“And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men [are], extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as [his] eyes unto heaven, but smote upon 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 every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
Self-righteousness is the subject of the parable before us. I cannot imagine a subject more disgustingly repugnant, or more commonly and universally indulged. Luke gives us an inspired introduction to the parable in verse 9. — “And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.” That which our Lord here denounces is self-righteousness. The purpose of our Lord in this parable is to show the folly and danger of self-righteousness.
All men, by nature, are self-righteous. It is the family disease of all the sons of Adam. From the heights to the depths of society, we all think more highly of ourselves than we should. We secretly flatter ourselves that we are not so bad as some, and that we have something that will recommend us to the favor of God. The wise man said, “Most men will proclaim everyone his own goodness.” We forget the plain testimony of Holy Scripture. — “In many things we offend all” (James 3:2). — “There is not a man upon the earth, that doeth good and sinneth not” (Ecclesiastes 7:10). — “What is man that he should be clean, or he that is born of woman that he should be righteous” (Job 15:14). — “They are all under sin; as it is written, there is none righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:9-10).
Ever since man became a sinner, he has been self-righteous. When man had a perfect righteousness before God, he did not glory in it nor cherish it; but ever since man has fallen and lost all righteousness, he has pretended to be righteous! Immediately after his fall, Adam wrapped himself in his apron of fig leaves and began to defend himself by blaming his troubles on God, who gave to him the woman, and the woman for giving him the fruit.
As it was with Adam, so it is with all men; we justify ourselves before God and men. Self-righteousness is born within us; and while we can, to a degree, control lust, lies, and murder, our self-righteousness will not allow us to confess our sins and come to God for mercy as guilty sinners. Millions of sermons have been preached against self-righteousness, but it remains the number one sin that keeps people from coming to Christ.
One old preacher said, “I scarcely ever preach a sermon without condemning self-righteousness, yet I find I cannot preach it down. Men still boast of who they are, what they have done, what they have not done, and mistake the road to heaven to be one paved by their own works and merit.” God help us!
This parable was addressed to the Lord’s disciples. Multitudes who profess faith in Christ, who avow that the ground of their hope and the foundation of their salvation is Christ alone, and confess that they trust in the merits of Christ, ultimately make Christ only half a Savior. You would never be so bold as to say that you do not need Him at all. But, then, you are highly offended when you are told that your heart is as black, and vile, and corrupt as hell itself. Why is that? Is it not because you trust in yourselves that you are righteous? I plead with you for your very soul’s sake, be honest. You think, “I know I am not as good as I should be, but then I am not so bad as some people. I go to church regularly. I read my Bible. I say my prayers. I am sober, honest, and moral.” — Are you not self-righteous?
There is only one true cure for self-righteousness, and that is self-knowledge. All the descendants of Adam are sinners, destitute of righteousness, and filled with unrighteousness. Out of your “heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.” The same is true of my own.
By nature, we are all enemies to righteousness. And we have no power to make ourselves righteous. No matter how righteous you may be in the eyes of men, or in your own eyes, you have no righteousness, unless you have the righteousness of Christ. If it were possible for men to gain righteousness for themselves, then Christ is dead in vain (Galatians 2:21).
Once let the eyes of our understanding be opened by the Spirit of God, and all self-righteousness must fade away. We will talk no more of our own goodness, when we behold His goodness. Once let us see what there is in our hearts, and what the holy law of God requires, and self-conceit will die. Oh, if we can but get a sight of the thrice holy Jehovah, we will cry with Isaiah, “Woe is me!” We will lay our hands upon our mouths, and cry with the leper, “Unclean, unclean!”
Everyone who goes to the house of worship is set forth in this parable. You either come to God like the self-righteous Pharisee, or you come like the self-abased Publican. May God the Holy Spirit use the study of this parable to the awakening of the self-righteous, to the comfort of those who labor and are heavy laden with sin, and to the edification of all who believe, for the glory of Christ.
Outwardly the Same
There is one point at which the Pharisee and the Publican agree. There is one thing that they had in common. They both “went up into the temple to pray.” They both set their faces in the same direction. Outwardly, they both walked in the same path. They entered the same house. So far as we can see, there was no difference whatever in their outward religious behavior.
