"Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. . ." — Luke 18:10-14.
The Lord knew what was in man. His words were powerful and heart-searching. He always distinguished between the lip-service of outward formality, and the inward exercise of the conscience before God. In that day, like the present, many erred because they knew not the Scriptures, nor the power of God; they believed not the truth of man's total ruin and depravity; consequently they were constantly thinking of doing something to secure the favour of God, or of bringing something of creature-merit for acceptance, instead of confessing themselves to be lost, undone sinners, and justly deserving His eternal wrath. The people, therefore, could not understand Jesus; they saw no beauty in Him; they were continually mistaking His words, and perceived not that He was exactly suited to do them good, because He came to seek and to save that which was lost.
In the chapter before us, our blessed Lord was addressing the Pharisees. The subject of His discourse was prayer. He exposed their hypocritical way of approaching God, and showed the amazing difference between saying prayers and true prayer. Their prayers might have general approval among men, but what were they in the sight of God? He had just spoken of the ungodliness that would characterize the world when the Son of man is revealed so destitute would it be of vital reality, that it could only be compared to the days before the flood, and the days of Lot. He then set before them the parable of the "unjust judge," teaching them that "men ought always to pray, and not to faint;" assuring them also that God is the hearer of prayer, and cannot but avenge His own elect in answer to their cries; and asked the most solemn question, "When the Son of man cometh, shall He find faith on the earth?" But while thus giving expression to the doctrine, that "men ought always to pray," He set before them, in the parable of the Pharisee and publican, the great contrast between formal lip-service and true prayer.
This must have been a powerful appeal to the consciences of the self-righteous. Most men acknowledge that they should pray. Not to pray is an omission that people generally would condemn; indeed, it is almost a law among all nations, that everybody should pray. Idolaters invoke their gods. Mohammedans have fixed hours for saying their prayers. Socinians own that people should pray. Jews say prayers. Roman Catholics repeat prayers. Pharisees make long prayers for a pretence; and Saul of Tarsus excelled in this religion; but after he had seen the Lord Jesus, it was said of him, "Behold, he prayeth!"
A prayerless soul is in a sadly infidel state; for surely it is the duty of every intelligent creature to acknowledge the goodness of the Creator. But there is a difference between a prayerless man, and a man who owns God as his Creator and Benefactor; yet both may be dead in trespasses and sins. The former is infidel, not owning God more than the unintelligent brute; the latter acknowledges God in his ways of creation and providence, yet, failing to own God's grace in redemption, he is still unpardoned and unsaved. Many will speak of the kindness of God in providence, who believe not the glorious gospel of Christ for salvation, and are, therefore, still in their sins — condemned already. "For this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil." "He that believeth on THE SON hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not THE SON shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him." (John 3:19, 36.)
The parable of the Pharisee and publican presents to us a most striking sketch of the two classes of persons which are spread over a large portion of the globe; namely, those who make prayers, and those who really pray, and is accompanied with the Divine estimate of both.
Outwardly, there was a great similarity between the Pharisee and the publican. The Gentile idolater might have seen both wending their way to the same temple; they both went to pray; they both began their prayers with "God;" in the eyes of men they were both pursuing the same object; unlike those who were without, they were inner-court worshippers. Like the mere formalist and real Christian now, there is often outwardly little difference, but, in God's esteem, how very wide the contrast!
