Sermon #131                                                 Luke Sermons


     Title:          How Must a Sinner Approach

                             God to Obtain Mercy?

     Text:          Luke 18:13-14

     Subject:     The Publican’s Prayer

     Date:         Sunday Morning —August 29, 2004

     Tape #       Y-40b

     Readings:   Isaiah 1:1-15; 65:1-7; 1:18-20


(Isaiah 1:1-15)  “The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. (2) Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth: for the LORD hath spoken, I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me. (3) The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider. (4) Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters: they have forsaken the LORD, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger, they are gone away backward. (5) Why should ye be stricken any more? ye will revolt more and more: the whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. (6) From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrifying sores: they have not been closed, neither bound up, neither mollified with ointment. (7) Your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire: your land, strangers devour it in your presence, and it is desolate, as overthrown by strangers. (8) And the daughter of Zion is left as a cottage in a vineyard, as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city. (9) Except the LORD of hosts had left unto us a very small remnant, we should have been as Sodom, and we should have been like unto Gomorrah. (10) Hear the word of the LORD, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah. (11) To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the LORD: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats. (12) When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts? (13) Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. (14) Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them. (15) And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood.”


(Isaiah 65:1-7)  “I am sought of them that asked not for me; I am found of them that sought me not: I said, Behold me, behold me, unto a nation that was not called by my name. (2) I have spread out my hands all the day unto a rebellious people, which walketh in a way that was not good, after their own thoughts; (3) A people that provoketh me to anger continually to my face; that sacrificeth in gardens, and burneth incense upon altars of brick; (4) Which remain among the graves, and lodge in the monuments, which eat swine’s flesh, and broth of abominable things is in their vessels; (5) Which say, Stand by thyself, come not near to me; for I am holier than thou. These are a smoke in my nose, a fire that burneth all the day. (6) Behold, it is written before me: I will not keep silence, but will recompense, even recompense into their bosom, (7) Your iniquities, and the iniquities of your fathers together, saith the LORD, which have burned incense upon the mountains, and blasphemed me upon the hills: therefore will I measure their former work into their bosom.”


(Isaiah 1:18-20)  “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. (19) If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land: (20) But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.”




I want to answer a question in this message that I hope is of great interest to you. If it is not a question of great interest to you, it should be. It is a question that concerns your immortal soul. Here’s the question I want to answer from the Word of God. — How must a sinner approach God to obtain mercy?


I have no fine words of religious rhetoric, or intellectual phrases of theological jargon. My words shall be plain and clear. And I trust that every word of my mouth shall be carried to your heart by the power and grace of God the Holy Spirit. I have but one object in preaching this message. My purpose, my aim, my goal is the salvation of your soul. My prayer and my heart’s desire to God for you is that you might be saved. Turn with me to Luke 18. May God the Holy Spirit arrest your heart’s attention and speak to you, as we read the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, beginning at verse 9.




(Luke 18:9-14)  “And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: (10) Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. (11) 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. (12) I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. (13) 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. (14) I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”


Pharisee or Publican?


This parable describes everyone here. We are all either Pharisees or Publicans. Which are you — Pharisee or Publican? Which am I?


Every man is a Pharisee by nature. All are Pharisees who seek acceptance with God, either in whole or in part, by their own efforts: by their good works, by the repetition of prayers, by observing religious ceremonies, by acts of generosity, etc. All are Pharisees who look to and trust Christ only to make up for any deficiency that might be found in them.


And all are Publicans who, like the man described in verses 13 and 14, being taught by God the Holy Spirit know themselves to be justly condemned sinners before God, acknowledge and confess their sins and seek grace, pardon, forgiveness, righteousness and acceptance with God by faith in the sin-atoning blood of Christ.


