The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. (Ps. 14.1)
Without faith it is impossible to be well-pleasing unto him; for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that seek after him. (Heb. 11.6)
Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it speaketh to them that are under the law; that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may be brought under the judgment of God: because by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified in his sight; for through the law cometh the knowledge of sin. (Rom. 3.19-20)
Today I would like to talk about a subject which may not be easy to deal with. I confess that this is only the second time in my life I have delivered such a message. And it is that which is stated in a fragment found in Hebrews 11.6 which declares that “he that cometh to God must believe that he is.” Moreover, I would also like to touch upon the words of Psalm 14.1: “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.” Actually the question of whether there is a God need not be answered, since the Bible never argues this point at all. The Bible takes for granted that men must believe in God because they have no reason not to believe so. It treats this matter as something already given. Nevertheless, there is today in this world a class of people who consider themselves atheists. They say there is no God, neither do they acknowledge there is a God who rules over all things. Such a contention seems to be quite popular these days and is warmly welcomed by a large number of people. Those who say these things appear to have minds newer than the rest of mankind and an ability superior to the general public; they therefore dare to assert such things. Before I attempt to burst their “intellectual bubble” let us recognize the several different kinds of atheists there are. For although most atheists would probably not accept such a classification as will be presented here, we as more objective observers are clearer than they themselves.
Atheists for Moral Reasons
Towards atheists of this kind there is no use saying anything to them nor arguing with them. All that is appropriate is to look at their lives, because their immorality speaks far more loudly than their words. They profess to be atheists not because they have convincing evidences that there is no God, but because their lives are such that it is expedient for them to say there is no God. Their own moral state keeps them from acknowledging that there is a God in the heavens and the earth. A bandit would like to believe there is no law enforcement; a bad student would like to believe there is no teacher; an unfaithful employee would like to be able to say there is no employer; and a wicked person would like to believe there is no law. This does not mean that they really do not believe that these things exist; it is simply that their own lives impel them not to accept these things at their face value. Yet if someone says to you, “I do not believe in God, for there is no such person as God in my mind,” you may respond by asking: “Friend, how about your moral life?” Nothing at all need be said but to ask whether that person lives morally or immorally.
People may disbelieve God, but they cannot deny there is morality. Let me tell you frankly, that though I am still young, yet of the people whom I have met in these few years of mine, at least ninety-nine out of a hundred atheists are questionable in respect of their personal morality. I have yet to meet an atheist who lives somewhat morally. There are some in the audience who are older than I. May I ask you if you have ever met an atheist whose morality is even slightly dependable? Whether asking fellow students, business associates, or friends, the atheists whom I have met are all morally corrupt; so that they cannot believe in God. Allow me to assert a truthful word, that if ever God goes out of a person, immorality takes His place in that one.
There was a well-known experienced preacher in America whose name was R.A. Torrey. Once when he was preaching at a certain place, a college student came up to him and said: “Formerly I believed in God, but lately I do not believe any more.” “For what reason do you now not believe?” asked Mr. Torrey. “Well, after I entered college, my knowledge increased; I therefore do not believe any more. I read this book and that book, until I eventually read God away,” replied the student. “Do not try to deceive me,” Mr. Torrey responded, “for I too was a college student. I have read many books and I have a doctor’s degree. But I have not read God away. You must have some hidden reason, otherwise you would not have read Him out of existence.” Then Mr. Torrey continued. “Let me ask you a question. Now that you do not believe in God, how about your moral life?” To which the student replied somewhat candidly, “I must confess that my morality now is not as good as before.” Whereupon Mr. Torrey concluded with a word that was indeed well-spoken: “I need not argue with you, nor raise up many reasons as proof to you. If you simply stop doing these bad things and begin to live more morally, God will immediately return.” How factual that is, for many fail to believe in God not because they have good reasons to do so but simply because their multitude of sins hinder them from believing. They are compelled to be atheists.
This group of people proclaims that there is no God, yet without giving any reason. They are so stiff-lipped that no one can reason with them. If you ask them why they do not believe in God, they have no reason to offer but nonetheless insist that they do not believe. How can you deal with such people? Having asserted that there is no God, they will not change their mind. You may talk with them for days and nights on end and may even convince them with arguments, yet they will still staunchly maintain their position. Whatever reasons they may eventually give are dogmatic and arbitrary. Their responses are quite adamant. What ever can you therefore do with them? The fact of the matter is that their mind is usually quite empty, having no reason to give; but their lips insistently declare there is no God. And hence we call them stiff-lipped atheists.
There is no way to reason with the above two types of atheists. Another group can be found, though, that is not quite as hopeless as these. Unfortunately, however, they are rather small in number. Who are they? We call them—
Atheists for Intellectual Reasons
Who are these intellectual atheists? They are those who are open to reason. If you can prove to them with sufficient arguments then they are willing to accept your premise of God’s existence. For such people, there is the need of some reasoning, which indeed has value. Yet how few there are of this kind of atheists in the world. Now I have no intention of arguing with them by marshalling many reasons to prove that there is a God in the universe. For one thing, the Bible, as we said earlier, never deals with this question, but rather speaks of the Lord Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and so forth. This alone indicates that the question of whether God exists need not be mentioned in its pages because it is a fact accepted by all concerned. The existence of God is an unshakable fact that has no need to be discussed.
How Dare You Say There Is No God?
Suppose an atheistic friend comes to talk about this matter of God. He will no doubt say there is no Supreme Being. You may ask him why and he may perhaps give you a reason or two. But whenever I am confronted with such a situation, I will usually not permit him to go on. I will frankly ask him: “Who are you who dare to say there is no God?” He may still want to continue with his argument but I will stop him by reiterating the same question, for in such a conversation I wish to settle at the outset the credentials of the speaker. Yet I need to ask him this: According to your own estimate, do you honestly believe you have the qualifications to decide whether God is? Or may I put it even more bluntly: “Who do you think you are that you dare to say there is no God? What makes you so qualified to assert such a statement? Are there not four billion people like you in the world? What then makes you an authority on this question? Why, you do not even know about the things with which you have contact every day! Do you know, for example, how your fingernails grow? Or how your heart beats? Do you know whether there will be rain tomorrow or whether you will eat your meal again the next day? You have no real knowledge of these things. How then dare you say there is no God?
“Let me further ask you this: Do you know how big the earth is? But perhaps you are one of those who do not consider the earth as of much consequence. Alright, do you know how big our solar system is? Probably you will regard this as not very large either. Then let me ask you this: Have you the ability to bring the sun down that you may examine to see how big it is? Were it possible to excavate the sun and empty it of its contents, how many earths would you be able to stuff into the sun? Actually, hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of earths could be put into it and there would still be space left to be filled. For the sun can contain a million and a half planets like our earth with much room left to spare! And yet, as one astronomer has said, there are five billion other stars that are as large as the sun of our solar system. So how big really are you, that you dare to claim there is no God?”
Those who say there is no God ought to consider the following: Astronomers tell us that the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second! It is rather difficult for us to comprehend such speed. Yet though light travels so fast, astronomers tell us that the light from some stars has traveled for two thousand years and has still not reached the earth. For a person who is only six feet tall and who occupies less than a foot of ground to say there is no God is not only absurd but most ridiculous.
Who Rules the Universe?
Though the universe is so immense, there are things within it so small that even a microscope cannot detect them. And however microscopic they are, each of them has its definite organization, definite law, and definite order. How wonderful they are! Formerly people considered the atom as the smallest unit. Later the scientist discovered electrons. Now they have found other particles even smaller than electrons. Yet no matter how tiny they are, they all follow definite principles, laws and order. If there is no God, how did their so intricate design come about? How could they have been made so precisely and accurately? There must be a God who designs and rules, otherwise such beautiful phenomena of nature could never have happened. Only two alternative explanations are possible. These things either came about by accident or they came about by design. If not by accident, they must have come into existence through One who designs them. And if not by design, then they must have arisen by accident. Which is the right answer?
