This article looks at Luke 18:10-14 and Jesus' teaching of justification by faith alone.

Source: The Banner of Truth, 2003. 4 pages.

Luke 18:10-14 - The Pharisee and the Publican Jesus’ Teaching on Justification by Faith Alone

Our Lord taught justification by faith alone, apart from human works of merit or non-merit. His parable (Luke 18:10-14) describes two men, two prayers, and two results. One went home from the temple justified before God before any work was possible; the other went home condemned, still depending upon his pitiful self-righteous works.

To the world's eyes, it would seem that the parable should have taught in the opposite way. Following Adam's example, the natural religion of all men has been self-justification before God and/or man. Unexpectedly, Jesus teaches the very reverse: God alone justifies sinners by faith alone in His mercy; they cannot justify themselves.

This is still the debated issue between Protestant and Roman Catholic: 'How does one become right with God?' By faith alone, or by faith plus meritorious works? The Catholic accuses the Protestant of ignoring James, who said that 'faith without works is dead', while the Protestant accuses the Catholic of ignoring Paul's teaching that 'the righteous man shall live by faith' alone. Our Lord's parable settles that issue.

However, the 'New Perspective on Paul', defended by E. P. Sanders, James D. G. Dunn, and N. T. Wright, has proposed a new construction for justification by faith, which threatens to divide Protestants as well as to unify Protestants and Catholics. Attempting to harmonize Paul and James, they propose that the faith which justifies takes into account the saint's later non-meritorious works for a final justification. E. P. Sanders calls this: 'covenant nomism'.1 This reconstruction redefines Paul's once-for-all forensic justification by faith alone into a justification by faith at the end, which includes consideration of the believer's non-meritorious faith-works, thus harmonizing Paul and James.2

If any are tempted to discard this issue as a debate among liberal scholars, one can detect this New-Perspective view in Norman Shepherd:

Because faith which is not obedient faith is dead faith and because repentance is necessary for the pardon of sin included in justification, and because abiding in Christ by keeping his commandments ... (is) necessary for continuing in the state of justification, good works, works done from true faith, according to the law of God ... are nevertheless necessary for salvation from eternal condemnation and therefore for justification (emphasis mine).3

The New Perspective has redefined justification from being by faith alone, an act of God once-for-all (Rom. 5:1-2), into being a covenantal justification, which may be lost if sufficient non-meritorious works are not attached to it in the end. This justification depends, in some degree, upon the works of the saint. It can only produce self-righteous pride or the lack of Christian assurance.

Yet Jesus addressed the parable to 'certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous'. These Jews misinterpreted the conditional obedience of the Sinai Covenant as a meritorious self-righteousness for salvation before God. Paul corroborates this (Rom. 10:1-4).

The New-Perspective view, like Roman Catholicism, is rejected by Jesus' parable. There were two men in the Temple, both covenant members of Israel, who prayed two prayers and revealed two different views of justification before a holy God. Jesus' parable reveals two very different hearts, with different thoughts of God and of themselves. The result was two different ends.

The Pharisee's view of Justification reveals a self-righteous heart with wrong thoughts of God and of himself.

The Pharisee's Heart-Thoughts of God🔗

Standing as close as possible to the Holy of Holies, the Pharisee's prayer reveals a heart which has a low view of God and of His impeccable righteousness. He prayed 'to himself'. It was more a prayer of self-congratulation than a humble prayer before an all-seeing God: 'God, I thank Thee that I am not as other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get' (v. 11).

He was not self-aware that he was just like other men, with a fallen Adamic nature in rebellion against a holy God, notwithstanding his Abrahamic heritage. He was ignorant of the fact that God looks not upon the outward appearance but upon the heart; that man's works are tainted with imperfection and sinful motives, unable to stand before a holy God. Nowhere did he confess his sins, ask forgiveness, or fall down before a thrice-holy God, as did Isaiah. The Pharisee's self-justification betrayed a low view of God's righteousness. Thus, 'he trusted in himself that he was righteous'.