This publican was a Jew who had become one of the most despised, degraded, and corrupt classes of men living in his day. He was a Jew who collected taxes for the Romans. The publicans were not only traitors to their countrymen, they were a notoriously vile and hard group of men. This particular publican was probably one of the most notorious ones of his day. That is evident from the fact that the Pharisee knew his evil deeds. He had cruelly oppressed the poor. He had broken the heritage of widows. He had robbed the friendless and the orphans. This man was cursed, despised, and scorned both by the Jews and the Romans. Half of all that he possessed he had gotten by theft, if not more. He was a totally selfish man, who lived only to enrich himself, no matter who he had to trample in the dust. He was a man without morals, a man without conscience, a man without feeling. It was not often that this publican went to the temple. He knew that he was not welcome there; and he had no desire to go there. The people who worshipped there despised him.


But it so happened, that the Spirit of God met this publican, and had made him think on his ways. The blackness of his heart began to give him pain. He was full of trouble; but he kept it to himself. At night he could not sleep, and in the daytime he could not concentrate upon his business.


The hand of God was heavy upon him. At last, unable to endure the misery any longer, he thought of the house of God at Zion, and of the sacrifice that was daily offered there. “To whom or where should I go,” he said to himself, “but to God? Where can I hope to find mercy, but at the mercy-seat, at the place where the sacrifice is offered?” No sooner said than done. He went to the temple, but he was ashamed to enter.


The proud Pharisee walked by him, giving him a scornful look; and went brazenly into the court, and prayed his boastful prayer. But this heavy-hearted sinner found a secluded corner, where he hoped that no one would either see him, or hear him. For the first time in his life, he is humble, fearful, and trembling. He is about to speak to God! Fixing his eyes upon the ground, the hot tears running down his cheeks, not daring to lift his eyes up to heaven, he began to speak. His speech was not much more than a groan, but it is the most blessed language God ever heard from the lips of a man, — “God be merciful to me a sinner!”


It was done! His trembling voice was heard in heaven. God had mercy upon him, and spoke peace to his conscience. When he left the temple, he “went down to his house justified” rather than the proud, self-righteous Pharisee. He had come into the temple a guilty sinner, with a heavy, groaning heart. But he left the temple a saint, redeemed, justified, rejoicing!


Proposition: This is the message I have from God for eternity bound sinners. — Every sinner who cries to God from his heart, “God be merciful to me the sinner,” as this publican did, shall, like this publican, go “down to his house justified.”




I have just two things to show you in this message.


1.    The Publican’s Confession. — This publican made a full, heartfelt confession of his sin to God.

2.    The Publican’s Justification — This publican received full, free, absolute justification from God.


The Publican’s Confession


I.                  First, I want to urge you to do what this publican did. He made a full, heart-felt confession of his sin to God.


“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.”


A.   To whom was this confession made?


The publican did not go to a confessional booth. He did not go to an inquiry room. He did not walk an aisle. And he did not kneel at a mourner’s bench or an altar. He went neither to a priest, nor a preacher, nor a church. He went directly to God himself, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” He seems to have said within himself, “No one but God knows the fullness and foulness of my sin. Above all else, my sin is against the thrice holy Lord God. And no one but God can have mercy upon me. No one else can relieve my guilt.”


1. His confession of sin was secret.


He spoke not a word to men, but to God alone. Before God, who sees all and knows all, he confessed all.


·       I am a sinner by birth.

·       I am a sinner by nature.

·       I am a sinner at heart.

·       I am a sinner in practice.


We are not told that anyone around him heard a word he spoke. If they did, all they heard was, “I am a sinner.” Much is said these days about confessing our faults to one another. Indeed, we all need to confess our faults to one another, acknowledging that we are full of sinful faults. But we ought not engage in the horribly evil practice of airing the filth that is in us to others. Confess your sins to God alone. No one else needs to hear the evil thing.


2.    His confession of sin was spontaneous.


No one had to tell him what to say. No one had to convince him that he had done certain things contrary to the law. He spoke spontaneously from his own broken, contrite heart.


·       The confession of sin is not true, it is not real, unless it is spontaneous.