1. Let us consider the Pharisee. I think I see him with his broad phylactery, hastening through the crowded streets, often gratified by salutations of "Rabbi;" stopping now and then at the corner to repeat his accustomed prayer, and out-stripping many a broken-hearted publican. At length he approaches the holy temple. How boldly he enters! How unhesitatingly he walks straight up to the innermost part of the holy place! How erect he stands! How often his eye glances on the gazing multitude, to be sure that he has secured their admiration and esteem! and how scornfully he views the weeping sinners that surround him! Then begins his prayer, "God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican; I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess." Such is the Pharisee's prayer. We are told that he "prayed with himself;" all the resources of self are therefore called to his aid: hence his prayer is full of self — self-exaltation, self-love, self-righteousness. He says, "I thank thee" — "I am not as other men" — "I fast" — "I give" — "I possess." All through his prayer "I" stands most prominent. Self, whatever form it may assume, can never rise above self. He thanks God that he is better than others. How is it that he is better than other men? Is it not that his fasting and alms-giving have accomplished this? Then why thank God? Is it not like Cain's offering of those fruits of the ground that his own hand had cultivated, and which had been matured by Divine aid? Yes, this is the delusion of Pharisaism. It is the cultivation of self, but professedly by Divine help. It is not salvation; it is not the cleansing of the guilty conscience; but the outward trimming of the corrupt tree which cannot bring forth good fruit, and sets at nought the gospel declaration, that "except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."
The Pharisee thanks God he is not as other men. God declares that all have sinned, all have gone astray, all are guilty before Him, and that "as face answereth to face in the water, so doth the heart of man to man." It is quite possible that the Pharisee might have been preserved from the outward sins which the publican had so long pursued, and which many around him were frequently revelling in; but he little thought that "God seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart." The Pharisee knew not the sin of honouring God with his lips, while his heart was far from Him. What was the state of the Pharisee's heart? He spoke as if he were righteous, and had never sinned. This was not true; for the Scripture saith, "There is none righteous, no, not one," and that we are all as an unclean thing, conceived in sin, and shapen in iniquity. His thought, like that of many now, was, that it was only outward things that defiled the man; whereas our Lord said that it was the evil things from within that defiled the man: "For out of the heart of men proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: all these evil things come from within, and they defile the man." Was not the Pharisee, then, an "extortioner" in heart? Had he not, times without number, desired and obtained God's providential mercies, under the pretence of honouring God, when it had really been for self-exaltation in the sight of men? Was he not "unjust" not to credit the testimony of the holy and true Son of God? Was he not an "adulterer" in heart, in pretending affection for God, calling the living and true God his God, while he was wholly set on exalting and adoring self? Oh deluded Pharisee! Oh unregenerate, unpardoned, sinful man! how hath Satan blinded thine eyes! how hath thine own evil heart deceived thee! Well hath the Lord said of thee, "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity."
Such is the Pharisee's prayer. There was no sense of need expressed; no expectation of receiving any thing from God; no felt unworthiness; no repentance; no confession of sin. His thought was that God required something from him, and he flattered himself that he was competent to meet it. He knew not the truth, that "God is not worshipped with men's hands, as though He needed any thing, seeing He giveth life, and breath, and all things; and commandeth all men everywhere to repent."
2. Now look at the Publican. Here you see a man exercised, not about what he is in the sight of men, but what he is before God; and this is always the way of the Holy Spirit in the soul. The publican knows it is to God, from whom no secrets are hid, that he must give an account. With a trembling step and an aching heart he enters the temple. He feels deep contrition, and is bowed down under a sense of unworthiness of the least of God's mercies, and "standing afar off" the question with him is, How can I approach God? For
"The best obedience of my hands
Dares not appear before His throne."
He knows that he is "a sinner," that he has actually transgressed against God's laws. He is self-convicted, and therefore self-abased. His past acts of covetousness and extortion stare him in the face, and he is conscious that all sin is really "against God." "Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight," is the utterance of his heart. He feels he cannot look up, not even "lift up so much as his eyes to heaven;" for he knows God is holy and just, that He will by no means clear the guilty, and has power to destroy both body and soul in hell, and he is deeply conscious of having broken His commands. But, more than this, He traces sin to its source. He laid his trembling hand upon his heart, "he smote upon his breast," as much as to say, What horrid thoughts, vile desires, and abominable suggestions, lurk within this breast! O wretched man that I am! O foul transgressor! ungrateful enemy to God! What mercies have been vouchsafed to me! what a kind Benefactor! yet how rebellious and disobedient have I been, to have wasted my time, health, strength, and every other talent in selfish objects; yea, even using the Almighty's gifts to seek happiness and glory, apart from the Giver. What ungodliness! what sin! But language fails to describe these workings of the Spirit in the conscience.
