Theologians argue with non-theological evangelists whether prayer is a part of the “formula” for salvation. The Bible says such things as: “For by grace are ye saved through FAITH; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: it is the gift of God, not of works lest any man should boast.” Those who study the Bible have never found a scripture which even comes close to saying, “For by grace are ye saved through PRAYER.” Those theologians remind us that there is no Biblical soul-winner who tells anyone, “Pray these words after me, and the Lord will save you.” In other words, nowhere in the Bible do we read the prayer, “Lord Jesus, come into my heart and save me.” Yet, that has become a common evangelistic tool or phrase.
While these things are true, I would like to ask my theological friend: “Are you SURE that the Lord has NEVER saved the person who properly asked Christ into his heart? Are you saying that the Lord can not save someone who makes a request like that?” I wouldn’t be surprised to find that there are members of our church who at the time of their salvation, prayed something similar to “Lord Jesus come into my heart and save me.”
A few minutes ago, I shared with you the Christian testimony of William Wilberforce, the man who lead the England out of the slave trade years before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. I won’t repeat that story, except to say that at about the time of Wilberforce’s conversion he prayed. It wasn’t specifically, “Lord, save me from my sins,” but it was somewhat related. He plead with the Lord: “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” He probably drew those words out of our Lord’s parable of the Pharisee and Publican in the temple. “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.”
Again I ask my theological friend, isn’t this a prayer? He has to admit that it is. But he may reply that it doesn’t it explicitly state the man’s faith in the Saviour. No it doesn’t, not in so many words, but it suggests his faith that God would be merciful. And the Lord was merciful. What was it the Lord said about this publican with his request for mercy? “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.” When Jesus said that the man went home “justified,” it means the Lord had declared him to be righteous. And today, can’t there be unexpressed faith in the words: “Lord Jesus, come into my heart and save me?” Is it impossible for the Lord to save a person who prays words like this? With God nothing is impossible. I am not recommending that we urge people to pray like this. All I am saying is that the Lord can bless.
Incidentally, Luke 18 begins with another lesson on prayer – as taught by the Son of God Himself. “And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint.” Following that, verses 9-14 are usually applied to self-righteous sinners, like William Wilberforce. And I’ll make that application once again here this morning.
“Two men went up into the Temple to pray.”
Those two men are introduced to us as equals; they began in precisely the same way. And that is true of all men everywhere – from the man in the prison to the woman in the palace hotel. They both were human beings. They both had heard about God. They both came in off the street. And then we note that they were going into the temple to pray. That certainly separates these two from a huge portion of people of this world. Still, it doesn’t denote any special difference between the two of them.
But there were definite differences. One was a Pharisee. Now we know something about them which is significant. The first man was a typical Pharisee of the day – self-contented, conceited, self-satisfied – a self-contained man. His prayer didn’t involve any requests, and it didn’t present any needs. He was boasting before the Lord. He had religion up to his gills, and he loved to parade that religion before the eyes of others. I have no doubt that his voice was raised high enough to be heard by others, including the second man, whom he tried to put down – denigrate – even in prayer to God. No true Pharisee can ever be a true Christian, unless he is willing to forsake his religious arrogance. What that man’s religion taught, and what he believed about himself, flies in face divine grace. His pride suggested that he didn’t think himself to be in need of grace. And the Lord Jesus does not say that he was a child of God.
The other man, however, was a publican, a tax-collector – literally, the word means “tax-farmer.” The second man was a Roman house dog; a lackey of the foreign imperialists; a traitor to Israel. He had been, and probably still was, a civilian mercenary – working for the enemy – in the eyes of his country-men. Although often financially well-off, publicans were second class citizens in the eyes of Israel.
And yet both men went into the Temple to pray. The Pharisee began with one of the great elements of proper prayer: thanksgiving. But his thanks were presented only to – and about – Himself. That was the only element of prayer that he had, and it wasn’t really presented to the Lord. There was no praise to God about God. There was no prayer for the publican or anyone else. As I read his prayer, I’m reminded of a job given to me when I was working as a janitor at the mall. My boss wanted me to clean the walls of the employee bathroom. For months, if not years, people had gone into that tiny room to smoke their cigarettes. As I sprayed some blue detergent on the walls it began run down, and as did, it turned yellow/brown. The Pharisee’s prayer was covered with a thin, disgusting film of putrid pride. A lot of people, especially other Pharisaic smokers, might not see that accumulated sludge. But as soon as the solvent of God was sprayed on it, it began to run and smell, exposing the stain.
But in opposition to that there was the prayer of the second man, the publican. Without actually expressing it, wasn’t he asking the Lord for salvation? He was praying to the Lord for salvation. Did he have faith? I assume so. But what I hear is PRAYER.