Is It by Accident?
To say that there is no designer to the universe and that all things were accomplished by accident is really asking too much of our imagination! Some people have suggested that things simply happened through their contact with one another, resulting in the universe as we know it. This theory I can hardly accept as plausible. I have never observed anything in the world that has resulted from such chance.
Let me tell you a true story. Once a certain person went to visit the chief executive officer of a factory which produced a meat-grinding machine. This small machine can be seen in most butcher shops in Shanghai. During their conversation together their talk turned to the subject of the origin of the universe. At one point the chief executive remarked that in the universe there must be a God who was all wise and all mighty to have designed and built all things. But the visitor sharply disagreed, declaring that there was no God in the universe and that everything came about by accident. Instead of arguing, the executive invited his friend to observe how his employees built their meat grinders. “Please note,” the factory chief said, “that our small meat grinder is made of eight different pieces. Now since you say that the universe has resulted merely from chance contact, would you please put these eight pieces and the appropriate screws into a wooden box and shake them up to see if by such an event it will result in a meat grinder?” He knew, of course, that no matter how the visitor might shake them, such accidental contact would never produce a machine. The officer continued by saying, “We have hundreds of workers in our factory. The most capable of them can make 200 machines a day. Yet even if we were to go to the countryside to find and hire a dull woman who has never in her life seen such machines, we could teach her to put one together in a very few days. But you may shake and shake this box of parts for a month or for a year and still not be successful. It is simply impossible. Now if a small machine that is worth only a little over three dollars and seventy cents cannot be produced by accident, how could such an immense universe have been made merely by chance contact? Is it at all rational to believe that all the objects found in our universe came about by accident? The chairs which we were sitting on a moment ago were made by a carpenter, who put it together in half an hour. But had this been left to chance contact, there would never have been any chair for us to sit on today!”
I believe this story points up the fact that the universe, with such obvious order, symmetry and law, must have been designed by a Designer. Even the dullest, most ignorant person in the world must acknowledge this. And therefore, a person who is not a fool will believe in God. There is absolutely no valid reason for not believing in God.
The Witness of Conscience
What we have discussed here are merely external approaches to presenting evidence of the fact that God is. We would next like to look at the subject from another angle. Can we, judging from human psychology, say there is a God? Recently, the National Geographical Society of the United States sent people to many countries to study human society and geography, and the results of their investigation were then published. What the study learned was that throughout every society—whether civilized or barbarous, whether progressive or regressive—there was one trait which was common to all: they all believed that God exists. Truly, whoever they may be—even if the most uncivilized tribes people—they know that there is a God. A person can be so dull as not to be able to think or reason, yet his heart will tell him that there is a God. So many others, though, talk in opposition to their conscience.
A remarkable incident occurred in South America in 1925. One day a missionary passed by a forest and suddenly heard a cry for help. He rushed towards the sound of the voice and came to the side of a river. He saw a man in a canoe being swept downstream. The current was swift, and not far away the missionary could see a waterfall. If not rescued, this man would certainly be overwhelmed by the waterfall. At that critical moment, the man in the canoe cried with all his strength, “Oh God, oh God, save me! Save me!” The missionary quickly sized up the situation and was able to rescue the man.
On the very next day, the missionary was again passing through this forest. But this time he saw hundreds of people gathered by the riverside listening to a lecture. He went forward to learn what it was all about. There a man was speaking publicly on the subject of God. In his lecture he marshalled numerous arguments to prove the non-existence of God. After he finished speaking, he challenged the audience by saying: “I have given you many reasons; if anyone believes otherwise and wishes to argue, he may do so.” The missionary stepped onto the platform and spoke: “I do not know how to argue, nor am I going to give you reasons; instead, I will tell you all a true story. Yesterday when I passed through the forest I heard a man crying for help, and he was repeatedly heard to cry out: “Oh God, oh God, save me, save me!” I ran toward the sound and found a man sitting in a canoe, drifting rapidly towards the waterfall yonder. His life was in terrible danger! I instantly rescued him and then sent him home. Let me today introduce to you that man. The one who yesterday cried desperately, “Oh God, save me!”, is the very person who today has been presenting to you many so-called reasons for proving that there is no God. Whether what I have said is true or not, you may ask him.”
Truly, the conscience of many people is such that before it is awakened they can raise many arguments against the existence of God. But when they are dying or are in a very strait situation, they will then contemplate future consequences and thus their conscience will tell them that God is. Today may quickly pass away. Today may seem so unimportant because you are still young. But the day that you find yourself heading for eternity, your conscience will wake up and speak. I often say, conscience may slumber but it never dies. When the time arrives, it will utter its voice. Nevertheless, it may already be too late.
In England there once was a father and a son who were ardent atheists. But the day the father was dying, he turned about on his bed showing intense restlessness. The son noticed the situation. Fearing lest his father’s atheistic faith be shaken, he tried to encourage his father with these words, “Father, hold on!” With tears on his face, his father cried out: “Hold on to what?” Since neither of them had God, what could they possibly hold on to? But we thank God, we do have Someone to hold on to. We know whom we have believed.
Will you who have heard this please listen to your inner voice? How frequently our mind is affected by outside influences and conceives erroneous thoughts, but the innermost voice is trustworthy, for it presents the real self.
I have researched and concluded that there is no born atheist. He is instead created by his environment. Our conscience is therefore exceedingly precious. And hence it is good to follow it closely.
The Testimony of Answered Prayer
We have already seen how the immensity of the universe, the order of the universe, and the conscience of man all point to the fact that God is. Let us look at the same subject from yet another viewpoint—that of the experience of Christians in their relationships toward God. Christians may be regarded as people who know God most. So that their experiences may be offered too as evidence that God exists. From answers to our prayers—whether as manifested in the grace of forgiveness or in the special protection given—we may know that there is a God. Without God, how can there ever be a Christian?
In this connection, then, I wish to relate an experience of mine of answered prayer—one which I have rarely told to people.
It happened in January, 1926. At that time I was in a country place, and some brothers off in Foochow were preparing for an evangelistic crusade. I had been invited to join them, but considering that they already had quite a few people for the crusade, I concluded that I was really not needed there. And hence I decided to preach in the villages. I invited six brothers to go with me. Two are now helping Mr. Willis of Quausan Garden, Shanghai. One is in Pagoda, Anchorage. Two are in Amoy learning to fly, and the other is in LienKiang. I mention their whereabouts because they were eye-witnesses to what happened and can therefore corroborate what is said here.
We took the steamboat and went to a town called Mayflower Village. It was a fishing community, and fishermen there earned a great deal of money. Now among the six who accompanied me, there was one who was a young brother around 16 or 17 years of age. He had been expelled from school and his mother in desperation had brought him to me. During his first month under my care I had not known how to deal with him. But in the second month, he was saved. And having now been saved, he greatly loved to work for God. So that during the third month this young brother went along with us to preach the gospel in Mayflower Village.
Now we had originally arranged with a school teacher whom we knew to stay in his school. But when we arrived at the village, we were not allowed to stay in his school for he discovered that we had come to preach the gospel. We searched till dark for a place to stay. Fortunately, an herbalist took us in and we settled in his attic.
In the evening, on January 7th, we ventured out to preach for the first time. An unusual atmosphere seemed to pervade the entire village. The people were most courteous, but after listening to us a little while, they stopped us and walked away mumbling something. When we asked them why, nobody would tell us the truth. We were extremely perplexed, for we seven discovered that all of us had had the same experience. So we asked the herbalist, who was more frank with us—but even he would not discuss the matter with us.
