Skip to content

Johnathan Edwards: The Danger of Self-righteousness in Believers

July 4, 2012

And let particular persons strictly examine themselves whether they hadn’t been lifted up with their particular experiences. I think, according to what observations I have made—as I have had [more] opportunity of very extensive observation than any other person in the town—that is has been a pretty prevailing error in the town, that persons are not sufficiently sensible of the danger of self-righteousness after conversion. They seem to be sensible that persons are in danger of it before they are converted, but they think that when a man is converted, he is brought off wholly from his own righteousness, just as if there was no danger of any workings of self-righteousness afterwards.
But this is from a great mistake of what is intended by a man’s being brought wholly off from his own righteousness when he is converted. ‘Tis not meant that a self-righteous principle is wholly done away, that there is no remains of such a disposition in the heart. There is as much of the remains of that as there is of any other corruption of the heart.
So a man is brought, when converted, wholly to renounce all his sins as well as to renounce all his own righteousness. But that don’t argue that he is wholly freed from all remains of sin. So no more is he wholly freed from remains of self-righteousness. There is a fountain of it left. There is an exceeding disposition in men, as long as they live, to make a righteousness of what is in themselves, and an exceeding disposition in men to make a righteousness of spiritual experiences, as well as other things;…a convert is apt to be exalted with high thoughts of his own eminency in grace.1
1. Jonathan Edwards Bringing the Ark to Zion a Second Time (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003) pp. 255-256 vol. 22

