The Results of Repentance, Luke 18.9-14.

by Dan Nelson, pastor
FBC Camarillo, Calif.

The parable of the pharisee and publican is another great picture of repentance. The contrast in the way they prayed tell us the result of repentance and how it changes our perspective of who God is and who we are.

The two came to the temple at the time for prayer, either 9 AM or 3 PM. They offered sacrifices and prayed. Jesus may have been watching an actual scene unfold. Prayer was not available until God accepted the sacrifice. Sins were covered by a substitute offered in the sacrifice. It was only possible to have access to God when atonement was made. The temple was the center of the universe in this regard. After the atonement is made, the men pray. Both approach God differently.

The pharisee actually “prayed to himself,” telling God how righteous he was. The publican would not even look heavenward, but in deep humility and sorrow of heart prayed to God for mercy after smiting his breast, crying: “God be merciful to me a sinner.” What a difference, what a contrast and what a different outcome! Jesus said the pharisee was not justified but the man who humbled himself before God was justified. One left unforgiven, unjustified, a stranger to God although he thought God couldn’t do without him. The other man left justified, right with God, prayer answered.

The contrast of prayers reveal the nature of true repentance. The goal or result of repentance is justification before God. Jesus told this parable to illustrate what approach we need to have when asking God to justify us. We see these truths about the nature of repentance in the parable:

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The question everyone should ask is: How is one justified by God? Bildad asked that in (Job 25:4).[1] This parable answers the question.

Many say Buddhists and Muslims can be made right with God without trusting in Christ’s work for salvation. There are really two religions, though: The religion of human accomplishment, and the religion of God’s accomplishment in Christ to be saved.

The longer you think you’re on the road of justification without justification, it’s harder to be justified. Have you ever been going down the wrong road, hoping it’s the right one? Just hoping it’s right road doesn’t make it the right road. All the time you may be getting farther and farther away from the right road. This is why it’s harder to reach older religious or non-religious people. Many people don’t realize they are on road to eternal separation from God instead of the road to justification by him. Jesus told of how many are on the wrong road in (Matt. 7:13-14).

Jesus told this parable against those who trusted in themselves. Their own self-righteousness kept them from God, and at the same time they were shunning others. The pharisees had a great following as leaders of Judaism. They trusted a religious system to be good enough to be saved. Jesus said that the righteousness people had would have to exceed the pharisees in (Matt. 5:20).

The pharisee essentially prayed the prayer Jesus condemned in (Matt. 6:4-7). The pharisee in his prayer was close to the Holy place way up front as close as he could get to God supposedly.

The pharisee begins to exalt his self-righteousness to God by comparing himself with the publican. He was thankful he was not like that publican who associated with all the sinners. He wanted admiration from God so he congratulates himself.

The pharisee stands aloof in a conspicuous place. He told how he fasted usually on Monday and Thursday. He went to markets and loved the greetings for he wanted the crowd to see his self-righteousness. His efforts were all for show in the flesh. He tithed 10 percent of his income but also paid 23 percent in a theocracy for temple taxes and the like.[2]  His real object of worship was himself and not God. He is not praying to God. He wants God to endorse what He is doing.

When “he prayed to himself,” was this a soliloquy? In his congratulatory state, he enjoys his form of righteousness. What he called prayer was boasting. He tried to beat around the bush and compare his life to others.

Jesus said, “Good fruit does not come from a corrupt tree” (Matt. 7:18). In reality all our works are as “filthy rags” according to (Isa. 64:6).

The pharisee may not have stolen, but he could have coveted. He did not commit adultery, but he could have lusted after some other woman. He did not kill, but he could have hated. God looks at the heart. I John 3:15 talks of the sins of the heart.  B.H. Carroll said, “He is simply congratulating himself upon his superiority over other people and he was absolutely in need of nothing.” [3]

In the unrepentant sinner’s prayer to himself, he comes before God with pride in who he was and left self-justified but not justified by God. He is like so many today who would blame others for the reason they sin. They stand up for their rights when they have done wrong. They feel if they are better than someone else or are looked upon as decent they are right with God and they are so deluded and wrong. At a recent fair a person had a T-Shirt which said, “I don’t want to repent I want your acceptance.”

This story tells that a person is justified not by what we do or don’t do but by God’s mercy and our trusting in His provision for our sins through Christ. We need to be justified in this life or we will never be justified before God in eternity.

Repentance fruit is preceded by an expression of contrition and humility to God

The people of Jesus time thought if any people could earn salvation it had to be the pharisees. Paul said I will match my religious experience and moral achievement with anyone to earn salvation as listed in Phil. 3:1-10 but it’s not possible without Christ.

