Last year, my family and I enjoyed some vacation time at the beach. After finding a place to put our towels, my oldest son and I jumped into the ocean to go body surfing. Fifteen minutes later, I looked up to find my wife—but nothing on the beach looked familiar. I thought I was still directly in front of her but, without realizing it, I had drifted a few hundred yards. The gradual pull of the ocean can be so subtle that it's hard to notice you're drifting further away.
Likewise, for the believer who desires to be gospel-centered, the drift toward becoming more Pharisaical is also so subtle we might not even notice it.
THE PHARISAICAL PULL
Nobody wants to be a Pharisee, yet our flesh seems naturally bent in that direction. The good news of the gospel seems too easy for our works-based, achievement-driven hearts. We know Christ achieved it all, but we still want to contribute. Even while we proclaim the gospel of grace, we fight the intense pull toward self-righteousness.
Jesus was explicit in his rebukes against the Pharisee. He welcomed the repentant sinner with grace and mercy, but offered sharp critiques to those who had supposedly achieved righteousness. Even as I read the "woes" to the Pharisees in Matthew 23, I find myself thanking God I'm not like them . . . thus revealing I'm closer than I think.
My father-in-law, a former surfer, informed me that when playing in the ocean it's important to find a "point of reference"—a large, stationary object on the beach, like a lifeguard stand, unique landscape, etc. As you are enjoying the waves, you must continually look back to your point of reference and re-adjust yourself. Constant checks and re-adjustments keep you from drifting too far without realizing it.
For believers, the gospel is our point of reference. We continue to behold the beauty of the gospel and live under its truths. As we seek to live this kind of gospel-centered life, we must be aware of the drift towards a Pharisaical mindset and be ready to evaluate our hearts.
Here are five evaluation questions to ask ourselves to point us back to the gospel and keep us from drifting.
WHERE DO YOU FIND YOUR RIGHTEOUSNESS?
In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells a story to those who "trusted in themselves that they were righteous." Two men went to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee who thanked God that he wasn't like the sinners, and then he went on to point out all the good he had done. The other man was a tax collector who wouldn't even look up to heaven, but simply prayed "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!"
Only one of those men went home justified before the Lord. The Pharisee was looking at his own good works to establish his righteousness and standing before God. Truly understanding our sinfulness and God's holiness is incompatible with this type of self-righteousness. The tax collector recognized his sin and pleaded for mercy.
We also see that self-righteousness leads to treating others with contempt, judging others, and considering yourself better than others because you think you have accomplished something they haven't. In the Pharisee's mind, he's been good enough. Why can't other people get their act together?
Gospel reminder: The gospel teaches that believers are righteous, but it is an alien righteousness. We've been made new by a righteousness outside of ourselves, the very righteousness of Christ. Therefore, a true believer has no reason to boast except in Christ and him crucified. Any goodness we see in our life is the result of a changed heart and indwelling Holy Spirit, to which all glory belongs to God.
WHY DO YOU DO GOOD WORKS?
The Pharisees did good works, but only to be seen by men. In Matthew 23, Jesus says:
"For 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. They do all their deeds to be seen by others."
In Matthew 6:1 we are warned: "Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you have no reward from your Father who is in heaven." Jesus goes on to teach that our praying, fasting, and any good deed should be done without advertising it. We must be careful that we don't "sound the trumpet" when we do good works, making sure that everyone sees us.
Gospel reminder: Our acceptance is based on the works of Christ, so we don't need to try and win favor with God and man. We can rest in the gospel, which continues to bear fruit and good works (Colossians 1:6). As we serve the Lord, our motive should be to glorify God and not ourselves. "Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 5:16).
IS YOUR “RELIGION” MERELY EXTERNAL?
Jesus rebukes the Pharisees in Luke 16:15: “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For that which is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God." In Matthew 23:25-28, Jesus tells the Pharisees they are whitewashed tombs who focus on the outside but neglect the inside. A whitewashed tomb looks nice on the outside, but inside it’s full of death and decay.
We can go to church, volunteer, give money to the poor, and other good, external works, but still be dead in our sins. God is concerned about our heart. Are the commands of God constantly burdensome (1 John 5:3)? Are we constantly trying to produce on the outside what we don't feel or believe on the inside?
Gospel reminder: The work of the gospel changes us from the inside out. The New Covenant promised in Ezekiel 36 provides a new heart instead of simply changing us with external laws.
DO YOU PROCLAIM THE COMMANDS OF MEN AS COMMANDS OF GOD?
The Pharisees followed many man-made rules and enforced them on others. When Jesus and his followers refused to obey them, the Pharisees didn't appreciate it. Jesus tells them in Mark 7:8, "You leave the commandment of God and hold to the traditions of men."
There might be things that bother my conscience, so I personally refuse to take part in them. However, unless God calls something sin, we should be very careful about pushing men's opinions as commandments of God.
Gospel reminder: Oftentimes, when we add to God's law, we are doing so in an attempt to look or feel more holy. We might think such a strict lifestyle will win us extra favor before God, but the work of Christ is already complete and perfect, so we cannot add anything to it.
DO YOU FIND A WAY TO JUSTIFY YOUR DISOBEDIENCE?
The Pharisees found ways to justify themselves for disobeying the laws of God. In Mark 7:9-13, Jesus gives an example where the Pharisees were not helping their parents financially because they were "giving that money to God." While that might sound spiritual, Jesus said it's sinful not to honor one's mother and father, even if you are giving that money to the church.
We often find it easy to justify our sin. For instance, we justify our anger toward others by arguing they deserved it. Our secret sin isn't really a big deal because it's not hurting anyone, we tell ourselves. Our lack of church attendance is excusable because we're listening online. On and on we go, making molehills out of mountains. While the excuses may seem valid and appease our seared conscience, at the end of the day disobedience is still disobedience.
Gospel reminder: None of us can justify ourselves. Our debt has been paid by Christ, so we are now justified in him. Which means we should own our sin, confess it, and repent. Then, by God's grace, we press on without the weight of shame and guilt.
As we strive to be gospel-centered people of grace, let’s recognize the ease with which we can drift into a Pharisaical mindset. Let’s fight against this drift by continually looking to the gospel and beholding its beautiful truths.
"God, be merciful to me, a sinner!"
James Williams has served as an Associate Pastor at FBC Atlanta, TX for four years. He is married to Jenny and they currently have four children in their home (three biological, one in foster care). He is in the dissertation stage of a PhD in Systematic Theology. You can follow James on Twitter or his church’s blog where he writes regularly.