In the past, I have heard people in the Church refer to other believers as “Pharisaic.” Although our minds may jump to certain conclusions about what the Christian in question is like, I’ve paused to reflect on what it is we are truly saying when we bestow this unwanted title.
The Pharisees were notorious in the Gospels for beingthe “bad guys.” Along with other Jewish teachers of the law, they were the recipients of Jesus’ sternest words. The Pharisees were rebuked for elevating tradition above commandment for personal gain (Matthew 15:1-9), placing heavy religious burdens on others while not holding themselves to the same standard (Matthew 23:4), doing pious deeds publicly for the praise of others (Matthew 23:5-7), and outwardly appearing righteous while being inwardly wicked (Matthew 23:27-28).
Though the Pharisees were not an example to emulate, I do wonder what people in the Church mean today when they describe fellow believers as being Pharisaic in what they do.
To be sure, if they mean that a person is espousing legalism—or if he is self-righteous—or if he lacks compassion—or if he shows hypocrisy by demanding perfection from people while walking in unrepentant sin—then by all accounts, I believe Pharisaic would be an appropriate term.
But sometimes, I wonder if that isn’t what people mean. It is possible—and I know this because I have done it—for a Christian to view a fellow believer who is so hungry to submit to the Word of God, so zealous to know Christ, so desiring to fear God more than they fear man, so unashamed of the gospel, as being a little too “over the top.” If he were alive today, I wonder how many people in the church would view the apostle Paul—the man who said, “…I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24)—as being over the top. When we encounter people like this, our flesh doesn’t like it. We look at their single-minded devotion to Christ and think them odd for not spending at least a little time enjoying some sin every now and again. Instead of letting their lives challenge us to grow in holiness, we label them Pharisaic and ignore what might be a divine call to take a look in the mirror (2 Corinthians 13:5).
We are indeed saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. The Bible clearly testifies that we do not do anything to earn our salvation—it is a gift of God (Ephesians 2:8-9). Furthermore, the Scriptures tell us just how much God opposes the proud and shows favor to the humble (Luke 18:9-14; James 4:6). But if we are talking about a mature Christian whom the world would label as “weird” because she desires so deeply to become like Christ, I do not see how this would earn her the title of a Pharisee.
So yes—we are saved by grace alone—and that is a beautiful truth. But do we not also serve a Savior who said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15)? How would we answer Christ’s question, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you” (Luke 6:46)? John’s words are even more severe: “Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:4).
Let me put it another way. Travel with me for a moment to Israel in the first century, where my imaginary story will take place. Jesus has just wrapped up his preaching for the day and is heading to Peter’s mother-in-law’s house for dinner. Suddenly, a Pharisee runs up to Jesus and breaks down in tears. On his knees, he cries out, “Teacher, I love you. I will follow you until my dying day. I will turn from my sin, obey what you say, and will encourage others to do the same—even if people end up hating me.” Do we really believe that our Lord would respond with, “Stop being Pharisaic”? I would not call that person a Pharisee. I would call that person a disciple.
No doubt the Church today has Pharisees in its midst. But I wonder if we too quickly write off those brothers and sisters whom the Lord is using to convict and challenge us to follow our King with greater devotion. Instead of calling them Pharisaic, let’s look at the log in our own eye and let these believers help us to return to our first love: the Lord Jesus Christ.