On the following days we went out again to preach the gospel and to sell copies of the Bible. While doing so our young brother committed a serious blunder one day. He became so impatient with the continual silent treatment that he took hold of a villager and insisted on knowing what it was all about. “Don’t you know? We have too many gods here already,” blurted the villager, “and so we are not able to accept any more gods.” Moreover, he continued, “We have a god here whose name is Ta-Wang∗. And every year in January we have a festival procession in his honor. You have therefore come at the wrong time, since the procession is going to be held on the 11th. We are all so busy in preparation that we cannot listen to you about your Jesus. Ta-Wang is so fabulous that ever since the Ching Dynasty and for over 200 years the day of the festival procession has always been clear. There has never been any rain!” Upon hearing such words, this young brother was so exasperated that he declared there would be rain this year on the day of the festival procession. Immediately thereafter many young people of the village took this remark up and broadcasted everywhere that a group of preachers had just asserted that there would be rain on the day of the Ta-Wang festival procession. Within two hours, the whole village knew about it. People began to talk, saying that if there were rain, then our Jesus is God; but that if there were no rain, then Ta-Wang is.
When we others returned to the herbalist’s house, we learned about this episode. I told this young brother, “How could you have made such a declaration? You have no control over heaven.” “Well, let us go pray,” he answered. “Indeed, we may pray,” I said, “but will God answer our prayer? Is this according to His will?” Nevertheless we all commenced to pray. Though the supper was already prepared, we had no heart to eat it. We prayed until all felt peaceful, void of any worry or anxiety. Every one of us seemed to be quite sure of God’s answer. Only then did we have our supper.
∗ Meaning: the great king.—Translator
As we ate together, we told the herbalist that we all knew that on the 11th when Ta-Wang would have his procession there would be rain. “In my opinion,” responded the herbalist, “it will not rain. And I would advise you not to carelessly assert otherwise. For first of all, among over 2,000 families living in Mayflower Village, almost all the men live by the sea. Would they fail to know the weather? Why, they are able to forecast it quite a few days ahead. But secondly, please consider my little shop. I live by keeping this shop. Hence please do not implicate me in this affair.” Nevertheless, we all felt peaceful about the situation and were full of assurance that God had indeed answered our prayers.
On the next day, the 10th, we went out again. Not only this young brother again said there would be rain on the 11th, we now all declared it. But when we tried to sell the villagers the Gospel booklets and preach to them, we were refused on both counts. They simply said, “Let us wait till the 11th. If it rains on that day, then Jesus is God; but if it does not rain, then Ta-Wang is god.”
Surprisingly, on the night of the 9th we had received a promise from 2 Kings 2.14: “Where is Jehovah, the God of Elijah?” For this with which we were today confronted concerned the glory of God similarly to that of Elijah’s time. On the night before the 11th, we prayed again. We knew that in the event there was no rain forthcoming, we would never again be able to preach to the ten thousand people of Mayflower Village. The door of the gospel would forever be closed. One or two of our brothers, weaker in faith, cried out: “If only God would send rain tonight!”
We all slept in later than usual the next morning. As I lay by a small window, the light of the sun shone on my eyes. I thought, What should we do?, for the sun was out. So I knelt down and started to pray. Later, as one by one the brothers woke up, all knelt down to pray: “O God, this is the day to show forth Your glory. Please send the rain to prove that You are God.” We all prayed most earnestly.
Then we realized our weakness, for why should we be praying in this manner since God had already answered? We all went downstairs to eat our breakfast. Being the leader of the team, I tried to boost their spirits by telling the brother responsible for our food that he did not need to prepare our picnic lunch because it would rain today and we would not be going out. We then gave thanks for our breakfast food. Suddenly, one brother continued to request that God keep His faith in us.
As we finished our first bowl of congee∗, all at once we heard a few drops on the tiles. Looking at one another, we knew in our hearts what it meant. We went for our second bowl of congee. I asked the others whether we ought to pray. One brother answered, “Why not ask God to send a downpour, thus proving He purposely sent the rain and not that it is due to chance?” So we prayed once more. As we finished praying, the sky began to turn pitch dark and the rain came down in torrents.
After we finished our breakfast, we stood at the door of the little shop watching for the procession. The festival procession was originally planned for 9:00 in the morning, but rain poured down without stopping from 9 to 11 o’clock. According to tradition, the procession could not be postponed more than an hour. So the villagers reluctantly carried the Ta-Wang idol outside. The rain was truly heavy, and by this time the water stood two to three feet deep in the streets. And as Ta-Wang was being carried out of the temple, one of the carriers fell into the water after only a few steps. Ta-Wang did too, breaking three fingers and one arm and twisting its head. The people picked up the idol, adjusted its head, and marched on. Even so, many young people now followed behind and began shouting: “Woe is Ta-Wang this year! Woe is Ta-Wang this year!” As they did so, the rain became heavier and heavier. So much so, that the procession had to stop. With the result that Ta-Wang had to be carried to the family shrine of the Chens.
∗Watery rice. —Translator
Subsequently, some village elders went to seek divination from Ta-Wang, and quite ingeniously they came up with the conviction that Ta-Wang had not intended to come forth at all today, but that instead it would do so at eight o’clock in the evening of the 14th. While the old people of the village accepted this verdict, the young people protested by asking why Ta-Wang should fall today and break his arm and fingers.
At lunch time, we asked God to clear up the sky so that we might go out and preach in the afternoon. Having faith in God, we also asked Him to send rain on the evening of the 14th. The work that afternoon was so successful that we quickly sold all the Gospels we had carried.
Since we had to return home on the morning of the 15th, we petitioned God to give us good weather on the 12th, 13th, and 14th—so that we might labor for Him—but to rain during the evening of the 14th so that all people still in doubt might unquestionably know that Ta-Wang was in fact no god. As anticipated, the sky was clear on the 12th, 13th, and 14th. Whereupon we decided to hold an evangelistic meeting on the evening of the 14th at the herbalist’s shop—for by this time the herbalist had believed in the Lord (and even up to this moment he remains a good brother in the Lord). And as might be expected, during the evening of the 14th it began indeed to rain. We could see many people waiting at the front of the herbalist’s shop. Once again we climbed to the attic to pray, asking God to rain even heavier. Praise the Lord, the rain grew heavier and heavier! And when the villagers carried Ta-Wang out, a number of people fell several times. Many young people shouted, “God is and not Ta-Wang.” Needless to say, the work in that village was most successful. And before dawn on the 15th, we left for home. How truly thankful we were to God.
The answers to our prayers are countless. And this in itself is enough to prove that God is. Our spiritual experience is one of the best evidences for the existence of the living God.
How We Can Meet God
If, then, there is a God, what must we therefore do? For it is not enough merely to believe that there is a God. We need to read Amos 4.14, which commands us all to do this: “Prepare to meet thy God.” Let me ask, Are you prepared to meet God? Since you know there is a God, how can you be negligent about Him? Are you currently able to meet God? I hope none among us will be confused by the false assumption of the atheist. The first thing you must do is prepare to meet your God.
Yet how can we meet God? There is but one way—through believing in the Lord Jesus. Why is this so? Because God shows grace in Christ. Outside of Christ, we are all condemned.
“And might reconcile them both in one body unto God through the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: and he [the Lord Jesus] came and preached peace to you that were far off [the gentiles], and peace to them that were nigh [the Jews]: for through him [Christ] we both have our access in one Spirit unto the Father” (Eph. 2.16-18). Please notice also this passage: “In whom [Christ Jesus the Lord] we have boldness and access in confidence through faith in him” (Eph. 3.12). How can we meet God? The Bible tells us that we have boldness to approach God through believing in Christ Jesus.
One very important thing which keeps us from meeting God is our sin. Sin hinders us from seeing God’s face; sin makes it impossible for us to meet Him. But God has prepared for us a way to resolve the problem of sin, and that is, that the Lord Jesus has borne our sins on the cross for us. He died for our sins. He was scourged and judged in our stead. Jesus was crucified because of you and me. On the ground of the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, all who believe in Him can meet God with boldness because “the middle wall of partition” (Eph. 2.14) has already been broken down and the problem of sin has thus been solved. So that we can now meet God without any fear. I must tell you that one day every one of you must meet God. And you may either be accepted as one of God’s people or be rejected as one of His enemies. What you need to do is to accept the Savior. Do not be an atheist but become a Christian. I beseech you to believe in the Lord Jesus and accept Him as your personal Savior.
