The parable of the Pharisee and Publican recorded in Luke 18:9-14 is one most Mormons are not familiar with. Neither are they familiar with the concept of “being justified,” which lies at its heart. Their unfamiliarity with the parable and the concept of justification will often allow us to teach them biblical truth without their having an alternate explanation.
It is important to be clear on the definition of “justified.” It comes from a legal setting and describes a judge acquitting somebody. In the original Greek, it is from the same root word as “righteous.” So, justified is often defined as “to declare somebody righteous.” (The connection between righteous and justified can be seen in the parable itself. Verse 9 tells us that it is addressed to those who thought they were righteous. In verse 14, Jesus indicates whom God declared righteous when he talks about the publican being justified.)
Emphasize that “justified” is a declaration. God declares people righteous. He doesn’t make them righteous. It deals with a person’s legal status. This distinction is important because if it meant making somebody righteous, then we would expect the justified person to no longer sin.
The lesson Jesus taught with this parable is striking. On the one hand, you have a Pharisee who has gone the extra mile. He fasted twice a week – something not commanded by God – and gave a tenth of all he possessed – not just what he earned. And he knows it. He doesn’t really pray; he boasts to God.
The publican, or tax collector, could not have a more different attitude. He doesn’t feel worthy even to come close. He stood afar off. He wouldn’t even look up to heaven. All he can say about himself is that he is a sinner. However, he does something the Pharisee doesn’t. He figuratively throws himself at the Lord’s feet, begging for mercy.
Finally comes Jesus’ striking conclusion. The publican, not the Pharisee, is the one God justifies or acquits. Even though the Pharisee had done more than God commanded in the law, it wasn’t enough. It didn’t cause God to justify him. This is a vivid demonstration of Romans 3:20 – through the deeds of the law, no one will be justified.
The publican, on the other hand, did no work. He trusted solely in God’s mercy. And in his mercy, God can justify people freely because Jesus on the cross completely satisfied God’s justice.
It will be especially important to emphasize this last point; God can be merciful because Jesus satisfied his justice. Even though Mormonism talks about Jesus satisfying God’s justice, it still demands payment from the individual. You might also want to bring in Jesus’ cry, “It is finished.” In the original Greek, it is one word that was often used to mark bills, “paid in full.” Our debt has been paid in full. Therefore. God can’t accept any more payment. “Now where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin” (Hebrews 10:17). Offering or payments for sin. as a category. no longer exists. There is no such thing anymore!
One final note: It will be very tempting for you to compare the Pharisee with Mormons. Don’t do it! Hopefully, they will make the connection themselves. Even if they don’t, we can be sure the parable will gnaw at them because it is the powerful Word of God.