The Pharisee and the tax collector are praying (Luke 18.10) in an area of the Temple where, twice a day, lambs were sacrificed to cover the sins of the people. The prayer of the tax collector, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” is a prayer of atonement.
“Atonement” (a word we don’t use much) is “a reconciliation of alienated parties, the restoration of a broken relationship” (New Geneva Study Bible, p.1772). It is accomplished by making amends, blotting out offenses, and giving satisfaction for wrongs committed. It is what the tax collector wanted God to do.
According to the Bible, we all sin against a holy and righteous God and need atonement. Because we have all alienated God, we can’t have fellowship with him until atonement (reconciliation and restoration) has been made. But because we’re sinful, we have no way to establish our own righteousness before God. Someone else, fully qualified, needs to do it.
That’s where Jesus comes in. In Jesus’ death (as fully God and fully man), God reconciled us (made atonement) to himself, overcoming his own hostility our sins provoked (Romans 5.10).
As the tax collector illustrates, our reconciliation and restoration to God aren’t accomplished by anything we could possibly do. We need God to do it on our behalf. That’s exactly what God “at the cross” did in the death of Jesus. Jesus is the only one who “measures up.”
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