The tax-collector was standing off in the distance, probably in a quiet corner.

The publican was unwilling to lift his eyes up to God. He prayed trembling, “Lord be merciful to me a sinner.” Tax-collectors were in that outer group with women and Gentiles, where they could go and go no farther. Because of his location and position, he is not even willing to lift his head because he feels so unworthy.

The publican had his focus on God, however. He was stunned by who He was and who God was. He saw the source of His forgiveness was not in who he was. He saw his sin separating him from God. He knew he was not worthy of forgiveness and knew he was wrong before God. His sin was a heavy burden, and although he could not feel it physically, he felt the full weight of it spiritually and emotionally. He did not seek forgiveness on the basis of who he was but on the basis of who God was.

John Miller said, “Penance is centered in human emotions and perceptions. But repentance is God-centered.”[4] This prayer was one of self-denial, humility and un-worthiness focused on God. It would seem natural to lift his hands up the way some of the Jews prayed. He could not even lift up his eyes.

The pharisee had seized the moment and said, “I’m so much better than that guy.” He may have even pointed to Him. That publican knew how to approach God however.

The publican beat his breast with his hands across his chest. Lk. 23:48 shares how the people beat their breasts at the cross. It takes something of great magnitude to do evoke this reaction. It was done at the cross by the people and is a common expression of great sorrow in the Middle East.

Why the beating of the breast? Maybe they beat their breast because it’s close to the heart. Jesus said it was out the heart that comes evil things (Mk. 7:20-23). This man is not interested in the religion of human achievement but the God of mercy. He is submissive and dependent.

The publican is a model of repentance and confession. His sin hurt God and he felt the conviction of God as David prayed in Ps. 51: 3-4. This is why God forgave David. He approached God this way. Paul said he was “the chief of sinners” in I Tim. 1:15.

The deceived one will only deal with the surface matters. For he who does not have the courage to look into the depths of his own heart cannot see more clearly into the heart of another man. We must look at our own hearts first to be right with God.

The publican came believing God might be merciful unto him by applying the atonement unto him. He knew he could not stand before God’s holy and just wrath and he is looking for mercy from God. So he says make the propitiation apply to me which is the way we are saved. He says let the atonement be for me. Remember they are only a few weeks away from the final atonement. The reason we have to trust in God’s atonement is according to what Billy Graham said, “So that no one can say I got to heaven by something I did or achieved.”[5]

The publican poured his heart out to God in the most free and unworthy manner. It was the same prayer flowing from the same fountain the prodigal prayed when he prayed, in Luke 15:17

“How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, 19 And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.”

All great men that have shaped history have been humble. Winston Churchill was once asked, “Doesn’t it thrill you to know that every time you make a speech, the hall is packed to overflowing?”

“It’s quite flattering,” replied Sir Winston. “But whenever I feel that way, I always remember that if instead of making a political speech I was being hanged, the crowd would be twice as big.”[6]

In a pastor’s church people laughed at a man who got on his knees and begin to pray. The pastor said, “I’d rather have him praying for them than those people.[7]

Billy Graham said before the Atlanta crusade back in the early 50s when praying with a group of pastors for and upcoming crusade, “Brethren, let’s pray and don’t let anyone say Lord make us humble because the Lord leaves that up to us.”[8]

The difference in the prayers is the pharisee went to pray and did not, the publican did nothing but pray.

The old song, “I am Coming to the Cross,” expresses the way the publican approached God:

“I am coming to the cross / I am poor and weak and blind / I am counting all but dross / I shall full salvation find. / I am trusting, Lord, in Thee / Blessed Lamb of Calvary / Humbly at Thy cross I bow / Save me, Jesus, save me now.”[9]

Repentance leads to justification from God

We get our accurate view of justification from the Son of God who made it possible. His grace and mercy did apply to this man who was forgiven by approaching God the right way.

Jesus said the publican was justified. Jesus was the greatest authority in the world to know how to be right with God and how to be still un-forgiven while claiming to be walking with God. The publican was truly repentant and the pharisee was not.  The publican was the man God justified.

The perfect sinless one pronounces the publican justified, forgiven, acquitted and not-guilty anymore. Unlike the pharisee who prayed to himself, there is no time lapse, no works required. Justification is extended because of the man’s recognition God’s mercy

Atonement is worthless to the self-righteous and he will receive no justification. But to the repentant, convicted, broken sinner who is dependent on God’s grace and mercy he shall return to his home every time justified right with God.

The reason the publican was justified and the pharisee was not was because Jesus said for “everyone who exalts himself he shall be humiliated.” So God honors humility and those who are not will not be honored by Him will be humiliated.