John Owen on "New Heaven and New Earth" 2 Peter 3: 7-11

June 30, 2012

The apostle makes a distribution of the world into heaven and earth, and saith they were destroyed with water, and perished. We know that neither the fabric nor substance of the one or other was destroyed, but only men that liveth on the earth; and the apostle tells us (ver. 7) of the heaven and earth that were then, and were destroyed by water, distinct from the heavens and the earth that were now, and were to be consumed by fire; and yet as to the visible fabric of heaven and earth they were the same both before the flood and in the apostle’s time, and continue so to this day; when yet it is certain that the heavens and earth, whereof he spake, were to be destroyed and consumed by fire in that generation. We must, then, for the clearing of our foundation a little, consider what the apostle intends by the heavens and the earth in these two places. 
‘ 1. It is certain that what the apostle intends by the world, with its heaven, and earth (vers. 5, 6), which was destroyed ; the same, or some-what of that kind, he intends by the heavens and the earth that were to be consumed and destroyed by fire (ver. 7) ; otherwise there would be no coherence in the apostle’s discourse, nor any kind of argument, but a mere fallacy of words. 
‘ 2. It is certain that by the flood, the world, or the fabric of heaven and earth, was not destroyed, but only the inhabitants of the world; and therefore the destruction intimated to succeed by fire is not of the substance of the heavens and the earth, which shall not be consumed until the last day, but of person or men living in the world. 
‘3. Then we must consider in what sense men living in the world are said to be the world, and the heavens and earth of it. I shall only insist on one instance to this purpose among many that may be produced: Isa. li. 15, 16. The time when the work here mentioned, of planting the heavens and laying the foundation of the earth, was performed by God was when He divided the sea (ver. 15) and gave the law (ver. 16), and said to Zion, Thou art my people; that is, when He took the children of Israel out of Egypt, and formed them in the wilderness into a church and state; then He planted the heavens and laid the foundation of the earth: that is, brought forth order, and government, and beauty from the confusion wherein before they were. This is the planting of the heavens and laying the foundation of the earth in the world. And since it is that when mention is made of the destruction of a state and government, it is in that languaue which seems to set forth the end of the world. So Isa. xxxiv. 4, which is yet but the destruction of the state of Edom. The like also is affirmed of the Roman Empire (Rev. vi. 14), which the Jews constantly affirm to be intended by Edom in the prophets. And in our Saviour Christ’s prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem (Matt. xxiv.) He sets it out by expressions of the same importance. It is evident, then, that in the prophetical idiom and manner of speech, by heavens and earth, the civil and religious state and combination of men in the world, and the men of them, were often understood. So were the heavens and earth that world which then was destroyed by the flood. 
‘ 4. On this foundation I affirm that the heavens and earth here intended in this prophecy of Peter, the coming of the Lord, the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men, mentioned in the destruction of that heaven and earth, do all of them relate, not to the last and final judgment of the world, but to that utter desolation and destruction that was to be made of the Judaical church and state; for which I shall offer these two reasons, of many that might be insisted on from the text:- 
‘(1.) Because whatever is here mentioned was to have its peculiar influence on the men of that generation. He speaks of that wherein both the profane scoffers and those scoffed at were concerned, and that as Jews, some of them believing, others opposing, the faith. Now there was no particular concernment of that generation, nor in that sin, nor in that scoffing, as to the day of judment in general ; but there was a peculiar relief for the one and a peculiar dread for the other at hand, in the destruction of the Jewish nation ; and, besides, an ample testimony both to the one and the other of the power and dominion of tile Lord Jesus Christ, which was the thing in question between them. 
‘(2.) Peter tells them, that after the destruction and judgment that he speaks of (vers. 7-13), ” We, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth,’ etc. They had this expectation. But what is that promise? Where may we find it? Why, we have it in the very words and letter, Isa. lxv. 17. Now, when shall this be that God shall create these new heavens and new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness? Saith Peter, ” It shall be after the coming of the Lord, after that judgment and destruction of ungodly men, who obey not the gospel, that I foretell.” But now it is evident from this place of Isaiah, with chap. lxvi. 21, 22, that this is a prophecy of Gospel times only; and that the planting of these new heavens is nothing but the creation of Gospel ordinances to endure for ever. The same thing is so expressed Heb. xii. 26-28. 
‘ This being the design of the place, I shall not insist longer on the context, but briefly open the words proposed, and fix upon the truth continued in them. 
‘First, There is the foundation of the apostle’s inference and exhortation, seeing that all these things, however precious they seem, or what value soever any put upon them, shall be dissolved, that is, destroyed; and that in that dreadful and fearful manner before mentioned, in a day of judgment, wrath, and vengeance, by fire and sword; let others mock at the threats of Christ’s coming: He will come- He will not tarry; and then the heavens and earth that God Himself planted, -the sun, moon, and stars of the Judaical polity and church, -the whole old world of worship and worshippers, that stand out in their obstinancy against the Lord Christ, shall be sensibly dissolved and destroyed: this we know shall be the end of these things, and that shortly. 
‘There is no outward constitution nor frame of things in government or nations, but it is subject to a dissolution, and may receive it, and that in a way of judgment. If any might plead exemption, that, on many accounts, of which the apostle was discoursing in prophetical terms (for it was not yet time to speak it openly to all) might interpose for its share.’* 

* Dr. Owen’s Sermon on 2 Peter iii. 11. Works, folio, 1721. 

Union with Christ and sanctification

June 4, 2012

Calvin expands on this union with Christ and its significance to sanctification.

1. Basis of holiness. Christ possessed a spiritual wealth to give to the needy and He prays to His Father that this spiritual wealth would be to the believer’s sanctification. This profound truth is reflected in the prayer of Jesus, “And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth” (John 17:19). On this passage, Calvin writes in his commentary on John,