In this second man, we have an expression of CONTRITION.
Webster defines “contrition” as “a feeling of remorse for sin.” Noah Webster, in his 1828 dictionary, often related his definitions to the Word of God. Most people today have been dumbed down so much that Webster is no longer their dictionary. Besides using the Bible in his definitions, he often defines words with other words that we still need to have defined for us – like the word “sin” and, in this case “remorse.” Contrition is a feeling of remorse for sin, but what is “remorse?” Again, Webster says that remorse is “a deep, torturing sense of guilt for one’s actions, ie. sins.”
John Randolph was an important Virginian during and after the founding of the United States. He was a strong supporter of states’ rights versus the growing federalism of the mid-19th century. He was a member of the Democratic-Republican party. (Wouldn’t that confuse people today?) When Randolph lay dying, he said to his doctor: “Remorse, Remorse, REMORSE.” “Let me see that word. Show it to me in a dictionary.” But there wasn’t a dictionary in the room. “Write the word down.” The doctor wrote it on both sides of a card. “Write it bigger and underline it.” Randolph stared at it and stared at it. There was no voice but that of the dying man. He said, “Remorse, don’t know what that word means; don’t know what it means.” Then after a period of silence, he added, “I cast myself upon the Lord Jesus Christ for mercy.” He may not have known the definition, but he was led by the Holy Spirit to know what remorse should do. And that is what we see in the publican, he cast himself down even as he prayed for mercy.
Why was this “tax-farmer” in the house of God that day? Why do people come to the house of God in any day or age? Why are you here this morning? Some come to see the show – the clowns, the dog and pony show, the singers, the theatrics, the pyrotechnics. Some come to be a part of the show with their clothes, their jewels or their talents. Some attend church because they are forced to do so, and they hate every minute of it. But some people go into the temple to pray – knowing that they have needs which only God can meet. Some go into the House of God, in order to learn more about the Lord. Some actually want to know what God has said in His Word. They haven’t already concluded that they know all that there is to know. Some rightly go to learn more about their God-given responsibilities. And some feel impelled by the wretchedness of their sins to plead for mercy from the Saviour of sinners.
I know that the Bible declares that these verses were one of the Lord Jesus’ “parables.” But I think that the omniscient Son of God based this parable on people He knew to be real. Don’t the last words of the text suggest that these were actual people in an actual event? “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.” Assuming that to be true, I think this publican could probably point to a third person and say, “Him!” He might have been able to say, “There is the man whom God used to convince me of my sins.” Maybe it was John the Baptist, who had a ministry among the publicans and mercenary soldiers. Maybe it was one of the disciples of Christ who were at the time going about preaching the gospel. Perhaps it was the Saviour directly, and certainly it was the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Whomever it had been, now that publican was in the House of God, driven there by the conviction of sin.
I read of another man, named William Cottee, who after years of faithful service to the Lord, lay dying. A young minister came by to visit and heard the elderly man bemoaning his sin before God in prayer. The know-it-all young preacher gently upbraided the old man. It wasn’t for his sin, but rather for his humility and remorse. He said, “What a primitive experience for so mature and good a saint as yourself.” Immediately Cottee sat up in bed with what little strength he could muster. And out of his mouth flowed a little rhyme which the preacher never forgot – “What comfort can a Saviour bring, to those who never felt their woe? A sinner is a sacred thing, if the Holy Ghost hath made him so!” The only people God has ever shown mercy were those who knew they were sinners.
That Publican stood in the Temple filled with an almost unbearable contrition. There were no evangelists there to tell him – “Now, repeat after me: ‘Lord, I know that I’m a sinner….’” The ministry of the Holy Spirit in the man’s heart condemned him, and it overflowed with genuine heart-tears – and prayer.
I believe that this is the kind of person Jehovah longs to hear. If you have never realized that you are a despicable and unworthy sinner, then you are unfit to pray. It is not that the Lord hears only sinners. It is that only those who know they are sinners who can humble sufficiently to approach the Lord. And only those people are worthy of prayer.
That is my next point: look again at this publican’s HUMILITY.
Unlike this man, the Pharisee “trusted in Himself, that he was righteous and despised others.” That is not our conclusion as readers of this parable – it was the assessment of the omniscient Son/God. That man’s self-righteousness closed the doorway to God, and it was locked with the dead-bolt of pride. But the publican would not so much as lift his eyes off the floor between his feet. This is good, and the Lord Jesus commended it.
But here is something that I would like you to notice – The man’s contrition and remorse were not in themselves an elevator into God’s throne room. There is no premium in great sin, and just to recognize our sin doesn’t make us friends of God. The publican’s contrition gave him no more right to God’s mercy than did the Pharisee’s pride. But the man’s sin honestly humbled him before the Lord, and his contrition put him in a position before God to receive His grace – if the Lord sovereignly chose to bless the man, and in this case He did.