The Pharisee and the Publican in this parable remind me of the first men who worshipped God, Cain and Abel. There was a mighty gulf between them. God accepted the one and rejected the other. The difference between the two was in their heart. Cain had a heart full of pride. Because he trusted in himself that he was righteous, God rejected him. Abel had a heart full of shame because of sin. Because he trusted Christ as the Lord his Righteousness, God accepted him. Which are you, the proud, self-righteous Pharisee, or the broken, self-abasing Publican?
Robert Hawker rightly summarized the message of our Lord’s parable when he wrote, “The Pharisee and Publican are as much living characters now, as then, in the days of our Lord. Every man is a Pharisee that is seeking acceptance with God either whole or in part, who prides himself upon his own good deeds, and prayers, and sacraments, and almsgiving; and hath recourse to Christ no further according to his will than to make up (if there should be any) his own deficiency. And every man may be called a Publican, in the sense of this parable, who from the teaching of God the Spirit hath been led to behold the Adam-nature in which he was born, and the condemnation in which he is involved, both by original, and by actual transgression; and led by the Holy Ghost to God in Christ, acknowledgeth himself unmeriting forgiveness, while in sorrow and contrition he seeks it. Justification is of God in Christ. And therefore the self-condemned, and not the self-righteous, find justification before God.”
Though they were outwardly the same, in this passage our Lord Jesus points out four great differences between the Pharisee and the Publican. He begins the parable by pointing out that there was a difference in the character of these two men. — “The one a Pharisee, the other a Publican.”
It would be impossible to imagine a more striking contrast in the opinion of the Jewish nation during the time of our Lord’s earthly ministry. In the minds of those ancient Jews, the Pharisee represented the epitome of morality and righteousness. And the Publican was looked upon with more disgust than a harlot or a drunkard. Publicans represented the depths of sin and degradation.
One of these men was a Pharisee. The Pharisees were the most ancient sect of the Jews. They were thoroughly orthodox in their doctrine. They believed in the inspiration of Scripture. They believed in the Messiah. They believed in election, predestination, and limited atonement. They never dreamed that any were God’s elect but the Jews, or that atonement was made for any but the nation of Israel. They believed in the resurrection of the dead. They even believed in the future punishment of the wicked, and eternal bliss of the righteous.
The Pharisees were very strict in their observance of the law and the traditions of the church. They prayed three times in the day. They fasted twice a week. They gave tithes of everything they possessed. They strictly observed the ceremonies of the law. They were meticulous in their observance of the Sabbath day. They wouldn’t think of missing a church service, or working on the sabbath.
But everything the Pharisees did was to be seen of men. They stood in corners of the streets and made long prayers, so that men coming from both directions could see and hear them. Our Lord tells us that they “made broad the borders of their phylacteries.” That is to say, they sewed pieces of parchment on their long robes, which had Scripture texts written on them, so that all men could see how much they loved the law of God.
If they were living today, they would have their shirt pockets stuffed with tracts, carry large Bibles everywhere they go, put bumper stickers on their car saying, “Jesus saves!”, or “Honk if you love Jesus!”, and write, “I love Jesus”, on park benches and overpasses, march in the streets to protest abortion and pornography, and have the Ten Commandments hung in all public buildings. The Pharisees were the most religious people in the world, and everyone knew it. All of their religious exercises were designed to win the applause of men.
There are many today like these Pharisees. They keep up the outward duties of religion so that they may either gain or keep the respect of men. They suppose that, by their religious works, they make God their debtor. They despise all other men, thinking themselves holier than others, who do not observe their traditions. They say, “Stand by thyself, come not near to me; for I am holier than thou.”
This is far different from the true believer. Those who trust Christ for righteousness know that they are, in themselves, poor, miserable, and guilty. They freely admit that others are much better than they. They despise no one (Philippians 3:3).
The other man in the parable was a Publican. To the Jews, nothing was more offensive than a Publican. The Publicans were Jews who collected taxes for the Roman government. They usually exacted much more than was due from their countrymen so as to amass wealth for themselves. They were looked upon both by the Jews and the Romans as disgraceful and contemptible. The Jews could make no more vile accusation of Christ’s character than to say that he was the friend of Publicans and sinners.
There was a difference in the behavior of these two worshippers, too. Look at the proud Pharisee. – “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself.” The Pharisee went up as close as he could get to the holy place and stood in some conspicuous place so that he could be seen by all. He stood in a fixed, formal posture. He stood apart from the other worshippers, lest he should be defiled, or be thought to be “as other men are.” He stood with great boldness and confidence, as though God were indebted to him. He stood and prayed with himself.