“It is, because he consecrated himself to the Father, that his holiness might come to us; for as the blessing on the first-fruits is spread over the whole harvest, so the Spirit of God cleanses us by the holiness of Christ and makes us partakers of it. Nor is this done by imputation only, for in that respect he is said to have been made to us righteousness; but he is likewise said to have been made to us sanctification, (1 Cor. 1:30) because he has, so to speak, presented us to his Father in his own person, that we may be renewed to true holiness by his Spirit.”
Thus, our union with Christ achieved both justification and sanctification for believers. Our sanctification is the result of Christ’s sanctification and it is His perfect sanctification now being worked out in our own lives! This is the union. So how are we saved? Calvin says, not byChrist but rather in Christ. A most common phrase of Paul is to be “in Christ” and this “in Christ” is the key to our justification and the key to our sanctification. Our holiness is His holiness, our righteousness is His righteousness.
Our union with Christ as the basis of holiness is evident in the beginning lines of First Corinthians. “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus,called to be saints” (1 Cor. 1:2). The Corinthians have two zip codes – one zip code that places them in this world where they are attacked and tempted, but a second zip code that sets them in heaven because they are united with Christ. In this union with Christ we have a divine nature in this world, which means we can put off all vices of the flesh (2 Pet. 1:4).
2. Means of holiness. The Holy Spirit is the applier of the works of Christ. It’s the same Spirit that indwelt Christ in His Incarnate life. See the references to the “Spirit of Christ” (Rom. 8:9, 1 Pet. 1:11). The Holy Spirit is the bond uniting us to Christ. None know Christ more intimately nor has experienced more fellowship with Christ than the Holy Spirit. This Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ.
So where is Christ now? Christ is now in heaven at the right hand of the Father, but we are still united with Him. In the Lord’s Supper there is a deep mystery here. Calvin speaks of the Holy Spirit drawing us into fellowship with Christ as the Spirit draws our affections towards Him. Our hearts are lifted into communion with the Body and Blood of Christ. The Spirit comes to us because of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ.
To signify the Spirit being poured over the Body from its Head (Christ), Calvin builds from the image of Psalm 133: “It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes!” (v. 2). Christ is our Head. He pours His Spirit over Himself and the oil of the Holy Spirit runs down from the Head over the rest of His Body the Church. Sanctification from the Spirit of Christ flows from our union with Christ.
3. Shape of holiness. The Christian receives all the fullness of Christ in all of His accomplishments (justification, sanctification, glorification, etc.). Grace reigns through righteousness. “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:2). As Calvin writes, “Medicine does not foster the disease it destroys” . We have died to sin and the claims of sin have been fully met (Rom. 6:10, 23). “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom. 6:6). The body of sin has been destroyed. Sin was manifested in the body and now righteousness must be manifest in the body, too. The believer has been freed from sin, freed from guilt and the power of sin. The bondage has been broken.
Being freed from sin’s bondage is no mere speculation for Calvin. For Calvin, communion with the death of Christ energizes the imperatives that follow. The imperatives – like “consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” — come after the indicatives (Rom. 6:11). The template of holiness is union/communion with the death/resurrection with Christ. Calvin sounds so Pauline. This is why when we have a hard time understanding the Pauline texts, Calvin is most helpful. He thinks so much like Paul.
So what does it mean to commune with Christ? Communion with Christ functions in our lives and is manifested in the perpetual death/resurrection cycle of life. The cross is the way to victory and death is the way to life. Don’t be surprised that to know life and joy we must first experience death and crucifixion. Christ is the one who blazes the trail for the Christian and we follow Him (Heb. 5:9).
So reckon yourselves dead and look to heaven where Christ is. The Christian life is not about the imitation of Christ. WWJD is not a sufficient ethic for the Christian life. We act in the Spirit of Christ, not to the details of Christ’s life.
The same Spirit that indwelt Christ is the same Spirit that molds us and takes us along the path of crucifixion and resurrection on our path to glory. Don’t be surprised if that is an increasingly difficult path as we die to self, die to the world, die to the devil, and live more for Christ and His glory.

Derek Thomas

Who fulfills the dominion mandate?

