“And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, this Man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.”
Phariseeism! What an odious word. Its connotations today rank right up there with “prejudice” and “discrimination.” In dealing with “Phariseeism,” what it is and what it is not, we raise a warning against a very common evil in Protestantism today, one which, because of belittling of the clear and pointed application of God’s precepts in the preaching, can only continue to strangle Protestantism in its icy grip.
That we should maintain that Protestantism is being characterized to an increasing measure by Phariseeism might surprise one. When one first looks at the church world it is not readily apparent that the Christian church is infected with self-righteous pharisees. Today the churches are filled with people who claim to despise a phariseeistic, holier-than-thou attitude. This is the one thing that is preached from the pulpit. If it is one thing they will not do it is to condemn others of being publicans and sinners. They will accuse others of no sin. How then they can be phariseeistic? The Pharisees condemned everybody but themselves. Everybody else was worse. They were perfect. Where do you find that in the modern Christian church?
Today, if anything, people go to the opposite extreme. In fact, it is to escape the charge of phariseeism that many refuse to perform the task of Christian discipline or censure. To do so you would have to make judgments. You would have to rebuke publicans, those who become rich through dishonest means, warning them of exclusion from the Kingdom; or you would be forced to excommunicate adulterers, those living with another’s spouse. And that they will not do, lest they condemn another. In fact, if you practice discipline they will accuse you of phariseeism. Today those living as greedy publicans, harlots, or in other sins have the implicit approval of the church. They will not charge any of their members with breaking God’s commandments. They want nothing to do with any possible charge of phariseeism.
So, all this makes the modern Christian church increasingly free from phariseeism. Right? Wrong! And one could not be more so. One must not imagine that by refusing to rebuke any for sin he, therefore, has freed himself from the sin of phariseeism. Nor must one imagine that a text such as Luke 15:2 is to be interpreted in such a manner. To do so is to reveal a sad misunderstanding of what phariseeism is. The fact remains that the Christian church encourages the sin of phariseeism whether she will admit it or not.
The decisive question is not, do you ever rebuke a man for living as a cheater, or a woman as a harlot? If the wife commits adultery or the husband cheats on his income tax, the spouse is to offer no rebuke? That is not the question. Nor is it a matter first of all whether you see others as publicans and sinners. But the decisive question is, are you ready to confess that youare a publican and a sinner, and so are worthy of condemnation? That is the question.
The fact of the matter was that what the Pharisees accused those with whom Christ was associating was true. They were guilty of cheating and of harlotry. The sin of phariseeism is not that you reprimand cheaters, harlots, and drunkards, warning them that those defiled with such sins can not inherit the kingdom. We may be sure that Christ rebuked them. The epistles are full of His rebukes. Have you never read James 4:4? The question is, do you number yourself among, will you allow the world to identify you with, those publicans and sinners? That is where the Pharisees erred first of all. They would not admit guilt to such sins. They were scandalized at the thought. Rather, they thanked God that they were not as others, whom they could name, were.
It is here with respect to phariseeism that contemporary Protestantism errs so grievously. She is content to leave her members in their phariseeism. How many declare from the pulpits that as a congregation we are publicans and sinners, cheaters and adulterers, worthy of condemnation? And again, “Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” How many will stand with David, who had murdered Uriah and committed adultery with Bathsheba, and hear Nathan the prophet say, “Thou art the man!”? How many will then say, “I have sinned against the Lord”? Not many. In such an environment phariseeism grows unabated.
The chief fault of the scribes and Pharisees was not that they said that the publicans and sinners did not deserve salvation and were not even worth admonishing (though they did say that, revealing their evil spirit); but their chief fault was that they refused to identify themselves with the undeserving. This is a serious matter. Those who refuse to identify themselves with damn-worthy publicans and sinners are numbered amongst the “just persons, which need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). And seeing not one’s need of repentance, they needed not Jesus as Christ.
