It is often said that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a Gospel for sinners. Jesus came not to call the righteous, but to bring sinners to repentance. But often when we talk about “sinners,” we tend to think only about drunkards, criminals, and prostitutes—forgetting that so-called “good” people are sinners too!
Jesus told the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (in Luke 18) to illustrate the fact that many are blinded to their real need of God—blinded by their own goodness. The parable is a story about two men who were entirely different in character. The Pharisees were religious leaders; they were respected men. The publicans were tax collectors; they were despised as “cheaters” by society. In the parable, a representative of each group went up to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee chose a prominent place in the front of the Temple where everyone could see him, and prayed loudly, saying, “Lord, I thank thee that I am not as other men.” The other man (the publican) felt so needy and so sinful that he did not even go into the inner part of the Temple. He stayed in the outer court and smote upon his breast and cried out to God saying, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.”
It is a fact that while the publican was a sinner of the most wicked sort, the Pharisee was also a sinful man. Thus in the parable Jesus told, there were really two sinners at church.
1. The Goodness of the Pharisee
Sometimes we tend to despise the Pharisee, and yet there is a sense in which the Pharisee must be given credit for his high standard of morality. All those things that the Pharisee said about himself were undoubtedly true. Jesus did not deny that this man’s words were true.
For one thing, the Pharisee went to church. He went up to the Temple—and this was all in his favor. No person can be what he ought to be, if he doesn’t avail himself of the opportunity of going to the house of God. Furthermore, the Pharisee went to pray. He wasn’t like the fool who said in his heart, “There is no God,” or like some hardened sinners who don’t believe in prayer. This man prayed. He prayed to God. He did it regularly. He prayed in public.
The parable indicates too that the Pharisee was an honest man in business affairs. He was not an extortioner. He never tried to drive a hard bargain in order to get a few extra dollars in his pocket. He was honest in business. He paid his bills. He was fair in his dealings. He was not an unjust man.
The Pharisee also was morally clean. He could say, “I am not an adulterer; I have never stooped to the sin of immorality; my body is not festered with venereal disease.” The Pharisee revered his home. He loved his wife. He kept his marriage vows. He was a good husband and a good father.
We are told too that the Pharisee had a zeal for religious matters. He brought his tithes to the Temple and fasted twice in a week. Many church members in our day have never given a regular liberal proportion of their income for the Lord’s work, and have seldom if ever fasted in order to devote the time to prayer.
We have a right to call the Pharisee “a good man”—but the startling thing about the whole account—is that Jesus says this good man was lost! Jesus says the publican (the other man) was justified instead. And there are several reasons why the good man was a lost man.
First, the Pharisee’s righteousness was outward, and not inward. He looked carefully after the outward observances, but the inside was filthy and despicable. He was like a beautiful cemetery—lovely on the outside, but within, full of dead men’s bones. Let every reader consider this thought seriously: We can be circumcised, baptized, and confirmed—but if nothing has happened on the inside, God is not pleased at all.
All of us who have named the name of the Lord, need to be careful lest we properly go through all the outward forms—but within, harbor feelings of bitterness and hate; or gossip and lie and cheat; or become slaves of worldliness and questionable habits. The Bible teaches the need for piety and for church membership and for good living—but God wants a goodness of the heart, not merely a “cover-up” on the outside. The Pharisee’s righteousness was outward, and not inward.
Another reason why the Pharisee was rejected was that he trusted in himself, and in his own good deeds. He used the pronoun “I” five times. He said, “I fast” and “I give” and “I do.” What he was really saying was this: “Look at me, God; look at the good things I have done; in comparison with others, I am much better than they are.”
This man evidently felt that God was quite fortunate to have one such as he even to offer prayers to Him! The Pharisee’s motive was wrong. He hoped to win God’s favor by his own good deeds. He failed to acknowledge his sinfulness, and to cry out for God’s mercy. He did not regard himself as a sinful man. And yet every living person is a descendant of Adam and Eve—and therefore every one of us has inherited a depraved and sinful nature (Romans 5:12). Even after we have given our hearts to Jesus Christ, we are constantly in need of the forgiving grace of God. You need the grace of Christ today, just as you did on that day when you felt the burden of sin so sorely, and you came to Him for salvation!