May 23, 2012

Within the Reformed community there is always much discussion and sermonizing on the dominion mandate: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1.28).  There are many Reformed pastors and theologians who appeal to this passage of Scripture and argue that the Church must carry out this command.  The Church must not only carry out the mandate through evangelism, they argue, but also through procreation.  After all, Christ reissued the mandate to the Church in the Great Commission (Matt. 28.18-20) and we are still obligated to God’s first command to Adam and Eve.  Hence, the bottom line of their argument is that through the accomplished work of Christ the Church fulfills the dominion mandate.  While this sounds true and scriptural, it misses the mark by a significant distance.  It might surprise us to discover that the Church does not fulfill the dominion mandate.  If the Church does not fulfill the mandate, then who does?  Christ fulfills the dominion mandate. When we look at the opening chapters of the creation account we all agree upon these facts: God created man, male and female, and gave them the dominion mandate.  They were to subdue the earth by extending the Garden to the ends of the earth and filling the earth with the image of God through procreation.  We also agree that Adam was the spiritual head in his marriage to Eve and therefore the one upon whom the responsibilities of fulfilling the mandate fell.  Eve was Adam’s helpmate.  We also agree upon the events subsequent to man’s creation—they rebelled against God.  It is here where many fail to consider the effects of the fall.  As a result of the fall man cannot fulfill the command of God because of the abiding presence of sin.  Even if God cleansed the earth of all wicked men and started over with a righteous man, because of man’s sinfulness, he will fail. Noah, the righteous man, one who walked with God, failed.  We must remember that Adam and Eve served as types, people who foreshadowed the person and work of Christ. In this case, Adam points to Christ (Rom. 5.12-19), and Eve points to the Church (Eph. 5.25ff).  Christ is the one upon whom the responsibility of fulfilling the dominion mandate falls, not the Church.  The Church, like Eve, serves as the helpmate to the covenant head, who is also our husband, namely Christ.  This has some important implications for the manner in which we participate in fulfilling the dominion mandate. We do not fulfill the mandate through procreation.  We can not, no matter how hard we try, make Christians: “But to all who did receive [Christ], who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1.12-13).  Rather, it is Christ, who unites with his bride, the Church, to produce godly offspring.  It is only when Christ sovereignly calls a person into his kingdom by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit that he becomes a child of God.  No matter how many children a couple might have there is no guarantee that all their children will be saved, to wit, Jacob and Esau.  The bride, the Church, produces children when we take the seed of the Gospel and plant it in the hearts of men.  Some will plant, others within the Church will water, but it is God who gives the increase.  This is how, for example, that Paul, though he was single and did not have wife, had many children in the faith (1 Cor. 4.14, 17).  This means that the barren single woman can still have many children, not because she has resulted to medical technology but because she has united to Christ to assist her husband in fulfilling the dominion mandate. It is important that we see the differences between what we often hear and the biblical position on the dominion mandate.  What we typically hear is that, the Church fulfills the dominion mandate on the redemptive work of Christ, therefore we must have many children to fill the earth.  The biblical position is, the Church assists Christ, and he fulfills the mandate.  The number of children that a couple might or might not have, is not a matter of biblical command but falls under the category of Christian liberty.  While it may not seem significant, the question boils down to this: Will we stand at the end of history in front of Christ as the ones who have fulfilled the dominion mandate through our labors, or will we stand behind Christ, the one who has fulfilled the mandate through his labors? The two options are worlds apart.  Let us assist Christ, our husband, as he fulfills the dominion mandate by his labors.

 John V. Fesko
Academic Dean, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Historical Theology


B.A., Georgia State University; 
M.A.Th., Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; 
Ph.D., King’s College, University of Aberdeen, Scotland

The Evils of Pietism or False Piety

May 1, 2012

Ambrose Bierce once defined ritualism as a “Dutch Garden of God where He may walk in rectilinear freedom, keeping off the grass.” Those of us involved in trying to restore liturgy to the Church (not to mention a sense of dignity in worship) should always keep taunts like this one in the forefront of our minds. In our sinful hands, we can twist anything out of the shape God gave it.

