We are all born legalists, but we are made into Pharisees.
Spurgeon once preached, “Beloved, the legalist [in us] is a great deal older than the Christian. If I were a legalist today, I should be some fifteen or sixteen years older than I am as a Christian; for we are all born legalists.”
We are all born believing we can earn and deserve heaven. We are born resisting the idea of grace, mostly because of the awful things grace says about us. John Piper defines legalism as “the conviction that law-keeping is the ground for our acceptance with God — a failure to be amazed at grace.”
Pharisees are legalists, but not the newborn kind. They have all the same fears about grace, but they have coated their insecurities with accumulated knowledge, morality, and religion. Pharisees are legalists who are puffed up (1 Corinthians 8:1). They look educated, clean, and alive, all while dying inside. The seeds of sin and death keep growing and spreading underneath the confident appearances and practices, always harder and harder to cover up.
We are born legalists. But Pharisees are informed legalists.
He Came to Call Sinners
Pharisees were Jesus’s greatest human enemies. They misjudged him, to be sure, but their greater problem, in the end, was that they misjudged God and themselves. The Christ could have come a thousand different ways — in a manger or on a throne, wrapped in rags or robed in fine cloth, to a carpenter or to a king. They always would have rejected the real Jesus, because they refused to believe that they needed the only thing he came to give.
“We are all born legalists, but we are made into Pharisees.”
They gossiped to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5:30). But Jesus overheard them and said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31–32).
Jesus was not saying he came only to save the people that seem to need him most, like rapists, prostitutes, and murderers. No one needs him more than you or me. He was saying he came to save the people who recognize their need for him. While Pharisees were keeping their distance and plotting to kill Jesus, it was tax collectors and sinners who were soaking up every minute of his short life.
Tim Keller writes about the dangers of Phariseeism today, even in evangelical churches,
We tend to draw conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people. The licentious and liberated or the broken and marginal avoid church. That can only mean one thing. If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did. (Prodigal God, 15–16)
Why would our churches attract the conservative, buttoned-down, and moralistic? Is it because they feel more at home with us than they did with Jesus in his day?
The problem with Pharisees is not simply that they preach a false gospel of works. That is a serious, damnable flaw (Galatians 1:9). But there are plenty of “gospel-centered” Pharisees today. The real problem is the pride and greed and fear underneath any works-based confidence in ourselves. That pride and greed and fear (or whatever sin you struggle with) eventually sever our mind and mouth from our heart.
Jesus rebukes the Pharisees, saying, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me’” (Mark 7:6). They had developed ways of appearing to be godly without really preferring and prioritizing God in their hearts. What they knew about God was disconnected from how they felt about God, and therefore left them even further from God.
Recognizing a Pharisee
If we are serious about grace, and true slaves to righteousness (Romans 6:15–18), we must beware of the symptoms of gracelessness. If we refuse to believe we could be a Pharisee, we’re as vulnerable as the Pharisees who murdered the Author of life. So, how would we know if we had subtly become a modern-day Pharisee? Jesus gives us at least six signposts along the highway away from grace.
1. Pharisees know what to say, but do not do what they say.
Jesus says, “They preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:3–4). Beware the dissonance between what you say you believe and the reality of how you live, and refuse to make peace with it.
“We are in danger of developing ways to appear godly without really preferring and prioritizing God in our hearts.”
We are all sinners, so there will be always be some dissonance (1 John 1:8). We are always repenting this side of glory. But look closely at any consistent or reoccurring departure — in spending and giving, in serving, in relating to your spouse or children, in loving your neighbor, in indulging in secret sin.
What excuses do you make for the sins that entangle you? The Pharisees were happy to point out sin in others, and even happier to excuse it in themselves.
2. Pharisees practice their faith to be seen by others.
Jesus goes on, “They do all their deeds to be seen by others” (Matthew 23:5). The Pharisees prayed to be seen by others (Matthew 6:5). They served the poor to be seen by others (Matthew 6:2). They obeyed the Scriptures to be seen by others (Matthew 6:1). And they received what they really wanted: recognition and esteem from others.
Jesus warns, though, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). Is your Christianity consistently aiming for acceptance or approval or affirmation? Are you Christian mainly for the social benefits? Or do you pray, and serve, and give “to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31), for “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ” (Philippians 3:8).
If so, the reward from your Father will be fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11).
3. Pharisees keep people from Jesus and his grace.
Jesus brings a third indictment in Matthew 23,
“You shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:13–15)
One of the greatest dangers of Phariseeism is that it’s contagious. When we disconnect our heart from our head, subtly putting our confidence in our flesh, we lead other people away from Jesus with us. When Pharisees make disciples of all nations, they breed children of hell, not sons and daughters of grace.
Are the people following you amazed by grace? Does your influence in their lives widen their eyes and heart to the wonder that God would save any of us?
4. Pharisees add their convictions and traditions to the word of God.
What preferences, or convictions, or traditions do we have that are not clearly commanded in Scripture? Pharisees love and protect their traditions with their lives. They build massive systems and programs, like sets for a musical, that unnecessarily burdened God’s people — and that hid what’s really happening inside of them.
“If we make every effort to cover our sin and hide our need, we clearly have not understood the gospel.”
They established and enforced laws about swearing that allowed someone to go back on their word in various circumstances. If someone swore by the temple, he did not need to follow through, but if he swore by the gold of the temple, he was bound (Matthew 23:16). Jesus says instead, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matthew 5:37).
What practices or programs in our churches have become exhausting and unfruitful structures of avoiding what God has really called us to do? Maybe they were envisioned, created, and developed with God’s help and favor, but are we preserving and imposing them simply because “we’ve always done it this way”?
5. Pharisees lack love for people in need.
Besides their hatred of Jesus, the most glaring warning light in the Gospels is the Pharisees’ lack of love for people, especially people in need. Jesus rebukes them, “You tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matthew 23:23–24).
They looked for every conceivable reason not to help the poor, oppressed, and needy. They looked down on Jesus for sitting with sinners, instead of having compassion on them (Mark 2:16). They despised Jesus for healing a man’s withered hand, instead of wanting to see him healed (Mark 3:5–6). They cursed Jesus for casting a demon out of another man, instead of rejoicing that he was finally free (Matthew 12:22–24).
Pharisees find every way to leverage the law to walk the long way around the half-dead man lying in the middle of the road right in front of them (Luke 10:31–32). Those who have died with Christ have died to themselves, and live for the needs and interests of others, whoever God has placed in our path.
6. Pharisees cover sin instead of confessing and repenting.
Jesus exposes the Pharisees a sixth time,
“You clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. . . . You are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:25–28)
Lawful on the outside, but full of lawlessness. Bleached exterior walls, but full of death. A conservative, moral, and religious social media profile, but chasing sin with every secret click.
“When what we know about God is disconnected from how we feel about God, it always leaves us further from God.”
If we make every effort to cover our sin and hide our need, we clearly have not understood the gospel, and we have not embraced grace. Pharisees say they have fellowship with Jesus while they walk in darkness (1 John 1:6). Lovers of Jesus confess our sin, knowing “he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Are You a Pharisee in the Making?
Do you recognize any of these symptoms in yourself? Anyone who has been given greater knowledge has received greater vulnerability with it.
If we begin to sense a disconnect between our head and our heart — what we say and who we are — the solution is not simply more head. Read more. Take more classes. Google more definitions and explanations. The knowledge is vital (Romans 10:2), but it is not the key to reviving our hearts. God is. Knowledge doesn’t open eyes and ears. God does. God must drag whatever each of us knows about him into our hearts and light it, by his Spirit, with faith and love and joy.
The apostle Paul prays for this, “I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened” (Ephesians 1:16–18). Paul doesn’t say put away knowledge, or neglect theology, or disregard difficult questions in the Bible. No, he simply prays that God would set all of that thinking on fire in our hearts — that he would make grace compelling and Jesus satisfying to us.