The question, then, in the publican's heart is, Can such "a sinner" be saved? Is there any hope of salvation for one so deserving God's wrath? If there be, he is convinced it can only be in God Himself; for the experience he has had of his own weakness and vileness excludes all hope from himself. The only possibility is in Divine mercy. Can God, will God, be merciful to such a sinner? He has heard that God is merciful, and he feels that mercy only can meet his need; but he cries —
"Depth of mercy, can there be
Mercy still reserved for me?"
This is his anxious inquiry. He, however, ventures; he casts himself on free, unmerited love; his cry is, "God, be merciful to me a sinner!" Mark the character of this prayer: 1st, His supplication is to "God." 2nd, He acknowledges his guilt as "a sinner." 3rd, His only ground of expectation is in Divine mercy — "be merciful." 4th, His deep, heartfelt personal necessity — "be merciful to me." He brings nothing but a load of sin to be removed, a conscience oppressed with guilt to be cleansed, an agonizing breast to be comforted, a needy soul to be filled. He presents no creature-merit to God, and he expects everything from God. He feels, if God does not save him, he is lost for ever: "God be merciful to me a sinner!"
How widely different are the two prayers! The self-exalting Pharisee needs nothing, the self-abased publican needs everything; the one is ensnared in the trammels of dead formality, the other is under the influence of spiritual life.
3. The Divine Verdict. Having set before us a sample of these two wide-spread classes of persons which have been in the world ever since the days of Cain, our blessed Lord then tells us that the publican "went down to his house JUSTIFIED." This is clearly the meaning of the passage. It is not that the Pharisee was in any degree justified; but comparing the two persons, the publican could be spoken of as JUSTIFIED. How blessed! What a glorious unfolding of the riches of the grace of God! A self-condemned sinner, thus casting himself on the free, sovereign mercy of God, JUSTIFIED! And surely this has always been God's way. In the days of Job, Elihu was instructed by the Spirit to say of the Almighty, "He looketh upon men; and if any say, I have sinned, and perverted that which was right, and it profited me not, He will deliver his soul from going into the pit, and his life shall see the light."
But to be justified means not only forgiven, but to be accounted righteous to be just before God. To this end Christ died and rose again. "He who knew no sin was made sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him." Thus Jesus, by His finished work, has not only delivered His people from guilt, but fitted them for glory; hence the Colossian believers were enjoined to "give thanks unto the Father, who hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light: who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and translated us into the kingdom of His dear Son: in whom we have redemption through His blood, even the forgiveness of sins." This is the work that Jesus came forth from the Father to accomplish, "that He might present to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing." This is the mercy of God to sinful man. He justifies the ungodly that believe; and this He is able to do consistently with His own holiness and justice, through the atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The only sacrifice for sin had not been offered when Jesus put forth this parable. He tells us on another occasion that He was "straitened," that is, that He was unable fully to tell out the grace and peace of God to lost, sinful man, until His death had actually taken place. He said, "I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished!" (Luke 12:50.) But God's purposes and thoughts of redeeming mercy have always been the same. He could account Abel, Noah, Abraham, righteous by faith, by looking forward to the cross, as much as He now justifies a sinner who looks back on Christ's already accomplished work. By Christ, all that believe are justified from all things, from which they could not be justified by the law of Moses. (Acts 13:39.)
