He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘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.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up 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, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Many of you know that I spent a large portion — at least ten weeks — of the sabbatical immersed in the commands of Jesus, writing a book that is now titled What Jesus Commands from the World. Those weeks were a precious gift to me. And I thank you for them. One of the things that became very clear is that the commands of Jesus only make sense and only have their proper force in the context of who Jesus was, and what Jesus did, and the way Jesus viewed the human heart and how it relates to God.
In other words, you can’t take a commandment of Jesus (like “love your enemies” or “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” or “let your yes be yes and your no be no” or “pray that you may not into temptation” or “lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven”) and use it properly without asking three bigger questions.
- What difference does it make that the eternal, incarnate, fully divine, fully human, sinless Son of God spoke this?
- What difference does it make that his main reason for coming was to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45), and to shed his blood for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:28)?
- What difference does it make that Jesus thinks we are all dead in our sins (Luke 9:60) and need to be born again (John 3:3), and that we all are so rebellious in our hearts that we cannot come to him unless it is granted from the Father (John 6:65; Matthew 16:17)?
If we don’t ask these questions, Jesus’s commandments are going to be misused.
The Shadow of the Cross over Jesus’s Commands
Another way to say it is that the cross of Jesus, where he took our place and became a curse for us and bore our sins and completed his obedience, casts a long shadow back over every verse in the gospels. Every verse is meant to be read under the shadow of what Jesus did for us on the cross.
“The cross casts a long shadow over every verse before it.”
Or to put it still another way, the four gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — are meant to be read backward. Children, remember I said that and at lunch today and say to your mommy and daddy, “Why did Pastor John say that we are supposed to read the gospels backward?” And don’t panic, mom and dad. Here’s the answer. Tell them, he meant that when you start reading one of the gospels, you already know how it ends — the death and resurrection of Jesus for our sins — and you should have that ending in mind with every verse that you read.
This is not my idea. This is the way the gospel writers want to be read. Matthew says in his first chapter, “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). He is coming not just to teach sinners, but to save sinners by his death and resurrection. Mark is the most radical example, because, of his sixteen chapters, virtually half of them deal with the last week of Jesus’s life — not exactly your ordinary biography! Luke begins with the great word from the angel to the shepherds, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10).
And the apostle John tells us in his first chapter that John the Baptist said, when he saw Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
In other words, all the gospels want us to know from the very beginning how the story ends: it ends with Jesus dying as the Lamb for the forgiveness of sins and rising again as the Lord of the universe. That is the way to understand every paragraph in the gospels. Jesus’s commandments are not mere snippets of wisdom for how to raise your family, or how to prosper in business, or how to feel good about yourself.
They are descriptions of how new human beings live who have been born again by God’s Spirit, and have seen the glory of his Son, Jesus Christ, and have recognized the desperate condition of sin they are in, and have ceased to trust in anything about themselves at all for acceptance with God, and have turned wholly to Jesus and all that God has done for us in him, and all God is for us in him. If the gospels have not had that effect on you yet, you will probably misuse all the commandments of Jesus.
Missing the Redeemer, Then and Now
This brings us now to Luke 18:9–14. Here is Jesus looking right into the eyes of people who are religious and do not understand and haven’t experienced what I just said. They talk endlessly about God, and do not know how to be right with God. They don’t know that everything written about God in the Old Testament was pointing to a Redeemer, a Savior, a Sacrifice, the Righteous One on whom their sins would be laid and in whom they would become the righteousness of God.
Jesus came to reveal all this, and they stumbled over the stumbling stone. “Being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness” (Romans 10:3). They knew about God. They knew about grace. They knew about righteousness. But they missed it. They did not understand justification by faith alone on the basis of the Redeemer alone.
When I finished working on the book on Jesus’s commands at Tyndale House, I spent the rest of my study time on this precious doctrine, because the Pharisees are not the only ones who are missing it. The doctrine is being turned upside down by many today, and I have chosen this text because it unites so much of what has burdened me in both parts of the sabbatical — the Jesus part and the justification part.
A Parable Completed and Fulfilled in the Cross
Let’s read this parable with the understanding that it is completed and fulfilled in the cross — the final obedience of Jesus in shedding his blood.
