Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 32: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part II, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
9. And he spoke also this parable to some who 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 standing 327 prayed these things within himself: God, I thank thee that I am not as other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterous, 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 at a distance, did not even wish to raise his eyes towards heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, Lord, be reconciled to me a sinner. 14. I say to you, this man went down into his house justified rather than the other; for every one that exalteth himself shall be humbled, and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
Christ now gives directions about another virtue, which is necessary to acceptable prayer. Believers must not come into the presence of God but with humility and abasement. No disease is more dangerous than arrogance; and yet all have it so deeply fixed in the marrow of their bones, that it can scarcely be removed or extirpated by any remedy. It is no doubt strange that men should be so mad as to venture to raise their crests against God, and to plead their own merits before him. Though men are carried away by their ambition, yet when we come into the presence of God, all presumption ought to be laid aside; and yet every man thinks that he has sufficiently humbled himself, if he only presents a hypocritical prayer for forgiveness. Hence we infer that this warning which our Lord gives was far from being unnecessary.
There are two faults at which Christ glances, and which he intended to condemn, — wicked confidence in ourselves, and the pride of despising brethren, the one of which springs out of the other. It is impossible that he who deceives himself with vain confidence should not lift himself up above his brethren. Nor is it wonderful that it should be so; for how should that man not despise his equals, who vaunts against God himself? Every man that is puffed up with self-confidence carries on open war with God, to whom we cannot be reconciled in any other way than by denial of ourselves; that is, by laying aside all confidence in our own virtue and righteousness, and relying on his mercy alone.
10. Two men went up. Christ makes a comparison between the two men, both of whom, by going up to pray, seem to manifest the same ardor of piety, while yet they are exceedingly unlike. The Pharisee, possessing outward sanctity, approaches to God with a commendation which he pronounces on his whole life, and as if he had an undoubted right to offer the sacrifice of praise. The publican, on the other hand, as if he had been some outcast, and knew that he was unworthy to approach, presents himself with trembling and with humble confession. Christ affirms that the Pharisee was rejected, and that the prayers of the publican were acceptable to God. The reasons why the Pharisee was rejected are stated to be these two: he trusted in himself that he was righteous, and despised others
11. God, I thank thee. And yet he is not blamed for boasting of the strength of his free-will, but for trusting that God was reconciled to him by the merits of his works. For this thanksgiving, which is presented exclusively in his own name, does not at all imply that he boasted of his own virtue, as if he had obtained righteousness from himself, or merited any thing by his own industry. On the contrary, he ascribes it to the grace of God that he is righteous. Now though his thanksgiving to God implies an acknowledgment, that all the good works which he possessed were purely the gift of God, yet as he places reliance on works, and prefers himself to others, himself and his prayer are alike rejected. Hence we infer that men are not truly and properly humbled, though they are convinced that they can do nothing, unless they likewise distrust the merits of works, and learn to place their salvation in the undeserved goodness of God, so as to rest upon it all their confidence.
This is a remarkable passage; for some think it enough if they take from man the glory of good works, so far as they are the gifts of the Holy Spirit; and accordingly they admit that we are justified freely, because God finds in us no righteousness but what he bestowed. But Christ goes farther, not only ascribing to the grace of the Spirit the power of acting aright, but stripping us of all confidence in works; for the Pharisee is not blamed on the ground of claiming for himself what belongs to God, but because he trusts to his works, that God will be reconciled to him, because he deserves it. Let us therefore know that, though a man may ascribe to God the praise of works, yet if he imagines the righteousness of those works to be the cause of his salvation, or rests upon it, he is condemned for wicked arrogance. And observe, that he is not charged with the vainglorious ambition of those who indulge in boasting before men, while they are inwardly conscious of their own wickedness, but is charged with concealed hypocrisy; for he is not said to have been the herald of his own praises, but to have prayed silently within himself. Though he did not proclaim aloud the honor of his own righteousness, his internal pride was abominable in the sight of God. His boasting consists of two parts: first, he acquits himself of that guilt in which all men are involved; and, secondly, he brings forward his virtues. He asserts that he is not as other men, because he is not chargeable with crimes which everywhere prevail in the world.
12. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. This is equivalent to saying that he performed more than the law required; just as the Popish monks talk loftily of their works of supererogation, as if they found no great difficulty in fulfilling the law of God. It must be admitted that each of us, according to the measure of the virtues which God has bestowed upon him, is the more strongly bound to thank the Author of them; and that it is an exercise of holy meditation for each of us to ponder on the benefits which he has received, so as not to bury in ingratitude the kindness of God. But there are two things here that must be observed: we must not swell with confidence, as if we had satisfied God; and, next, we must not look down with disdainful contempt upon our brethren. In both respects the Pharisee erred; for, by falsely claiming righteousness for himself, he left nothing to the mercy of God; and, next, he despised all others in comparison of himself. And, indeed, that thanksgiving would not have been disapproved by Christ, if it had not labored under these two defects; 328 but as the proud hypocrite, by winking at his sins, met the justice of God with a pretense of complete and perfect righteousness, his wicked and detestable hardihood could not but make him fall. For the only hope of the godly, so long as they labor under the weakness of the flesh, is, after acknowledging what is good in them, 329 to betake themselves to the mercy of God alone, and to rest their salvation on prayer for forgiveness. 330
But it may be asked, how did this man, who was blinded by wicked pride, maintain such sanctity of life; for such integrity proceeds only from the Spirit of God, who, we are certain, does not reign in hypocrites? I reply: he trusted only to outward appearance, as if the hidden and inward uncleanness of the heart would not be taken into the account. Though he was full of wicked desires within, yet as he looks only at the appearance, he boldly maintains his innocence.