But further. Our Lord adds to this parable the Divine statute, that "every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted." On two other occasions our Lord put forth the same solemn declaration; but both were in reference to seeking honour and distinction among men. Here, however, He sets it before His hearers as a doctrine of eternal importance. Every one that exalteth himself, by professing to stand on the ground of carnal confidence, self-righteousness, and self-importance, can only be judged by God as worthy of eternal banishment from His presence. To stand before God without the wedding garment, without that spotless and infinitely perfect righteousness that Christ is to every one that believeth, is to be exposed to the just indignation of the King of kings, who must abase such, and whose sentence must be, "Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth." How deep, how eternally full of bitter anguish will that abasing be! On the other hand, "He that humbleth himself shall be exalted." Such do not contend for their own opinion about the things of God; they boast not of their own abilities or attainments; they believe that "God is greater than man;" they lay aside their own thoughts; they give God His due place; they incline their ear to Him, and hearken to His word. Taught by His Spirit, and enlightened by the word of truth, they acknowledge that all their righteousnesses are as filthy rags, and confess that they are unclean and undone. Such God will exalt; for "He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes, and to make them inherit the throne of glory." In this present life, they receive a garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness, and the oil of joy for mourning; they are consciously exalted from the degraded gratifications of carnal lusts to the enjoyment of fellowship with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ; even now they are exalted from the slavery of Satan's bondage to liberty and sonship in the presence of God; and when the Lord Jesus shall come again, while many are left behind for His terribly abasing judgments, they shall be exalted to share His throne of glory. They shall see His face, be like Him, and share His glory for ever. How high, how holy, how perfect, and unchangeably happy will this exaltation be!
Now, dear reader, let me affectionately ask you solemnly to ponder these things. Are you a prayerless soul? Do you eat, and drink, and enjoy the bounties of God in nature and providence, without ever bowing your knees to Him in acknowledgment of His mercies? Is it really so? Then wherein do you differ from the poor heathen, or from "the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth"? You say, I make no profession! What! God blesses you day by day with such providential mercies, and, far beyond all that, has sent His only-begotten Son to die for sinners, and save them from the wrath to come, by shedding His own precious blood, and yet you make no profession! as if such wondrous love and grace were beneath your dignity to notice! Fie! fie! my reader: Repent at once, turn to God, and accept pardon for thine ingratitude and sin, through the atoning death, the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ.
But perhaps my reader may say, "I am not a prayerless person. I could not lie down at night, or get up in the morning, without saying my accustomed prayers. I never commence a meal without repeating grace, and I must own that God has greatly blessed me in my family, business, and property." Ah, my dear reader, all this may be quite true; but about your soul — your soul — your undying soul! Are you not resting in your accustomed religious duties, and owning God in His dealings with you in providence, but not owning the mercy of God in saving sinners by the death of His Son, thus neglecting your soul's salvation? Oh! what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? You may acknowledge God, but do you believe in His Son Jesus Christ, as a lost sinner, for the salvation of your soul? This is the all-important question.
But some of my readers may say, "Neither of these describes my case. I try to pray, and cannot. I am often afraid to sleep at night, lest I should awake in hell; and when sometimes I see the lightning flash, and hear the thunder roar, I fear it may be Christ coming in judgment to cut me off. I had serious impressions when a child; but they passed away, and I lived in sin for many years. Others speak of happiness, but I spend weeks and months in sorrow. Sometimes I feel better, and then again sin and guilt are fastened deeper than ever upon my conscience. I have been advised to attach myself to some church (as it is called): but knowing that a profession without the power of godliness is abominable in the sight of God, and feeling that it is inward peace, a sense of forgiveness of sins and acceptance with God, that I need, I have always declined."
My reader! if this be thy experience, the Holy Spirit hath been working in thy heart. He proclaims in the gospel the free mercy of God, full forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness, and salvation to the uttermost, to every sinner that cometh to God through Christ. "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved." Take thy stand at Calvary's cross; there read in the shedding of His blood the unutterable mercy of God to sinners. Doubt no more. Lift thy soul to heaven's throne of grace where Jesus is. Confess thyself to be a lost sinner, take the living God at His word, rely only upon the Saviour's death for acceptance and peace, and thy groans will soon be turned to praise, and thy burdened heart be filled with songs of joy.
Once more! Remember that Jesus Christ came into the world to save — who? Not righteous persons, but sinners!