He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated other were contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector standing, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner! 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.” (Luke 18:9-14)
In this passage Jesus is speaking a parable to the Pharisees. And if we remember what topic Jesus is continuing to talk about in this parable, by casting our eyes back to Luke 17:20 we see that Jesus is continuing to address the Pharisees about the coming Kingdom of God. As we look at this parable from Luke 18 Jesus is addressing the question that is the most important one in the life of every person. How does one get into the Kingdom? Or how does one get right with God? This is the very question that we find in the oldest recorded dialogue between man and God when Job asked, “Can mortal man be in the right before God? Can a man be pure before his maker?” (Job 4:17) And “Truly I know it is so: but how can a man be in the right before God?” (Job 9:2) This is the question that is echoed throughout the whole of the bible. For if man has sinned against God and since God is righteous demanding perfect justice against those who have offended him then how is a man to be set right? This is a difficult question to answer and flies in the face of what men everywhere believe.
Straight off man cannot be made right by what he does. There is nothing anyone can do to make themselves right before God. There is nothing anyone can do to satisfy the justice God demands against those who have broken his law and defamed his holy name. Human works and efforts cannot make anyone right with God. Isaiah says, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” (Isaiah 64:6) And the Apostle Paul writes, “None is righteous, no, not one.” (Romans 3:10) The whole of humanity, try as they might, are completely unable to meet the requirement God demands when he says, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2) The bible is full of man’s attempts to meet this impossible standard as is the whole of human life and experience. There must be another way if anyone is to be saved. If Jesus is bringing in the Kingdom there must be a way to be right with God and to enter into this kingdom. And so here he gives us this parable to teach us how a man can be justified with God by giving the two examples of the Pharisee and the tax collector. John Mcarthur, a preacher and author said,
“As is true of so many of our Lord's story, they are counter-intuitive. But not just counter-intuitive, really outrageous, shameful by all existing religious standards. And this is one that fits into the category of an outrageous and shameful story for in this story Jesus describes the unrighteous man as the one who was right with God and the righteous man as the one who was not. This is the reverse of everything the Jews believed, everything their religion at the time of our Lord taught them, it is a shameful story, it is an outrageous story, it is an idea that has no place in their theology. It is another reason to reject Jesus. To say that a self-confessed wicked man left the temple ground justified rather than a self-confessed righteous man is to completely overturn religious thinking. But that's exactly what Jesus said.” (Sermon- who can be right with God? part 1)
What is Justification?
Firstly it is important to know what justification is. There is much confusion that exists today concerning justification. This is due to its being confused and often mixed in with sanctification. It is clear in the bible that to be justified and to be sanctified (in the progressive sense) are two separate acts. Yet the essential prerequisite to the work of sanctified is that a person first be justified. Justification is the once for all time, never to repeated act by which God, through the work of Jesus Christ in his perfect obedience to all of the law, and his death on the cross whereby all sins are forgiven, and the wrath of God absorbed and justice serve in his body, declares all who have faith in his Son to be innocent of all charges and completely guiltless before him. It is the once for all act that sets condemned, helpless, guilty and deserving of eternal punishment sinners free.
This is different from sanctification which is the progressive work of the Holy Spirit as he reveals sin, causing us to repent, and causes change by illuminating the mind and piercing the heart with the word of God throughout the life time of a believer so that they are incrementally transformed into the image of God.
Louis Berkhof in his book Systematic Theology writes that,
(a) Justification removes the guilt of sin and restores the sinner to all filial rights involved in his state as a child of God, including an eternal inheritance. Sanctification removes the pollution of sin and renews the sinner ever increasingly in conformity with the image of God.
(b) Justification occurs outside the sinner in the tribunal of God, and does not change his inner life, though the sentence is brought home to him subjectively. Sanctification, on the other hand, takes place in the inner life of man and gradually affects his whole being.