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘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.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up 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, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9–14)
You can tell by the way the parable comes to a climax in verse 14 (“This man went down to his house justified”) that the parable is about how to be justified and how not to be justified. Of course the story is incomplete because Jesus had not finished his work yet when he told this story. He has not died for our sins and been raised for our justification. So what we are seeing is not the whole story of how we are justified before God, but one of the key dynamics in how it happens.
Jesus Spoke to Them, Not About Them
First, notice something minor in the story but major for the health of a church. Verse 9: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” It does not say that he told this parable about those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, but to those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous. He was looking them in the eye and telling them that they were self-righteous. He was not talking about them but to them.
I only mention this in passing. Bethlehem, let’s be like this. Don’t talk about people’s faults. Talk to them about their faults. It is easy and tasty to talk about people. It is hard and often bitter to talk to them. When you are talking about them, they can’t correct you or criticize you. Let’s not talk about people’s faults without going to them.
“Don’t talk about people’s faults. Talk to them about their faults.”
I don’t mean you can’t criticize President Bush without calling him on the phone first. And I don’t mean you can’t discuss my sermon, both negatively and positively, without coming to me. Public figures put themselves on the line and understand that everyone will have an opinion about what they say. That’s okay. What I mean is when you know a brother or a sister is in the grip of some sinful attitude or behavior, take the log out of your eye, and then go to them and try to help them with humble biblical counsel.
Perhaps tell them a parable. That’s what Jesus did. Now look at the problem he was dealing with. Verse 9: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” Here is what you do not want to do — trust in yourself that you are righteous. So we must see clearly here what this is. What were these people doing? What were they not doing? What was wrong with their hearts? If we are going to avoid this, we need to see what Jesus is so against here. Please listen carefully and test yourself.
The Pharisee’s Righteousness
There are three things we need to see about this person who “trusts in himself that he is righteous.” First, his righteousness is moral. Second, his righteousness is religious or ceremonial. Third, he believes his righteousness is the gift of God.
First, his righteousness is moral: Verses 10–11,
Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee [that’s the one that trusts in himself that he is righteous] and the other a tax collector [who had a terrible reputation for cheating the people]. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”
Notice how he presents his righteousness: “I am not like others, extortioners (that is, robbers, thieves, cheaters), unjust, adulterers.” In other words, “I am financially honest, just in all my dealings, and sexually faithful to my wife.” That is what I mean by moral righteousness. He was a morally upright man. This is what Jesus meant when he said that he trusted in himself that he was righteous: he was a morally upright man, he kept the commandments (like the rich young ruler, ten verses later, Luke 18:21).
Second, the Pharisee’s righteousness was religious or ceremonial. Verse 12, “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” These are what you might call “religious” or “ceremonial” acts: fasting and tithing. They relate to spiritual disciplines before God, and not so much to how you treat other people. This too was part of his righteousness. He was a morally upright and religiously devout man.
Third, he believed that this righteousness was the gift of God. Verse 11: “The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men.’” He gives God the credit for making him upright and devout like he is. “I thank you that I am morally upright and religiously devout.” In other words, this man is not what theologians call a Pelagian — a person who believes he can make himself righteous without God’s help. He may not even be what theologians call a semi-Pelagian — a person who believes that God’s help is needed but the human will is decisive and can resist God’s help. None of that is mentioned here. It’s not the point or the problem.
The Pharisee’s Problem
The problem is not whether the man himself has produced the righteousness he has or whether God has produced it. The problem is: he trusts in it. Verse 9: “[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous.” Now make sure you see what this is saying. It is not saying that he is trusting in himself to make himself righteous. No. He says explicitly he is thanking God for that. He is not trusting in himself to make himself righteous. He is trusting in himself that he is righteous with the righteousness that God has worked in him. That is what he is trusting.
As far as we know, this Pharisee was a total lover of the sovereignty of God. As far as we know he would have said, “Not I but the grace of God in me has worked this righteousness.” He says, “I thank you, God, that I have this righteousness.” That was not his mistake. His mistake was that he trusted in this God-produced righteousness for justification.
