What is Pharisee-ism? How do you know if it describes you?

Can you spot a modern-day Pharisee? How do you know if you are one yourself?

I recently read a very interesting book by Timothy Keller called The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (not an affiliate link). I admire the way Keller speaks like a normal person, not a hyper-educated scholar. He also speaks from a pastor’s heart, addressing real-life questions. That is my goal, though I don’t always succeed. Anyway, I highly recommend this New York Times bestselling book.

One thought really struck me in the eleventh chapter of Keller’s book. The chapter is called “Religion and the Gospel.” In it, Keller talks about what characterizes a religion (even Christianity), and how the Gospel is different. That sounds confusing. Let me try again.

First of all, when Keller talks about religion in this chapter, he’s talking about pretty much any kind of worship or belief system that believes in a God or many gods. It could be animism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, or many other religions.

“Wait a minute. Are you saying that Keller thinks all religions are the same?” Not so fast. Here’s an excerpt from a book review I wrote. Forgive the scholarly tone. Professors like that kind of thing. I’ll try to explain it in English following the quote.

Keller continues by contrasting religion with the Gospel. Religion is the self-righteous pietism of the Pharisees where the Gospel involves a relationship with Jesus Christ.

We’ve all seen “self-righteous pietism,” though I’ve usually heard it called a “holier than thou” attitude. Frankly, that attitude always makes me wonder what the person’s hiding. No one is perfect (Rom 3:23). I sure know I’m not.

Recently I shared a testimony at my church of the time my life fell apart. To put it mildly, I was a jerk to everyone who knew me, but God rescued me. (Read more about it here.)

After the church saw my testimony, so many people came up to tell me they would have never guessed I had ever been in that place or treated anyone so horribly. I never really know how to take those comments.

We’re all sinners. We’ve all messed up. In God’s eyes, a child’s “white lie” is just as bad a serial killer. Why? Because both demonstrate a rebellious heart, revolting against God Almighty who loves us and made us for a specific purpose.

Yes, my story is more dramatic than others. But the God who gave me grace, hope, and forgiveness is the same God offering that gift to all who receive Him through the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s the Gospel.

Sin separates us from God. We try all kinds of ways to make that right again and restore our relationship with God. We try to be good people. We go to church. We pray. We read the Bible. We’re kind to others. We give generously of our time and money. We raise kids who will do better than we did.

Unfortunately, none of this works. Keller would classify all of these things as “religion.” Here’s more from my paper:

Pharisee-ism causes more harm than good as they strive in their own power to be perfect, insisting everyone else does the same.

We can all name some people who fit that description, can’t we? Just don’t name names in the comments below. What I want to challenge you and me to think hard about is whether that describes us. If so, that’s a sin we need to confess.

Pharisees seek to obey God so they will be accepted. Grace turns this on its head. God accepts me as I am, therefore I will obey Him ([Keller] 180-192).

God knew we could never make things right with Him on our own. That’s why He sent Jesus, God’s only begotten Son. Jesus came as a human baby. He grew and learned like any other child (Luke 2:52). The difference was that Jesus never sinned, not even once. Not in His thoughts, words, or actions.

Why is that important? Because when Jesus died to pay for sin, He didn’t have to pay for His own. Jesus never sinned. Jesus Christ was the perfect sacrifice, the only one who could ever take the punishment for our sins. Because Jesus died in our place and came back to life again, we too can have life through Him.

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name. (John 1:12 NASB)

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. (John 3:16-17 NASB)

Would you take a moment with me today to pray? Let’s lay our hearts before the Lord and ask Him to perform open heart surgery. Ask Him to reveal cancerous spots of sin in our lives. Confess those sins and ask for forgiveness in Christ’s name.

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9 NASB)

Then write God a blank check. “Whatever You want me to say or do, Lord, I’m all in.”

Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Then I said, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8 NASB)

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