Remember that one day you shall have to meet God: there is just no way to escape His face other than to hide in the Lord. If you do not hide in Christ today, it will be too late to try to hide when you shall meet God one day. All therefore who are willing to accept the Lord should do so now without delay.
Perhaps some may not quite understand how the blood of Christ can lead us to God. Our own conscience is a good way to explain it. Let us assume that in a judicial case, sin is presented before the court. A witness, even the precious conscience in our heart, steps forward to bear witness to the fact that we have sinned. Now many dare not think of God because of their evil conscience. They are afraid of God, and hence they do not want to have anything to do with Him. Yet we need not be afraid since we have the Lord Jesus as Mediator.
The Lord Jesus left the beautiful and glorious heaven to come down here in order to bring us there. He suffered on earth that we might have peace with heaven. He died that we might have life—and was rejected that we might be accepted. We may now lay down our load of sins because the Lord Jesus has already been judged for us. We may approach God through faith in Him. How terrible a thing it is for anyone not to believe that Christ has already borne all his sins on the cross. May all of us open our hearts to accept the Lord Jesus. For in so believing, God shall be to us no longer a judge but instead a beloved Father.
How a Good Man Goes to Hell
And he spake also this parable unto certain who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and set all others at nought: Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week; I give tithes of all that I get. But the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote his breast, saying, God, be thou merciful to me a sinner. I say unto you, This man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be humbled; but he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. (Luke 18.9-14)
This passage of Scripture gives us a parable, one which is spoken by the Lord Jesus Christ himself. In the parable, the Lord says that two men go into the temple to pray: one is a Pharisee, the very best of men; the other a publican, the worst of men. Surprisingly, though, the result of their prayers is that the worst (the publican) is justified, whereas the best (the Pharisee) is condemned! What is meant by the term “justified”? It means that as a verdict of the court a man is declared not guilty. Not being justified means that he is declared by the court as guilty and thus must be punished. To be justified is what we believers commonly accept as our “being saved.” To put this in even plainer language, being justified signifies a going to heaven, while not being justified denotes a going to hell. Consequently, what the Lord Jesus announces here is that a good man goes to hell but a bad man goes to heaven.
We always reason that a good man goes to heaven and a bad man goes to hell. But the Lord Jesus declares just the opposite! Do not be shocked as though this were a new teaching, however. For let it be clearly understood that if there is anyone in heaven, he must (apart from the Lord Jesus) be a sinner. In heaven you cannot find nor see a good man. All in heaven are sinners! And in hell? Lots of good men are there! Do not comfort yourselves by thinking you will not go to hell because you are good. Let me tell you, many like yourself are already in hell. And some who are there are even better than you are! According to man’s logic, a bad person should go to hell as well as a good person. But in trusting in the Lord Jesus, the bad as well as the good may go to heaven.
In the parable before us, however, the Lord Jesus Christ declares that a good fellow goes to hell but a bad fellow goes to heaven. For the way it works out in such a manner is that if you reckon yourself as righteous and better than the average person, then according to the word of the Lord Jesus, a good man may go to hell; but if you humble yourself and acknowledge yourself as sinful, you need not despair of not being worthy to be saved, for according to Jesus, a bad man may go to heaven.
Let us first notice just how good is this man in the parable who perishes, and then proceed to discover why such a good man goes to hell.
This good man is a Pharisee (v.10). We frequently perceive Pharisees to be very bad and hypocritical. Nevertheless, we must admit that the Pharisees have many good points. They keep the law (see Phil. 3.5). They are unlike the agnostic Sadducees who do not believe in many fundamental truths of God. The Pharisees, on the other hand, believe the word of God and keep His law, doubting nothing. Yet in spite of all these merits, the Lord Jesus declares that this Pharisee is destined for hell.
How often we Christians feel embarrassed to attend a revival meeting carrying any heavy or large Bible. We will either leave the Bible at home or carry a pocket New Testament to avoid being seen.
We are fearful lest people ridicule us and accuse us of being superstitious. But the Pharisees are not so afraid. They unfailingly put Scripture on the very skirts of their garments. They are not in the least afraid to be laughed at. Quite the contrary, they dare to confess before men that they believe in God.
I know many Christians who dare not say grace when they eat with non-believers. Their conscience bothers them, of course, if they do not give thanks; so to resolve their dilemma, they pray in their heart with eyes open. How timid and how shy! They do not have the courage to confess that they are Christians. Not so the Pharisees. They even have the boldness to pray at the public crossroads! Without probing the matter of their virtue, we must at least acknowledge that their outward action far exceeds that of ordinary Christian believers. Nevertheless, the Lord Jesus declares that this Pharisee is perishing and going to hell.
The Pharisees were the elite of society in their day. They were cultured, noble, and educated. Yet God is not partial to social status. If you deserve to go to hell, to hell you will be condemned, for God is just and impartial. Do not reflect in your heart by musing: Will there be any like me in hell? Any who is as beautiful as I am? As gentlemanly, as clever as I with a Ph.D. degree, as rich as I am? Let me assure you that many like you are in hell. Some people there are even more clever, more beautiful, more gentlemanly, and far richer than you are! There is none on earth who is too good for hell! The Lord Jesus declares that this Pharisee goes to perdition. Though he is high up in society, he deserves the lower depths of hell. Therefore, do not trust in your social standing.
Now this gentlemanly Pharisee goes to the temple to pray. And as he prays, he says: “God” (v.11). Let us note the implications of his use of this word. This Pharisee is not an atheist, neither is he a fool—for he does not say there is no God (Ps. 14.1a). Then too, he is not a wicked person, neither has he done abominable works (cf. Ps. 14.1b).
He believes that God is. He knows there is a God by the things created (see Rom. 1.19-20). He is not irreligious. As a matter of fact, he comes to pray as a devout, religious person—and this is a very good man. Nevertheless, all this does not save him from ending up in hell. For the Lord Jesus categorically announces that this pious and good man is going straight to hell. Now if such a good man as this— a man who believes there is a God—is going to hell, what will be the fate of those who do not believe! ? !
“God,” prays the Pharisee further, “I thank thee, that I am not as the rest of men . . .” (v.11). He then follows this statement up by mentioning a number of gross sins. He tells God that he is not as bad as others, who commit so many sins. In his estimation, he is the best of all men, for how unlike the other people he is! This Pharisee is indeed a rarity in the world! But the Lord Jesus plainly states that such a rare person as this must go to hell and perish eternally.
Perhaps you might say in response: “Quite possibly this Pharisee is instead a hypocrite, and hence he must go to hell. For if he is really as good as you say, he should go to heaven.” But on what basis do you judge him a hypocrite? Let me make clear that this man is truly a rarity in this world: he is in very fact a highly moral person; for note that after he prayed that he was not like other people who had sinned so much—he having instead done so many good things—this Pharisee is not contradicted or refuted in the slightest by the Lord Jesus or called a hypocrite by Him. Accordingly, he must be a good man. In addition, verse 9 indicates that the Lord addressed this very parable to “certain [ones] who trusted in themselves that they were righteous.” This is further proof that the Pharisee in question is an ideal, good man. Nonetheless, this good man goes to hell. Good men must go to hell.
But there is even further evidence here to warrant my saying this Pharisee is a rare example of goodness. Let us remember that when the Pharisee states that he is not as the rest of men, he is speaking to God. Let me pause here to say that as I am preaching the gospel, I frequently inquire of people in this fashion: “Do you know you are a sinner and need a Savior to atone for your sins?” And many will answer somewhat as follows: “I neither kill nor set fires. Hence what sin do I commit? Whatever I do I do according to my conscience. I am better than my friends and neighbors. I am better than the rest of men.” And if that person is not a believer, he most likely would say: “Many Christians are not as good as I am. I therefore do not need to believe in the Lord Jesus, for I am already better than they are.” Well, no doubt you can say all these words to me. But can you say to God: “God, I thank You that I am not as the rest of men who sin; I am better than all”? You may dare to say these self-righteous words to me, but I am afraid you dare not say them to God. You may have the courage to boast before men, but you do not have the boldness to boast before God. You may deceive those who are on earth, but you cannot deceive Him who is in heaven. You may brag before me, you may deceive your parents, husband or wife, children or friends, and the world, but you cannot deceive God. What you dare to say to men, you dare not say to God because you know He searches your heart.
