But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even raise his eyes to heaven but kept striking his chest and saying, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this one went down to his house justified rather than the other; because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted (18:13-14 CSB).
Since we cannot save or help save ourselves in any way, how can we be saved? How can we be rescued from the righteous consequences of our sin, of our rebellion against God and his word, of our refusal to love God with all our being, and our rejection of God as our God? I use this longer description of sin, because we all lack a proper understanding of sin. We use the word ‘sin’ but don’t comprehend what God is communicating. He speaks of an offense against him of large proportions. The tax collector realized his guilt before God.
The only hope for sinners is found in the free grace of God (18:13-14). Jesus asserts two important truths of salvation. Let us first think of two general remarks about them. Both are spoken of in the passive voice. God does something for us, and not we for God. Both of these are teachings of Christ, and not latter “fabrications” of Paul.
Christ taught the doctrine of propitiation; that is, God’s justice has to be satisfied before God can show mercy toward a sinner. The tax collector understood his problem, and he calls himself “the sinner”. He acknowledged that he deserved wrath. He knew that God had to solve the problem. He was in way over his head and only God could get him out!
Christ taught the doctrine of justification. Justification talks about our legal standing before God. The greatest need is to be right with God, or his justice will fall on you! People are justified freely (Romans 3:24): without any cause in their hearts, attitudes, decisions or actions.
Here are a couple lessons from the whole section (18:9-14). First, God knows exactly who and what we are. Hypocrisy is a position impossible to hold before God. Yet, here is comfort for a true believer. Listen to the words of John Newton:
True, I’ve been a foolish creature,
And have sinned against his grace;
But forgiveness is his nature,
Though he justly hides his face:
Ere he called me, well he knew
What a heart like mine would do.
Second, Jesus speaks very directly to people. He does not beat around the bush and or apologize. God deals clearly and openly with us. The Lord wants you to be right with him, but that righteousness only comes through faith in him and his saving work.
Third, we must have the proper attitude in prayer. God will not hear you on account of who you think you are or because of your self-righteousness. However, God does hear sinners who confess their need of him. Which of these men are you most like? If you say, the Pharisee, then you need to get right with God. Do you focus on God when you pray, or are your prayers a litany of self-praise in which you tell God how much he owes you? If you pray like the Pharisee, you need to change immediately and instead pray like the tax collector.
Grace and peace, David