In Luke 18:9-14, we find another example of a lost man experiencing salvation on the back end of a prayer. The prayer is what some call “the sinner’s prayer.” Actually, the whole passage is part of one of Christ’s parables.
In the parable, a Jewish Pharisee and a Jewish tax collector go to the Jerusalem temple to pray. Jesus couldn’t have chosen two more polar opposites as His subjects. The Pharisees were all about keeping Judaism’s laws to the strictest standard. They were the ultra religious. Their lives were one big obsession over not committing any outward sins. They genuinely believed they were working their way into salvation by their fanatical keeping of God’s commandments. They simply didn’t understand that no amount of good works can produce salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9).
The tax collectors, on the other hand, were men employed in a scandalous profession. The Roman government demanded a certain amount of taxes from people, and it was satisfied as long as it got that designated amount. If the tax collectors collected more than was required, Rome allowed them to keep the excess. In a setup like
that, you can imagine the greed that ran rampant. Not surprisingly, the tax collectors were notorious for their immoral business practices.
To make matters worse, if a tax collector was Jewish, he had another problem. His fellow Jews despised him for hiring himself out to Rome, the enemy who had conquered their land. Consequently, the tax collectors were categorized with the filthiest of the filthy. In the eyes of a self-righteous Pharisee, a tax collector was in the same social class as the harlots and drunkards. They were all “sinners.”
So, in Christ’s parable the two men come to pray. The Pharisee takes a spot in the temple where he can be seen and heard by all. He throws out his chest, looks upwards to heaven, and launches into his egotistical description of how divinely devout he is:
God, I thank You that I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess (Luke 18:11-12). (N.K.J.V.)
That prayer sounds religiously impressive, doesn’t it? It does have one serious flaw, though. Jesus says the Pharisee prays it “with himself.”
Standing far away from the Pharisee is the tax collector. He doesn’t consider himself worthy to even pray in the vicinity of the Pharisee. Neither does he consider himself worthy to look upwards to heaven. As he bows his head toward the ground, he begins beating his chest over and over again, saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner!” (Luke 18:13)
Then Jesus stuns His listeners by saying, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.” Such a thought went against everything the Jewish mind had been taught to believe! A tax collector praying a more acceptable pray than a Pharisee? How could such a thing be possible? Jesus even says the tax collector was “justified.” That’s a word the Bible uses to describe a saved person.
So, like Cornelius from my previous post, the tax collector from Christ’s parable stands as example of God hearing the prayer of a repentant lost person and granting that person salvation. This explains why some preachers ask lost people to pray what has become known as the “sinner’s prayer”: “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
A group of seminary students once came to Dr. H.A. Ironside, one of the most respected preachers of the day, and complained that the “sinner’s prayer” ought not to be taught as a model prayer for lost people. Their reasoning was that the tax collector who prayed the prayer understood all about the law of Moses, with its system of blood sacrifices. Dr. Ironside’s reply was short and to the point. He said:
Go down to a rescue mission and see how the outcasts of society – the drunks, the harlots, the infidels – are won, and you will see that this is a proper prayer for any sinner who wants forgiveness.