“Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else. For I don’t cheat, I don’t sin, and I don’t commit adultery. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (10-14, NLT)
The Pharisee was self-righteous, and took pride in his own works, believing that they would make him holy before God. But the tax collector, being aware of his sinful state, simply put faith in God’s righteousness.
In this story, Jesus is clearly teaching the doctrine of being justified by faith alone and not by works. This doctrine is one of the main things that separates Biblical Christianity from not only Roman Catholicism, but all religions and cults as well. In fact, the early Protestants believed this was a critical doctrine and regarded it as the truth by which the church would either stand or fall. This is why any church or denomination that teaches justification by faith plus anything else, can’t truly be considered “Protestant”.
The idea of being justified by our works is a dangerous heresy that is promoted by many churches. Whether it be saved by water baptism, saved by praying so many times a day, what day we should worship, etc. The problem with self-righteousness, is that there’s no place to stop. The one who thinks they are made right with God by worshipping on a certain day will condemn the one who thinks they are made right by being baptized, and so on. This is why it’s so important not to take Scripture out of context. Someone will read a single verse, ignore the context, and build an entire denomination on it.
Abraham was, humanly speaking, the founder of our Jewish nation. What did he discover about being made right with God? If his good deeds had made him acceptable to God, he would have had something to boast about. But that was not God’s way. For the Scriptures tell us, “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.” When people work, their wages are not a gift, but something they have earned. But people are counted as righteous, not because of their work, but because of their faith in God who forgives sinners. David also spoke of this when he described the happiness of those who are declared righteous without working for it: “Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sins are put out of sight. Yes, what joy for those whose record the LORD has cleared of sin.” (1-8 NLT)
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? (Can what faith save them? What kind of faith are we talking about here? Obviously, it’s a dead faith. The subject here is clearly not a genuine faith, but a faith that produces no works, as we will see more clearly as we continue reading.) Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:14-17 NIV)
In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1:6-7 NIV)
“I believe justification by faith alone, as much as I believe there is a God…I have never varied from it, no, not a hair’s breadth from 1738 to this day.”
-John Wesley, Journal, 1766