Most churches today have the problem of motivating Christians who are lukewarm and apathetic, who don’t seem to care very much about the Bible or spiritual issues. But there is an opposite extreme that can be even worse, as illustrated by Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees in the New Testament (Matt 23). The Pharisees were the forebears of modern Hasidic or Orthodox Jews. Jesus refused to accept the extrabiblical traditions of the Pharisees; he would not submit Himself to their authority and join their group. As a result, the Pharisees vehemently rejected Jesus, eventually joining with the other Jewish religious leaders to crucify Him (Matt 27:62; John 18:3). Jesus often criticized the Pharisees, pointing out where they went wrong doctrinally and spiritually. One of these criticisms is given in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9-14.
Luke 18:9-14 presents the tragic case of the religious man who is so zealous for spiritual standing within his own group of peers and in his own mind that he creates a “higher standard” for himself that goes way beyond biblical requirements, and he works himself to exhaustion in order to prove his spirituality. Then he compares himself to others who are not doing all the things that he is doing, and despises them for their lack of effort. The problem is, he is arrogant and therefore all his efforts count for nothing before God.
And he spoke also this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and looked down on the rest: “Two men went up into the temple to pray—the one a Pharisee, and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed thus: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like the rest of the people—extortioners, unjust, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his chest, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I say to you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The Old Testament commanded Jews to fast once a year, on the Day of Atonement (= Yom Kippur; Lev 16:29-31). This man went way beyond the requirement, fasting two days every week(!). The Old Testament commanded Jews to tithe agricultural revenue. This man went well beyond the requirement, giving a tenth of all of his income from all revenue sources. While his zeal and effort may seem admirable, it was misplaced through a focus on an external standard of righteousness. This Pharisee was harming his health by excessive fasting, and he was likely depriving his family by excessive giving. He was probably spending too much time praying in the temple, and not enough time serving others or taking care of basic necessities like eating, sleeping, earning an income, and spending time with his family. The question is, why was he doing it? This Pharisee must have been in competition with his peer group to earn the reputation as the most spiritual man in the group, which meant that he had to outdo everyone else. Essentially, he was doing what he was doing so he could feel good about himself, so he could feel superior to others. People like this usually insist that everyone else needs to do all the things they are doing, and if they refuse to do so, they are rebellious and unspiritual. This Pharisee would probably have said, “If you’re not fasting twice a week, you’re not very serious about your walk with God. If I can do it, you can do it!” Or, “There’s no reason why you can’t give a tithe from all your revenue.” Thus, he came to despise people who did not meet his standards and his requirements, when in fact the things that he required of himself and of others were not required by God. They were things that simply did not need to be done. By creating his own set of requirements to prove his spiritual mettle, the Pharisee missed what the Bible actually requires, and he ended up investing his energies in unnecessary activities while overlooking what was truly important.
To most people, this Pharisee would have seemed like a very good man. He was doing many good things and avoiding many bad things, to such an extent that few could measure up. He seemed to sincerely want to be a holy man of God, and to have dedicated his whole life to achieve this aim. But he had a heart of pride and self-righteousness, of which he may not even have been consciously aware. The Pharisees were famous for showcasing their good works—ostensibly to set a good example for the people, but in reality to receive praise from others (Matt 6:5, 16; 23:5).
Often people like this have an evangelistic fervor that can be somewhat annoying. If you greeted this Pharisee on the street, he probably would tell you that he is on his way to the temple to pray, and then would ask you whether you have been to the temple yet today. If you invited him to dinner, he would apologetically say that he cannot come because he is fasting. Then he would challenge you about whether you fast and how often. If he bought something from you in the marketplace, he would ask you whether you are going to give ten percent of the purchase price to God, and he would lecture you on tithing if you said you weren’t. Essentially, this Pharisee would put pressure on everyone he met to do the things that he was doing, with the implication that you would be unspiritual if you didn’t do them. Yet he had gone to such extremes that it would be physically impossible for most people to keep up with him—they would have a breakdown trying, and if somehow they could meet the Pharisee’s requirements, he would add more requirements in order to raise the bar. So people like this become simply unbearable and end up destroying those around them through the pressure they create.
Some Christians hold the belief that the way to improve themselves spiritually is to do more and more “good works,” to be busier and busier (arithmetical piety). The truth is that spiritual growth is a matter of improving the condition of one’s heart, not of doing more things or adding more requirements. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament teach again and again that “I desire goodness, and not sacrifice” (Hos 6:6; cf. 1 Sam 15:22; Pss 40:6-8; 51:16-17; Prov 21:3; Jer 7:22-23; Amos 5:21; Mic 6:6-8; Matt 9:13; 12:7). God rebuked the Jews for fasting and mourning two times a year for seventy years during the Babylonian exile, because their motive for doing it was wrong (Zech 7:5; cf. Isa 58:5-7). God told the Jews of Isaiah’s day that He was tired of all their sacrifices, worship meetings, observance of holy days, and prayers, because they were overlooking the things He really cares about (Isa 1:11-18). God even wished that someone would close the doors of the temple during Malachi’s day in order to stop the Jews from bringing sacrifices (Mal 1:10). One might object, weren’t these sacrifices required by the Bible? The answer is, yes, they were, but presenting acts of worship from an impure heart is worse than not worshiping at all. Thus, Paul said to the Corinthian church with reference to the observance of the Lord’s Supper, “You come together not for the better but for the worse” (1 Cor 11:17). God wants us to take care of the things that really matter—the internals—before performing the external rituals commanded in the Bible.
