Christian Pharisaism

“The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'” Luke 18:11-12

On his seventieth birthday, pioneer missionary William Carey wrote to one of his sons these words:

I am this day seventy years old, a monument of Divine mercy and goodness, though on a review of my life I find much, very much, for which I ought to be humbled in the dust; my direct and positive sins are innumerable, my negligence in the Lord’s work has been great, I have not promoted his cause, nor sought his glory and honor as I ought, notwithstanding all this, I am spared till now, and am still retained in his Work, and I trust I am received into the divine favor through him.

Carey, who went to India in 1793, is often called the father of modern missions. His vast labors for Christ included translation of all or parts of the Bible into more than forty languages and dialects. He was the originator of the well-known missionary slogan “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.”

How then could a man of such remarkable faith in God, who had accomplished so much for God, lament toward the end of his life his own sinfulness and shortcomings? Why would Carey not rather reflect with gratitude and praise on what God had done through him? Was Carey’s attitude due to an unhealthy, low self-esteem, or did it reflect a healthy realism that is characteristic of a godly, mature Christian? Should Carey’s attitude be an example for us to follow, or should we write it off as an unfortunate bit of introspection that comes with old age?

These are not just theoretical questions, because Carey’s attitude addresses two significant needs among committed believers: the need for a humble realization of our own sinfulness, and the need for a grateful acceptance of God’s grace. Christians tend toward one of two opposite attitudes. The first is a relentless sense of guilt due to unmet expectations in living the Christian life. People characterized by this mode of thinking frequently dwell on their besetting sins or on their failure to witness to their neighbors or to live up to numerous other challenges of the Christian life that are so often laid upon them.

The other attitude is one of varying degrees of self-satisfaction with one’s Christian life. We can drift into this attitude because we are convinced we believe the right doctrines, we read the right Christian books, we practice the right disciplines of a committed Christian life, or we are actively involved in some aspect of Christian ministry and are not just “pew sitters” in the church.

Perhaps we have become self-righteous about our Christian lives because we look at society around us and see flagrant immorality, pervasive dishonesty wholesale greed, and increasing violence. We see growing acceptance of abortion as a “right” and homosexuality as an acceptable alternate lifestyle. Because we are not guilty of these more gross forms of sin, we can begin to feel rather good about our Christian lives.

When we think in this manner we are in danger of becoming like the Pharisee in Jesus’ well-known parable (Luke 18:9-14). Jesus said, “The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get'” (verses 11-12).

The Pharisee was orthodox in his beliefs and very committed in his religious practices. He would have met our threefold description of discipleship. He fasted twice a week (spiritual disciplines); he was not a robber, evildoer, or adulterer (obedience); and he gave a tenth of all his income (service). To use our good-day-bad-day terminology, he was living in a continuous good-day scenario, or so he thought. But he had one fatal flaw He was self-righteous and, through Jesus’ parable, has become the classic example of religious pride and self-satisfaction.

Unlike the Pharisee, the tax collector was painfully aware of his sinfulness. He didn’t just ask for forgiveness of certain sins; he pleaded for mercy as a sinner. In the original language, the text reads, “God be merciful to me the sinner.” Not only did he not compare himself favorably with others as the Pharisee did; he didn’t compare himself at all. He was not concerned with how he measured up with respect to other people. He was concerned with how he measured up before a holy and righteous God. He knew he stood alone before God with his sin, so he pleaded for mercy.

Jesus said the tax collector went home justified, or declared righteous, before God. He freely and rather desperately acknowledged that he had no righteousness of his own, so he received his as a gift from God.

We usually approach this story with the sense of approval that comes from reading about other people instead of ourselves. We agree that the Pharisee was dripping with religious pride, but then we think the parable doesn’t apply to us because we have trusted in Christ and are already justified. We shouldn’t, however, relegate this parable just to the self-righteous and obvious “sinners” among unbelievers. The parable also speaks to us who are believers.

Jesus told the parable to those who were confident of their own righteousness, that is, to those who felt good about their own performance. As long as we compare ourselves with society around us and with other believers who are not as committed as we are, we also are apt to become confident of our own righteousness—not a righteousness unto salvation, but at least a righteousness that will make God pleased with our performance. The sin of the Pharisee, then, can become the sin of the most orthodox and committed Christian.

A large part of our problem as evangelical believers is that we have defined sin in its more obvious forms—forms of which we are not guilty. We think of sin in terms of sexual immorality, drunkenness, lying, cheating, stealing, and murder. And in more recent years we’ve tended to focus on the societal sins of abortion and homosexuality. We see the ever-increasing pervasiveness of these more flagrant sins, and we see ourselves looking good by comparison.

Certainly these more gross sins of society are deep cause for concern, and I am grateful for the prophetic voices God has raised up to expose these moral cancers in our society. But we must not become so preoccupied with the sins of modern-day culture that we ignore the needs in our own lives.

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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