Can you explain, “God be merciful to me a sinner?”


by Shawn Brasseaux

Friend, as you may know very well, Luke 18:13 is one of the proof-texts of the so-called “sinner’s prayer” crowd. While they are doing their best to share Jesus Christ with lost people, certain professing Christians have confused others by popularizing the prayer, “Lord, have mercy on me!” They use the verse to persuade lost people to get on their knees and cry at so-called church “altars.” These people seeking salvation in Christ today are urged to plead for God’s mercy as the publican did. Unfortunately, those who use Luke 18:13 as a salvation verse for people to follow today, have no idea what it is actually teaching. We hope to shed some light on this highly abused verse.

The Bible says in Luke chapter 18: “[9] And he [Jesus Christ] spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: [10] Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. [11] The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. [12] I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. [13] And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. [14] I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”

Before we proceed, we must acknowledge that this parable has a unique setting. Jesus said it involved two men praying in Israel’s Temple in Jerusalem. Unlike us, they were not praying in some Gentile church building. And the publican was certainly not at home repeating a “sinner’s prayer” with some smooth-talking televangelist. Luke 18:13 involves Israel’s Temple in Jerusalem. Never forget that, my friend.

To better understand this “Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican,” we should review some basics of the Mosaic Law system. At Mount Sinai, Exodus chapter 20 onward—also in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—God gave the Law of Moses to the nation Israel. It encompassed many rules and regulations (headed by the Ten Commandments, but involved hundreds of other laws), a priesthood (Levitical/Aaronic priesthood), a place of worship (Tabernacle), a complex religious calendar, and various animal sacrifices. During the centuries between Moses ministry and Jesus’ earthly ministry, the Law of Moses, or Judaism, became increasingly watered down (corrupted). Israel’s religious leaders had added manmade rules and regulations, passing off these rabbinical traditions as “just as much the Word of God as the Sacred Writings.” (Sounds just like Roman Catholicism, yes?)

This amalgamation of God’s pure Law and manmade religious tradition was present during Christ’s earthly ministry. Hence, the Lord Jesus heavily criticized it. This works-religion had caused many Jews to believe that they did not need a Saviour (Him). Heading this self-righteous group were the Pharisees and the Sadducees, Israel’s religious leaders. As Luke 18:9 said, they “trusted in themselves that they were righteous.” It was for this reason that Jesus spoke the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican in the following verses (Luke 18:10-14). Now that we have a better understanding of the background, we can return to the actual text.

Verses 11 and 12, of Luke chapter 18: “[11] The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. [12] I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.” The Pharisee thanked God that he was not as other men are. He was not an extortionist, unjust, an adulterer, or even as that publican (tax collector). Rather, he fasted twice a week and he gave tithes of all that he possessed. Such wonderful religious works! (Pardon my sarcasm.) In fact, the Pharisee was so content with his religion that he thought he was better than everyone else.

Now, we read about the publican. Verse 13: “And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.” Observe how this tax collector stood quite a distance away from the Pharisee. This publican would not even lift up his eyes unto heaven. Rather, he smote his breast. He literally used his fist to strike his chest, signifying great sadness (sorrow). Unlike the Pharisee clothed in his self-righteousness, the publican knew good and well that he was an undeserving, wretched sinner. Yet, he recognized something that the goody-goody Pharisee had overlooked. What? We must go back into Israel’s history again, when the Mosaic Law was first given.

When God formed Israel’s religion under Moses, one of the most important days on their spiritual calendar was the Day of Atonement. See all of Leviticus chapter 16 for details. For brevity’s sake, we look at two verses: “[15] Then shall he [the high priest] kill the goat of the sin offering, that is for the people, and bring his blood within the vail, and do with that blood as he did with the blood of the bullock, and sprinkle it upon the mercy seat, and before the mercy seat: [16] And he shall make an atonement for the holy place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions in all their sins: and so shall he do for the tabernacle of the congregation, that remaineth among them in the midst of their uncleanness.”

God commanded Israel’s High Priest (originally it was Moses’ brother Aaron) to enter the Holy of Holies—the innermost chamber where God’s presence was in the Tabernacle—once a year and sprinkle goat’s blood on the Mercy Seat (lid of the Ark of the Covenant). It was to atone for, or cover, the sins of all the people of the nation Israel. The blood was on the Mercy Seat. The blood was between God’s presence (which was above the Mercy Seat) and the broken Ten Commandments (which were under the Mercy Seat, in the Ark of the Covenant). That shed blood restored Israel’s fellowship with God. It made them “at one.” Eventually, under King Solomon, the Temple replaced the Tabernacle. Still, the rituals of the Day of Atonement continued, and right up to the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Now, let us return to that parable of the Pharisee and the publican to conclude.


In Luke 18:13, when the publican prayed, “God be merciful to me a sinner,” both he and God were thinking about that goat’s shed blood sprinkled on the Mercy Seat there in the Temple. The publican agreed with God that he was a sinner, that he could not approach Him, a holy righteous God, on the basis of his works. He knew he could approach God only because of the atoning blood on the Mercy Seat. That animal blood was a picture, or type, of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice of Himself on Calvary. (You can refer to Hebrews chapter 10 in its entirety.)

In stark contrast, the Pharisee, please note, was not approaching God by faith in shed blood. He told us exactly what made him think God would accept him—his faithful fasting and tithing (Luke 18:12)! In other words, he bragged about giving up pleasures and giving out money. Do, do, do! Typical of religion! Sounds just like Cain and Abel. Ignoring the blood provision God makes, and attempting to do something to replace God’s work. Jesus said, in Luke 18:14, that the publican was justified rather than the Pharisee. The publican had humbled himself (humility) whereas the Pharisee had exalted himself (arrogance).

The problem with using Luke 18:13 and us asking God to show us mercy today, is for us to forget the greatest event in all of human history. Something so drastic happened in world history after Jesus Christ told that parable in Luke chapter 18. It was His sacrificial death on Calvary’s cross! On this side of Calvary, how and why does God show us mercy? Is it because of some animal blood sprinkled on the Mercy Seat in the Temple at Jerusalem today? Of course not, beloved! That Temple was destroyed nearly 20 centuries ago! God showed (past tense) us mercy (pity, compassion) by sending His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to die our death and endure His wrath on our behalf—the fulfillment of that animal’s blood. For us to request God show us mercy today, is really quite blasphemous. He has no more mercy to show us than what He already did at Calvary’s cross. When He offered His Son as the fully satisfying payment for our sins, He gave us a way to escape the flames of hell due us because of our sin! There is no greatest way for Him to show us mercy. Rather than asking for God’s mercy, just enjoy it in Christ!

Ephesians 2:1-7: “[1] And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; [2] Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: [3] Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others. [4] But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, [5] Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) [6] And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: [7] That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus.”

Titus 3:4-6: “[4] But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, [5] Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; [6] Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour;”

Also see:
» Must I say the “sinner’s prayer?”
» What about Romans 10:9-10?
» Why did Israel have to keep so many strange laws?