His prayer was altogether centered in himself. He sought nothing but his own glory. He stood before God, being confident of his own righteousness. He stood by himself, with no respect to or faith in Christ the Mediator. Though he addressed God, he praised his own self. We see nothing of humility in this man. He had no inclination even to bow his head before his Creator, much less his heart.
Now, look at the Publican. — “The Publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast.” The Publican stood afar off in the outer court, as one who was unworthy to enter the presence of Him whose name is Holy. This was a testimony of the sense he had of his state and condition before God. He was an unworthy sinner, far off from God, and deserving to be separated from God forever. This was also a display of his reverence for God. This Publican was not even willing to look up toward heaven.
J. C. Ryle said, “He felt the remembrance of his sins so grievous, and the burden of them so intolerable, that, like a child who has offended its father, he dare not look his Almighty Maker in the face.”
The guilt of his sins lay so heavily upon him that he could not look up to heaven. A sense of sin made him blush with shame. Sorrow caused his heart to bow in brokenness and contrition before the throne of God. He was possessed with a fear of God’s well-deserved wrath. This poor sinner knew he was unworthy of any favor from God.
In sorrow, self-abasement, and godly fear, the Publican “smote upon his breast.” He was so overcome by the sinfulness of his heart that he could not control his feelings. He remembered his many sins. He recalled the mercies he had received, and his neglect of them. He knew the life he had led and the God he had despised. And these things came crushing upon his heart like an intolerable burden. He beat upon his breast, pointing to his heart as the fountain of his sins. He beat upon his breast, expressing his sorrow and repentance of sin. He beat upon his breast, showing his abhorrence of sin.
Third, our Lord shows us a marked difference in the prayers of these two men. Look first at the Pharisee’s pretentious prayer. We can hardly call it a prayer. While he does address himself to God, and acknowledges God’s right to some gratitude upon his part, this proud hypocrite was wrong in everything he said. — “God I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week; I give tithes of al that I possess.”
There are several things that are obviously missing in the Pharisee’s prayer. There is no confession of sin. There is no expression of desire for the glory of God. There is no praise to God. There is no hint of need before God. This man was perfectly self-satisfied and self-sufficient. He recites complacently in what he is not, and proudly boasts of what he is. He gives thanks to God, but only in order to exalt himself.
Proudly, he denies being like other men. He was indeed like all other men. He was a sinner in Adam, he was a sinner by nature, and he was a sinner in heart, just like all other men. He goes on and denies particular sins, of which the Pharisees were guilty. They were guilty of extortion, devouring widow’s houses under religious pretense. They were unjust, being aptly represented by our Lord as unjust stewards. And they were adulterers; our Lord called them an adulterous generation.
Even as he made this prayer, this Pharisee was guilty of all these things before God. He was robbing God of his glory. He was unjustly claiming a right to God’s favor. He was guilty of spiritual adultery, worshipping himself, the worst adultery of all.
Even if he had obeyed the letter of the law perfectly, he was wrong to suppose that the literal fulfillment of the law would merit God’s favor. — “By the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight.”
The Pharisee judged himself by the wrong standard. He compared himself with other men. And he proved himself to be the child of the devil by accusing his brother.
There is no soul in such a dangerous position as the religious hypocrite. No man is in such a hopeless condition as the Pharisee, who has no deep feeling of his own sinfulness. No heart is harder to reach than that which is dead in self-righteous religion.
Now look at the Publican’s prayer. — “He smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.” This prayer was most instructive, though it was very short. There was a personal, sincere, and full confession of sin. This publican did not confess anyone else’s sins, but his own. He made no excuse for his sin. And this man confessed that he was the greatest sinner who ever lived. A more literal translation of his words would be, “God, be merciful to me the sinner.” He confessed his sinful nature and his sinful deeds. He speaks as though he were the only sinner in the world. He confesses that God would be perfectly just to punish him in hell forever.
This man made his suit for mercy at the throne of the sovereign God. God was the one he had offended, and God alone could forgive. He pleads with God whose prerogative it is to have mercy on whom He will. He made no promise of reformation, but simply pleaded for mercy. He came with nothing to offer, simply pleading for mercy.
