Dec 21, 2014

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Luke 18:9–17

If you were to die tonight and stand before the holy God, on what basis would you seek entrance into heaven? In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his sermon series in the gospel of Luke and considers a parable about two men, one who trusted in his own righteousness and one whose faith was in the Lord.


This morning, we will continue our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. I will be reading from Luke 18:9–17. I would ask the congregation please to stand for the reading of the Word of God:

Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

This text contains a brief parable from the lips of Jesus, filled with information that concerns our eternal destinies. We would be ill-advised to take this parable lightly. I cannot think of any parable Jesus gave that is more important for us to hear than this one, so I pray that you will receive it with all the authority that comes with the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ. Please be seated. Let us pray.

Our Father, as we gather on Your day to celebrate the birth and work of Your dear Son, we plead for Your help, that You would send the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth and holiness, so that we may hear the words of Christ in this parable. We pray that not only would we hear them with our ears, but with our souls such that the truth of these words might pierce us to the very core of our being. For we ask it in the name of Jesus. Amen.

Our Eternal Destinies

It has been many years since the founding of Saint Andrew’s Chapel. In that time, I reckon that I have preached over one thousand sermons. I am sure that, by the grace of God, some of those sermons were more dramatic, moving, inspirational, and interesting than the one you will hear this morning.

I cannot imagine that in those thousand or more sermons you have heard any more important than this one, because this sermon focuses on the issue of our eternal destinies. Some will hear, heed, and spend eternity in heaven with Christ, and those who reject the message our Lord gives in this parable will be among the doomed from everlasting to everlasting. Since our eternal destinies are on the line, I cannot think of anything more important than for us to hear what Jesus says in this parable.

Directly preceding this parable is the parable of the persistent widow or the unjust judge, which ended with the question, “When the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?” At this point, Jesus gave this new parable.

Those Who Trust Their Own Righteousness

“He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.” Luke tells us that Jesus directed this parable to a specific group of people, who put their trust and their confidence in their own righteousness. It was directed at people who trusted in themselves and their own righteousness, who consequently despised others they regarded to be less righteous than themselves. You cannot have a large group of people in church on a Sunday morning without having some who trust in their own righteousness to get them to heaven.

Back in 1969, I worked at a church in Ohio as the minister of theology. My main responsibility was teaching, but I also was the minister of evangelism and trained over two hundred people in the Evangelism Explosion program for outreach. I would take everyone out into the community on a Tuesday night to visit people in their homes and present the gospel to them.

We used the famous diagnostic questions to begin the conversation, the first one being, “Have you come to the place in your thinking where you know for sure that when you die, you will go to heaven?” Most people that we asked were not sure they were going to heaven.

The big question was the second one: “Suppose you were to die tonight and stand before God, and God looked at you and said, ‘Why should I let you into My heaven?’” Let me pause for a second and ask you that question. If you died tonight and stood before God, and God said, “Tell me why I should let you into my heaven,” what would you say to Him?

We tabulated the results of hundreds of people, and 90% of them answered that question with a “works righteousness” answer. Of the people we asked, “If God said to you, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven,’ what would you say,” 90% of them answered by saying: “I tried to live a good life. I went to church every Sunday. I tithed my income. I did this and that. I did this good work and performed that good work.” They were trusting in their own righteousness.

If that was the percentage then, what would the percentage be in this church today? I think I would die in this pulpit if I discovered that 90% of you would answer that question with works righteousness. I do not believe that, yet at the same time, I am certain there are people here today who would give that kind of an answer to God.

The worst answer to that question I ever heard was from my own son. I said to him when he was a young boy, “Son, if you were to die tonight and stood before God, and God said, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven,’ what would you say?” He said, “I’m dead.” My own son believed in justification by death, that all you must do to go to heaven is to die. Yet, in many ways, that is the popular view. People are sinners until they die, and then overnight, they become saints when you go to their funerals and hear the stories that are told.

Respected Pharisee, Despised Tax Collector

Jesus addressed His parable to those among us trusting in our own righteousness. He talked about two men. They both had the same mission initially. They both went to the temple in order to pray. There, for the most part, the similarity ends, as the two men described were revealed to be in stark contrast to one another. One was a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. How different could they possibly be?