In view of what has just been said, therefore, I must conclude that this Pharisee is quite unusual. He truly does do things according to conscience. He dares to say to you, to me, and to all others that he is a righteous and perfect man who does not sin like the rest of men; yea, he even dares to say to God: “God, I thank You that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers.” His conscience does not accuse him, hence he boldly declares before God his goodness. Without question, he is truly better than most people, certainly better than you and me. Yet the Lord Jesus explicitly announces that a rare and good man such as he must go to hell. And if that is the case with this Pharisee, what ever will happen to people who are not as good as he but who sin as do the rest of men? Will they go to hell and suffer even heavier punishment? “For if they do these things in the green tree, what shall be done in the dry?” (Luke 23.31) If such an excellent person as the Pharisee goes to hell, what will sinners such as we are deserve to have? Consequently, do not be so self-reliant. Though you are good, you may not escape the fire of hell. O self-righteous man, do not be complacent, because your righteousness cannot save you at all.
Let us return to Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee. The latter declares first of all that he does not extort. To extort is to obtain undeserved money by force or influence. Though this Pharisee has influence, he will not extort. I wonder how many of my hearers have more or less used their influence to make earthly gains. To use influence in harassing people is such a common practice. This Pharisee, however, does not commit this fault. Yet the Lord Jesus asserts that he cannot escape hell. Good men go to hell. And if a person as scrupulous as this Pharisee perishes, what will happen to the extortioners?
Secondly, this Pharisee states that he is not unjust. All which is not just is unrighteous. Unrighteousness is today’s most prevalent sin. Without even mentioning the many unrighteousnesses that characterize our manner of life, we additionally commit many such offenses in material matters. Is there some thing in your house, your bedroom, your school, your sitting room, or your office which does not belong to you and yet it becomes yours? Search your bedroom, sitting room, trunks, and pockets and see if there are things in them which were obtained unrighteously. Search your heart and ask yourself whether there is anything you have gotten through unjust means. A suit or even a penny thus obtained is reckoned as unjust. To say that we have obtained these things through unrighteous means is in reality a very mild statement. Bluntly speaking, we actually have stolen these things as thieves would have done! In part, therefore, to be unjust is to steal. Have you stolen any money or any other thing? Have you ever borrowed and never returned? All such things constitute unjust actions.
Once I led a meeting in Chuanchow. A young student had stolen five pennies from her teacher. After she heard the message that was from the school supervisor. Her supervisor was such a very strict person that students were afraid even to talk to her. Yet after this girl came into grace and knew she must deal with her unrighteousness, she had the courage to confess it to the supervisor. spoken, she knew her action was sin. Under the conviction of the Holy Spirit, she explained this to her mother and asked for five pennies to make restitution. Another girl had stolen two peepa ∗ from the school supervisor. Her supervisor was such a very strict person that students were afraid even to talk to her. Yet after this girl came into grace and knew she must deal with her unrighteousness, she had the courage to confess it to the supervisor.
Two weeks after that meeting in Chuanchow, I visited the Christian Book Room in Kulangsu. The store manager told me that he had recently received from one of the students a letter and a dictionary. The letter indicated that the writer had taken this dictionary from the store without paying for it. Realizing now that this was unrighteousness, she had returned the book. I wonder if there are some unrighteous people here? I would hope that none of you is unjust in your conduct, but I am afraid there must inevitably be some unjust individuals in our midst. This Pharisee had committed no unrighteous act, so he dared to tell God that he was not unjust. Nevertheless, the Lord Jesus pronounced that he was not therefore justified; with the result being that good men must go to hell. Now if a person who is not unjust nonetheless perishes, how about the unrighteous? Can we legitimately protest if we go to hell?
Finally, this Pharisee asserts that he is not an adulterer. I do not know how many of you have committed adultery. You know whether or not, and God knows. How unclean is this sin. Yet many have truly defiled their beds with their fleshly lusts. If we were to probe thoroughly into the adulterous thought of the heart, we would probably find that in this regard there exists no perfect person on this earth. “Every one that looketh on a woman to lust after her,” declared the Lord, “hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matt. 5.28). How few today there are who keep their bodies clean how even fewer are those who keep their minds pure. God will judge and punish all who commit this grievous sin.
∗A kind of fruit.—Translator
Unlike most of us, however, this Pharisee was a most moral person—untainted by the sin of adultery or such other unclean acts. Yet even here the Lord Jesus affirms that this Pharisee who has not committed adultery must perish and go to hell. With the consequence being that a good man goes to hell. And if this happens to a good and moral man, what will befall an evil man? Will not an adulterer certainly go to hell?
This Pharisee not only has not done many bad things on the negative side, he has also performed many commendable things on the positive side. For example, he “fasts twice in the week” (v.12a). I would suppose that many Christians have not even fasted once. They may not even know what fasting is. How ascetic is this Pharisee. He subdues his body and does not indulge his passions. He is a man with self-control. He serves God with piety and singleness of mind, because though the Hebrew law does not require a man to fast twice a week, he nonetheless observes what the law does not demand! Yet despite such pious conduct, the Lord Jesus informs us that this good and devout man must perish and go to hell. Will not those who are morally far inferior to him suffer a greater punishment? Who then can be saved?
For another thing, this Pharisee also asserts: “I give tithes of all that I get” (v. 12b). He is not a miser; on the contrary, he is quite generous with his wealth. His rule is to give one tenth of all his income. I wonder if today’s Christians give even one hundredth of their incomes? Many when they give, give pennies instead of dimes and dollars. How different this Pharisee is, for he thinks of laying up a treasure in heaven. Yet once again, in spite of this man’s commendable behavior, the Lord Jesus discloses that he must go to hell. If one who gives away money must go to hell, what must be the fate of those who refuse to give anything?
Now from what we have thus far mentioned, we must readily acknowledge what a good and perfect man this Pharisee is. He is not only considered good in the eyes of men, he reckons himself also as without blemish. Although we would not call him a saint, we would at least have to number him among the good people of his generation. Yet the Lord Jesus gives the verdict that he is not thereby justified and saved but rather he will perish. For this reason, let all who think they will be saved by doing good or because they are good people know and recognize this: that if a good man such as this Pharisee cannot be saved, how can anyone else be saved by doing good? Do not be self-conceited good people who imagine that your goodness is sufficient for your salvation. Acknowledge instead that according to the judgment given by the Lord Jesus, you, like the Pharisee, still belong to hell!
Sinner that you are, do not pretend you can gradually do good till you work out your salvation. Let me tell you immediately that that is but the gospel of the devil. It goes without saying that you cannot possibly do good; and even if you are able to do good as did the Pharisee, you still must go to hell! What, then, is the use of doing good? Our Lord Jesus purposely chooses to put before us this highly good and very ideal man so as to give the verdict of perdition that all who trust in their self-righteousness must realize they cannot be saved by their own righteousness. The way of salvation is totally beyond one’s self (see Eph. 2.8-9). Hence let those who sincerely desire to be saved not seek such along the path of reforming their self. Instead, let all who seek to be saved realize that they must believe in the Lord Jesus (see Acts 16.31).
