting in Christ alone for salvation.
As we read the parable, we cannot help but be struck by the Pharisee’s arrogance in stating that he is not a sinner like other men. We are amazed at his pride and his foolishness, knowing that he does not see himself as a sinner only because he is not measuring himself against the perfection that God demands (Matt. 5:48). He is grading himself on a curve, as it were, thinking that he cannot really be a sinner because he does not do the really bad stuff—extortion, adultery, and so on. He only engages in the “normal,” garden-variety stuff that everyone else does, and if everyone else is doing it, certainly it cannot be wrong, correct?
Perhaps we are speculating a little too much by implying that the Pharisee thinks that lesser sins are OK because everyone does them. And yet, is it not true that human beings are apt to evaluate the rightness or wrongness of their actions by the number of people who also do them? If everyone tells “little white lies,” that cannot be a bad thing, right? It is just normal behavior after all, is it not?
The doctrine of total depravity tells us, among other things, that certain actions can still be sins even if they seem to be common throughout society. Just consider Paul’s indictment of the sins of humanity in today’s passage. True, he includes such sins as murder, which is universally recognized as a great evil (Rom. 1:29). Yet, he also includes things such as disobedience to parents, something that is far more common to human behavior (v. 30). Who, except Jesus, has never disobeyed his mother or father? In fact, disobedience to parents is so common that modern people are likely to view it as normal or even healthy. The disobedient child is merely “testing his boundaries,” not violating the law of God.
Sin offends our holy Creator and breaks His law, but it is “normal” in the sense of being universal because of our radical fallenness. We sin because we are sinners. Because every part of us is corrupt, sin cannot help but to be our normal disposition apart from grace.