Charles Spurgeon reminded what is essential in repentance when he said, “Angels do not require God’s mercy. We do because we are sinners. It comes into exercise after we are broken and not until we are.”[10]

There are two ways a person is justified. We either we justify ourself or let God do it. The reason our self-justification will not work is because it falls short of the righteousness of God found in Christ. (Rom. 10:1-4. Phil. 3:10).

We have some in our churches who have not truly repented. They are like the pharisee instead of the publican. We need repentance in our churches from the pulpit to pew.

Someone has said that liberal theologians have filled churches and preached a blood-less gospel and a deity-less Christ. Now, evangelicals have filled churches with a gospel that lacks a call to repentance. Which is worse? The net result is the same.

B.H. Carroll: Trying to run a church without repentance is like trying to run a train without railroad tracks. We can’t build a house on a small foundation.”[11]

We must be clear in understanding what true repentance is. Very simply in this picture: Jesus said it’s a change of state God can wrought in our hearts. It’s allowing God to do His work in us to change us. The change is seen in our life. We must come to God, respond to Him, be willing to accept His rule and reign in our hearts.

George Whitefield is honest and forthright in explaining the fruits of repentance. He states, “Repentance results in the carnal and corrupt disposition of men being changed into a renewed sanctified disposition. Believing hearts must be broken lives must be changed, men must turn to Christ for salvation.[12]

In his book I Surrender, Patrick Morley writes that the church’s integrity problem is in the misconception “that we can add Christ to our lives, but not subtract sin. It’s a change in belief without a change in behavior.” He goes on to say, “It is revival without reformation and without repentance.” [13] We must not be like Frank Sinatra doing it just our way.

Charles Spurgeon said: “Salvation is for the lost, ruined, undone. The blessings it brings is pardon and mercy and cleansing grace intended for the guilty and polluted. A heavy heart and a downcast eye were exchanged for a glad heart and hopeful outlook (in this story). He came to the temple trembling but left rejoicing. I am sure his wife and family noticed the difference. He went to the temple guilty but came back justified.”[14]

Jesus said that a person who lifts himself up will be brought down. it’s like blowing up a balloon. Every time I think I am better than someone else or remind God how good I am, I inflate the balloon a little bit. We say: I say thank you God that I don’t use profanity like my neighbor. We say, ”thank you God that that I give so much to you. God, I keep the 10 commandments so I’m much better than the other people. I thank you God, that you love me more than that old sinner over there because I have been in the church so long.”

The balloon is really full isn’t it? It’s full of hot air! I’ve blown the balloon up full of air by self-effort. Remember what Jesus said about a prideful person who lifts himself up? He said they will be brought down. The pharisee entered the temple with a lot of pride. His balloon was full. All you need though is a pin to burst it.

But Jesus said that he would eventually be humbled. He who is humbled and comes to God for forgiveness, believing  God who has provided atonement in Christ will be justified. Christ who stands to save us on the basis of His merit not our own. The publican let God fill him after he acknowledged he was nothing without God. God accepted Him (the publican) and filled Him with His presence. The publican would stay filled because he let God work in him instead of relying on his efforts. That is how God wants to fill us after we have humbled ourselves. We you let Him do it today?


[1] All Scriptural quotations or citations are taken from the King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise indicated

[2] Message by John MacArthur, “Is Tithing Biblical” as heard on Christian Radio

[3] B.H. Carroll, Interpretation of the English Bible (Baker: Grand Rapids, MI, 3rd Printing, 1978), Vol. 4, Part 2, 187.

[4] John Miller, Repentance and the 20th Century Man (Christian Literature Crusade: Fort Washington, PA, 1980), 24.

[5] Billy Graham, Message from Cow Palace, San Francisco, CA 1957 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dp-h4KR7Kco

[6] Norman McGowan, My Years With Winston Churchill, Souvenir Press, London, http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/h/humility.htm

[7] Story heard in a Revival Meeting when I was growing up in Agricola Baptist Church, Agricola, MS. I can’t remember the preacher or time frame.

[8]Story told by Paul James, former Executive Director New York Baptist Convention in the class Evangelism and Urban Missions at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, June 1975.

[10] Charles Spurgeon, http://www.godrules.net/library/spurgeon/spurgeon.htm sermon on pharisee and publican.

[11] Carroll, Vol. 1, 162

[12] Peter Gunther, compiler, Great Sermons by Great Preachers. Moody Press: Chicago, 1960

[13] C. Swindoll, John the Baptizer, Bible Study Guide, p. 16.

[14] Charles Spurgeon, Sermon on pharisee and publican