The Pharisee's Heart-Thoughts of Himself🔗

Not only did he have a low view of God, but he had a high view of himself. He was sure of his justification and salvation as long as he outwardly obeyed. His prayer betrays a 'covenant nomism' which finally depends upon man for justification, not upon the grace of God by faith alone.

Further, he did not compare himself to the best of men. His self-righteousness focused on the worst of men, adulterers and tax-gatherers, to boost his esteem before God. He did not plead the mercy of God as a helpless sinner, because he could help himself become righteous before God. He held a high view of himself. He 'trusted in himself that he was righteous.'

According to Jesus, there is no room for being justified before God with a prideful, condemning spirit toward man, nor with an ungrateful spirit which feels that it deserves something from God, nor with a superficial view of God's Law, which condemns all sons of Adam. The Pharisee needed to learn that he was no better than the tax-gatherer in God's eyes, before he could plead for mercy and justification. In fact, he could not find mercy until he believed that he was worse than the tax-gatherer because of his self-righteousness.

The Pharisee was one of those who 'trusted in themselves that they were righteous'. His self-justification was characteristic of Second Temple Judaism, simply because Jesus so described it. His misinterpretation of the Sinai Covenant as a covenant of works for salvation is marked by pride and arrogance before a holy God. So is the condemned case of all who will not fall before God for a merciful justification by faith alone in Christ alone. They need a high view of God and a low view of themselves before they can go through 'the eye of a needle' to enter the kingdom of God.

The Publican's view of justification reveals a humble heart with right thoughts of God and of himself.

The Publican's Heart-Thoughts of God🔗

The Publican's prayer revealed a high view of God: 'But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, "God be merciful to me, the sinner"!'

The Publican stood at a distance from the Holy of Holies. He could not lift his eyes to heaven to face a God more righteous than he. He beat his breast in conviction of sin which condemns before God. He held a high view of God's sinless righteousness to which he could not attain on his own (Phil. 3:9). Yet, he also believed in the undeserved mercy of God, as did David (Psa. 51:1-2). His very presence in the temple, as well as his prayer, reveals a hope in the infinite mercy of God to 'the sinner' (a foremost sinner). His God was great enough to deal with his great sins. Justification begins with a high view of God, in both His righteous justice and His undeserved mercy.

The Publican's Heart-Thoughts of Himself🔗

Luke refers to the Publicans' sins. They collected excessive taxes dishonestly (Luke 3:12-13). A good Pharisee would never eat with them (7:29, 34; 15:1).

So the Publican considered himself more than a mere sinner. He was 'the sinner' before a holy God. He did not compare himself to others for self-righteousness, but to God. Perhaps he beat his breast over the untold lives he had harmed by extortion and bribes. The Law of God had killed him because of his covetousness; and he feared the righteous judgment of God. He was a Zacchaeus in sin, whom the Holy Spirit had made a Paul:

It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.1 Tim. 1:15

So humbled was he for his sins, that not even the fear of God's wrath prevented him from fleeing to God for mercy. He had nowhere else to go. He had no hope of self-justification by imperfect works. He could only accept responsibility for his sins and plead with a holy and merciful God for justification by faith alone. This is the heart of one who seeks and finds justification before God. A low view of self and a high view of God finds mercy from a righteous and merciful God. So should we preach this great mercy to Publicans in the pews, who have lost hope in themselves that they are righteous. So also should we preach even to the best of Christians who live in imperfect sanctification, always needing to hear of God's merciful justification while pursuing the holiness without which no one shall see the Lord.

Jesus Taught Justification by Faith Alone🔗

Our Lord explains the parable: 'I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted' (Luke 18:14).

Our Lord declared the Publican justified by God's mercy alone, while he was still standing in the temple and while he was starting for home. The perfect passive participle 'justified' reveals that he entered the state of justification as an enduring condition. Accepted as righteous before God in the temple, he left in that state. There was no time for good works as part of his justification. There were no conditional statements of our Lord that He considered the Publican's future obedience in pronouncing him justified immediately. There was only 'the sinner', believing in and pleading God's mercy before God's righteous justice, and granted justification as a gift of grace. Jesus' teaching of justification coordinates exactly with Paul's: 'Having been justified (aorist passive: once-for-all) by faith, we have (or 'let us hold on to') peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ' (Rom. 5:1).