(c) Justification takes place once for all. It is not repeated, neither is it a process; it is complete at once and for all time. There is no more or less in justification; man is either fully justified, or he is not justified at all. In distinction from it sanctification is a continuous process, which is never completed in this life.
(d) While the meritorious cause of both lies in the merits of Christ, there is a difference in the efficient cause. Speaking economically, God the Father declares the sinner righteous, and God the Holy Spirit sanctifies him.
And Wayne Grudem in his book Systematic Theology writes,
Justification is an instantaneous legal act of God in which he
(1) Thinks of our sins as forgiven and Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us, and (2) declares us to be righteous in his sight.
Much confusion exists today as to the unique distinctives of justification and sanctification. This confusion has led many to make sanctification the foundation of their salvation. Who knows how much anguish, lack of assurance, and doubt this has caused. Sadly this confusion and lack of clarity is the catalyst for why many go through seasons of doubt as to whether they are truly saved. This is because of much teaching today that places much emphasis on sanctification and takes justification for granted when this is exactly what needs to be taught consistently and explicitly. It is what the Christian needs to be reminded again and again to base their salvation upon. The bible teaches there is one place to be right with God and this is never in what is going on in our lives. There is quite a different place outside of ourselves where we are to look to be declared righteous before God.
In this parable let us begin by looking at the words Jesus uses to describe the Pharisee. Jesus, in this story directed at the very people who it was designed to pull the rug out from under concerning their righteous efforts, says,
“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 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. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’
From this passage we can gleam the following.
1) The prayer of the Pharisee is incredibly egocentric. Five times he uses the word “I” to emphasis what sort of a person he is and what he has done. Not once does he thank God for what he has done.
2) The Pharisee immediately places himself as being better than other people. He looks down on those who have done this act and that act, and he even looks down on a person because of their profession, such as the tax collector.
3) The Pharisee is blind to the sin in his own life and has a deflated view of the high demands God requires. He does not realize how high God’s standard is and how impossible it is for man to reach it. If he did he would not be depending upon his own righteousness as he comes before God. He actually believes he has something good to bring before God that makes him more acceptable and therefore better than others.
4) The Pharisee placed some sins as more important than others. By doing so he diminished the sins in his own life, since they were outside the serious category with extortioners, the unjust, and adulterers. He elevates himself by diminishing his own sins. He puts himself over others by seeing his sins as less serious or important.
5) The whole foundation upon which the Pharisee was standing as he prayed to God was one of his own righteousness based upon a whole system of works such as fasting and tithing in order to gain favor and merit with God.
The Tax CollectorNow let us look at what Jesus said about the tax collector in this parable. Next to the Pharisee Jesus gives us the opposite to what has already been seen.
“But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner! 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.” (Luke 18:13-14)
From this passage the following points can be made:
1)The tax collector unlike the Pharisee was standing far off. Something about the tax collector made him feel unworthy or unclean to be in the presence of God. He felt uncomfortable. He felt shame and guilt. He felt that of all the places he should be this was not one of them. He did presume that he could come. He was very apprehensive about coming and he felt deeply his own sin before a holy and righteous God. He felt the shame of his sin so intensely that he would not even look up to heaven to pray to God. This is often the way people have felt when they have come before God. When the prophet Isaiah came before God he said,
“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5)
And in the gospel of Luke we read that after the boats were filled with fish,
“But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’” (Luke 5:8)
Unlike the Pharisee who had a puffed up ego, and a high esteem of himself and his efforts, the tax collector like so many throughout the bible who come before God, was a broken man. The Scriptures teach us that this the condition all men are brought to before a holy God. And it is this condition that God honours.
“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
“The LORD is near to the brokenhearted
and saves the crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18)
“He heals the brokenhearted
And binds up their wounds.” (Psalm 147:3)
For thus says the One who is high and lifted up,
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly,
and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (Isaiah 57:15)
“All these things my hand has made,
and so all these things came to be, declares the LORD.