Let us now try to understand more clearly why it is, if this Pharisee is such a good man, he must surely go to hell! Three main reasons can be offered. The first reason is because he is a person who trusts in himself as being a righteous man (v.9)—in short, he is self-righteous. It is quite true that he is indeed above the heads of the other people in the area of morality. But as a result he becomes self-contented, assuming that if he does not attain to heaven, who else will? He thus “trusts” in his own righteous acts by which to be justified. Yet he forgets that “we are all become as one that is unclean, and all our righteousnesses are as a polluted garment” (Is. 64.6) which cannot cover our nakedness and save us from condemnation. He does not know that according to God “there is none righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3.10). He deems himself to be “not as the rest of men”—as a matter of fact, in his own eyes he is the only righteous man in the world! Within himself he muses that he has well kept the law; nay, he has done even more than the law requires; and consequently, he will unquestionably be justified. Like many others, he surmises he can be saved by doing good.
Yet does not the Bible say that “by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified in [God’s] sight” (Rom. 3.20)? And does not it further state this: “We reckon therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law”(Rom. 3.28)? Moreover, consider these pertinent passages: “[Know] that a man is not justified by the works of the law . . . because by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified” (Gal. 2.16); “That no man is justified by the law before God, is evident” (Gal. 3.11); and “Not by works done in righteousness, which we did ourselves” (Titus 3.5). The works of the law are the doing of good works. Yet by the works of the law, says the Bible, no one is justified. It therefore means that none can be saved by doing good.
Over and over again this thought is reiterated in the Bible. Though this Pharisee does good, his righteous acts cannot save him. He imagines he can go to heaven by trusting in his righteousness, not realizing he will end up in hell because the righteousness of man cannot satisfy God; only when God sees His own righteousness will He save. Trusting in his own righteousness instead, this Pharisee does not seek the righteousness which God has provided in the Lord Jesus Christ, and by this path he falls into perdition. How pitiful this is! “For being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit themselves to the righteousness of God” (Rom. 10.3). Not submitting is being rebellious. Before God, therefore, this Pharisee is a rebel. How then can he expect to be saved?
How many are the descendants today of this Pharisee! Many deem themselves to be good, and thus incorrectly conclude that they will be saved. Many are still trying to be good in order to be saved. Yet they do not heed what the Lord Jesus has said, that good men go to hell. Oh, if you are like this deceived Pharisee, turn back now and believe in the Lord Jesus, because doing good will not at all save you. There is nothing in the world less dependable than your own righteousness. The self-righteous Pharisee has already gone to hell. He serves as the prime example for all who would desire to be saved by doing good. Why not cease following in his tracks and turn to the Lord Jesus?
The second reason for his destiny in hell is pride. Not only does this Pharisee trust in his own righteousness, but the Lord Jesus further states that he also “exalteth himself” (v.14). All who exalt themselves will go to hell. I am a preacher of the gospel, and I must say that in all the years of such ministry I have never seen a proud person saved. If anyone desires to be saved, he must acknowledge himself a helpless sinner. He cannot save himself, nor can he rely on himself. He should confess that hell is his deserved portion and prostrate himself at the foot of the cross of Christ—asking for grace, and trusting in Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified in shame for his sake. How humbling this must be! Yet without humility, who will do it? Nothing under heaven requires more humility than believing in the Lord Jesus as Savior. How reluctant people are to say that they cannot do good! Self-exalted ones will never seek salvation by accepting the despised cross, and hence will not be saved. They instead love to say they can do good to remedy their faults. And even if they should fail to do good, they would rather suffer the consequences than kneel at the cross and be saved. How very difficult for them to acknowledge themselves as sinners and to confess the Lord Jesus as Savior. All who are self-exalting, may you cease to be proud from this day forward. Humble yourselves before God, lest your pride send you to hell!
One final reason to explain this Pharisee’s ultimate end is the fact that he spurns the grace of God. He not only is self-righteous and proud, he also does not ask God for grace. He esteems himself so qualified for heaven that he fails to ask grace from God. Since he is such a righteous man, he considers he has far more than enough merits for heaven; so why should he ask for God’s grace? He has done good; why then should he beg for grace? Though he goes to the temple to pray and therefore presumably to petition and ask, the Lord Jesus indicates that his prayer is only a “[praying] thus with himself” (v.11a). Read verses 11 and 12 and see if he has really prayed and asked for anything. On the contrary, when he comes to the temple of God, he does not say: “God, I have lacked in this and that; please supply my needs”—nor does he say: “O God, I cannot save myself; please save me.” Rather, he tells God things: “God, I am thankful I am already good without Your help. I have not done all these bad things but I have done much good.” He looks upon himself as a perfect man par excellence. He does not come to ask and pray; he comes to report! He comes before God to make a report that God may know his goodness. It is as though he is intent upon informing God as follows: “God, I thank You because I have not committed these gross sins as others have; furthermore, I have done many good things. I fear You might not be aware of this, therefore I have come purposely to report to You the facts.” He certainly has not asked God for grace.
According to his own estimate as well as the evaluation of the world, this Pharisee is beyond dispute a very good man. Yet he is a total stranger to the holiness of God. He has never seen God nor known Him; consequently, he dares to brag before Him who is the altogether good and altogether holy God! Who would ever do such a thing before God unless he were totally blind? Although in the eyes of the world and his own he is a good man, in God’s eyes he is still a sinner. He is not justified nor is he saved. He is a man worthy of perishing and of going to hell. In God’s judgment, a so-called righteous man needs a savior to atone for his sins just as much as the most notorious sinner of the world. This Pharisee, however, is blind to such divine judgment. He has never known God nor known His grace. And thus he does not know that before God he is a sinner and needs a savior. He is too self-sufficient and self-reliant. He counts himself too able! So that upon descending into hell, he must have been surprised that he was heading towards the wrong place—not knowing that this actually was home!
Let us understand here that this Pharisee has already perished and that we ought to regard this as a divine warning. This man erred in his theory of salvation on two counts: first, he thought he needed to do good in order to be saved; and second, he deemed himself already good enough to be saved. How absurd are such thoughts. By reading Ephesians 2.8-9 we will know that we are not saved by good works but are saved by believing in the grace of the Lord Jesus! Also, John 3.18a is appropriate here: “He that believeth on him is not judged: he that believeth not hath been judged already.” Whether a person is saved or perishes is determined by his believing or not believing, by accepting or rejecting the salvation which the Lord Jesus has accomplished on the cross. It is not determined by his personal good or bad qualities. If a person is not saved by good works, it goes without saying that a good man is not thereby saved.
Oh do let us not deceive ourselves into imagining that by gradually doing good we shall be saved. I know and God knows that you cannot do good. And even if you did manage to do good, the all-good God would still consider your good as no good. Our good deeds will never save us, because you and I can never buy God’s salvation with such deeds. Let us be careful not to reverse the divine order: we need to be saved first, and then do good. Hence come and accept the Lord Jesus as your personal Savior that you may indeed be saved.
Let us now turn to the bad man in the parable—who gets saved—and discover how bad he actually is and why eventually he, and not the Pharisee, goes to heaven.
This man, we learn, is a “publican” (v.10). The Chinese view robbers as the worst of men, and prostitutes as the worst of women. In the eyes of the Jews, the most degraded, dirty and sinful of all professions was to be a publican or tax-gatherer. A man who becomes a publican and a woman who becomes a prostitute are looked upon as the worst of social outcasts. Yet the Lord Jesus declares that despised as this publican is, he is nonetheless justified by God, is saved, and goes to heaven.
In the days of Jesus, the Jews were under the despotic rule of the Roman government. And the Romans adopted the system of bidding for Jewish customs revenue. The government would decide how much tax must be collected in a certain place and then be open for bids. Now the publicans were those people who won the bids. They would deliver the amount of tax money they had bid to the Roman government but would arbitrarily charge the people more than was necessary for their own profit. These publicans thus aided and abetted the foreign government in the oppression of their own countrymen. They extorted money from their own people to profit themselves. And hence they were despised by society as not only outcasts but the basest of all men. If you had asked the Jews of that day who was the worst of men, you would have been told, “the publican!” Yet the Lord Jesus says to us that the publican is the one who goes down to his house justified, that the bad man is the one who goes to heaven. Now it stands to reason, therefore, that if a great sinner like the publican can be saved, those who sin less will certainly be saved.