I think it was Jaroslav Pelikan who defined tradition as the living faith of the dead, as opposed to traditionalism, which is the dead faith of the living. A lot of poison is contained in the ism of those three small letters. Reason is good; rationalism is idolatrous. Ritual is inescapable; ritualism is refusal to think about what you are doing. And though piety is nothing more than simple godliness, pietism is a thorough-going sentimentalist idolatry. It is evil.
Of course, in our culture, as ethical standards continue to deteriorate, it is perilously easy for ethical slackers to dismiss as “pietistic” anyone who takes the Bible seriously. “And a legalist must be someone who loves God more than I do.” We want to have nothing to do with this sort of slanderous attack on godly character. Simple, devout piety is of great worth in the sight of God. But we must also remember that in a deteriorating culture, there are many who are attracted to the form of godliness without understanding the power of it (2 Tim. 3:5). Any port will do in a storm.
Over many years of pastoral counseling I have seen this phenomenon many times. A family has really tight standards in a host of dubious or debatable areas: hair, dresses, rock music, movies, language, and you probably can finish the list. But as time goes on, it becomes apparent to the pastor who is seeking to help the family that inside this particular whitewashed sepulchre are heaps of dead men’s bones. And we are not talking about an odd quirk or two—rather, we are talking about basic Ten Commandments stuff, including (but not limited to) adultery, incest, covenant breaking, lying, disobedience, and rage.
In short, pietism leads directly and inexorably to impiety. But we have to take care; pietism should not be defined as having tight standards, but rather a problem of having inverted standards. Someone who tithed out of his spice rack was not necessarily a pietist. Jesus said that this was something they ought to have done (Matt. 23:23). But the reason He attacked them and gave them no quarter was that they neglected the weightier matters of the law—judgment, mercy, and faith. When this happens, there is moral inversion and a great deal of woe (Is. 5:20). This kind of inversion cannot happen without perversion following after. The more time I spend in pastoral ministry, the more I hate pietism. This monstrous system devours families, husbands, wives, sons, and daughters. And when the family first begins diligently whitewashing the tomb—before the corpse has started to stink—and you try to question what they are doing, their reaction is to think you are attacking white wash per se.
Paul teaches us this principle clearly. The commandments and doctrines of men are worthless when it comes to restraint of the sinful flesh (Col. 2:23). Our only Savior from sin is Jesus Christ, and the benefits of His salvation are mediated to us through His means of grace—Word and sacrament—and the blessing of this grace is appropriated by faith. It is not appropriated when we decide to scurry around inventing rules like good little Christians.
To spell it out. A daughter may have read every Elsie Dinsmore book ever written and still have a problem with masturbation. A son may never have seen an R-rated movie, and still be up in his bedroom drawing pictures of women being abused and raped. A father might not let his daughters go to a ball because it is a “worldly” activity and yet fly into fits of rage at the dinner table every other night. A wife might be wearing a head covering the size of a small tablecloth, and still be the most unsubmissive woman in three counties.
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. When we put on tender mercies, when we put on Christ, then and only then is it safe to put on a homeschool jumper or a classical Christian school uniform. Then and only then is it safe to have an opinion of rock and roll. Then and only then is it appropriate to think about whether there were too many deaths in that action movie. Then and only then is it wise to teach your children anything at all. Sin comes from Adam. It arises in our hearts, unbidden. It does the same thing in the hearts of our children. It cannot be fixed by means of quarantine. When we keep our children away from the government school cooties, we are sometimes astonished when our kids figure out how to lie all by themselves. Only Christ can save us, and when He does this, He does it His way.

Doug Wilson

Perhaps the most deadly and widespread form of legalism

April 29, 2012

Perhaps the most deadly and widespread form of legalism is that type which adds legislation to the law of God and treats the addition as if it were divine law. The Old Testament prophets expressed God’s fury at this form of behavior, lamenting the result of “binding men where God had left them free.” It is a manifestation of man’s fallenness to impose his own sense of propriety on other people, seeking mass conformity to his own preferences and adding insult to it by declaring these prejudices and preferences to be nothing less than the will of God. A frequent point of conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees centered on the Pharisees’ traditions, which imposed hardships on the people who were bound by these man-made obligations. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees because they had elevated their traditions to the level of the law of God, seeking not only to usurp God’s authority, but to oppress mankind.

“The elevation of human preferences to the level of divine mandate is not limited to an isolated group of moralistic Pharisees in the first century. The problem has beset the church throughout its history. Not only do traditions develop that are added to the law of God, but in many cases they become the supreme tests of the faith, the litmus test by which people are judged to be either Christians or non-Christians. It is unthinkable in the New Testament that a person’s Christian commitment would ever be determined by whether or not that person engaged in dancing, or in wearing of lipstick and the like. Unfortunately, so often when these preferences become tests of faith, they involve not only the elevation of nonbiblical mandates to the level of the will of God, but they represent the trivialization of righteousness. When these externals are elevated to the level of being measuring rods of righteousness, we begin to major in minors and obscure the real tests of righteousness.” R.C. Sproul, Following Christ, (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1991), pp. 323-325.