But this is the one to whom I will look;
He who is humble and contrite in spirit
And trembles at my word.” (Isaiah 66:2)
And we read in the story of the prodigal son these words he spoke to his father after returning from squandering his inheritance and making a mess of his life.
But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.” And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. (Luke 15:17-20)
The heart that God saves is the heart that knows it can bring nothing or do anything to be saved. It is the heart that realizes the awfulness of sin and the offense it is to God. It is the heart that knows that it does not deserve to be saved but deserves to perish that God lifts up, and in great love he saves.
2) The tax collector was not trying to offer his good works to God, his fasting and tithes as merit. He was seeking mercy. He knew he had nothing to bring to make recompense for all his years of sinning. He came throwing himself upon the mercy of a righteous and holy God.
Too often in Christianity there exists the belief that a person must clean themselves up before coming to God. They must make amends and then come to him. Church can be seen as a place where people have everything together. This is exactly the opposite to how the tax collector comes to God. He comes knowing the filth of his sin. He comes ashamed and full of guilt. He comes having an overwhelming knowledge that he does not have it all together. And it is to these who come in such a lowly state that God promises to be merciful.
It is possible for a person to feel broken about their sin because it affects their life, or it affects their future, or it has consequences without ever feeling the least amount of guilt because what they have done is first and foremost sin against God. This is not what the bible means when it talks about “a contrite and lowly heart.”It always means a contrite and lowly heart because of the offense sin is to God and the guilt we have before him. To those who come to him as the tax the collector did, the Scriptures say,
“The LORD is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
Nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
So great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
As far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
So the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
He remembers that we are but dust.”
“Who is like you, pardoning iniquity
and passing over transgression
for the remnant of his inheritance?
He does not retain his anger forever,
because he delights in steadfast love.
He will again have compassion on us;
he will tread our iniquities underfoot.
You will cast all our sins
Into the depths of the sea.”
“The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.”
“Gracious is the LORD, and righteous;
Our God is merciful.
The LORD preserves the simple;
when I was brought low, he saved me.”
“For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,
And I will remember their sins no more.”
3) The final thing to notice about the tax collector was that he knew he was a sinner. Unlike the Pharisee he admits this openly before God. He does not say, “look God at how much I have given and how much I have fasted. What a good person I am” He does not come saying, “look at those people over there. I am so much better than them.” He comes knowing his true state before God. He is a lost sinner who can do nothing to save himself. He is desperately in need of mercy.
Jesus ends the parable with the words,
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.” (Luke 18:14)
Jesus turns upside down any attempt to be saved by works. He was telling this story to the Pharisees. He levels their belief that through obedience to the laws of the Torah a man could make himself right before God. That he could be justified. And he levels the belief today of any attempt to be saved by their good deeds. Even the deeds of a born again Christian. John Macarthur in his sermon titled, “who can be right with God” says,
“So what you have in this story is a division of the only two religions that exist...the religion of self-....of human achievement, self-achievement, and the religion of divine accomplishment. And the Pharisee is self-righteous, aloof, contemptuous, standing as near as he can to the holy place without touching any of the people who would contaminate him in his mind. He seeks no mercy, seeks no grace, seeks no forgiveness, wants no sympathy. He is thankful that he is not unrighteous. Self-exalted he goes away unjustified.
And the other character is the tax collector...sinful outcast, object of contempt, guilty, standing far away as he feels so unclean and unwanted, seeking mercy, desperately needing grace, distraught that he is not righteous. He goes home justified. He's humble so he ends up being exalted.”
Here is a popular image of Christianity. There is a man. He is well dressed and clean cut. He is a family man in a stable marriage. He has a well paying job perhaps in a high position as an executive, maybe a lawyer or a doctor. He is well educated and financially prosperous. He can afford to send his children to the best schools. He has an expensive house in a well to do neighborhood. He gives to the church. He spends hours praying and reading his bible. He gives of his time in the service of others. All of these are good things but not one of them is able to justify a person.