Our Lord does not, indeed, accuse him of vanity, in falsely claiming for himself what he does not possess; but it ought to be believed that no man is pure from extortion, injustice, uncleanness, and other vices, unless he is governed by the Spirit of God.
The word Sabbath (σάββατον) denotes in this passage, as in many others, a week But God never enjoined in the Law that his servants should fast every week; so that this fasting and the tithes were voluntary exercises beyond the prescriptions of the Law. 331
13. The publican standing at a distance. Here Christ did not intend to lay down a general rule, as if it were necessary, whenever we pray, to cast down our eyes to the ground. He merely describes the tokens of humility, which alone he recommends to his disciples. Now humility lies in not refusing to acknowledge our sins, but condemning ourselves, and thus anticipating the judgment of God; and, with the view of being reconciled to God, in making an honest confession of guilt. Such, too, is the cause of that shame which always accompanies repentance; for Christ insists chiefly on this point, that the publican sincerely acknowledged himself to be miserable and lost, and fled to the mercy of God. Though he is a sinner, he trusts to a free pardon, and hopes that God will be gracious to him. In a word, in order to obtain favor, he owns that he does not deserve it. And, certainly, since it is the forgiveness of sins that alone reconciles God to us, 332 we must begin with this, if we desire that he would accept our prayers. He who acknowledges that he is guilty and convicted, and then proceeds to implore pardon, disavows all confidence in works; and Christ’s object was to show that God will not be gracious to any but those who betake themselves with trembling to his mercy alone. 333
14. This man went down justified. The comparison is not exact; for Christ does not merely assign to the publican a certain degree of superiority, as if righteousness had belonged alike to both, but means that the publican was accepted by God, while the Pharisee was totally rejected. And this passage shows plainly what is the strict meaning of the word justified: it means, to stand before God as if we were righteous. For it is not said that the publican was justified, because he suddenly acquired some new quality, but that he obtained grace, because his guilt was blotted out, and his sins were washed away. Hence it follows, that righteousness consists in the forgiveness of sins. As the virtues of the Pharisee were defiled and polluted by unfounded confidence, so that his integrity, which deserved commendation before the world, was of no value in the sight of God; so the publican, relying on no merits of works, obtained righteousness solely by imploring pardon, 334 because he had no other ground of hope than the pure mercy of God.
But it may be thought absurd, that all should be reduced to the same level, since the purity of saints is widely different from that of the publican I reply: whatever proficiency any man may have made in the worship of God and in true holiness, yet if he consider how far he is still deficient, there is no other form of prayer which he can properly use than to begin with the acknowledgment of guilt; for though some are more, and others less, yet all are universally guilty. We cannot doubt, therefore, that Christ now lays down a rule for all to this effect, that God will not be pacified towards us, unless we distrust works, and pray that we may be freely reconciled. And, indeed, the Papists are compelled to acknowledge this in part, but immediately afterwards they debase this doctrine by a wicked invention. They admit that all need the remedy of forgiveness, because no man is perfect; but they first intoxicate wretched men with reliance on what they call imperfect righteousness, and next add satisfactions, in order to blot out their guilt. But our faith needs no other support than this, that God has accepted us, not because we deserved it, but because he does not impute our sins.
“Le Pharisien se tenant l’a;” — “the Pharisee standing there.”
“Si ces deux vices n’y estoyent, qui gastent tout;” — “if those two faults had not been in it, which spoil the whole.”
“Apres avoir recognu le bien qui est en eux par la grace de Dieu;” — “after having acknowledged the good that is in them by the grace of God.”
“Et mettre leur salut en la confession de leurs pechez, et remission d’iceux;” — “and to place their salvation in the confession of their sins, and forgiveness of them.”
“Estoyent des exercises volontaires, et inventez a plaisir;” — “were voluntary exercises, and invented at pleasure.”
“Qui nous rende agreables a Dieu;” — “which renders us acceptable to God.”
“Qui tremblans a cause d’un vray sentiment de leur pechez, recourront a sa seule misericorde;” —”who, trembling on account of a true conviction of their sins, shall have recourse to his mercy alone.”
“Seulement en confessant sa faute, et demandant pardon;”— “solely by confessing his faults and asking pardon.”