June 6, 2014

A Tale of Two Gospels

by Mike Riccardi

And [Jesus] also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

– Luke 18:9–14 –

Pharisee and Publican

What intrigues me about the Pharisee in this passage is that he thanked God for his moral uprightness and religious devotion. He is not claiming, perhaps like the rich, young ruler did, that he had kept God’s law and thus is deserving of eternal life. He doesn’t believe that he’s earned his salvation by works of righteousness achieved apart from divine grace. No, he goes to thank God for the grace and charity that God had worked in him, by which he has become acceptable to God. He believes that he is justified by his faith in God as well as the good works which proceed from the divinely-imparted righteousness inherent within him. And he does not go to his house justified.

Jesus told this parable to those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous. Apparently, Jesus thinks that if you believe that the ground of your acceptance with God—the basis of your salvation—is an inherent, God-wrought righteousness that is infused or imparted to you, you are trusting in yourself for righteousness. Trusting even partly in your good works as the basis for your salvation—even if you acknowledge and truly believe that they are 100% God-given—will not leave you going to your house justified.

The tax collector was a different story. The tax collector was broken in sorrow over his sin, so much so that he wouldn’t come near the front of the temple—so much so that he was literally and physically bowed low. He had apprehended the severity of his case before a holy God. He recognized that he had no good works by which to commend himself—whether they originated with him or whether they were graces that God worked in him. He despaired of having anything inherent in himself that could merit acceptance with this God of perfect righteousness. His only hope was to cry out for mercy. Literally: “God, be propitious towards me, the sinner!” “Lord, my only hope is that You would make propitiation for me. All my trust for my acceptance with You rests squarely in Your own sovereign provision of atonement!”

The tax collector went to his house justified.

He trusted nothing in himself. He recognized that he had no basis for righteousness inherent in himself. All of his hope, all of his faith, all of his dependence was upon the merciful provision of righteousness that comes through the propitiatory sacrifice of Another. And based upon Jesus’ conclusion to the parable in verse 14, we learn that God counts that kind of faith as righteousness.

The Pharisee was trusting in what he thought was his inherent righteousness, imparted to him and wrought by God. Yet he was condemned. The tax collector was trusting in an alien righteousness that was none of his own. And he was justified by faith alone. God declared him to be righteous based upon his faith in the righteousness of Another.


A tale of two gospels. One of them saves, the other condemns.

The Pharisee’s gospel was the gospel of Roman Catholicism. Roman Catholicism teaches that upon believing in Christ, the sinner is graciously made practically righteous by the infusion or impartation of righteousness to the believer. This inherent righteousness increases as the believer pursues good works and charity. Final salvation is a reward for such works of merit combined with faith.

But this is no gospel at all (Gal 1:6–9). This is not good news for us tax collectors who recognize that we have nothing good in ourselves by which to commend ourselves to God. No, if the ground of our justification depends in any part on our own good works, we know we have no hope. That is bad news. And it leaves us condemned.

But the Gospel of the Scriptures speaks differently. The Word of God teaches that when God grants repentance and faith to the sinner—the kind of faith that looks away from self and trusts entirely on the alien righteousness of Christ—God credits that faith as righteousness (Rom 3:28; 4:3–6). He imputes to the believer the righteousness and merit of Christ (Rom 5:18–19; 2 Cor 5:21; Gal 2:16; Phil 3:9), who fulfilled all righteousness in our stead (Rom 8:3–4; cf. Matt 3:15). And on the basis of the righteousness of His own beloved Son, to whom we are united by faith, He declares us righteous and acceptable in His sight. This is truly good news, for it provides for us that righteousness to which we could never even contribute.

What are you trusting in for your acceptance with God? This is the most important question you will ever answer. Are you trusting in Jesus plus: Being a good person? caring about people? humanitarian efforts? volunteer work? church attendance? baptism? going to confession? participating in the mass?

If so, let me invite you to look away from yourself, to survey afresh the severity of your sin in the light of God’s holiness, and to cry out in repentance to God for mercy based on the sacrifice of Christ alone. Stake all your hope for righteousness—all your hope for acceptance with God—on the sufficiency of Christ’s righteousness alone. Don’t trust in yourself to be righteous. Trust in Him to be righteous on your behalf. And go to your house justified.

Mike originally published this article in March of 2013.

Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.
  • kevin2184

    Thanks as always, Mike, for writing with such wisdom and clarity. I pray this post brings many to understand the true gospel message as prescribed solely in His word (where righteousness is received from GOD by faith in Christ alone) and flee from the lie of any “false gospel” such as “faith + works” deceit fomented by Roman Catholic doctrine.

  • Sammy L

    “The Pharisee’s gospel was the gospel of Roman Catholicism.”

    Not just Roman Catholicism. I believed the same thing attending a protestant church. I thought the same thing for many years. But God had mercy on me and showed me my bankruptcy. The truth of the Gospel will make us marvel over all eternity.

    • Thanks Sammy. That’s a good point. No one false religion has a corner on bad theology. I’ve always appreciated the way John MacArthur has spoken of there being only two religions in the world — the religion of human achievement (even if mixed with “faith;” i.e., the Pharisee’s religion), and the religion of divine accomplishment (i.e., the tax collector’s religion). Biblical Christianity alone is the religion of divine accomplishment. The other religions of the world, including Roman Catholicism, are religions of human achievement.

      I guess the reason that I was singling out Roman Catholicism in particular is because this heretical “gospel” is actually canonized into their official teachings.