This publican, by his own admission, is a “sinner” (v.13). His own conscience accuses him. All that he has done is against the law of God. He has not been able to keep God’s commandments. His thoughts are unclean, his eyes look at what he should not look at, his mouth says what ought not to be said, his hands do evil, and his feet are swift to go the wicked way. Moreover, he is full of lusts and ungodliness. He is a miser. He knows only how to profit himself and hurt others. So long as his pockets are full, he cares not a whit about righteousness or morality. He turns deaf to the cries of orphans and widows. He would rather let them die in ditches if only he can accumulate more wealth. He does not at all worship God. The fact of the matter is, all his actions and motives are at enmity with God. He is, in short, a gross sinner. But the Lord Jesus declares that this publican is justified! A sinner goes to heaven!
Sinners of the world, you know you are sinners. You consider yourselves unworthy to be saved and beyond redemption. As you look at yourselves, your conscience condemns you to perdition. But let me tell you, you need not be in despair and need not give up hope—because the Lord Jesus declares that sinners can go to heaven. You who are miserable, do not be discouraged. Here is the gospel presented to you: that though you are a sinner, yet you may have eternal life. In spite of your inability to save yourself, you may yet be saved. For there is salvation in the Lord Jesus. Come and accept His salvation!
The Pharisee spoke to himself on this wise: “I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican” (v.11b). Now we know that this publican must have committed some of these sins. How he used his influence to oppress people and exercised his authority to extort money. All that he did was full of unrighteousness. Many of the things in his home were obtained by defrauding others, and therefore were not rightly his. What sin has he not committed and with what defilement has he not been defiled? Even so, the Lord Jesus pronounced the good news that such a person can go to heaven.
In the eyes of the world, this sinner deserves more than hell. According to human judgment, a good man should go to heaven and a bad man should go to hell. If we were capable of doing good, we would agree that good men ought to go to heaven while bad men should go to hell. If the verdict is left to us, we will declare that the Pharisee has eternal life but the publican shall perish. Fortunately, this judgment of salvation or perdition is not given to us to pronounce. Our Lord Jesus Christ decides that good men must go to hell while bad men may go to heaven. How very few are so-called good men on this earth; but the world is full of sinners (see Rom. 3). If only good men are saved, how few would indeed be saved! For would not all men perish? Fortunately, the Lord Jesus declares that sinners may go to heaven. Thus, we sinners have the hope of being saved. Praise the Lord!
Once I was on board the steamer “Niu-shen” going from Shanghai to Fukien Province. On the ship I began to talk with a well-known businessman from central Fukien. I told him of the gospel of the atoning death of the Lord Jesus. He replied by quoting the saying of Confucius: “If anyone offends heaven, prayer is of no avail.” So I asked him, “In view of this lofty observation, how many under the sky have not offended heaven?” After contemplating it for a while, he answered, “I am afraid there is none!” I continued: “Alright, since all people in the world have offended heaven, they have no way to pray for forgiveness. Then must it not be that we all are merely waiting for impending punishment?” This businessman had nothing to say. How true it is that all have sinned, and therefore all must perish. But God has extended grace and has sent us the glad tidings. Though it may be beyond prayer for all who have offended heaven, yet God is so gracious to all that He provides for them a Savior who died to atone for their sins, that all sinners may have the chance to be saved and go to heaven. For this reason let sinners come quickly to Jesus and accept the salvation of God—that bad men may go to heaven. Such is the gospel.
This publican, as we have seen, is certainly a big sinner, and yet he is saved. Are we to infer from this that a person must sin until he becomes a big sinner before he can be saved? Can people keep on sinning and be saved? Not at all. In saying sinners may be saved it does not mean that a sinner is saved because he sins. So far as the sinner himself is concerned, he is destined by God to perish, but he may be saved if he relies on a third party who can save him. Let us now examine how this publican who has sinned so greatly is saved. This will cause those who are fellow-sinners to know how to obtain salvation.
This publican has so sold himself to sin that he dare not boast before God that he is somebody. The Lord Jesus, in describing the proper attitude to have, said: “he that humbleth himself” (v.14c). And elsewhere the Scriptures declare that “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble” (James 4.6). This tax-collector knows there is absolutely nothing in him of which he can brag. He realizes his many shortcomings, and he recognizes the justice of being condemned. Accordingly, he humbles himself before God. He comes to God’s temple, “standing afar off, ... not [lifting] so much as his eyes unto heaven” (v.13b). He acknowledges that God is most holy and just, hence a person like him is totally unfit to approach God. Unlike the Pharisee, he has no merit to report to God. He only knows he cannot save himself, and hence he comes to God to ask for mercy.
The Bible tells us that God “giveth grace to the humble” (James 4.6 quoting Prov. 3.34). Are you proud of yourself, believing you have everything and lack nothing? May the Holy Spirit open the eyes of your heart that you may see your need and come to God for grace. And if you have already realized your insufficiency, then do not at this moment allow pride to enter in to deceive your heart, lest you perish. Pride has hindered many from believing on Christ and being saved. I hope that pride will not evilly affect you.
Notice carefully what the publican prays to God: “God, be thou merciful to me a sinner” (v. 13c). Unlike the Pharisee who “sets all others at nought” (v.9b), he confesses that he is a sinner. How difficult it is to say “I am a sinner.” People are willing to acknowledge that “all have sinned” (Rom. 3.23), but few are ready to confess “I have sinned.” This is considered as losing face! But this publican stands in the place of a sinner. Whoever wishes to go to heaven must take this place.
Let me remind you that if there is a saved person in the world he must be a sinner—since none but sinners are chosen for heaven. If we could ask all who are in heaven about their past credentials, all would answer with one voice that they were sinners before. Heaven is inhabited with sinners saved by grace. It is a place especially prepared for sinners. And all who will not confess themselves as such are not qualified to enter heaven! Heaven welcomes the publicans and the prostitutes. All sinners who believe in the Lord Jesus may come!
Recall the words of the Lord Jesus, who said: “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9.13), “for the Son of man came to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19.10). If you regard yourself as righteous, then the Lord Jesus has not come to call, to seek, and to save you. But if you confess you are a sinner, He comes to rescue the lost, and thus you can be saved. Hence let us see that taking the place of a sinner is the first step towards salvation. Though this publican is a sinner destined to perish, he nonetheless is saved because he does not pretend to be sinless but openly confesses he is a sinner.
One night the famous English preacher Charles H. Spurgeon had a dream. He dreamed that he was at the outside of the gate of heaven. He saw a group of saints—bright and glorious—marching through heaven’s gate with banners of victory in their hands, and singing as they went. As soon as they had entered the gate, he immediately heard the joyous sound of welcome. So he asked an angel, “Who are these people? Why are they so warmly welcomed by heaven?” The angel replied: “They are the prophets of old.” Spurgeon sighed and said, “Alas, I am not a prophet, therefore I am not qualified to enter in with them.” After a while, another group like the earlier one entered through heaven’s gate, and they received the same welcome. Inquiring about them, he got this answer from the angel: “These are the saints of old.” Spurgeon knew he was not one of the saints of old, so he was not fit to enter in with them either. A while later a third group approached. Now they were the martyrs of old. Spurgeon once again dared not enter in with them. Finally came a group larger than the combination of the three preceding groups. Among them were two persons whom he recognized: one was the sinful woman who later anointed the Lord with oil and the other was the robber who was crucified with the Lord. He thought certainly there would not be such a warm welcome in heaven for this group. To his surprise, the shout of welcome was seven times greater. He therefore asked: “Who are these people?” The angel replied: “These are people who were dead in sins, but were later saved by the Lord Jesus Christ.” How joyful was Spurgeon after this, and he declared: “May the Lord Jesus be praised forever! For I find my true companions in this group!” At that point, he awoke from his dream. Now though this was but a dream, it conveys a true word for us all. The Lord of heaven welcomes sinners indeed.