·       This man confessed himself a sinner, because he had to do so. He could not help it. His sin was crushing his heart.

·       This man came before the throne of God, taking his place in the dust, freely surrendering himself to the hands of Almighty Justice, confessing that he was a rebel, a sinner deserving eternal condemnation (Ps. 51:1-5).


(Psalms 51:1-5)  “To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came unto him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba. Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. (2) Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. (3) For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me. (4) Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest. (5) Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”


Perhaps you are thinking, “Bro. Don, that is a strange way to seek mercy.” You are mistaken, that is the only way to seek mercy (Ps. 25:11).


(Psalms 25:1-2)  A Psalm of David. — Unto thee, O LORD, do I lift up my soul. (2) O my God, I trust in thee: let me not be ashamed, let not mine enemies triumph over me.”


(Psalms 25:4-7)  “Show me thy ways, O LORD; teach me thy paths. (5) Lead me in thy truth, and teach me: for thou art the God of my salvation; on thee do I wait all the day. (6) Remember, O LORD, thy tender mercies and thy lovingkindnesses; for they have been ever of old. (7) Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions: according to thy mercy remember thou me for thy goodness’ sake, O LORD.”


(Psalms 25:11)  “For thy name’s sake, O LORD, pardon mine iniquity; for it is great.”


(Hebrews 4:16)  “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”


B.   What did the publican confess?


He simply confessed that he was a sinner. This is a prayer and confession, suitable to every lip here, — “God be merciful to me a sinner.” If you know your heart, you know that this prayer suits you very well.


·       It suits every man in this house.

·       It suits every woman here.

·       It suits every child present.


If God the Holy Spirit ever comes to a sinner’s heart in saving grace, this is what he will teach him. — “I am a sinner in need of mercy.” If you want to be saved, if you want to obtain mercy, if you want God to hear you, you must come to Christ as a poor, helpless, bankrupt, filthy, hell-deserving sinner.


Someone asked me the question, several years ago, “Do you think that God hears the prayers of sinners?” My reply is he won’t hear anyone else!


·       Christ died for sinners.

·       The gospel is proclaimed to sinners.

·       God saves sinners!


1.    The only title we have to God’s mercy is the fact that we are sinners.

2.    Your nakedness is your only claim to Christ’s robe of righteousness.

3.    Your hunger is your only claim to the Bread of Life.

4.    Your thirst is your only claim to the Fountain of Life.

5.    Your poverty is your only claim to the riches of God’s grace.

6.    Your emptiness if your only claim to his fullness.

7.    Your filth is your only claim to his cleansing blood.


C.   How did this sinner come to God for mercy?


1.He stood afar off.”


He felt himself to be a man separated from God, unfit for God’s presence. His sin lay so heavily upon his heart that he felt there was no sinner like him in all the world. In reality, his prayer was, “God be merciful to me; I am the sinner,” or, as the Amplified paraphrase puts it, “O God, be favorable (be gracious, be merciful) to me, the especially wicked sinner that I am!


2.He would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven.”


He was so broken and dejected in his heart that he could not look up. He was so vile, so filthy, so guilty that he dare not presume to look up toward God.


3.    He smote upon his breast.”


He knew where the mischief lay. He knew the source, the cause, the fountain of his sin. He heart was evil, only evil continually, and desperately wicked.


·       He was angry with himself.

·       He imprecated himself. His own mouth condemned him.

·       He sat in judgment against himself.

·       He took sides with God against his on soul.


D.   What reason did this man have to hope for mercy?


God be merciful to me a sinner!” — The original language explains more to us than our English translation does. This prayer could be translated quite literally, “God be propitiated to me, I am the sinner.” He hoped for mercy through the merits of Christ’s blood atonement.


