March 22, 2013

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 –

This parable from the lips of the Lord Jesus is very instructive for us in the wake of all the attention being given to the Catholic Church, the installation of Pope Francis, and the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism.

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 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.
  • Ok so help out.How is Lutheranism distinguished from this? They believe in sola fide but, believe that baptism is a grace that saves. Is this not trusting in Christ +? On top of that Lutheranism holds that you can forfeit this salvation by unbelief. Is this not dependant upon man instead of sola gratia?

    • Carl Spiess

      I did a bit of research on this very thing last year. My understanding is that that there are two branches of Lutheranism (Missouri Synod & ELCA). That being the case, the ELCA’s official statement on “the practice of Word and Sacrament” (titled “The Use of the Meansof Grace”) says this on page 20 regarding baptism:

      “In Holy Baptism the Triune God delivers us from the forces of evil, puts
      our sinful self to death, gives us new birth, adopts us as children, and makes
      us members of the body of Christ, the Church . Holy Baptism is received by
      faith alone .”

      Startling, I know! I eventually called an official rep fromthe ELCA headquarters and asked for clarification (I’m certainly not Lutheran but wanted to get my facts straight before sharing this with others). He basically said that baptism doesn’t save… while at the same time agreeing with the aforementioned statement. I asked him if he understood why I was confused due to the apparent conflict and he said “yes”. He ultimately concluded, however, by saying that there was no conflict. So my conclusion (which was based on only a couple of hours of work, mind you) is that in this area Lutherans want to “have their cake and eat it too” and that, while they won’t admit this, they are essentially teaching “Jesus +”.

      Just some thoughts from a fellow blog reader!


      • Thanks Carl, my findings have been similar. Ie. Holding that baptism saves in a sort of paradoxical way while there can be salvation without baptism. By far the most startling affirmation by a Lutheran is that Catholic baptism “saves” as well. Can’t wrap my mind around it.

        • Michael Coughlin

          Yes, this is often very hard as Lutherans want to be included in “born-again” Christianity yet most of them practice and preach a works-based salvation like Catholicism. The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, I guess. Better to just stick with historical, biblical Christianity than a few hundred year old sect, IMHO.

  • Michael Coughlin

    Thanks for the post, Mike. Well done. You drew out a good distinction.

    In some way, it is the difference between trusting Jesus as the “gap filler” between how close we can get to God on our own, or trusting Jesus completely – because the gap filler analogy fails entirely since we all have an infinite gap and are not really closer than anyone else to God without Christ.

    I remember first learning evangelism in this way. Like there was a ladder and Mother Teresa was at the top, Hitler at the bottom and the rest of us in the middle. Once you showed someone the ladder, you then explained that Jesus got them past the top to Heaven. It was a Bill Hybels dvd we watched.

    I ultimately left the church where I learned that, PTL.

    Every man needs Jesus 100% and exactly 1 Jesus, no more, no less. He doesn’t fill gaps; He saves to the uttermost, right?

  • Michael Coughlin

    So help me with this concept:

    (Luke 7:41-43, ESV)

    41 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.”

    So when I read this parable, I see some sense of some sinners having a greater debt to God and when forgiven loving Him more?

    Does this make sense? But this seems to contradict what I just said, that we all have a too-big-infinite debt.

    I guess maybe there is a sense that those of us who delved lower into the gutter of this earth’s wanderings like the prodigal son may have a greater experiential sense of grace…but I’m wondering what you think, Mike? (or if I’m completely off base anyway).

    • Yup. I think you’ve got it.

      In my mind, the answer lies in the distinction between (a) sin as the principle and rule of our life outside of Christ, the condition in which all people find themselves at birth, and (b) sins, which are the fruits of our sinful condition, the individual thoughts, affections, and deeds of unrighteousness that work out in practice our natural position of wickedness. Put simply: (a) who we are versus (b) what we do because of who we are.

      Sin — simply the fact that we are sinful — cuts us off from the presence of our holy God, thus making the debt infinite. But some people work out their unrighteousness in sins to a greater degree than others, making their experience of sin and thus of forgiveness greater than another’s.

      Does that make sense at all?

      • Yes, it harmonized the various scriptures well and also seems to explain my personal experience. Thanks, Mike.

  • Brad

    Where does N.T. Wright fit into this discussion?

    • I think Evangelical New Testament scholarship has been trying to answer that question for quite some time. Wright (and other strains of the New Perspective) is notorious for being quite difficult to understand and pin down on this issue.