Both the Pharisee and the publican were sinners. The one was a down-and-out sinner; the other was a pious, religious sinner. The outward forms of their sins were different, but the essential character of their sinfulness was the same. Both were sinners. These were two sinners at church.
2. The Guilt of the Publican
Not much is said in the parable about the publican. There is only one sentence in the entire account that describes his prayer. The publican’s attitude was different from that of the Pharisee. He frankly acknowledged that he was a sinful man. The publican said, “God, be merciful to me the sinner.” The word “the” is there in the Greek text. The publican (by saying “the” sinner) was simply saying that he was the very sinner that was mentioned by the Pharisee (when he thanked God that he was not as other men, even as the publican over there). See Luke 18:11b.
The publican was a tax-collector. He was a member of the Department of Internal Revenue. The Roman system of taxation was very simple, but it often led to a great deal of sin. The Roman government “farmed out” each province under its control to a certain tax collector for a fixed amount of money. After the tax-collector turned in to the Roman government the fixed amount of money required, he was allowed to gather all the surplus tax money he could get, and keep it for himself.
Many poor people had been robbed by the publican. He was wealthy, but he was rich at the expense of the misery of others. Many a time he had likely taken the only ox or ass some poor farmer had. He carried out the furniture of helpless widows. He seized money and property from rich and poor alike, all under the guise of collecting taxes for the government. The publican was likely guilty of just about every sin mentioned by the Pharisee. If any man ever deserved to go to Hell—it was this publican.
But the publican came to the Temple to pray. At first glance, it would seem that God would scorn any prayer he would make. It would seem like God would turn His face away from such a man—a man who had been so wicked. Yet we are told that God heard his prayer, and that the publican “went down to his house justified, rather than the other man.” There are some reasons why God would hear the publican, and why God forgave him.
First, the publican came to God confessing his sins. This is a lesson every one of us needs to learn if we expect to meet God some day in peace. We must all come to the place in life where we will cry out like the prodigal: “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.” Our Lord has no salvation for anybody but sinners. There is only one thing in this world worse than being a sinner, and that is not to admit that we are one.
The publican had sinned, but now he repented and resolved in his heart to forsake sin. He had been a crooked tax collector, but he decided to be crooked no longer. He planned to live a new kind of life; he felt the weight of his sin; he was sorry for it; he repented toward God. This is just what the Pharisee did not do. The Pharisee was satisfied with himself just as he was; he felt no need for change. The publican, by way of contrast, was penitent. He not only confessed his sins, but he hated them, and he determined to forsake them.
The publican was justified also because he came to God asking for mercy. The Pharisee presented his own good deeds to God; the publican confessed his wickedness and pled only for mercy. Actually there are only two religions: Some hope to be saved by their own merits; others hope to be saved by God’s mercy. The Bible method of salvation is clear: “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Titus 3:5). The only way the sinner can find salvation is if he is willing to come like a beggar to God’s door pleading for mercy. Only those who know and acknowledge that they deserve Hell, are ever going to make it to Heaven.
3. The Grace of the Lord
The time came when the two men (in the parable Jesus told) went down to their homes. The one went proudly on his way, wrapped up in his own self-importance. The other went home thanking God and rejoicing because his sins had been forgiven. The publican was justified; he was accepted before God. He was justified not because of any goodness that he possessed (he had no goodness), but because of the goodness of God (the marvelous grace of our Lord).
