The one sin that will keep you out of heaven is not adultery, homosexuality, theft, or murder. The one sin that will keep you out of heaven is pride—refusing to humble yourself before God. And we see that truth illustrated in a powerful story Jesus told in Luke 18:9-14.
This parable was directed toward the Pharisees and other people who did not have a clear picture of themselves. Instead they had an inflated view of their own righteousness—that is, their “Right-standing before god.” The story describes how to be saved by contrasting two men and their approaches to God for salvation: one based on works and the other based on grace.
In our thinking, the term “Pharisee” is a derogatory term. But that was not the case in Jesus’ day. The Pharisees were highly respected for their spirituality. They were seen as the godliest of men who cared deeply about spiritual matters. Their problem was that their idea of godliness stood opposed to the grace of God.
Luke 18: 11-12 says, “He stood” to pray – this was common in the Temple. But the next phrase says “he prayed to himself.” In one simple phrase the Lord exposes this man’s problem. His prayer was about himself.
This prayer is lacking: confession, thanksgiving, praise, and petition. He had a distorted sense of righteousness. His focus was on what he did and who he was. To the Pharisee, style was more important than substance, appearance more important than reality.
He didn’t understand that in God’s economy lust and hatred in the heart were the same as adultery and murder.
He didn’t understand that God was interested in more than appearances but the condition of a person’s heart. He couldn’t comprehend that by that measure everyone, including himself, was a wretched sinner in God’s eyes who deserved hell.
Instead, he was, as Jesus said in verse 10, a person who trusted in his own righteousness and viewed others with contempt.
The Tax Collector
At the other end of the Jewish holiness spectrum was the tax collector. They were considered scum. They were hated for two reasons: they were tools of the Roman government supporting its oppression of the Jews, and they cheated the people. The Pharisee was under God’s judgment. But so was this tax collector. The tax collector understood this.
Luke 18:13 says, “But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’”
We find one of the shortest prayers in the Bible in Luke 18:13 – seven words in English, six in Greek. “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” Yet, it reveals the two elements essential for salvation.
First, He expresses sorrow for his sin (Luke 18:13). The man stood “some distance away” from the Pharisee, which means that he was also some distance from the Holy of Holies, representative of the dwelling place of God. By standing far away from God, this tax collector was demonstrating that he was really closer to God than the Pharisee. The closer you come to God, the more you are aware of your own sinfulness.
This tax collector understood who God was and thus understood his own sinfulness. The tax collector not only acknowledged his sin, but he pleaded for God’s mercy and requested God’s mercy to cover his sin (Luke 18:13). He realized that the only way to remove his sin was by a merciful act of God.
Two men with two approaches: one based on work, the other on God’s mercy.
The person who refuses to bow his knee before God and ask for God’s mercy on his life will one day be humbled. Likewise, the one who is willing to confess his sins and ask for Christ’s forgiveness will be forgiven and will one day sit at the right hand of Jesus Christ.
The truly humble person is one who has accepted God’s evaluation of his life. He knows that he or she is a sinner, unworthy and helpless. Yet, at the same time, he knows that by God’s grace he is righteous, exalted by God to full membership in God’s family.