I love church. I’m not saying that to sound spiritual or super Christian or anything like that, I’m saying that because I honestly love going to church and being at church and hanging out with fellow churchgoers. With both of my grandfathers as well as my dad serving as a pastor in varying capacities, you could basically say I grew up in church — Sunday School is just part of my DNA. My dad’s church is like a second family to me. All my formative years were spent with those people and all of my closest friends are there. I’m sure other p.k.’s (pastor’s kids) can share similar testimonies.
All that time spent in church, though, has afforded me the ability to grasp a lot about what goes on in church, what makes a church hum. I’ve been given the opportunity to be in many different churches, and seeing all these distinct congregations over the years has caused me to notice something.
Just look around at those you attend church with and the first thing you’ll notice is all the diversity. The church really is a melting pot of differing families, backgrounds, occupations, interests, and ages. There are students, parents, grandparents, children, young people, older people — people of varying races and heritages, beliefs and hobbies. Obviously there’s a lot that’s different amongst us.
But despite all those differences, the thing I have noticed most is that there are really only two types of churchgoers. Believe it or not, even with all the people you worship with and fellowship with in the Body of Christ, they all fit into one of two categories, which Christ so perfectly juxtaposes in Luke 18. I am, of course, referring to what we now know as the “Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican.” (Lk 18:9–14) In this familiar illustration from the mouth of the Messiah, we’re given a look at two polar opposite prayers, which, I believe, give us a glimpse at the two categories of people that go to church, that go “up into the temple,” in the first place. Let’s walk through the text and we’ll see this divine distinction more clearly.
Jesus isn’t one to mince words or beat around the bush, often employing a gracious bluntness that’s irreplicable today. (Mt 23) He gets right to the point here, saying, “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” (Lk 18:10) Those in earshot would undoubtedly relate with the scene Jesus is setting up, as going “up” to the temple was a frequent practice. But what is most noteworthy is Luke’s supplementary, but no less inspired, statement describing the audience. Observe who Christ is talking to when telling this story: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” (Lk 18:9) Jesus is talking to Pharisees about Pharisees — and this crucial detail is the key to unlocking and understanding the entire text. Keep this in mind as Christ begins his contrast of these two characters, the Pharisee and the Publican.
The first thing we see is Jesus distinguishing the form of their prayers. How each guy prays reveals a lot about their character and, by default, a lot about their spiritual understandings of the gospel. (This, by the way, holds true today: how someone prays and addresses God is very revealing of their learned theology.)
The Pharisee prays pompously. He’s arrogant, haughty, and proud. He stood close to the altar, away from everyone else, as if to say, “Do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.” (Is 65:5) Standing by himself (Lk 18:11), not wanting to “pollute” himself by the other sinners praying that day, the Pharisee is likewise shouting to everyone else there, “Look at how holy I am!” The Pharisee separated himself so he could be seen. I imagine him not only praying by himself but praying loudly and loftily, making sure everyone notices his ability and religiosity in prayer. (Mt 6:5) He certainly thought much of himself — everything about him drips of self-interest and egotism.
By detaching himself from the rest of the temple patrons, the Pharisee was disconnecting himself with the common cries for mercy. He reckoned himself too good for God’s condescending love — he was sure he was above that. He was too good to be justified, “righteous” in his own estimation, on the basis of his own goodness. In his eyes, he was right with God. And such is the mistake we all tend to make at times. The biggest travesty we can commit is remaining blind to how needy we are. Just like this Pharisee, I’m often too prideful to admit that I’m desperate for God’s aid, thereby creating a barrier between me and God.
Pride is the obstruction which causes men to disbelieve God, to forget their distress and desperation. When you think more of yourself, you stop living, breathing, and worshiping God’s gospel of grace, which is your only lifeline. One of the ministries of the Holy Spirit is reminding us of our need. We’re not only desperate for God’s rescuing grace, we’re desperate to be cognizant of our need for rescuing grace. Just like the Pharisee, our pride and pomposity needs pruning.
The Publican, however, prays contritely. Just look at the form of his prayer. “The tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven.” (Lk 18:13) The Publican positions himself far away from the altar of God, certainly knowing the holiness of that place and the deep wickedness of his life and heart. The Publican doesn’t even consider himself worthy to be in God’s presence.