And Christian, the fact is – your condition has not changed since Christ saved your soul. You still are a sinner, and that sin still demands your humility before the Lord. God owes you nothing, not because of sin, not because of repentance, and not because of grace. All that any of us can ever do is plead for mercy. And God is not required to be merciful to any of us – ever.
The publican’s HUMILITY then evidenced itself in the man’s attitude of HELPLESSNESS.
It was a daring thing for this man to walk into the Temple in Jerusalem, just as it is for us to come into God’s Heavenly Temple. Seeing a known publican an over-zealous temple guard might have beaten him and sent him away bleeding. But even worse: what did the Lord think of this sinner?
If there were “Wanted” posters scattered about the country-side with your picture on it. If those posters declared you to be a dangerous criminal. If the part of that poster which read “Dead or Alive” were crossed out to read just “Dead”…. Then wouldn’t it be dangerous to walk into a police station with a loaded pistol in your hand? Here was a man convicted and convinced of his sin, and now he approached the Lord. Notice that he didn’t even have the proscribed offerings which Moses’ Law demanded. He was empty handed, and his heart was black as coal filled with sins as red as crimson.
What do I see here? This man felt helpless and hopeless, so he cast himself down at the foot of God – empty. He didn’t try to offer the Lord a long history of good works, because there weren’t many. And even if there had been a few, he knew that God wasn’t currently interested in them. He didn’t have with him a financial report of tithes and offerings, or newspaper clippings, or … And the man made no attempt at promises of future better behavior either.
Sinners who come to the Lord properly, come to Him in helpless surrender. It is not even suitable for them to come dwelling on their sinfulness. Certainly God is not unaware of our depravity and wickedness. Our eyes shouldn’t be focused on ourselves at all, but on Christ, the Saviour. “Nothing in my hands I bring, Lord, simply to thy cross I cling.”
A fourth dimension of this man’s prayer is seen in its EARNESTNESS.
He didn’t waste any time with preliminary details. Not even good things like thanksgiving. He was a drowning man in 20 foot seas, and all he had time to do was to cry for help. One old commentator called his earnest prayer, a “Holy Telegram.” In telegrams the sender paid for every word sent, so he kept it short. Perhaps today someone might call it a “Holy tweet” sent specifically to God.
The publican beat upon his chest perhaps, because that was place where he felt that the problem really lay. He beat upon his heart as if it was in cardiac arrest, and his heart needed a spiritual jump start. He beat upon his chest as if he was in mourning, or he was crying. He was visiting the Great Physician and spent no time pointing out where he thought that he was healthy. He was showing God the wounds and pleading for some healing. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Now, one more very important point: Note the man’s FAITH.
Wait a minute, as you have said preacher, there is NO mention of “faith.” It may not be mentioned, but as I suggested, it is implied. It is there. I don’t know where and how this publican picked up this Biblical principle, but he got it somewhere. And as I’ve already pointed out, despite the ancient Jewish law, there is no mention of him bringing an offering. There was no lamb or bullock; no burnt offering or sin offering. And yet when he said, “God be merciful to me,” he was referring to something Biblical. The Old Testament Mercy Seat was the place where the sinful nation of Israel came once a year to be reconciled to their holy God. In speaking of the Lord’s sacrifice, Hebrews 2:17 uses this same word “mercy,” but there it is translated: “to make reconciliation for the sins of the people.” This man was pleading for, and trusting God to let him return to the Lord – to be reconciled.
Remember, some people think all they have do is utter a few magic words and God is obligated to forgive them. But scripturally, “without the shedding of blood, there is no remission (of sin).” This man was pleading – by faith – the blood of the last, and greatest, of God’s great sacrifices. He was beseeching God for true redemption – deliverance – from sin. He didn’t want simply some ointment to make the pain of his guiltiness go away. The man knew that he needed complete and thorough reconciliation with God. This sinner was reaching for this merciful reconciliation with the only thing that he had – faith.
He had a simple trust that God, who promised mercy and salvation, would give it to him. The Lord made that promise based on His own giving of the Lamb that taketh away sin. “What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” The publican came to God with absolutely nothing except faith in Lord’s promise to forgive. God Himself supplied the sacrifice and the blood. The publican only supplied the unworthy subject. But he trusted God.
This the way to salvation from sin. No matter what your sin-problem might be this morning, you need to be like this Publican. Have you ever besought the Lord in this same sort of way? Have you ever in faith PRAYED for salvation? “Oh God, give me faith to trust Christ Jesus the Saviour.” What is keeping you from that prayer this morning? Come to the Saviour for salvation – right now.