      Thanks for the opportunity to clarify. And I’m grateful for the Lord’s work in your life in leading you from darkness to light.

      Thanks for reading!

      • Jeff Eckert

        Amen. Thanks for your faithfulness to the true Gospel, Mike.

        I had a question for you. It is becoming more common in recent days to hear of theologians and preachers denying Active Obedience claiming that it is exegetically untenable and that “Righteousness” is nothing more than the absence of sin and not the presence of merit. In other words, to such theologians, “righteousness” is really nothing more than blamelessness and that’s all.

        Do you think such a view is another form of the religion of human achievement model?

        Jeff Eckert

        • Hey Jeff! Good to “see” you here, brother!

          While I don’t agree with the denial of active obedience, or styling righteousness as merely the absence of sin and not the presence of a positive righteousness, I don’t think it’s the kind of error that is necessarily heretical (i.e., “human achievement”).

          I suppose if they said that righteousness just takes you back to zero, and then you have to add your own merit, then that would be “human achievement.” I haven’t come across that very much, but I admit I’m not on the latest in these discussions. When I’ve heard people deny active obedience, it still seems that they want to say that divine righteousness is imputed, it’s just that there’s no distinction between righteousness and sinlessness. They would say we’re still accepted by God not at all because of what we have done and only because of what Christ has done, but they would just confuse the mechanics of what’s happening in that imputation.

          It’s not a negligible error; I think active obedience is denied with great cost. But I also don’t think it’s necessarily a heretical error without further denials.

          What do you think?

          • Jeff Eckert


            Thanks for responding brother and sharing your view!

            This is a quick / terse explanation.

            I hold to a covenant of works made with Adam that promised blessing for obedience (the right to eat from the tree of life) and a curse for disobedience (spiritual/physical/eternal death). Adam sinned and fell, and though man is now unable to obey perfectly as Adam once was, the covenant of works was never rescinded and is still binding upon every man born into the world – as we are all in Adam by nature.

            Therefore if Christ’s imputed righteousness is nothing more
            than removing our sins (His Passive Obedience), and isn’t also the imputation of Christ’s perfect active obedience to the covenant of works (the Law – not just ceremonial but also moral), then we have only removed the curses but haven’t earned the blessings (the biggest blessing which is eternal life and the right to eat from the tree of life – Rev. 22:14).

            Mere pardon of sin gives no right to eternal life. Not to be
            unrighteous negatively is not the same thing as being righteous positively.

            There is confusion here because most people think of
            righteousness in purely negative terms. We say things like – “He never did anyone any harm. He never hurt anyone. Therefore, he’s an upright guy.” But righteousness is not all-together negative, but it’s also positive. We should also ask the question, “Has he ever done anyone any good? Has he loved God perfectly and loved his neighbor as himself?” That is truly what it means to be righteous. It’s a both keeping yourself unspotted and also getting out and visiting widows and orphans (Jas 1:27).

            I mean how much of Jesus’ life was spent alone, in a room,
            praying and reading the Puritans? His life was spent among people – feeding, loving, healing, etc… He truly fulfilled all righteousness, and not only suffered for my sins but purchased my right to eternal life. A king may pardon
            a criminal for his many crimes (Passive obedience), but that isn’t the same thing as making him his son and heir to his kingdom by adoption (Active Obedience).

            I realize that some theologians claim that holding to active
            obedience leads people into licentiousness and antinomian living, but the contrary is true. It is the Good News that Jesus paid it all (and you didn’t leave the tip) that spurs us on with zealous for holiness (Titus 2:11)!

            To deny the merit of Christ’ life imputed to the believer is
            heresy, and is just a repackaged form of neonomism that leaves a person at the end of the day lacking assurance and desperately striving to earn their own merit to present before God at the judgment seat.

            There are some dear brothers (who I believe do love the Lord) who hold to this error and I pray God opens their eyes to the Truth.

      • Sammy L

        Was not trying to contradict you. I completely agree with you regarding Roman Catholicism. Was just sharing my personal experience.

        • I gotcha, Sammy. I didn’t take it as a contradiction. Just piggy-backing off of your helpful observation.

          Thanks again!

  • kevin2184

    The modern day equivalent of the Pharisee is the person who thinks God will grant him or her entrance into heaven because, “I’m basically a good person”. For that is the mantra of the self-righteous: someone who thinks they are in a “right” standing with God based on their “good works” (i.e. their “self”). The Christian, however, knows that the righteous requirements of God (which as Jesus explains in Matt 8:48 is perfection) is impossible for man to attain (whether combined with faith or not). Instead, God freely gives His righteousness (Rom 3:22) to the humble believer who places their trust of salvation in Christ, alone. (Gal 2:16; Roman 11:6; Eph 8:9-10; Rom 10:9-10). That is the good news of the gospel.

    • Kevin T.

      Amen Kevin! I’m new to this site. Let me explain how I got here. My fiance & I were watching Joel Osteen & I expressed my concern with his ministry. I hear a lot of feel good rehearsed lines but no scripture to back it up. Several times in his message there were appropriate opportunities to make a reference to God’s Word. Am I on target here or am I missing something.
      To God be the glory!

      • kevin2184

        You’re right on target. Joel Osteen is the epitome false teacher that much of the New Testament warns about: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). Joel Osteen speaks the myth of having “Your best life now”, whereas, true believers know our best life is to come when we’re with Christ in Heaven. Unfortunately, those who experience their “best life now” are correct.

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