“The manipulation of conscience can be a destructive force within the Christian community. Legalists are often masters of guilt manipulation, while antinomians master the art of quiet denial. The conscience is a delicate instrument that must be respected. One who seeks to influence the conscience of others carries a heavy responsibility to maintain the integrity of the other person’s own personality as crafted by God. When we impose false guilt on others we paralyze our neighbors, binding them in chains where God has left them free. When we urge false innocence we contribute to their delinquency, exposing them to the judgment of God.” R.C. Sproul,Following Christ, (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. 1991), p.390.   

Trust in self and contempt for others

April 17, 2012

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 ESV)

As Jesus transitions from the parables on prayer in chapter 17 we read:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt

These words are not heard by the crowd in the presence of Jesus. To assume that the parable that follows is specifically meant for the Pharisees would do injustice as a whole. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea do not fit this category. This open introductory statement should be taken in general terms. More thoughts on this verse is left for the end.

The contrast of two men

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.

The Pharisee

The Pharisees were a religious sect among the Jews known for their perceived doctrinal precision and piety. They were meticulous in detail to the outward external observance of the Law. If they bought seeds for their herb gardens they would count out the seeds from each packet and separate a tithe. To the crowds encountered by Jesus and the culture of that day the Pharisee would have been the last one that Jesus would have been embroiled in verbal and doctrinal grievance. During that time the Pharisee woud have been seen as equal to our modern day R.C. Sproul, Mike Horton, Al Mohler, Steve Lawson, J Mac…etc, you get the picture. They championed zeal, abstinence and piety. They stood against licentious living and any hint at worldliness. They stood against any pagan idolatry and any notion of a syncretistic religion as promoted by the likes of the despised Samaritans. Religion and religious fervor was the sum of their very existence. The Jew of that day would have thought If anyone was going to deserve eternal life it would be the Pharisee. We have the luxury of looking back at the Pharisee from the lens of scripture as it allows us to glimpse into the heart of the Pharisee and see it as God sees it. We read and understand historically the departure from the true meaning of Scripture the Pharisee actually was. Not so much the people of that day. As the Pharisee walked around town he would have been revered and looked up to for his superior knowledge of the written scriptures as well as his knowledge of oral tradition. For the most part he would have been looked upon with great respect and admiration by the average Jew. A religious super hero, a celebrity of first century Judaism. This parable no doubt would have left the crowd with their jaws scraping the ground.

The Tax collector

The tax collector was a Jew despised by his fellow countrymen. The Romans farmed out their tax collecting to the highest bidder. Any Jew who bid and won a contract to collect tax from their fellow Jews was considered a traitor. The term “tax collector” is often paired with the word sinner as if it is the lowest of the low. Indeed it was thought of as the worst possible act to be committed by a Jew. The tax collecting Jew was required to pay a certain amount to the Roman government for his contracted area. He could charge whatever he wanted above the amount the Romans required of him with little or no impunity. The tax collectors exacted extreme charges and became very rich in the process. They often collected their fee’s by force and if you didn’t pay they could seize your property. I guess you could say they were the for runners of our modern day mafia. The tax collector was the dregs and scum of Jewish society. They had turned their backs on their country and their God. In the New Testament, the tax collectors were ceremonially unclean because of their involvement with stealing from people, repeated interaction with Gentiles, and for the persistent breaking of the Sabbath.

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.

So, as Jesus speaks this parable, the imagery of the distance and contrast between these two characters spiritual standing is already formed by the religious culture and the culture at large.
The tax collector was allowed into the temple because he was a Jew, but was only allowed into the outer court of the gentiles. He dare not enter a synagogue. In some instances if a tax collector was seen in a synagogue he was escorted out the side door.