We often fail to understand the gravity of this scene. Publicans, or tax collectors, were legendary for their dishonesty and were notoriously despised. Employed and empowered by the Roman governing bodies, publicans were representatives of Rome and hated by the general populace. They would secure the rights to an occupying force by raising taxes — think of it as your neighbor raising taxes and taking your money to pay for the very soldiers who were responsible for the murder, rape, and pillaging of your own city. Publicans extorted their neighbors and sold out their friends for profit, often taking well above what was regulated by Rome to fill their own pockets. Publicans were outcasts, pariahs, social lepers. And this Publican surely knew the vileness of his own soul.
I imagine the Publican being slightly embarrassed to even be there that day. Surrounded by “better” men and better pray-ers, he must’ve felt as though he didn’t belong. I imagine he thought about what to say but the words just weren’t coming. Bowing his head, he might’ve thought, “O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for [my] iniquities have risen higher than [my] head, and [my] guilt has mounted up to the heavens.” (Ezr 9:6; cf. Ps 8:3–4) But the only words that came out were, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Lk 18:13) Perhaps he had been ridiculed by some of those that were with him that day, suffering their scorn and aversion, perhaps even being lied to about God, that only the righteous and the worthy are accepted. So he stood far away, knowing his own unworthiness.
But as each man is praying, not only does their form stand out, Christ also draws attention to the substance of their prayers. What they pray about reveals more about their heart.
The Pharisee’s prayer is pious. What do you notice about his so-called “prayer”? “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” (Lk 18:12) Did you note all the mentions of “I”? The Pharisee’s “prayer” is really just a list of his accomplishments, a reporting to God of his works. “I fast twice a week,” the Pharisee announces. The Old Testament law — the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament (which he would have committed to memory) — didn’t require this much fasting. Various fasts were often practiced but only one fast was ordained by the law on one day a year, the Day of Atonement. (Lv 23:26–32) This Pharisee was trying to earn God’s favor by going above and beyond the law.
In doing more than what the law required, the Pharisee was saying to the Lord, “Look, God, I got this. Don’t you see how good and righteous I am! Don’t you see all that I’m doing!” He deemed his behavior worthy of approval; he thought himself more than good enough to be just and right in God’s sight. Thus, he rattles off his religious résumé to God. And in citing all that he had done, the Pharisee thanks God that he’s not unjust or unrighteous. “I’m not as bad as that guy over there, that tax collector,” he boasts, leaning harder on his morality and appearance of religion. He brags to God of his purity and piety, of his more than perfect law-keeping by comparing himself to other men. “God, I thank you that I am not like this tax collector.” But the standard of God’s holiness isn’t found in comparing ourselves to fellow sinners. The barometer of God’s Kingdom isn’t comparative obedience but the perfect, unblemished obedience of Christ. The measure of God’s holiness is perfection: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt 5:48; cf. Lv 19:2) Our only measuring stick to the perfect rule of God is his Son, Jesus Christ, the embodiment of the Father’s righteousness.
The Pharisee’s “prayer” (if you can call it that) completely ignores Jesus Christ. There’s nothing worshipful or grateful or thankful in what he says. All the attention is on himself, not God; he’s profoundly ignorant of the plague of his own heart. Never once does he request anything from God; instead, he just describes how good he is. And that’s not prayer. Prayer is truly the crying out of a beggarly heart to an opulent God — it’s realizing all your emptiness and all of Christ’s fullness. The Pharisee thought he was full of righteousness but inside he was full of dead man’s bones. (Mt 23:25–28)
[The Pharisee’s] righteousness is worth nothing, his prayer is worth nothing, his thanks to God are worth nothing; for that what he had was scanty, and imperfect, and it was his pride that made him offer it to God for acceptance.1
By contrast, the Publican’s prayer is penitential. “The tax collector, standing far off . . . beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” (Lk 18:13) By striking his chest, the Publican showed true sorrow and contrition. (Lk 23:48) He was mournful, understanding the shame, guilt, and disgrace of his heart, crying out, “God be merciful to me a sinner, be gracious to me a poser!” The Publican was honest about his unworthiness; he knew the sort of criminal he was. He made no excuse for his sin but just pleaded and hoped for some scrap of God’s mercy, some shred of his lovingkindness. “Lovingkindness” is a word that is seldom used nowadays, but is often translated in Scripture from the Hebrew word checed, which occurs 248 other times. (Ps 51:1) It carries the idea of God’s faithful love and unmerited kindness to undeserving people. And it’s this that the Publican calls upon.
The penitence of the Publican is reminiscent of King David’s, where he cries, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” (Ps 51:1–3) Such should the prayer of every worshiper be like that of this Publican’s: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” “O Lord, pardon my guilt, for it is great.” (Ps 25:11) It is brief yet full prayer, of simple substance — a prayer of honesty and humility in the realization of our lifeless, hopeless, worthless state apart from Christ.
But the form and substance of each prayer leads Christ to also consider the consequence of their prayers. After their time in the temple is over, the Pharisee and the Publican meet two very different ends.
The Pharisee is met with condemnation. After he left the temple that day, he was still confident in himself but stood condemned before God. “This man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.” (Lk 18:14) Behind Jesus’s affirmation of the Publican’s repentance is the reality of the Pharisee’s hopeless state of disapproval — inadmissible and unacceptable in the Kingdom. By handing God his religious résumé, this Pharisee was basically shaking his fist at God, trying to make him his debtor. You see, to be justified inherently means that you have to realize your own spiritual bankruptcy. In putting your faith in the righteous account of Christ, you’re likewise renouncing whatever righteousness you think you have. And this is one of the hardest lessons we have to learn.
One of the hardest lessons for man to learn is that everything that God does for us is by grace. Man is so eager to have some credit for his blessings that it is difficult for him to admit his utter spiritual bankruptcy.2
It’s unnatural for us to openly admit how ruined we are — it goes against all instinctual and societal norms to divulge the fact that you’re falling short, that you’re not measuring up, and, in fact, you’re flat broke. Concessions such as these are likened to weaknesses and deficiencies, signs that you’re a lesser person. But, in actuality, it’s in admitting these very truths that we’re welcomed into the family of God. Relying on your performance and all that you’re doing, as this Pharisee was, won’t get you into heaven — it’ll always leave you wanting.
The essence of saving faith is abandoning self-righteousness in favor of the Substitute’s. As Christ is our federal Head and Representative, the vindication of the gospel involves an abdication of the throne of your heart and a flying to the Savior for mercy and forgiveness. Such is what the Publican offered in his prayer, and so it goes that he is met with justification. “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified.” (Lk 18:14) That day saw a paradox of powerful grace; that day saw an outwardly flawless man turned away and an outwardly wrecked man accepted. The tax collector departed with the favor and acceptance of God simply because he boasted solely in the Father’s mercy and not on anything he did.
The Publican knew the vileness of his own heart, and he didn’t try to mask his wickedness with any pretend righteousness. He knew that his only hope was God’s grace and that’s where he put all his hope and trust. The Pharisee departed condemned for the sin he tried to conceal, but the Publican walked away justified, cleared of the guilt he didn’t hide. He knew he was a sinner, and that made all the difference.
The wonder of grace.
The wonder of God’s righteous, holy grace is that its objects are those who are unholy. The miracle of the gospel is that we who are God’s enemies are made his friends — no, even better, his children. (Rom 5:6–8; Jn 1:12) Christ came not for the perfect or prestigious, those who deemed themselves worthy of attention and approval. Christ came for sinners — real, depraved, corrupt sinners. He came to lead those living in the rags and rubble of their sin to repentance and redemption. And so it is that outing yourself as a sinner is no real cause for despair. If you’re a sinner, you’re the very person for whom the gospel intended. The prime suspects of grace are those think they’re unfit for it. “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” (1 Tm 1:15; cf. Mt 9:13)
The Pharisee in this parable stood before a perfect God and claimed to be perfect. With audacity, he spoke to the Heavenly Father and demanded entrance and acceptance into the Kingdom because of his supposed law-keeping. But God isn’t interested in your plentitude, he’s interested in your poverty. “Bring your spiritual poverty before God and not your supposed wealth,” declares Charles Spurgeon. “If you have a single penny of your own, get rid of it. Perfect poverty, alone, will discharge you from your bankruptcy. If you have a moldy crust in the cupboard of self-righteousness, no bread from Heaven will be yours. You must be nothing and nobody if God is to be your All in All!”