The Pharisees carefully avoided sins that were outwardly visible and flagrant, yet Jesus told them that “the tax collectors and the prostitutes will go into the kingdom of God before you” (Matt 21:31). In the parable of Luke 18:9-14, the tax collector who begged for God’s mercy was justified, whereas the Pharisee who was proud of his spirituality was not justified. Thus, Jesus told the Jews in Matthew 5:20 that they would not enter the kingdom of heaven unless their righteousness exceeded that of the scribes and Pharisees. In other words, righteousness has to be, first and foremost, something that is in the heart, and only secondarily external actions that stem from one’s inner righteousness. (The works produced by heart righteousness are different than those produced by an external legalism.) The truth is that the pride of the Pharisees was far more deadly and damaging than even the sins of tax collectors (who were extortioners) and prostitutes, some of whom were humble enough to admit their sinfulness and beg for God’s mercy.
The natural human tendency, both in the church and in the world, is to focus on the exterior and to judge character on the basis of an external standard of righteousness. The concept of righteousness as something in one’s heart is difficult to understand, since the heart cannot be visibly seen or physically measured. Yet we have observed many cases of people who were thought to be very spiritual on the basis of their public behavior, who at some point were revealed to be total frauds and charlatans. Such cases are inexplicable to those who measure righteousness by an external standard, but they are easily explained by the principle that righteousness is an internal condition of the heart.
Twentieth century fundamentalism had many positive aspects, but also some tendencies toward Pharisaic legalism. A common example was making attendance at Wednesday evening church obligatory—either an outright requirement for members, or else preaching that it is a sin not to attend Wednesday evening church. Where does the New Testament require attendance at Wednesday evening church? The NT pattern was for the church to meet once a week, on Sunday, although even this is not a rigid ordinance. There may be good reasons to hold additional services, but making these services obligatory is unbiblical and can result in the neglect of more important matters. Certainly it is wrong to view those who attend midweek services as more spiritual than those who do not. Even worse is the idea that attendance at Wednesday evening church is necessary to be “right with God.” It might be necessary to be in good standing with one’s pastor or with one’s church, but Christians are under grace, not law—only faith is required for good standing with God.
Legalism is not a problem limited to twentieth century fundamentalism. It has been a problem throughout throughout church history, and was a problem in rabbinic Judaism before the church began. Legalism was the main issue the apostles dealt with in the first church council (Acts 15), and it was a subject the apostle Paul dealt with extensively in his epistles. The church in the early centuries subsequently developed legalistic tendencies in response to pressures from heretical groups and the imperial government. This legalism was carried much further by monastic orders, whose influence made the church more legalistic in turn. The legalism of the medieval Roman Catholic Church became so extreme that when Martin Luther proclaimed the gospel of salvation by faith alone, he was excommunicated for heresy—yet many of the resulting Protestant churches also had legalistic tendencies, especially in the Reformed wing. Contemporary evangelical churches often have their own external standards of righteousness—a sort of political correctness—but also a tendency toward the opposite extreme of legalism: libertinism, the idea that external actions matter little. Libertinism was also a problem that the early church encountered as the gospel spread from its original Jewish context into the Gentile world. First Corinthians, 1 John, and Revelation 2–3 deal with the problem of libertinism.
It is easy for us to think that our heart is right when it is not, as was probably the case with most Pharisees. It is far more difficult to change our sinful character, attitudes, and ways of thinking than it is to physically do “good works.” Solomon observed that it is easier for a warrior to take a fortified city in battle—perhaps the most difficult of all physical tasks—than it is for a person to control his attitude (Prov 16:32). Really the only way to judge one’s heart and make it the way it ought to be is through diligent study of the Bible, in combination with prayer and a sincere desire to do what is right. One can only bring his heart attitude and worldview into line with God’s by reading and seeking earnestly to understand God’s Word. The Bible will illuminate our shortcomings as the Holy Spirit convicts us, and it will show us in many different ways what true righteousness consists of. But still, since righteousness is a matter of the heart (1 Sam 16:7; Prov 21:2; Jer 17:10; Luke 11:39; Rom 2:28-29; Heb 4:12; 1 Pet 3:3-4; Rev 2:23), the mere outward acts of studying the Bible and praying are not in themselves the true mark of spirituality: the ground on which the seed falls must be fertile.
Let’s not believe that any one of us is immune to the temptation of spiritual pride.