Jesus' parable shows that justification is by faith alone. Justification is reserved for those who humble themselves before God as 'the sinner', who yet cries for mercy. Yet, this humility is not a virtue for which one can prepare before justification, nor does it contribute to justification. Rather, it is a felt condition of the heart given by the Spirit, which is inevitable for one who concludes himself 'the sinner', who needs mercy before a holy God. The wonderful promise is that all who so humble themselves in heart will be exalted by the justification of a holy and merciful God.

Practical Lessons from the Parable🔗

First, Jesus gives solemn rebuke to superficial conformity to Law without repentance and heart humility before God. Dangerous is the condition of thinking that one is something when he is nothing. All the grand attempts at obedience, the outward show of spirituality, and even the effort to be humble enough, are but splendid sins before a perfectly holy God. Yet, even those who repent of such self-righteousness shall find this treasured mercy of justification. The Pharisee is a perfect example of why the Law of God is so important in preaching; it is so that the gospel of justification by faith alone may shine before the eyes of sinners. Only when the Law kills in heart and life before God can the sinner cry out for mercy and justification by faith alone (Rom. 7:7-13). Only a mercifully-bestowed justification by faith alone can make Publicans out of Pharisees in the pew.

Secondly, this mercy applies not only to the unjustified, but to the justified as well (Rom. 5:1-11). The best obedience by the best Christian is but a splendid sin with regard to being justified before God. It contributes nothing to justification. The best Christian lives daily with God, through justification by faith alone, in Christ's blood and righteousness alone. This method of grace, accepted by faith alone, is what enables and impels the Christian to pursue obedience without the condemnation of the Law. Thus: 'Sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace' (Rom. 6:14). Pastoral calls to faithful obedience without the comforts of a justifying gospel will produce a harvest of 'covenant nomists', having neither humility before men nor assurance before God.


Those who attempt to harmonize Paul and James on justification must not conflate justification with sanctification so that neither is recognizable. To include later obedience, even unmerited obedience, in justification before God, destroys the gospel of justification by faith alone. It is 'another gospel'. Yet that justifying faith always works by love. William Pemble writes:

(Paul) speaks of that faith which is true and living, working by charity ... (James) disputes against that faith which is false and dead, without power to bring forth any good works. So that the apostles speak no contradiction, because Paul teaches that we are justified by a true faith and James affirms that we are not justified by a false faith ... Paul severs works from our justification, but not from our faith. James joins works to our faith, but not to our justification.4

When a man has a high view of himself and a low view of God, he cannot be justified. His heart-thoughts exalt himself in a way which ends with a condemned humbling before the righteous judgment of a holy God. But when a man has a low view of himself and a high view of God's righteousness and mercy, he is immediately justified and accepted before a holy God forever, declared righteous by faith alone in the redeeming blood and imputed righteousness of Christ alone (2 Cor. 5:21).

Let us hold forth this gospel of justification by faith alone in Christ alone, which our Lord declared: 'I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted.'


  1. ^ E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), pp. 147, 180.
  2. ^ Ibid., p. 513.
  3. ^ Norman Shepherd, Thirty-four Theses on Justification in Relation to Faith, Repentance and Good Works (Presented to the Presbytery of Philadelphia of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, November 18, 1978), Thesis 23. Shepherd and his views have been popularized at the 2001 and 2002 Auburn Avenue Pastors' Conference, sponsored by the Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Monroe, Louisiana. Advocates of this view have included Steve Wilkins, Steve Schlissel, John Barach, Norman Shepherd, and Douglas Wilson.
  4. ^ William Pemble, The Justification of a Sinner: A Treatise on Justification by Faith Alone, Reprint of 1635 edition; Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 2002, pp. 200-3.

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