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.
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.