What has the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector got to do with The Reformation?

Today is Reformation Sunday. The Reformation movement started by Luther called the church to repent, to return to the gospel, to return to the supremacy of scripture, and to accept that salvation is by grace alone, faith alone, and Christ alone. No cooperating work by man is needed for him to be made righteous before a holy God. 

Indeed, scripture makes this declaration: “the gospel .. is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes .. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” (Roman 1:16-17)

This parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is abundantly rich with spiritual truth – it contains the very essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus spoke this parable to those “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous” (Luke 18: 9).

Righteousness is an issue Jesus spoke on often. He wants His hearers to understand their utter inability to be righteous enough to attain the kingdom of heaven. Accepting this truth is essential to understand His mission on earth, which was to save those who could not save themselves.

The Pharisee in this parable thought his own goodness was so good that he is acceptable to God. He is the epitome of one who is self-justifying. Going to the temple to pray with the condition of his heart as it was, he might as well have stayed home. Such a “prayer” is not heard by God and neither will he be acceptable to God.

Unlike that Pharisee, the tax collector stood “afar off”. Tax collectors, because of their association with the hated Romans, were seen as traitors to Israel and were loathed and treated as outcasts. This man’s posture spoke of his unworthiness before God. Unable to even lift his eyes to heaven, the burden of his guilt and shame weighed heavily upon him, and the load he carried had become unbearable. Overcome by his transgressions, he beats his breast in sorrow and repentance and appeals to God for mercy. 

The prayer he speaks is the very one God is waiting to hear, and his attitude is exactly what God wants from all who come to Him.

It is Christ’s righteousness we need, not our good works. For it is by Grace Alone, Faith Alone, and Christ Alone that we are made righteous. In that way, all glory goes to God .
Pastor Robert Chew