The initial work of the Holy Spirit in a human being is to convict him of sin. God’s first step in saving a sinner is sending His Holy Spirit to work in a man’s heart to convict him of sins and transgressions. Once I was preaching in a certain place. Some young girls were deeply convicted by the Holy Spirit of their sins. After the meeting, they remained behind to talk with me. I noticed that there was not a dry eye among them. They all felt sorry for their sins. They told me that they knew they were sinners, and wondered if they could be saved. I told them that since they acknowledged themselves to be sinners, this was a sure evidence that the Holy Spirit had worked in their hearts. Later on, I read John 3.16, 5.24, and other verses of promise from the Scriptures to assure them that once they knew they were sinners, they would have eternal life and be saved if they were willing to believe and accept the Lord Jesus as their Savior. Their eyes were opened by the Holy Spirit, and they instantly saw the salvation of the cross and experienced the joy of salvation. Now they are still living joyfully before the Lord. If, therefore, at this moment the Holy Spirit is convicting you of sin, please understand that it is not for the purpose to condemn you but rather to save you.
This publican not only took the place of a sinner, he truly was sorry for his sins. Notice that he “smote his breast” (v.13.). He really hated himself. As he recalled how he had sinned, he deeply regretted it and beat his breast. “Godly sorrow,” declares the Bible, “worketh repentance unto salvation, a repentance which bringeth no regret” (2 Cor. 7.10). The word of God also says the following: “Thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite” (Is. 57.15); “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (Ps. 51.17). Therefore, do not be fearful of the greatness of your sins. Only be fearful lest you will not confess them and genuinely have sorrow for them. If you lightly regard your sins and are unwilling to take the place of a sinner, you will never seek for the Savior. You will reject Him even should He be escorted to the door of your heart. Honestly speaking, it is quite true that there is no merit in self-humility or in taking a sinner’s place and being sorrowful for sins; nevertheless, except a man humbles himself, regards himself as a sinner, and feels genuinely sorry for his sins, he will never accept the Lord Jesus Christ as the sinner’s Savior.
The acts of humility, confession and sorrow of this publican can not save him and earn for him eternal life; these are but steps preparing his heart for salvation. The one and sole reason for this sinner to be saved is because he believes in the salvation of Christ’s atoning death. Though he is really sorry for his sins, his sorrow cannot save him. Though he confesses that he is a sinner, his confession too cannot save him. Although all these prepare him for receiving salvation, they do not save him. Without these motions of the heart, people will perish; yet these in themselves cannot save anyone. A sinner is saved only because of the salvation which the Lord Jesus has accomplished on the cross. Apart from that, there is no other salvation.
And thus this publican prays this prayer: “God, be thou merciful to me a sinner” (v.13c). This can also be translated as follows: “God, be thou propitiated to me a sinner” (mg.). This speaks of the cross. None can be saved without the cross. It must have been that as this publican stood in the temple and prayed, he was convicted of his sins by the Holy Spirit. He saw far away in the center of the court the priest offering a sacrifice. He doubtless understood how the sacrifice being offered up must die in the place of a sinner. So he asks God: “God, be thou propitiated to me a sinner.” Knowing that he is a sinner, he also knows that sin has its wages. And he also knows that no sinner in and of himself can be justified or go to heaven, and that unless there is a savior who can atone for his sin he must perish. His heart therefore looks at the sin-offering, his heart looks at the Savior. And finally he utters his cry to God. With the result that this publican is saved, and heaven is his.
Coming as he did before God, this tax-collector did not ask God to help him that as he returns home he might be changed. No, he knew he could not be changed, neither was he able to improve himself. He simply and humbly admitted he had sinned, and that unless there was that which would suffer the penalty of sin for him, he must eventually perish. He looked to a savior—to his substitute—and so he was saved.
We all, are we not, sinners and unable to save ourselves? The Lord Jesus therefore comes as our Substitute and Savior to save us. He does not come to be our exemplar or model; He comes to die—and to die for us. We have sinned; and consequently, because “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6.23), we must die. But praise the Lord, Jesus has died for our sins so that we need not die any more: “Who his own self bare our sins in his body upon the tree” (1 Peter 2.24) — “Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous” (3.18)—“And he is the propitiation [satisfaction] for our sins” (1 John 2.2).
How vital is this fact: that with the atoning death of the Lord Jesus, we need not die but can be saved. But conversely, without his atoning death, we must bear our own sins and perish. Truly, the publican is a sinner, but he relies on the Sacrifice who has died for him and atoned for his sins. So that now he has no more sin and does not need to die and go to hell. This publican goes to heaven—yet not on his own merit but on the merit of a third party: that is to say, the redemptive work of the Savior. All who are in heaven depend on the finished work of Christ on the cross and not on their own righteousness.
The publican came to God, asking to be atoned for his sins. This is not unlike a verse from the Book of Romans: “Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed?” (10.13-14a). The publican called upon God because he had first believed in Him. He was saved because he believed that God would in some way atone for his sins. He was justified by faith and by faith he was saved. He understood the truth of salvation which says that “by grace have ye been saved through faith” (Eph. 2.8). He realized how full of shortcomings he was, and that apart from God, nothing else could remedy the situation. This publican therefore asked God to be merciful to him for he knew that salvation could only be by grace: “Not by works done in righteousness, which we did ourselves, but according to his mercy [God] saved us” (Titus 3.5). He understood that God would somehow be gracious to him through the Sacrifice because he would need a Sacrifice to die in his place and to atone for his sins. Hence he asked God to be merciful and to propitiate his sins. He prayed in faith and believed with his heart. And consequently he received what he had asked for.
The publican goes to heaven not because he is special but because he is shown mercy by God through receiving the redemption of Christ the Savior. A sinner does not need to pay any cost to go to heaven because the Lord Jesus has paid everything on the cross. The Pharisee perishes because he does not have the Savior, whereas the publican is saved because he has the Savior. To be saved or to perish has nothing to do with one’s self and one’s deeds. Good as the Pharisee is, he cannot escape hell; bad as the publican is, he may go to heaven. He who goes to hell does not go because of his evil, and he who goes to heaven does not go because of his good. The difference lies only in whether or not the person believes in the Lord Jesus who has died on the cross: “He that believeth on the Son hath eternal life; but he that believeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him” (John 3.36 mg.). Eternal life or eternal death is decided by whether or not a person believes. I beseech all today who do not know Him to quickly believe in the substitutionary death of the Lord Jesus that they may be saved.
All who desire salvation should know first of all that salvation is not a kind of bargain. Salvation is not in your gradually doing good till you receive it as your recompense. Salvation is the free gift of God, and it is freely given to all sinners who believe. God does not regard how bad you are; He will save you if you are willing to receive the Lord Jesus as your Savior, believing that His death is for you by His having borne the just penalty for your sins. No sin can then rise up in the day of judgment to accuse you. You are made whole and are fully saved. Yet neither does God regard how good you are, for you will surely perish if you do not accept the Lord Jesus as your Savior and believe in His substitutionary death. It is most certain that your good cannot cover up nor redeem your evil: you will without doubt perish. Hence God has already ruled that whoever believes in the Lord Jesus shall be saved and all who do not believe shall perish. The unbelieving good man will go to hell while the believing sinner will go to heaven.
In summary, you who are good men, do not boast in yourselves, for your good cannot save you. And you who are bad men, do not be discouraged, for your bad may not be your condemnation. Praise and thank God, how wonderful is His salvation! Though we all are like the publican, being hopeless and helpless sinners who deserve eternal punishment, God nevertheless has caused the Lord Jesus to die on the cross for us that we may be saved by believing and accepting Him as our Savior. What amazing grace this is! Let the sinners follow in the steps of the publican. Come to God, confess your sins, and ask Him in faith, saying: “God, be merciful to me a sinner, for the Lord Jesus has indeed died on the cross for me.”
God will save you. Thank Him for His so great salvation.