The Pharisees were a group of people who separated themselves from the ordinary am ha’aretz, the people of the earth, and singularly devoted themselves to righteousness and obeying the law. They were meticulous and scrupulous in their daily devotion to spiritual duties. It was required of the people to fast twice a year. The Pharisees, however, fasted twice a week. A Pharisee did not just tithe. If he found a dime on the sidewalk, he would make sure that he tithed 10% of that. They were zealous for obedience to God, and they were regarded in the community as the spiritual leaders for the entire nation, yet it was this group of people who were most hostile to Jesus. The Pharisees conspired together to kill Jesus because they were counterfeit, and nothing exposes the counterfeit more quickly than the authentic. They pretended to be righteous. Jesus really was righteous, but they grew proud of their righteousness, boasted of it, and displayed it publicly for all to see and applaud. One of the men who came to the temple was a Pharisee.

The other man was a tax collector, hired by the Romans. When the Romans imposed oppressive taxation on people they conquered, they hired people from their own nation, the Jews in this case, to go to their fellow Jews and collect the oppressive taxes that the Romans imposed. Tax collectors became rich on the commissions they made from serving Rome against their own people. They were the quislings of the day. Every time a tax collector came into a village, the people’s hearts would swell with fury and hatred against them. In this parable, Jesus contrasted the most respected with the most despised, the Pharisee and the tax collector.

The Pharisee’s Prayer

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.’”

The first question to ask about the Pharisee is this: Where was he standing? I think the Scripture makes it clear if we read between the lines. Later in this parable, Jesus spoke of the tax collector standing afar off, probably as far removed from the Pharisee as possible in the confines of the temple. That would mean the Pharisee was standing as close to the Holy Place in the temple as one could go.

The Pharisee walked right up to the door of the sacred place of the temple, stood there, raised his head to God, and raised his hands in prayer. He looked up into the heavens with thanksgiving: “I thank you, God, that I’m not like other men. I see other men who are extortioners, adulterers, robbers, and liars, and I say, ‘There but for Your grace, go I.’ So, thank you, Lord, that I’m a righteous fellow.” What do you make of that?

The Pelagian Heresy

I wonder how much honesty was in the Pharisee’s prayer of gratitude. One thing troubles me in trying to interpret this little parable—and I am probably the only person in the world that goes to bed at night trying to figure out this conundrum. I am trying to figure out whether this Pharisee was a full-blown Pelagian or merely a semi-Pelagian. Does that bother you? In which category does he fit?

If you go back to the fourth century, you see one of the most significant theological debates in all of church history. It was between the great Saint Augustine of Hippo and the British monk who came to Rome by the name of Pelagius.

Pelagius heard Augustine give his famous prayer, “Lord, grant what Thou dost command and command what dost please Thee,” and said: “What? Are you asking God to grant you what He commands? You don’t need any help from God to do what God commands. If God commands you to do something, doesn’t that mean that you have the moral ability to do it? God would never command you to do something that you can’t do.” Augustine said, “No, I can’t do anything without the grace of God.” Then Pelagius responded: “Grace is a good thing. God has grace. God gives grace, but you don’t need it to be obedient. A person can live a life of perfect righteousness without any help from the grace of God.”

Pelagius said that not only is it possible for people to live perfect lives without the grace of God, but there are multitudes of people who have achieved it. I am sure he considered himself as one of those people. By the grace of God, Pelagius was condemned as a heretic.

Soon thereafter, one came along who wanted to mediate between Augustine and Pelagius to say, “There is a middle ground,” and semi-Pelagianism was born. It taught that grace is necessary for anybody to become righteous. It is a necessary condition, but it is not a sufficient condition. You cannot be righteous without grace, but grace does not work by itself. You must cooperate with it and assent to it so that you become just. Justification is a joint project. You are both working. You out of your sin are choosing to join with the grace of God to become righteous. Where Augustine was saying, “No, it’s grace alone,” the semi-Pelagian was saying, “No, it’s grace plus you.” Once again, that heresy was condemned by the church.

Stolen Glory

Sadly, semi-Pelagianism is alive and well. It is far and away the majority report in the church today. Most people still think that they contribute something significant to their own salvation. I am guessing that the Pharisee was a semi-Pelagian, but if you scratch a semi-Pelagian, inside there is nothing but Pelagianism left, so it is really a distinction without a difference.

The Pharisee was Pelagian. He tipped his hat to God for the assistance of His favor and grace, but in the final analysis, he was standing by the Holy Place supremely confident in his own righteousness. The Holy Place did not scare him at all.

Remember Peter, numbered among the thousands of people that would crowd around Jesus and come as close as they possibly could just to touch the hem of His garment? Yet, when Jesus performed one miracle and Peter got a glimpse of who Jesus really was, Peter said: “Depart from me. Please leave. I’m not comfortable around you because I’m a sinful man.”