The publicans and sinners knew that they were not just. What they knew was that, because of their sin, they were damn-worthy. Therefore they sought Him out Who alone could save them from the curse of the law. It was because the Pharisees would not confess that they were damn-worthy, which one must do before he will seek out the Christ of the Scriptures, that they would not humbly draw nigh to Him as Savior. The question must be asked, “How many are led to see that they are damn-worthy before the law?”
A consequence of phariseeism is that men seek a different Christ than that of the Scriptures. The Pharisees did. They wanted a Messiah who patted them on the back, who said, “You are pretty good people. I am impressed with your zeal and dedication. You have some faults, but they are minor compared to your virtues. I would be honored to have you select me as your Messiah. Will you please, please follow me? I would be forever in your debt.” That’s the kind of Christ which appealed to them, the same kind that appeals to the Christian church today. Modern Evangelists have given them that kind of a Messiah; one who tells people they are pretty good, and who is indebted to them for choosing him. Their phariseeism is left intact.
To recapitulate, phariseeism is not first how you view others. That is included, but phariseeism does not start there. That is just a symptom. Phariseeism starts with how you view yourself, namely, not as a damn-worthy sinner. If you really see yourself as a publican you cannot despise others, or draw yourself up in haughty superiority. But if you despise others it can only be because you have too high an opinion of yourself.
The natural tendency of man is to have a high opinion of himself. That is his phariseeism. Who cannot find that in himself? The word must declare, “Repent of that first of all. Repent of that before you repent even of being a publican and a sinner.” First we must repent of our self-righteousness, our phariseeism, then we can go on to enumerate the rest. Until self-righteousness is confessed, it is vain to confess the rest.
Let me add, of this the ministers of the gospel who bring that convicting word must be ever so mindful. It is so easy to say, “I will take this sharply pointed text, and hurl it at the people. They need to be pierced.” But the Spirit says, “Have you hurled it at yourself first of all? If not, do not address it to the congregation, lest behind it be the wrong spirit; yours, not Christ’s.” Only after one has humbled himself and applied the convicting word to oneself can one preach, not as a Pharisee to publicans, but as a sinner to publicans in Christ’s name.
In light of the above the question arises anew, whether it can be said that the modern Christian church is in the grips of phariseeism. People protest that they do not have a high view of self. People will say, “Look, I do not think I am better than the publicans. Do not accuse me of phariseeism. I can identify with publicans. I will eat with them. (I will even drink with them.)”
How correct then is our contention?
There is a rather simple question that gets to the heart of phariseeism in self and in man today. The question that needs to be asked is, “How many of the church today are ready to confess, ‘I, by nature, am totally, completely depraved? How many are willing to say that in me, (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing?'” (Romans 7:18).
The answer is, not many. Apart from grace, nobody. This is that one doctrine concerning which today, there is a deafening silence.
It is not enough simply to say, as man is wont, “I’ll admit that I am not perfect. I have my faults too. I am no better than my friends (though no worse either).” Such a “confession” is not sufficient enough to dissociate oneself from the Scribes and Pharisees of Christ’s day. One must come to the point where one confesses that one’s best works are as filthy rags. To that the doctrine of Total Depravity drives one. Who will be driven that far?
When the sadly neglected doctrine of Total Depravity is properly preached, it does not take long for the phariseeism in man’s heart to begin to surface. Who wants to confess that in himself there is to be found no good thing to commend oneself to God?
As long as the doctrine of man’s Total Depravity and the absence even of a natural inclination towards good is not preached, phariseeism will flourish, however much the church disputes it.
Today religious men clothe themselves with the cloak of publicans but their deeply rooted phariseeism remains firmly in place. And today the great majority of preaching scarcely makes even the most feeble attempt to uproot it from the heart of the listener.
All this is a serious matter. It was in the day when the word the church preached ceased directing all as unrighteous to flee to God for Righteousness, and phariseeism of the heart had the church’s approval, that the axe was laid to the root of the tree, judgment fell on the house of Israel. So again the day draws close at hand. Let this word then be uttered again, “Flee the wrath to come.”