      Wright is trying to do justice to the reality that there will be a judgment in accordance with works (Rom 2:5-7), but he treats that understanding of the role of works in justification as if it’s something other than either (a) the basis, even in part, of our justification, or (b) the evidence of our justification.

      There’s no middle ground between those two. It really is one or the other. I don’t think Wright agrees with me there, and so he doesn’t quite abide by those categories in his writing. As a result, it’s not clear which one he actually subscribes to. If it’s (b), he should stop calling it what he does and speak in accordance with traditional Protestant categories. If it’s (a), which I unfortunately suspect is the case, he should also say so plainly. But this would identify his gospel with the gospel of the Pharisee in Luke 18.

      At best, Wright’s view obscures the Gospel such that it will, though unintentionally, lead others astray. At worst, his is another gospel, and we ought to be on our guard to protect the Gospel from any such sort of adulteration.

  • Wonderful, Mike. Thanks so much for this.

    • My pleasure, Steve. Grateful for your efforts as well.

  • SuzanneT

    I used to think of this parable more as a simple illustration of what true repentance looks like in contrast to vain religion. I hadn’t picked up on the Pharasee’s giving God glory in that way. Very instructive and thought provoking. Thanks!

    Thanks also for so beautifully reminding us of the Good News for all men, that is the Gospel of Grace…to which we bring nothing.

    • Hey Suzanne. Thanks for your comments, and for your encouragement!

      I think your original conception of the parable is accurate. It’s definitely an illustration of true repentance vs. vain religion. But what sticks out to me as I meditate on it further and further is that it’s just interesting, isn’t it, that vain religion that trusts in self can be thanking God the whole way through.

      God won’t be mocked, will He? Knowing the truth, and in this case even speaking in accordance with the truth, is not sufficient without actually believing the truth. And that can’t be feigned by men. It can only be granted by God (Eph 2:8-9; Ac 11:18; 2 Tim 2:25).

      Thanks again for stopping by and stirring more thoughts!

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  • Daryl Little

    It’s all about the importance of that little Latin word “sola”, isn’t it.

    • Yes indeed. And God Himself tells us why: “For My own sake, for My own sake, I will act; For how can My name be profaned? And My glory I will not give to another” Isa 48:11; cf. 42:8).

      Thanks for stopping by, Daryl. Always a pleasure.

  • Darrel

    Mike, I’m having trouble trying to find any mention of grace in the Pharisee’s statement. There is a ton of arrogance, as usual, along with the attitude that because of his postion as a Pharisee he is entitled to think himself in right standing with God. There is no grace anywhere in his declaration. If anyone had grace it was the tax collector. Grace always produces humility and gratitude along with a host of other godly traits. The Pharisee presented his merits as having originated from God and in effect was blaming God for his arrogant attitude [grace NEVER produces arrogance], while the tax collector exhibited the true fruit of grace by his humility and hopeless position before God without His intervention.
    There is no problem with your conclusion, but it would be greatly enforced by seeing the arrogance of the Pharisee as equal to the arrogance of the pope and the roman catholic heresy.

    • Hey Darrel. Thanks for your comment.

      I think we might be understanding “grace” differently. I don’t mean to suggest that the Pharisee “had grace” in any sort of way. I don’t mean to speak of grace as an attribute or character quality we have. Neither do I mean to imply that there was evidence of God’s grace in the Pharisee’s statement.

      Where I see grace entering the equation is that the Pharisee thanks God for his good works. That means he acknowledges that (at least, he thinks) his good deeds are a gift of God, or, to say it another way, a result of God’s grace to him. He doesn’t say, “Accept me because I’m a Pharisee.” He’s not even saying, “God: Accept me for my good works,” period. He’s saying, “God: Accept me for my good works which You have worked in me—the good works which I realize I must thank You for.”

      So the scandal is greater than one might think at the first reading of the parable, especially when you consider the RCC position on justification. The “arrogance of the pope,” as you say, is not merely in setting himself up as head of the church / vicar of Christ, and all that nonsense. It doesn’t even stop at believing that one’s good works can get them to Heaven. The scandal of this parable is that trusting (even in part) in one’s own good works—even while acknowledging/believing that those good works are a gift of divine grace and are owing nothing originally to ourselveseven that is to be considered arrogant, and not the kind of faith which justifies.

      Hope that clarifies. Thanks again for your comment.

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