Skip navigation

9He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayeda thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13But 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!’ 14I 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

Two men are shipwrecked in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.


The first man has a fully-inflated life jacket. He is terrified, panicking that any second a huge wave is going to drag him under. He keeps checking the horizon for the next massive breaker to sweep over him. Each time a huge wave comes, however, his lifejacket (safely secured) pulls him upwards, keeping him on the surface.

The second man swims casually alongside. “You fool,” he says, “if only you learned to have more faith, like me.” The second man turns over and does a few laps of the backstroke, spouting a little fountain of water out of his mouth.

But,” the first man splutters, “where is your lifejacket?

I don’t need one,” the second man replies with a huge grin, “I’ve got this.

In his hand is the remote control for a TV.

At the heart of the gospel is a conundrum that is spelt out by Jesus at various stages in his earthly ministry. He laid out several times the way that someone can earn their way to heaven. These are found in Matthew 5:48, as well as Mark 10:17-27. In both these accounts, The Sermon on the Mount and the account of the ‘Rich Young Ruler’, Jesus offers a very clear way that we may work our way to salvation.

19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” – Mark 10

48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matthew 5

That’s it. That’s all God wants. For you to be perfect. For you to have all the commandments. For you…to…have…


See, many people today will openly claim to have never sinned, but few of us will ever claim to be ‘perfect‘. To be perfect would mean to have never done anything or said anything or thought anything that we could possibly ever be called into question over, or feel ashamed of. It would mean that everyone, everywhere, at all times and in all places did not match up to the standard Jesus requires. The logical conclusion is, therefore, that if we stand before God tomorrow and give an account of ourselves, not one of us match up to the standard God demands.


[Psa 24:3-5 ESV] 3 Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? 4 He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully. 5 He will receive blessing from the LORD and righteousness from the God of his salvation.

And so Jesus in Luke 18 shows us two people who approach this problem in two very different ways. They are identified as a Pharisee and a tax collector. As far as casts of characters go, you could not get two people of more opposite standing.


phariseeIt becomes clear through reading the parable that, if God’s standard is perfection, the clever money for those listening to Jesus is on the Pharisee. The name literally means “holy one” or “separate one”. By their very name, they were the epitome of perfection. And this guy in the parable is really impressive. He is outwardly moral and just, he fasts twice per week and he tithes absolutely everything he owns. He’s even thankful to God for it. If people listening to this are picking teams for the Holiness Brigade, this guy is first picked.

zac307Then there is his mirror opposite – the tax collector. The scum of the earth. The traitor, the colluder with the oppressive foe. To give you an idea of just how terrible it could be under Roman rule, a story is told to Jesus in Luke 13:1 where the Romans had murdered some people in Galilee who were worshipping in the Temple. They had not only stopped there but in a fit of real cruelty, took their blood and mixed it with the very sacrifices they were making – and there was nothing done to stop it. Tax collectors were working to pay these people. On top of that, they were notorious for skimming off the top of the extortionate rates they charged. You can just hear the crowd boo and hiss as Jesus even mentions the man. In the contest to see who is accepted before God, who matches up to the perfect standard, this man is dead last.


Yet something incredible happens – the tax collector also prays. You can see him trembling, unable to lift his eyes, and he beats his breast and cries, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!

And the result comes in, and it is the tax collector who is justified.


It’s important to note what the term ‘justified’ means so that we can understand the gravity of this declaration from Jesus. Here are two men, one whose basis for coming to God is his own perceived sinlessness, but the word tells us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). The other one, he has absolutely no basis for coming to God. He is in sin right up to his eyeballs! There is no mention of him having given up his tax collection, his extortion, his swindling. Yet something has occurred in his heart that has led him to cry out to God for mercy. In that moment, God declares him righteous. God justifies him. The man who was so full of sin as he walked in, Jesus declares that God has found him guiltless as he walks out. The Pharisee, who trusted in his own goodness left no different than when he came in: dead to his own deficiency and need for mercy. It is the tax collector who now meets the standard of perfection in the sight of God.


How is this possible? How is this just? A fiend like him asking for mercy and receiving it without condition, without even so much as an, “I’ve got my eye on you!” from God? How can God both be just, yet justify people simply for believing in him?

Romans 3:23 is used often in apologetic circles to take people down a peg (and sometimes it is needed). However, the next 4-5 verses are so crucial to our understanding of what is going on here in this dilemma. They are so crucial that one preacher has called it “The Akropolis of the Christian Faith.

[Rom 3:23-26 ESV] 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (emph. mine)

God can justify those who cry to him for mercy because he has purchased their salvation? How? Jesus. Jesus lived a sinless man, obeying the law no one could obey so that, in his death, we might receive all the merit from his sinless life as if it was ours.



Called ‘imputation’.


Where people might look at our sin and see cause for our condemnation, where we might look at God requiring perfection from us and feel despair at our wretched condition, God offers us salvation in the form of a substitution (as the word puts it ‘propitiation‘). This is so that when God looks at us, looking for that standard of perfection, he sees the perfect righteousness of Jesus.

21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. – 2 Corinthians 5

So we can echo with Paul as he exclaims in wonder “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” What can separate us from God now? When we receive Christ we are perfect in his sight! We meet the standard!

So the question is, how do we receive this marvellous gift? It is clear that the Pharisee, for all his amazing resume in Luke 18, does not receive it. All his goodness has not earned him any favour with God. Only one man leaves justified, and that is the one who approaches God with his faith planted firmly and surely in the merciful character of the creator! It is faith, and faith alone that saves him.


If you could stop both men on the way into the temple, if you could look them in the eye and tell them that the one way they could be accepted before God was by faith, which guy do you think would agree? The Pharisee would probably nod his head and boast of his great faith; Of course he is accepted! He would be absolutely assured that God loved and accepted him. Can you not see the blessings that have been poured out on him? Can you not see all the great deeds he does for God?

And yet, his faith in his goodness is as about as useful as holding onto a TV remote in a raging storm.

Do you see how it works? Some people like to talk about faith like it is a commodity to be bought and sold and to save and store up. “I’d be happier if I had more faith.”

“I’d be happier if I had more faith.”

“You’d be more blessed if you had more faith.”

“You too can be healed, if you had more faith!”

What’s more many today base the validity of someone’s salvation on the sincerity of their faith. According to these people salvation can come through performing sacraments, or praying to Mary, or following the teachings of Buhdda, or praying five times towards Mecca just as much as trusting in Jesus. What justifies them, apparently, is the sincerity of their faith.

However, our analogy serves to show that it is not the strength of our faith, nor the amount of faith we have, but the object of our faith that saves us. We can be very sincerely clinging to a TV remote, fully believing it will bear our weight, it won’t change a thing. Only when we put our faith in the right object can we be saved. As Jesus says in John 14:6 “no man comes to the Father but by me.” So if we were to ask the Pharisee, he might sound very sincere, but he would be sincerely wrong.

Yet the tax collector, dejected and in despair, might respond, “I think I believe, but I am such a sinner. I can’t be sure of God accepting me on any other basis than that he is merciful. That is the only thing I’m holding onto right now.”

And no matter how much he flounders, no matter how panicked he is, he is just like that fearful man clutching for dear life to the only thing that can keep him afloat in the storm – his lifejacket – the mercy of God through Jesus Christ.

Yours in Christ, Ryan.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: