Surely the Pharisee was God’s man, the righteous one who could leave the temple assured he was justified before God. It could not be the miserable tax collector, could it? For, apart from being a tax collector and therefore by definition associated with “sinners,” he:
Could not even lift his eyes to heaven—which was expected in prayer etiquette. Beat his breast in the light of his obvious sinfulness. Cried out to God to be “merciful” (literally, “propitiated”) to him—since no sacrifice was prescribed for his high-handed transgressions. Acknowledged he was “a sinner.”
There was, surely, only one answer to Jesus’s implied question: “So which of these two men went home from temple worship that day justified, righteous in the sight of the Holy God of heaven?”
We are over-familiar with this parable. We know “the right answer.” We have been immunized against the unexpected, indeed stunning truth. It was the tax collector. How can contemporary Christians recapture the sense of shock at hearing Jesus’s conclusion?
In one sense the answer is simple. It should shock us because evangelical Christians may existentially have more in common with the Pharisee than with the tax collector. Those into whose temperaments justification by grace has fully permeated:
Do not look down on another person—including another Christian. The instinct to do so is one of the most obvious telltale signs of a heart from which legalism has not yet been fully or finally banished; for it implies that we have merited grace more than another.
Do not assume that there is anything in our devotion to the Lord that is the reason for God’s acceptance of us rather than of somebody else who lacks it.
Do not assume that it is on the grounds of a decision we made, or for that matter our years of commitment to Christ, that we are accepted before God.
Do not despise (“ treat with contempt,” in Luke’s expression) an embarrassing breach of etiquette, or outward show of sorrow, in another person.
So, when did you last beat your breast and say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner”?
-Sinclair Ferguson The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters