Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Revisiting the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Sam Shamoun

In one of our previous responses we dealt with Paul Bilal Williams’ misuse of the following parable to prove that Jesus taught that God doesn’t needed or require sacrifices or the death of Christ in order to forgive sinners:

“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else: ‘Two men went up TO THE TEMPLE COMPLEX to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee took his stand and was praying like this: “God, I thank You that I’m not like other people—greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.” But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even raise his eyes to heaven but kept striking his chest and saying, “God, turn Your wrath from (hilastheti) me—a sinner!” I tell you, this one went down to his house justified rather than the other; because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.’” Luke 18:9-14 Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)

In this particular rebuttal, we would like to add some additional points which will serve to solidify the fact that the last thing Jesus intended to convey by this parable (or any other parable for that matter) was that substitutionary atonement was not central or necessary for receiving forgiveness.

The first thing to notice from this specific parable is that both the Pharisee and the tax collector are said to have gone up to the temple in order pray, which is quite significant:

Two men went up TO THE TEMPLE COMPLEX TO PRAY, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” Luke 18:10

As we have shown in some of our previous responses, the Hebrew Scriptures teach that the temple was the place where sacrifices for atonement were offered so that God would have a basis to accept the prayers of the penitent and pardon them for their transgressions:

“But will God indeed live on earth with man? Even heaven, the highest heaven, cannot contain You, much less this temple I have built. Listen to Your servant’s prayer and his petition, LORD my God, so that You may hear the cry and the prayer that Your servant prays before You, so that Your eyes watch over this temple day and night, toward the place where You said You would put Your name; and so that You may hear the prayer Your servant prays TOWARD THIS PLACE. Hear the petitions of Your servant and Your people Israel, which they pray TOWARD THIS PLACE. May You hear in Your dwelling place in heaven. May You hear AND FORGIVE… When there is famine on the earth, when there is pestilence, when there is blight, mildew, locust, or grasshopper, when their enemies besiege them in the region of their fortified cities, when there is any plague or illness, whatever prayer or petition anyone from your people Israel might have—each man knowing his own affliction and suffering, and spreading out his hands TOWARD THIS TEMPLE—may You hear in heaven, Your dwelling place, AND MAY FORGIVE and repay the man according to all his ways, since You know his heart, for You alone know the human heart, so that they may fear You and walk in Your ways all the days they live on the land You gave our ancestors.” 2 Chronicles 6:18-21, 28-31 HCSB

We are explicitly told that God accepted the temple as a house of sacrifice and the place where prayers would be made requesting forgiveness:

“So Solomon finished the LORD’s temple and the royal palace. Everything that had entered Solomon’s heart to do for the LORD’s temple and for his own palace succeeded. Then the LORD appeared to Solomon at night and said to him: I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for Myself AS A TEMPLE OF SACRIFICE. If I close the sky so there is no rain, or if I command the grasshopper to consume the land, or if I send pestilence on My people, and My people who are called by My name humble themselves, pray and seek My face, and turn from their evil ways, then I will hear from heaven, FORGIVE THEIR SIN, and heal their land. My eyes will now be open and My ears attentive TO PRAYER FROM THIS PLACE. And I have now chosen and consecrated this temple so that My name may be there forever; My eyes and My heart will be there at all times.” 2 Chronicles 7:11-16 HCSB

Hence, by going to the temple the tax collector was acknowledging the centrality and necessity of the sacrifices which were being offered there for the forgiveness of sins. The tax collector was appealing to God on the basis of the atonement which the priests made in that place to show him mercy and compassion.

This leads us to our next point. The tax collector’s own prayer confirms that God only forgives and grants mercy on the basis of atonement:

“But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even raise his eyes to heaven but kept striking his chest and saying, “God, turn Your wrath from (hilastheti) me—a sinner!” Luke 18:13 HCSB

The word hilastheti, which is rendered as “be merciful” in some other English versions, means to appease God, or make him propitious, so that his wrath may be averted. The way that this was to be done was through the sacrifices offered in the temple. The footnote provided by the HCSB translation helps to make this point more clearly:

b. Luke 18:13 Lit God, be propitious to me; = May Your wrath be turned aside BY THE SACRIFICE (Capital emphasis ours)

And here is how the following lexical sources define this particular Greek word:

hilaskomai: to be propitious, make propitiation for

Short Definition: I have mercy on, forgive

Definition: (a) I have mercy on, show favor to, (b) trans. with object of sins: I forgive, pardon.

Cognate: 2433 hiláskomai (akin to 2434 /hilasmós, "propitiation, appeasement/satisfaction of divine wrath on sin") – properly, to extend propitiation, showing mercy by satisfying (literally, propitiating) the wrath of God on sin; "to conciliate, appease, propitiate (so the LXX; see also Thackeray, Gr., 270f quoting from inscriptions and Deiss., BS, 224f)" (Abbott-Smith). See 2434/hilasmos ("propitiation"). (Strong’s Concordance)


Strong’s G2433 – hilaskomai

Root Word (Etymology)

Middle voice from the same as hileos (G2436)

1) to render one's self, to appease, conciliate to one's self

a) to become propitious, be placated or appeased

b) to be propitious, be gracious, be merciful

2) to expiate, make propitiation for

Vine’s Expository Definition of New Testament Words

Merciful (Adjective, and Verb, to Be), Mercy (Noun, and Verb, to Have, Etc.): in profane Greek meant "to conciliate, appease, propitiate, cause the gods to be reconciled;" their goodwill was not regarded as their natural condition, but as something to be earned. The heathen believed their gods to be naturally alienated in feeling from man. In the NT the word never means to conciliate God; it signifies

(a) "to be propitious, merciful," Luke 18:13, in the prayer of the publican;

(b) "to expiate, make propitiation for," Hbr 2:17, "make propitiation." That God is not of Himself already alienated from man, see Jhn 3:16. His attitude toward the sinner does not need to be changed by his efforts. With regard to his sin, an expiation is necessary, consistently with God's holiness and for His righteousness' sake, and that expiation His grace and love have provided in the atoning sacrifice of His Son; man, himself a sinner, justly exposed to God's wrath (Jhn 3:36), could never find an expiation. As Lightfoot says, "when the NT writers speak at length on the subject of Divine wrath, the hostility is represented, not as on the part of God, but of men." Through that which God has accomplished in Christ, by His death, man, on becoming regenerate, escapes the merited wrath of God. The making of this expiation [(b) above], with its effect in the mercy of God (a) is what is expressed in hilaskomai. The Sept. uses the compound verb exilaskomai, e.g.,Gen 32:20; Exod 30:10, 15, 16; 32:30, and frequently in Lev. and Num. 


was used amongst the Greeks with the significance "to make the gods propitious, to appease, propitiate," inasmuch as their good will was not conceived as their natural attitude, but something to be earned first. This use of the word is foreign to the Greek Bible, with respect to God, whether in the Sept. or in the NT. It is never used of any act whereby man brings God into a favorable attitude or gracious disposition. It is God who is "propitiated" by the vindication of His holy and righteous character, whereby, through the provision He has made in the vicarious and expiatory sacrifice of Christ, He has so dealt with sin that He can show mercy to the believing sinner in the removal of his guilt and the remission of his sins.

Thus in Luk 18:13 it signifies "to be propitious" or "merciful to" (with the person as the object of the verb), and in Hbr 2:17 "to expiate, to make propitiation for" (the object of the verb being sins); here the RV, "to make propitiation" is an important correction of the AV, "to make reconciliation." Through the "propitiation" sacrifice of Christ, he who believes upon Him is by God's own act delivered from justly deserved wrath, and comes under the covenant of grace. Never is God said to be reconciled, a fact itself indicative that the enmity exists on man's part alone, and that it is man who needs to be reconciled to God, and not God to man. God is always the same and, since He is Himself immutable, His relative attitude does change towards those who change. He can act differently towards those who come to Him by faith, and solely on the ground of the "propitiatory" sacrifice of Christ, not because He has changed, but because He ever acts according to His unchanging righteousness.

The expiatory work of the Cross is therefore the means whereby the barrier which sin interposes between God and man is broken down. By the giving up of His sinless life sacrificially, Christ annuls the power of sin to separate between God and the believer.

In the OT the Hebrew verb kaphar is connected with kopher, "a covering" (see MERCY-SEAT), and is used in connection with the burnt offering, e.g., Lev 1:4; 14:20; 16:24, the guilt offering e.g., Lev 5:16, 18, the sin offering, e.g., Lev 4:20, 26, 31, 35, the sin offering and burnt offering together, e.g., Lev 5:10; 9:7, the meal offering and peace offering, e.g., Eze 45:15, 17, as well as in other respects. It is used of the ram offered at the consecration of the high priest, Exd 29:33, and of the blood which God gave upon the altar to make "propitiation" for the souls of the people, and that because "the life of the flesh is in the blood," Lev 17:11, and "it is the blood that maketh atonement by reason of the life" (RV). Man has forfeited his life on account of sin and God has provided the one and only way whereby eternal life could be bestowed, namely, by the voluntary laying down of His life by His Son, under Divine retribution. Of this the former sacrifices appointed by God were foreshadowings. (BlueLetterBible Lexicon)

What makes this rather interesting is that in several places the Greek version of the OT uses hilaskomai and its related terms to translate the Hebrew word that is used for making atonement, namely kaphar:

Strong's H3722 – kaphar

1) to cover, purge, make an atonement, make reconciliation, cover over with pitch

a) (Qal) to coat or cover with pitch

b) (Piel)

1) to cover over, pacify, propitiate

2) to cover over, atone for sin, make atonement for

3) to cover over, atone for sin and persons by legal rites

c) (Pual)

1) to be covered over

2) to make atonement for

d) (Hithpael) to be covered (BlueLetterBible Lexicon)

Notice, for instance, the following examples:

“Yet He was compassionate; He atoned for (yakapper) their guilt and did not destroy them. He often turned His anger aside and did not unleash all His wrath.” Psalm 78:38 HCSB

Here is how the Greek renders it:

“But he is compassionate, and will atone/make propitiation for (hilasetai) their sins, and will not destroy [them]: yea, he will frequently turn away his wrath, and will not kindle all his anger.” Psalm 77:38 LXX


“God of our salvation, help us—for the glory of Your name. Deliver us and atone for (wakapper) our sins, because of Your name.” Psalm 79:9 HCSB

And now the Greek translation:

“Help us, O God our Savior; for the glory of your name, O Lord, deliver us; and atone for/be propitious towards (hilasthetai) our sins, for your name's sake.” Psalm 78:9 LXX

Once again:

“Iniquities overwhelm me; only You can atone for (takapparem) our rebellions.” Psalm 65:3


“The words of transgressors have overpowered us; you shall atone for/be propitious towards (hilase) our sins.” Psalm 64:4 LXX

The word hilase is also used in the following verse:

“For your name's sake, O Lord, be propitious towards/make atonement for (hilase) my sin; for it is great.” Psalm 24[Eng. 25]:11 LXX – cf. 2 Kings 24:4 LXX

These next passages employ the compound form exilaskomai to translate kaphar

“Aaron shall make atonement (hakippurim) on its horns once a year; he shall make atonement on it with the blood of the sin offering of atonement (yakapper) once a year throughout your generations. It is most holy to the LORD.” Exodus 30:10 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

“And once in the year Aaron shall make atonement (exilasetai) on its horns, he shall purify it with the blood of purification for making atonement (tou exilasmou) for their generations: it is most holy to the Lord.” LXX


“The following day Moses said to the people, ‘You have committed a grave sin. Now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I will be able to atone (akapperah) for your sin.’” Exodus 32:30 HCSB

“And it came to pass after the morrow [had begun], that Moses said to the people, Ye have sinned a great sin; and now I will go up to God, that I may make atonement (exilasomai) for your sin.” LXX

See also the following in the LXX: Numbers 25:1-13 – cf. Psalm 106:30; Ezekiel 16:63; Malachi 1:9.

That the Greek term hilaskomai (along with its related words) and the Hebrew kaphar refer to the act of appeasing God’s wrath through atonement can be readily seen by looking at the immediate context of Exodus 32:

“And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people combined against Aaron, and said to him, ‘Arise and make us gods who shall go before us; for this Moses, the man who brought us forth out of the land of Egypt--we do not know what is become of him.’ And Aaron says to them, ‘Take off the golden earrings which are in the ears of your wives and daughters, and bring them to me.’ And all the people took off the golden earrings that were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. And he received them at their hands, and formed them with a graving tool; and he made them a molten calf, and said, ‘These [are] your gods, O Israel, which have brought you up out of the land of Egypt.’ And Aaron having seen it built an altar before it, and Aaron made proclamation saying, Tomorrow [is] a feast of the Lord. And having risen early on the morrow, he offered whole burnt-offerings, and offered a peace-offering; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Go quickly, descend from here, for your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt have transgressed; they have quickly gone out of the way which you commanded; they have made for themselves a calf, and worshiped it, and sacrificed to it, and said, “These are thy gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” And now let me alone, and I will be very angry with them and consume them, and I will make you a great nation.’ And Moses prayed before the Lord God, and said, ‘Wherefore, O Lord, are you VERY ANGRY with your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great strength, and with your high arm? [Take heed] lest at any time the Egyptians speak, saying, “With evil intent he brought them out to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from off the earth”; CEASE FROM YOUR WRATHFUL ANGER, and be MERCIFUL TO (hileos) the sin of thy people, remembering Abraham and Isaac and Jacob your servants, to whom you have sworn by yourself, and have spoken to them, saying, “I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of heaven for multitude,” and all this land which you spoke of to give to them, so that they shall possess it for ever. And the Lord was appeased/propitiated (hilasthe) to preserve his people.” Exodus 32:1-14 LXX

The reason why Moses sought to intercede and make atonement for his people was because he wanted to turn God’s wrath away from the Israelites for their sin of fashioning and worshiping the golden calf. 

 This shows that the people of God were well aware of the fact that making atonement was necessary for the forgiveness of sins, since they knew that God’s righteous anger had to be appeased before he would look favorably upon a person’s prayer and accept his/her confession and repentance.

Which brings us back to the Lord Jesus Christ. One of the reasons why the Lord Jesus came into the world was for the purpose of giving himself up as the perfect sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins:

“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life—a ransom for many.” Mark 10:45 HCSB – cf. Matthew 20:28

“And He took bread, gave thanks, broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘This is My body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same way He also took the cup after supper and said, ‘This cup is the new covenant established by My blood; it is shed for you.’” Luke 22:19-20 HCSB – cf. Mark 14:22-24; Matthew 26:26-28

“‘Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.’ Then the Jews began to argue with one another, saying, ‘How can this man give us His flesh to eat?’ So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.’” John 6:47-58

In fact, the NT writers even employ the very same word that the tax collector used in his prayer to describe Jesus’ vicarious death!  

“For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins (hilaskesthai) of the people.” Hebrews 2:17 NIV 1984


a. Hebrews 2:17 Or and that he might turn aside God’s wrath, taking away

Both the Apostles Paul and John use related terms when they refer to Christ’s death as an atoning sacrifice:

God presented Him as a propitiation[a] (hilasterion) through faith in His blood, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His restraint God passed over the sins previously committed. God presented Him to demonstrate His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be righteous and declare righteous[b] the one who has faith in Jesus. Romans 3:25-26 HCSB


a. Romans 3:25 Or as a propitiatory sacrifice, or as an offering of atonement, or as a mercy seat; 2Co 5:21; Heb 9:5

b. Romans 3:26 Or and justify, or and acquit

“My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice (hilasmos) for our sins, and not only for ours but also for[a] the sins of the whole world. 1 John 2:1-2 NIV 1984


a. 1 John 2:2 Or He is the one who turns aside God’s wrath, taking away our sins, and not only ours but also

“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son[a] into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice (hilasmon) for[b] our sins.” 1 John 4:9-10 NIV 1984


a. 1 John 4:10 Or as the one who would turn aside his wrath, taking away

Hence, the very parable that Williams thought proved his position actually ends up confirming that forgiveness of sins is only granted on the basis of substitutionary atonement, specifically Christ’s atoning death since this is what all of the temple sacrifices were ultimately pointing to.

Lord Jesus willing, we have more rebuttals lined up for Williams which should be appearing on our site in the near future.