If you falsely believe that you must have the appearance of goodness before salvation comes, you’ll never find it. If you ascribe to the unfounded truth that you must improve or better yourself before you’re greeted by grace, you are in fact rejecting grace. The nature of grace is that it’s unsought and undeserved. But those who cross the threshold of churches every week are often not looking for God to show them something but are looking to show God something, especially concerning themselves. Often, the people that show up in church are thinking they’re either too good or too bad for God’s forgiving grace. And it’s these sorts of people for whom the church is for.
Two types of churchgoers.
In all reality, the only people that come to church are either fakers or fugitives. In your church — and all churches across the globe — there sits only sinners and saved sinners, but either way the church is always filled with sinners.
Fakers are sinners who revel in their religious résumés, on what they do for God. They’re like this Pharisee: they come to church deluded by their goodness, hoping that other people see how righteous, devoted, and “Christian” they are.
Fugitives are sinners who repent of their wicked catalogs, knowing how much they need God. They’re very much likes this Publican, not persisting in pretend righteousness or faking religious duty and devotion, but surrendering as a penitent fugitive who has ceased his running.
The beauty and glory of the gospel is that it cares not about which category you best fit — irrespective of whether you’re resisting God or running from him, the gospel is addressed to you. The gospel is for sinners! It heralds the news that you’ve been found out, found guilty, found wanting but that God’s Son has come for those same guilty, needy, beggarly people. God’s glad tidings of great joy are undeniably, unequivocally, and unmistakably addressed to sinners, to the fakers and the fugitives, those that think they deserve God’s approval and those that know they don’t.
God knows you, better than you know yourself. He knows all the deepest, darkest secrets of your heart. There’s no cause to impress when coming before him; he sees through all your masks of morality and put-together-ness. Your only option is to come as you are, as a needy beggar and spent refugee in need of grace and rest. We mustn’t come to church white-knuckling our religious performances, as if God owes us something. We often do that — we often come to God’s House with an air of piety that reeks of self-righteousness because of stuff that we’ve done or are doing. But entering God’s presence in such a manner will leave you like this Pharisee, condemned.
We must come to Christ with nothing in our hands but a catalog of sin. We must come as we are, empty, broken, and desperate for the Father’s loving, the Son’s rescuing, and the Spirit’s filling. Salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone is only rightly understood by those who know how deeply they need it. Salvation is not the reward for the faithful but the restoration of the filthy. It’s deliverance for those who need delivering: the lost, ruined, and undone.
We’ll never truly know how good God is until we first know how bad we are. We need to be told the truth there’s no one that’s good (Rom 3:10–12; Ps 14:1–3), that we’ve all turned away from God (Is 53:6), that we’ve all sinned and fallen short of his glory. (Rom 3:23) We need to face the hard reality that we’re “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1), with no good thing dwelling in us (Rom 7:18), for only then will God’s marvelous grace be exalted. Until we see ourselves as we really are by the Spirit’s direction we’ll never be who we’re called to be. Until we accept the fact that we’re not righteous, that we’re not pulling this off, we’ll never be able to rejoice in Christ’s gospel. Unless we know that we’re honestly nothing, that we’re the fugitive, that we’re the Publican, we’ll never know that we are loved, “and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Rom 3:24) “I 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.” (Lk 18:14)
The way to exaltation is through the understanding of our own nothingness and the acceptance of all things as coming from the grace of God. The sinner who acknowledges his own sinfulness and throws himself on the grace of God is the one who will reach Heaven.3
Therefore, we must ask ourselves the questions: What am I banking on? What am I relying on, my religious résumé or God’s redemptive grace? Am I a faker or a fugitive? For both, Christ waits; for all, grace is there.
John Bunyan, A Discourse Upon the Pharisee and the Publican, edited by George Offor (London: Blackie & Son, 1873), 92.
Donald G. Barnhouse, Expositions of Bible Doctrines Taking the Epistle to the Romans as a Point of Departure, Vol. 3 (Philadelphia: The Evangelical Foundation, 1963), 3:111.