The word translated “merciful” has reference to the mercy-seat that covered the ark of the covenant in the holy of holies. There Aaron took the atonement blood on the day of atonement and ceremonially made atonement for the sins of Israel. That was done, as you know, in typical foreshadowment of Christ’s sin-atoning sacrifice, by which he obtained eternal redemption for us. This publican saw what the Pharisee could not see. He saw that Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. He saw that Christ is the propitiation for our sins.


God be merciful to me a sinner!” — That was his prayer. How short it was, and how full! Unlike the Pharisee, the publican was not putting on a show. He was crying out to God from a broken heart! He confessed that he was a sinner: — a sinner in Adam, that he had derived a sinful nature from our father, Adam, that he was conceived in sin and born in iniquity. He confessed that he was a sinner by practice, having committed many actual transgressions, attended with aggravating circumstances. He confessed that he was a guilty and filthy sinner, a notorious one, deserving of God’s holy wrath and worthy of the lowest place in hell.


Indeed, he speaks of himself, as if he was the only sinner in the world. — “God be merciful to me the sinner!” He was convinced that there were none like him, so vile and sinful as he was.


He made his prayer to “God,” against whom he had sinned, to “God,” with whom there is mercy and forgiveness, who “delighteth in mercy!” He made his prayer to “God,” who alone can forgive sin has promised that he will. He proclaims that his name is “God, pardoning iniquity, transgression, and sin.”


His prayer was for mercy through the sacrifice and blood atonement of God’s darling Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. — “God be merciful to me a sinner!” He asked the God of all mercy and grace, the God of justice and truth, to be “merciful”, or “propitious” to him, that is, to show mercy to him, through the propitiatory sacrifice of the Christ, which was typified in the sacrifices and the mercy-seat under the law of Moses.


John Gill wrote, “The first thing a sensible sinner wants, is an application of pardoning grace and mercy. Forgiveness springs from mercy. And because the mercy of God is free and abundant, therefore pardon is so. But this is not to be expected from an absolute God, or God out of Christ. God is only propitious in Christ. Hence it may be observed, that God pardons none but those to whom he is propitious in his Son; and that he forgives sin upon the foot of a reconciliation, and satisfaction made to his law, and justice. And so pardon is an act of justice, as well as of mercy. There is no pardoning mercy but through Christ.”


While pleading for mercy with God, the publican had his eye upon Christ, the mercy-seat, the place of propitiation, and the bloody sacrifice he made for atonement at Calvary. — There is no hope for a sinner apart from the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. God cannot and will not show mercy to any sinner apart from the propitiatory, sin-atoning, justice satisfying atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:24-26).


(Romans 3:24-26)  “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: (25) Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; (26) To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.”


When you come with God for mercy, the eye of faith must be upon the crucified Son of God, you must come to him through Christ, by the merit of his blood, with no other sacrifice. If you can and will approach the holy Lord God trusting Christ alone, you are assured of acceptance at the throne of grace (Heb. 7:25; 10:16-22).


(Hebrews 7:25)  “Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them.”


(Hebrews 10:16-22)  “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them; (17) And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more. (18) Now where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin. (19) Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, (20) By a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; (21) And having an high priest over the house of God; (22) Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water.”


Are you willing to take this publican’s place, willing to pray as he prayed, willing to look to Christ alone for salvation, willing to be saved by pure, free, sovereign grace alone? If you are, I tell you upon the authority of God’s own Word, that all who from their hearts cry, “God be merciful to me a sinner,” shall obtain what this publican obtained. Read verse 14 with me.


The Publican’s Justification


II.                This publican received full, free, absolute justification from God.


These are the words of our Savior, not mine, but his. — “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for everyone that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”


He went down to his house justified because he came up to the throne of grace condemned. The Pharisee went down to his house condemned because he attempted to approach the throne of God justified. — The way up is down. — You will never be saved until you are lost. — The only place where a sinner can do business with God is in the dust, before his holy throne, pleading for mercy through Christ.