The prayer of the Pharisee

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

The Pharisee assumes a common position of prayer for that day (standing). The pharisee thanks God by comparing himself to other men. His comparison reveals his self righteousness. His righteousness is founded in how different and holy he is compared to other men. His righteousness is founded upon his confidence in not being lumped into this category of certain sinners. He sees his right standing with God in how he sees himself and proving his outward piety to others as proof. He justifies himself in the sight of men.
Luke 16:15 And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.

In the parable, the Pharisee sums up his opinion in this phrase “even like this tax collector.” The Pharisee’s disapproval is from his own value system. He values the outward appearance rather than inward heart, and thus, the sinful appearance of the tax collector results in disapproval. After calling attention to the tax collector, the Pharisee begins his appraisal of himself.

I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 

The pharisee is quick to point out his own fruit to God. He revels in his own self-glorification. The Jew was only required to fast once a year according to the Law during Yom Kippur. The Pharisees instituted fasting twice a week on Monday and Thursday. He was so skeptical of others not tithing properly that he would not eat with someone who was not a Pharisee because he wasn’t sure if what he was eating had been tithed properly. This may have been one reason why they railed at Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners.

The prayer of the tax collector

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.

The out-cast tax collector who stands some distance away from the Pharisee does not notice him much less anyone else. What he has come to terms with is he has been convicted of his sin unlike the Pharisee. This conviction has no doubt already taken place in this tax-collectors life. He has heard the word of God
Romans 10:17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ

This tax collector was not concerned about the perception of other men. This setting of temple worship was most probably a corporate service. As he walked “up” to the temple as he walked with others who were on their way to the temple service he had on his mind, his unclean sinful heart and his need to be made right with God. He beat his breast showing the remorse and source of his problem, his heart. There is only one other place that is mentioned in scripture of someone beating their breast. When Jesus was crucified the crowd beat their breast.
Luke 23:48 And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts.

The tax collector is the one who returns to his house justified rather than the Pharisee. That turns the crowd completely upside down. I can imagine as they stand their with eyebrows squinted and foreheads wrinkled I can imagine the thoughts “DO WHAT? The tax collector, justified, “DO WHAT?

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt

The setting of this parable is in a formal temple worship service. This may be no different than what is experienced in a corporate worship service today. The mindset of the Pharisee, the deeply outwardly religious, self reliant, “notice” my piousness and good works please, is still a problem today. The easiness of looking down our nose at others in the body of Christ, much less those outside of the saving grace of God, is all too true. If this mentality is a lifestyle some wires are crossed somewhere and some repentance is much needed. Maybe even the initial saving repentance.

These concluding thoughts are from various commentaries and have been pieced together here. I agree so much with the following that for me to re-word would do an injustice.

The application of these principles does not require much insight. Luke uses parables like these as example parables for his readers to follow. In the case of the parable at hand, the believer should realize where his justification comes from and respond humbly before God. His reaction to God should be reverent at all times just like the tax collector, who would not raise his eyes toward heaven but beat his chest. Once a believer comes to God reverently, he should evaluate himself to God’s standard realizing his drastic sinfulness.

In regard to the Pharisee, a believer should be careful never to fall into the same trap of having confidence in one’s own righteousness. When observing how great one’s works may be, the believer will start to be critical of others and hold contempt against them. When we move from righteous living — which is right — to trusting in that righteous living to give us a standing before God, then we commit a fatal error. In that case it becomes self-righteousness.

Community is the centerpiece of Christianity, for by its love for another, the world may know Christ. The Pharisee’s idea of community was criticizing others without caring for them. The prayer of the Pharisee seems to imply that to feel right before God, the Pharisee had to know that there were others “beneath” him. A child or older person may be considered “beneath” another person because of their inability to care for themselves. But it was not physical strength that the Pharisee compared; it was moral character, and relationships with the Lord. Once a person acknowledges that he / she believes there are “lesser” individuals than themselves, they can never relate to the “lessers” as equals. It is at this point that a person has lost the ability to love a particular individual.
However, the application the believer should follow according to this parable is to always remain humble before God and others without seeking to be exalted. Is Jesus trying to undermine piety and obedience? By no means! But this parable attacks with a vengeance any pride and sense of superiority that our piety and obedience may foster.

Luke 17:10 ESV

so you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”