But a man walks into church and he is dirty. He wears old, unclean and worn out clothes. He feels totally uncomfortable and out of place. He has teeth missing and speaks differently. By his appearance and speech he is less educated and financially poor. He sits down. Perhaps the people around him are gossiping about him and pointing at him. The sermon begins and the gospel is preached. The message of Christ and the mercy and forgiveness stirs inside him guilt and remorse over his sin and how much God loves by sending his only Son to die for him. He feels the need for this Jesus and to say sorry to God for what a mess he has made of his life. After the service he sheepishly walks forward and tells the minister, who he had just heard preaching, what has been happening in his heart. They pray together. He asks for forgiveness from God and puts his faith in Christ as his Saviour and Lord. This man goes down to his house this day justified while the wealthy, well dressed, bible reading, service rendering, church giving man goes away lost and unsaved.
How is A Person Justified?
How then is a person justified? If no person can justify themselves then how are they to be justified? How is anyone to be made right with God? Well I have hinted at it here and there. I think the best place to go for an answer to this question is to the apostle Paul. He wrote to the church in Rome,
“Therefore since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1)
And to the church in Galatia he wrote,
“We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners;
Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believe in Jesus Christ, 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.” (Galatians 2:15-16)
1) Justification is applied to a person through faith. This is contrasted with works of the law by which no person can be justified. Instead of being justified by what a person does externally a person is justified by what they put their faith in, or their trust in internally.
2) There is only one object of faith that is able to justify anyone. This object is the person of Jesus Christ. All other faith may be genuine, and it may be sincere but it cannot save because it is only in the person of Jesus that God has made the way to make a man just or righteous before him.
3) It is in Jesus Christ because, (a) by his righteous life we are made righteous, (b) and by his taking upon himself our sins they are forever removed, (c) and by condescending to take our place we are exalted in him, (d) and where we “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” Jesus never sinned and upheld the glory of God in his life and death, (e) and when we without a Saviour Christ came and is forever our Saviour and when we were children of wrath he made us children of grace. The faith that sweetly saves, and perfectly reconciles, and joins a man or woman in loving fellowship to God their Father and to the whole trinity is the faith that is put in the once for all saving work of Jesus Christ.
Charles Spurgeon said,
“Let this be to you the mark of true Gospel preaching - where Christ is everything, and the creature is nothing; where it is salvation all of grace, through the work of the Holy Spirit applying to the soul the precious blood of Jesus.”
4) This faith in Jesus brings eternal peace. This is not necessarily peace in human relationships, nor is it a peace where the Christian does not suffer or go through tremendous agony, nor is it even the peace whereby the Christian does not go through times of doubt. But it is the peace that whatever may happen, whatever a Christian may go through, that in times of even great doubt, the once for all work of Christ perfectly and eternally does away with any possibility of the Father disinheriting his own, or his wrathful anger being reignited, or even for one second the impossibility of his bringing to glory even one of his children, or that he will be nothing but loving, and good, and always for his beloved. It is the peace of knowing all is well between the sinner and God.
A Wonderful Truth
Sadly Christianity can seem to many outside to be an elitist religion. Where it is exclusive allowing only a certain type of person to enter its ranks. The wonderful truth is that whatever elitist views of snobbery and exclusivity that exist in the church it can never exclude anyone from the family of God. No matter how much sin or how awful that sin may be, or what background a person comes from, it does not bar him from coming to God. The tax collector came in all his shame and guilt and he went away justified with the eternal peace of God written upon his forehead. No one needs to have it all together to come. No one needs to fit into the church culture to come. No one needs to have not committed any of the really big sins to come. All have sinned, all deserve to perish, it does not matter whether someone is seen to be respectable all must come to God. And once they come they will know to the core of their soul how wretched a sinner they are before God. Then they must let go of their self-righteous efforts, they must let go of human achievement, they must look to the cross and to the one who lived and died for them and in whom salvation is found and nowhere else. For all who do God says once and for all time you are justified, you are righteous, you are accepted, I greatly approve of you, and I love you as your Father.