Hear me now. — There is such a thing as full, free, complete absolution from all sin. The pope can’t give it to you. No priest can give it to you. No preacher can give it to you. But God Almighty, through the merits of his own beloved Son, gives total absolution from sin and complete justification to every sinner who trusts him (Isa. 43:25-26; 44:22).


(Isaiah 43:25-26)  “I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins. (26) Put me in remembrance: let us plead together: declare thou, that thou mayest be justified.”


(Isaiah 44:22)  “I have blotted out, as a thick cloud, thy transgressions, and, as a cloud, thy sins: return unto me; for I have redeemed thee.”


As Robert Hawker put it, “Justification is of God in Christ. And therefore the self-condemned, and not the self-righteous, find justification before God.”


A.  This man was justified immediately.


“The moment a sinner believes,

And trusts in his crucified God,

His pardon at once he receives, —

Redemption in full through His blood.


The faith that unites to the Lamb,

And brings such salvation as this,

Is more than a notion or name: —

The work of God’s Spirit it is.


It treads on the world and hell.

It vanquishes death and despair;

And what is still stranger to tell, —

It overcomes heaven by prayer.


Permits a vile worm of the dust

With God to commune as a friend; —

To hope for forgiveness as just,

And look for His love to the end!


It says to the mountains, ‘Depart,’

That stand betwixt God and the soul.

It binds up the broken in heart,

And makes wounded consciences whole.


Bids sins of a crimson-like dye

Be spotless as snow, and as white,

And makes such a sinner as I

As pure as an angel of light!”

Joseph Hart - 1759


As soon as a sinner believes on Christ, he is justified in his own conscience before God. The love of God is shed abroad in his heart and God speaks peace to his heart (Rom. 4:25-5:10).


(Romans 4:25)  “Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification.”


(Romans 5:1-11)  "Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: (2) By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (3) And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; (4) And patience, experience; and experience, hope: (5) And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us. (6) For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. (7) For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. (8) But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (9) Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. (10) For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. (11) And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement."


B.  This man was justified completely (Rom. 8:1).


(Romans 8:1)  “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.”


·       Forgiven

·       Absolved

·       Freed from guilt

·       Freed from condemnation

·       Made perfectly righteous


C.  This man was justified justly (1 John 1:9; 2:1-2).


(1 John 1:9)  “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”


(1 John 2:1-2)  “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: (2) And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”


D.  This man was justified in his own conscience. He knew it (Ps. 32:1-5).


(Psalms 32:1-5)  “A Psalm of David, Maschil. Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. (2) Blessed is the man unto whom the LORD imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile. (3) When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long. (4) For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture is turned into the drought of summer. Selah. (5) I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the LORD; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin. Selah.”


E.   This man was justified forever!


F.    This man was justified freely! — Without any works or merits of his own.




1.     Come to Christ like this publican did, and you shall go home today justified!


(2 Corinthians 5:17)  “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.”


As surely as God is God, he will never cast out one who comes to him by Christ.


·       Come just like you are.


Illustration: The Artist and the Beggar


“Just as I am, without one plea,

But that thy blood was shed for me,

And that thou bidst me come to thee,

O, Lamb of God, I come.”


·       Come right now.


Come humbled sinner, in whose breast

A thousand thoughts revolve;

Come with thy guilt and fear oppressed,

And make this last resolve.


I’ll go to Jesus, though my sin

Hath like a mountain rose,

I know His courts I’ll enter in,

Whatever may oppose.


Prostrate I’ll lie before His face,

And there my sins confess;

I’ll tell Him I’m a wretch undone,

Without His sovereign grace.


2.    God in heaven is able and willing to save all who come to him, like this publican, crying, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” “God be propitiated toward me and show me mercy through the blood of Christ: I am the sinner.”


Illustration: Tie a White Handkerchief.


I pray that we will, everyone of us, go down to our houses justified today. As you go home, get alone with God and let this cry go out of your heart up to God, “God be merciful to me a sinner!” If we grow beyond this, we have grown too much.


(Colossians 2:6)  “As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him:”