Beloved, sinful people do not rush into the presence of the holy; they flee from the presence of the holy. The Pharisee, who said he never stole, stole the glory of God every minute of his life. He was not an atheist but was an idolater through and through, and he stood in contrast to the tax collector.

The Tax Collector Brought Nothing

Listen to how Jesus described the tax collector: “And the tax collector, standing afar off.” He was just by the door. He could not still be in the temple and be any further from the Holy Place than he was. He was in fear and trembling just being inside the outer court, and he would not even lift his face up to heaven. His gaze was on the floor.

“And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’” He had nothing in his hand to bring. He brought absolutely nothing to the table except his sin. He had nothing to offer to God except his guilt.

The tax collector did not come before God and say: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner. After all, I was born and raised in a rough neighborhood, I was abused as a child, and I didn’t get the self-esteem I should have had as a human being. Lord, I know I’m a sinner, but You know it’s not my fault.” No, none of that. His face was looking down. He beat his chest not in pride, but like one tearing his clothes in sackcloth and ashes: “Be merciful. Have mercy. It is only Your grace. Your grace alone, not Your grace and my contribution.” The tax collector understood the doctrine of sola fide, justification through faith alone and by grace alone.

Justification by Christ Alone

There are tens of thousands of Christians in America today who, if you ask them, “Do you believe in justification by faith alone?” will say, “Yes.” But if you ask, “Do you believe in justification by grace alone?” they will say, “Oh, no.” You really do not believe in justification by faith alone if you think you are adding something beyond your faith, beyond the righteousness of Christ for you to be justified.

What is justification all about? Earlier in the service, we confessed our sins in the assurance pardon from 1 Peter 3:18: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God.” Our problem before God is simple: God is holy and we are not. God is just—not barely just, almost just, or mostly just, but all just—and we are not.

The ultimate difficulty that any human being will encounter is this: How can an unjust person stand in the presence of a just God at the last judgment? The only way we can stand is to be justified, to be declared just.

When we say that justification is by faith alone, that is simple shorthand for justification by Christ alone. Faith is the sole instrument by which we grab hold of Christ, and His justice is transferred to us. God imputes or counts the righteousness of Jesus to those who put their trust in Him, but if you trust in yourself, you stand by yourself. The only way you will ever stand before a just and holy God is as one clothed in the righteousness of Christ. You add nothing to it.

I like to tell a story of my mentor, John Gerstner, when he preached a sermon on sin. After the service, he was greeting people at the door of the church. The proverbial little old lady came up to him and said, “Dr. Gerstner, you make me feel this big.” He smiled and looked at her and said: “That’s too much. That’s much too much. Don’t you know that much self-righteousness will send you to hell forever?”

Do you think he said that to the woman just for shock value? No. He knew that if she had that much self-righteousness in her soul, she was doomed. She was like the Pharisee: “I thank you, Lord, that I at least have that much righteousness.” No. The Bible says that all of your righteousness and all of my righteousness is filthy rags in the eyes of God.

The only one who ever possessed perfect righteousness was Jesus. Muhammad did not make it. Confucius did not make it. Buddha did not make it. Only One made it. That is why there is only one way to God, because there is only One who has done what is required to get us to God and to justify us.

Cling to Christ

Jesus ended this little parable by saying: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified.” The man who couldn’t even look up into heaven, who couldn’t get near the holy of holies, who could only beat on his chest and repent in sin, plead for the mercy of God, and throw himself on the mercy of the court—he walked out the door and went home justified.

You will go home sometime today, I presume. Will you be going home justified? If you are sitting in this building today and you are not justified, do not leave here until you are. Do not leave here until you tell the Lord God omnipotent that you are a sinner and cannot stand apart from His mercy and grace. If you throw yourself and your soul on Him and His mercy, clinging to Christ, you will go home justified.

Jesus said of the spiritual man, the Pharisee, the one who came so close to the Holy Place, “The publican went home justified rather than the other.” The Pharisee went home that day and continued to tithe and fast, but he remained an unjustified person.

If you were to die tonight and stand before God, and God said to you, “Why should I let you into my heaven,” what would you say? I hope you would say something like: “Because of Jesus, because He’s my only hope. I put my trust in Him. Everything else is sinking sand.” Then, He will look at you and say: “Please come in. My Son is already here, and He’s already prepared a place for you, that you may bask in His glory now and forever more.”

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.