When it came to justification — for that is the issue, as verse 14 shows — this man was trusting in the wrong thing. He was looking at the wrong basis for his righteousness before God. He was looking at the wrong ground for his righteousness before God. He was looking at the wrong person and the wrong righteousness. He was looking to his own righteousness — and it was his, not because he created it, but because he acted it. It was in his will and in his heart and in his actions. It was his, and it was put there by God, he believed. That is what he was trusting in.
He is not presented as a legalist — one who tries to earn his salvation. That is not the issue. One thing is the issue: this man was morally upright. He was religiously devout. He believed God had made him so. He gave thanks for it. And that is what he looked to and trusted in for his righteousness before God — for his justification. And he was dead wrong.
The Problem Today
And so are so many people today, who are turning away from the doctrine of justification by faith alone on the basis of Christ alone. What Jesus wants us to see here is that how righteous you are, or how moral you are or how religious you are or whether God has produced that in you or you have produced that in yourself — that is not the basis of your justification before God. That is not how you are accepted and declared righteous in God’s law court.
The issue is: Are you looking totally away from yourself? When you see yourself standing before the Holy Judge, and you know that to escape condemnation you must be found righteous in this all-knowing, infinitely-just court, what are you going to look to and trust in? I am pleading with you on behalf of Jesus this morning that for your justification you not look at or trust in what God has worked in you. But that you look at and trust in Christ alone and all that God is for you in him.
How the Story Ends
I say it like that, because I know how the story ends. I see the shadow of the cross over this parable. But we see the clear pointer to this end in the way the tax collector is justified before God. Verses 13–14:
But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up 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.
“What Christ is, counts for us.”
What did the tax collector do? He looked away from himself to God. He trusted in nothing in himself. He trusted in God. And Jesus said, “God declared him righteous in his law court.” That’s what “justified” means.
And now, on this side of the cross, we know more. We know how God provides righteousness for sinners who are not righteous. “God made him to be sin who knew no sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). By trusting Christ alone and all that he did for us and all that he is for us, we are united to him. And because we are “in him,” what he is counts for us, his righteousness, his morality, his devoutness. (See Philippians 3:9; Romans 3:28; 4:4–6; 5:18–19; 10:3–4; 1 Corinthians 1:30; Galatians 2:16).
Be careful, lest you say, well of course the tax collector looked away from his own righteousness to God for mercy — he had no righteousness. That’s exactly what the Pharisee was saying. “He doesn’t look to God like I do for help in becoming righteous. So he has none, but God has made me righteous, and I will not scorn the gift of God but trust in it that I am righteous with the righteousness that God has worked in me. And this is the righteousness that I will present in the law court as the basis of my justification. It is God’s righteousness because he created it in me. It will be a good basis for my justification.”
Four Words: “Rather Than the Other”
Don’t miss the terrifying four words in the middle of verse 14 for this Pharisee, “I tell you, this man [the tax collector] went down to his house justified, rather than the other.” The Pharisee, the righteous one, the one thanking God for his righteousness, was not justified. He was condemned.
Do you see why I would spend weeks of my sabbatical laboring to understand why so many teachers in the church today are replacing the righteousness that Christ has in himself with the righteousness that Christ creates in us as the basis for our justification? People who trust in the righteousness that God has worked in them for the basis of their acceptance and acquittal and justification do not go down to their house justified. People who really believe that the righteousness that God helps them do in this life is a sufficient basis for their justification, Jesus says, will not be justified.
Bethlehem, this is serious. We are not justified by the righteousness that Christ works in us, but by the righteousness that Christ is for us.
Give Jesus Christ His Full Glory
“We are justified by the righteousness that Christ is for us.”
Would you receive this, glory in this, pray toward this, and stand for this? I summon everyone in the hearing of my voice: Give Jesus Christ his full glory — not half of it. Give him the glory, both as the one who is perfect righteousness for us — which we have by faith alone — and the one who, on the basis of justification, works progressive righteousness in us. Don’t rob him of the glory of his role as your righteousness. He is your righteousness. And because he is your righteousness, he can, and will in time, make you righteous. Look to Christ alone, trust in Christ alone — not your righteousness — for your right standing in God’s court and your acceptance with him. Amen.