To trust completely in the mercy of God is one of the most difficult things for many of us to do. It seems to be extremely difficult for the natural mind to understand that salvation is by the grace of God alone, and that it is completely granted apart from any human merit whatever. The average person seems to think that we are going to get to Heaven because of our good deeds and our works of right doing and our performing certain religious acts. Many feel that if they have had religious parents, if they do a number of good deeds, if they are a baptized member of a church, if they have never gone on a sinning spree, if they have tried to live by the Golden Rule—that then they are going to make it to Heaven.
If you ask the average man on the street the question, “How does a person get to Heaven?”—the replies will be something like this: “Live right; go to church; keep the Ten Commandments; be sincere; read your Bible; be good to your neighbor; pay your honest debts; etc.” You see, they define salvation as “being good.” Jesus Christ is completely out of the picture.
The primary objective of the devil is not to make good men bad nor to make bad men worse. His primary goal is to try and get people to be good without surrendering to Jesus Christ. You see—God’s method of salvation centers around loyalty and devotion to a Person. John speaks of Jesus Christ, and he says, “Whosoever believes in him, shall not perish, but shall have everlasting life.” Most people seem to think (like the Pharisee) that the gulf between man and God can be closed by good deeds and by performing certain religious acts. They seem to think that if you say so many prayers or give so many alms or go to church services every Sunday—that these things will somehow erase a sinner’s guilt. But this will never do. The gulf between man and God is so great that none of us by his own efforts is ever going to be able to close it. All the good that we can ever do can never pay for all the bad that we have already done. Throughout the entire Bible, the teaching is that sin is forgiven, the eternal life is received, only by faith in the blood of Jesus Christ.
Good deeds in the life of the born-again person are of course most commendable. They justify us before men; they will be rewarded at the Judgment Seat of Christ; God expects His people to be good people; He expects us to keep the ordinances and to obey the commandments—but these things alone will never earn salvation for any person.
Salvation comes not from doing good things, nor by refraining from doing bad things—but from a simple trusting faith in Jesus Christ—obedience and surrender to Him. It is really the old distinction between the religion of Cain and the religion of Abel. Cain brought the fruit of the ground (the work of his own hands); Abel offered as a sacrifice an innocent lamb from the flock. Persons who become reconciled to God, never become reconciled on the basis of their good deeds, but always on the basis of their faith in Jesus Christ, the innocent Lamb of God who was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities (John 1:29; Isaiah 53:5).
It is a fact that you need a Savior—no matter how good you are. Suppose an airplane is flying toward a base in the continent of Antarctica—and suddenly it crashes and splashes down into the cold waters north of the continent. Nobody is close to the spot, and the nearest land area is the country of New Zealand (and that is more than one thousand miles away). One of three men on board the plane can swim for ten minutes. The second man can swim for two hours. And the third man on board is supposed to be the world’s champion long-distance swimmer. Which of these three men is going to reach safety? The answer is obvious—none of them. The only difference between them, is that the one man will drown in ten minutes; another will drown in two hours; and the champion swimmer will drown a few hours after that. There is really no basic difference. All will drown.
This is a picture of the human family. The criminal is like the swimmer that can keep afloat for ten minutes. The average man, good enough to keep out of jail and yet bad enough to do almost anything he wants to do, is like the swimmer who can stay on the surface for two hours. And then there is the man who is honest and upright and sober, and a good citizen—but he is like the champion long-distance swimmer—still unable to reach land. What the three men need is a rescuer. They can never make it, a thousand miles to land, by themselves. And just so, what each of us needs is a Savior—one who can rescue us from the bondage of sin.
Seneca, the Roman thinker who lived at the time of the Apostle Paul, said one time, after observing all the corruption about him: “What we need is a hand let down in order to lift us up.” And friends, that Hand has been let down! John 3:16 describes it. The Bible says that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” The wrath of God against sin is unspeakably terrible. The penalty is eternal death. But Jesus Christ has tasted death for every person (Hebrews 2:9), and if you have never received Him, He is waiting at the door of your heart right now. He pleads for admission. He longs to come in. However, the handle is on the inside, and you must open the door. Jesus says in Revelation 3:20, “If any man will hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in.”