This Publican pleaded for mercy with faith in Christ. The word that is here translated “be merciful to” is found only one other time in the New Testament in Hebrews 2:17. There it is applied to the Lord Jesus Christ, our High Priest. “Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people.” The word “merciful” means propitious, or reconciling.
The Publican prayed that God would show him mercy through the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ, typified under the law. He knew that God could show mercy only by the blood sacrifice of Christ. God forgives sin only when the satisfactory payment has been made. This sinner confessed his entire dependence upon Christ, the Mediator whom God provides, knowing that God must pardon sin in a way that is consistent with his justice. Here is a sinner’s plea, — “For thy name’s sake, O Lord, pardon mine iniquity; for it is great” (Psalm 25:11).
Fourth, I want you to see that the Pharisee and the Publican were different in their end. — “I tell you this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for everyone that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” The proud Pharisee, though he was righteous in his own eyes, was rejected by God. The poor Publican was justified by faith in Jesus Christ alone. That is to say, he received God’s free gift of justification by faith in Christ. The blood of Christ sprinkled upon his conscience justified him in his own conscience before God. He came up to the temple with a tormenting, guilty conscience. He went home with a conscience of peace, reconciled to God by faith in Christ.
And our Lord Jesus tells us that all who exalt themselves in self-righteousness shall be abased by God. And all who humble themselves in repentance will be exalted with Christ.
A Bold Prophecy
That which our Lord condemns more severely than any other crime is self-righteousness. I would rather stand before God in the day of judgment as a man guilty of lying, theft, adultery, and murder, than stand before him as a man guilty of self righteousness. Self-righteousness shall be punished with greater severity in eternal damnation than any other offense.
Our Lord spoke this parable to all who trust in themselves and despise others. Who are these people? The Son of God declares that all who trust in themselves, all who vainly imagine that they make themselves righteous by something they do, are self-righteous. They ignorantly imagine that they justify themselves (Luke 16:15).
If you will read Isaiah 65:1-7, you will see exactly what God thinks of self-righteousness and what he says about all who trust in themselves that they are righteous, while despising others. The apostle Paul tells us in Romans 10 that Isaiah was very bold in making this prophecy. It required the boldness of firm conviction and divine anointing for the servant of God to speak for God in the day when the people who claimed to worship God were wholly given over to idolatry, superstition, and will worship. It required boldness for the man of God to expose the self-righteousness of his own nation, declaring them to be a people who, because of the delusions of their perverse religion and the depravity of their hearts, were a people — “Which say, Stand by thyself, come not near to me; for I am holier than thou.” Then he adds this word from God concerning the people to whom he preached — “These are a smoke in my nose, a fire that burneth all the day.”
Thus, the prophet of God boldly delivered the Word of the Lord. In a day when the people were wholly given over to legality, he preached the Gospel. When his nation was filled with pride and self-righteousness, proudly presuming that they were alone the people of God, he boldly denounced them as hypocrites. When they thought they had God in their pocket, God’s prophet boldly affirmed God’s electing grace and announced His rejection of the Jewish nation. Perhaps it was his boldness that provoked Manasseh’s wrath, which resulted in Isaiah being cruelly put to death, being sawn asunder by the king’s order.
The sins of Israel were open and undeniable. They pretended to worship the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but did so in total violation of the first and second commandments. They mixed the worship of other gods with the worship of Jehovah. They used icons, images, and symbols in the worship of God. These things were expressly forbidden by God even in the Old Testament (Exodus 20:3-4). They worshipped the Lord, or at least pretended to, upon ornate altars of brick, altars of their own making, in places of their own choosing. Again, they did so in direct violation of Holy Scripture (Exodus 20:24-26). The Jews even practiced necromancy, pretending that they communed with the dead. They practiced witchcraft and sorcery, incorporating magic into their worship!
To top it all off, they were guilty of horrid self-righteousness. They carried their self-righteousness to such a pitch that they vainly and proudly imagined that if they even rubbed up against someone else on the streets, they would be polluted and defiled. Therefore, the Lord God here declared them to be to Him as smoke in a man’s nose, abhorrent and intolerable.
Truly, Isaiah’s bold prophecy is as applicable to our day as it was to his. There are many today who pretend to worship the Lord God who must be honestly exposed for that self-righteousness that says, “Stand by thyself, come not near to me; for I am holier than thou.” Multitudes today, who spend every Sunday in the house of God, spend the day as “a smoke in God’s nose.”
