Originally from here.“Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, the other a Publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this Publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. 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.” –Luke 18:10-13
From these words I gather these several conclusions, with these inferences.
1. It doth not always follow, that they that pray do know God, or love Him, or trust in Him. This conclusion is evident by the Pharisee in the text; he prayed, but he knew not God, he loved not God, he trusted not in God; that is, he knew him not in His Son, nor loved, nor trusted in Him. He was, though a praying man, far off from this.
Whence it may be inferred, that those that pray not at all cannot be good, cannot know, love, or trust in God. For if the star, though it shine, is not the sun, then surely a clod of dirt cannot be the sun. Why, a praying man doth as far outstrip a non-praying man as a star outstrips a clod of earth. A non-praying man lives like a beast. “The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib; but this man doth not know, but this man doth not consider;” Isa. i. 3. The prayerless man is therefore of no religion, except he be an Atheist, or an Epicurean. Therefore the non-praying man is numbered among the heathens, and among those that know not God, and is appointed and designed by the sentence of the Word to the fearful wrath of God; Psal. lxxix. 6; Jer. x. 25.
2. A second conclusion is, That the man that prays, if in his prayer he pleads for acceptance, either in whole or in part, for his own good deeds, is in a miserable state. This also is gathered from the Pharisee here; he prayed, but in this prayer he pleaded his own good deeds for acceptance, that is, of his person, and therefore went down to his house unjustified. And he is in this condition that doth thus. The conclusion is true, forasmuch as the Pharisee mentioned in the parable is not so spoken of for the sake of that sect of men, but to caution, forewarn, and bid all men take heed, that they by doing as he, procure not their rejection of God, and be sent away from His presence unjustified. I do therefore infer from hence, that if he that pleadeth his own good doing for personal acceptance with God be thus miserable, then he that teacheth men so to do is much more miserable.
We always conclude, that a ring-leader in an evil way is more blameworthy than those that are led of him. This falls hard upon the leading Socinians and others, who teach that men’s works make their persons accepted of God.
True, they say, through Christ; but that is brought in merely to delude the simple with, and is an horrible lie; for we read not in all the Word of God as to personal justification in the sight of God from the curse (and that is the question under consideration), that it must be by man’s righteousness as made prevalent by Christ’s, but contrariwise, by His and His only, without the deeds, works, or righteousness of the law, which is our righteousness. Wherefore, I say, the teachers and leaders of this doctrine have the greater sin.
3. A third conclusion is, They that use high and flaunting language in prayer, their simplicity and godly sincerity is to be questioned as to the doing of that duty sincerely. This still flows from our text; the Pharisee greatly used this: for higher and more flaunting language can hardly be found than in the Pharisee’s mouth; nor will ascribing to God by the same mouth laud and praise help the business at all: for to be sure, where the effect is base and rotten, the cause cannot be good.
The Pharisee would hold himself that he was not as other men, and then gives thanks to God for this: but the conclusion was most vilely false, and therefore the praise for it could not but be foolish, vain, and frivolous. Whence I infer, that if to use such language in prayer is dangerous, then to affect the use thereof is yet more dangerous. Prayer must be made with humble hearts and sensible words, and of that we have treated before; wherefore high, flaunting, swelling words of vanity, become not a sinner’s mouth; no, not at any time; much less when he comes to, and presents himself before God in that solemn duty of prayer. But, I say, there are some that so affect the Pharisee‘s mode, that they cannot be well if in some sort or other they be not in the practice of it, not knowing what they say, nor whereof they affirm; but these are greatly addicted to hypocrisy and desire of vain-glory, especially if the sound of their words be within the reach of other men’s ears.
4. A fourth conclusion is, That reformation and amendment, though good, and before men, are nothing as to justification with God. This is manifest by the condition of our Pharisee: he was a reformed man, a man beyond others for personal righteousness, yet he went out of the temple from God unjustified; his works came to nothing with God. Hence I infer, that the man that hath nothing to commend him to God of his own, yet stands as fair before God for justification, and so acceptance, as any other man in the world.
5. A fifth conclusion is, It is the sensible sinner, the self-bemoaning sinner, the self-judging sinner, the self-abhorring sinner, and the self-condemning sinner, whose prayers prevail with God for mercy. Hence I infer, that one reason why men make so many prayers, and prevail no more with God is, because their prayers are rather the floatings of Pharisaical fancies than the fruits of sound sense of sin, and sincere desires of enjoying God in mercy, and in the fruits of the Holy Ghost.
Thoughts On the Preceding
Since the time of the Reformation, Luther and Calvin criticizing the Anabaptists, and others criticizing the Puritans, Methodists, and other revivalists, have come to use the parable of the Pharisee and the publican in their polemic against the “self-righteousness” and “legalism” of Protestants who lay an emphasis on personal righteousness [see Leonard Verduin’s The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, pp. 114-115]. As you can see though, Bunyan, who has long been trusted as rightly dividing the Word in the Reformed tradition, treats the parable differently.
First, Bunyan concludes at the end of his whole book The Pharisee and the Publican (1685), that the parable is NOT instructing people against striving for personal righteousness.
Second, the parable IS instructing people on how to pray correctly. Bunyan maintains that, because the Pharisee just kept on saying “I thank God” and listed the attributes of his personal righteousness in comparison to another man, he received nothing from God, because he asked for nothing in petition. The Pharisee was only doing a prayer of thanksgiving, as is often the case with proponents of the prosperity gospel today, who, as close as they come to it, say, “God, I thank you in advance for blessing me (because I deserve it).” Instead, Jesus is teaching people to pray like the publican, with a spirit that is sin-sensitive, self-judging, self-bemoaning, self-hating, and self-condemning. If we pray to God like that, with a sense of the enormity of our guilt and failings at keeping God’s law, then God will show us mercy and bless us.
Third, Jesus is not downplaying the important of obedience to God’s law, as antinomians are apt to imply. They say, “The Pharisee represents someone who emphasizes obedience to God’s law, whereas the publican is a filthy, rotten sinner–so we should sin, so that grace may increase. We should imitate the sinful lifestyle of the publican, so that, when its time to pray, we may be able to imitate him, and say, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.'” This is not at all what Jesus is meaning. This parable is an object lesson in prayer and prayer only. It does not touch lifestyle so much as in how we approach God in prayer.
Fourth, Christ would have both the Pharisee and the publican to repent and believe in the cross, living their lives in holiness, the fear of God, and obedience to God’s moral law. However, Christ would have us, by living holy lives, to be realistic in the evaluation of ourselves, as Paul was in Romans 7:23-25: “I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!” In so doing, Jesus is rebuking Pelagianism.
Fifth, this parable is not a non-judgmental parable, as modern antinomians make it out to be. They say, “Because the Pharisee was judging the publican for his sins, God was displeased; and so, this is an object lesson against judging people.” No. The sin of the Pharisee was that he did not acknowledge his own faults and shortcomings. He was a perfectionist. He thought he was perfect. That was the sin of the Pharisee; not that he was trying to judge right from wrong. If that were the case, then God would be against people thinking about morals! Bunyan even rebukes the Socinian heretics in the above article, who like the Pharisee, believed that they could earn God’s favor by doing good works. (So, Bunyan even uses apologetics in the above, to criticize and judge a cult.) Their attitude towards good works should have been more Christian: “When you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do’” (Luke 17:10).
In conclusion, the parable of the Pharisee and the publican is in no way supposed to discourage Christians from striving after “holiness and righteousness all the days of our lives” (Luke 1:75). Those who try to imply that godly, world-renouncing people are just like the Pharisee in this parable are confusing the whole matter addressed here. It is a teaching on prayer. It is saying that although holiness is required of all men, including the publican–that when we pray, like the publican, we should not be overly sensible of what appear to be our accomplishments or good works, that we have done in obedience to God’s Word. But on the contrary, we should be mindful of our failings, sins, and shortcomings, and will be justified before God after our prayers are over.