We must constantly guard against self-righteousness. It is at its heart the idea that we can make ourselves righteous, that we obtain righteousness by something we do, because of who we are, who we are related to, what we experience, or what we feel. Self-righteousness is trust in ourselves (Luke 18:9).
Self-righteousness is a refuge of lies, by which men and women deceive their own hearts, a bed that is too short for a man to stretch himself upon it, and a covering too narrow to wrap himself in. It is in God’s eyes the most offensive, obnoxious, and loathsome of all evils in this world. Yet, it is that which is most appealing to our flesh, that by which we are most likely to be deceived. Unless God delivers us from the horrible snare of self-righteousness, we will perish forever under his wrath.
Here are seven plain statements about self-righteousness. Some of them are biting and painful, I know. Some are very offensive to many. But they must be made. I must be faithful in my generation, as Isaiah was in his, and boldly expose the self-righteousness by which Satan would destroy your soul.
1. Self-righteousness grows and flourishes best in religious soil. This is an enemy found within our own walls. It is not something we have to look for in the dark alleys of the profane. Self-righteousness is perfectly at home in the assembly of God’s saints, and in the practice of religious duties (Isaiah 1:10-15; Luke 16:15). Self-righteousness is not an evil found only among the unregenerate and unbelieving of the world. It is an evil with which believers constantly struggle. It is like a huge cob-web on our souls that we simply cannot pull off. You can mark this down as a rule by which to determine whether or not our behavior is self-righteous. Anything done to be seen of and to call the attention of others to ourselves is abhorrently self-righteous (Matthew 6:1-6). Self-righteousness grows and flourishes in religious soil; but you will find it outside the church, too.
2. Self-righteousness is as common among the base and profane of the world as well. This sin abounds where you might least expect it. Nothing is more ridiculous than to hear men and women who are openly vile talk about morality, social values, and ethical uprightness. Yet, we should not be surprised by this. The Scriptures give us examples of such things and warn us that the time would come when men would call good evil and evil good.
3. Self-righteousness always makes men and women harsh, hard, and judgmental regarding others (Luke 18:9).
4. Self-righteousness will not bow to the authority of the Word of God alone. It must have traditions, customs, religious rules and laws, denominational authority, creeds, and confessions and historic backing (Matthew 15:7-9).
5. Self-righteousness will never acknowledge and confess sin. Believers confess their sins in bitterness of soul (Psalm 51:1-5; 1 John 1:9). Self-righteousness talks about sin in terms of weaknesses and makes excuses for it. Utter, personal depravity, self-righteousness will never acknowledge.
6. Self-righteousness will not trust Christ alone. Our only hope of righteousness is Christ, “The Lord our Righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:6; 1 Corinthians 1:30-31). Self-righteousness makes the obedience, righteousness, and sin-atoning sacrifice of Christ of non-effect (Galatians 2:20-21). But self-righteousness will not submit to the righteousness of God (Romans 9:31-10:4).
7. Self-righteousness most effectually bars a sinner from God’s grace and God’s salvation. Your sin will not keep you from Christ, but your righteousness will. None are too bad to be saved, but multitudes are too good!
My Confession and My Hope
“I know that in me, that is, in my flesh dwelleth no good thing.” From the soul of my foot to the crown of my head, there is no goodness in me, but wounds, and bruises, and putrefying sores (Isaiah 64:6). My only hope before God is Christ, whose name is Jehovah-tsidkenu, “The Lord Our Righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:6; 33:16; 1 Corinthians 1:30-31)
“Not what these hands have done
Can save this guilty soul;
Not what this toiling flesh has borne,
Can make my spirit whole.
Not what I feel or do,
Can give me peace with God;
Not all my prayers, or sighs, or tears,
Can ease my awful load.
Thy work alone, my Savior,
Can ease this weight of sin;
Thy blood alone, O Lamb of God,
Can give me peace within.
Thy love to me, O God,
Not mine, O Lord, to Thee,
Can rid me of this dark unrest,
And set my spirit free.
No other work save Thine,
No meaner blood will do;
No strength save that which is Divine,
Can bear me safely through.
Thy grace alone, O God,
To me can pardon speak;
Thy power alone, O Son of God,
Can this sore bondage break.
I bless the Christ of God,
I rest on love Divine;
And with unfaltering lip and heart
I call the Savior mine.”
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