Monday, January 11, 2010

The Gospel of the Pharisee?

[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church. To find and listen to "The Divine Dinner Party," click here.]

Mark 2:17: "And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, 'Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.'"

These are incredible words spoken by the Lord Jesus. Looking into the eyes of those who claimed themselves righteous because of their outward obedience to the law (i.e.- the Pharisees), Jesus says, "I came not to call the righteous." These Pharisees strove to be pious individuals...they sought to obey the law at every turn...they wanted to live squeaky clean lives. Yet, this Jesus, who claims and displays the very authority of God in forgiving sins (Mk. 1-12), will have nothing to do with them. Matthew 23 takes us even farther...Jesus condemns the Pharisees for their empty, whitewashed lives of self-righteousness because He knows the dead bones of lawlessness that lie beneath the surface.

So, Jesus makes it clear...He came to call sinners, not the righteous. He will save Pharisees, but only by conquering their pride and self-righteousness, not by affirming their piety and worthiness of the kingdom (e.g.- Saul in Acts 9; cf. Phil. 3:2-10). So, in Christ, their is hope for all men...but those men are sinners who know their alienation from God and their deep need of forgiveness...a need that cannot be met by self-exertion of any kind. It is a forgiveness and reconciliation that God must work or it will not happen.

As I studied for this past week, I dwelt on the tendency toward the 'spirit of the Pharisee' within myself and within the church today. It is a good reminder to us all to beware of self-righteousness and self-exaltation because Jesus came neither to call nor produce this kind of Christian...if a self-righteous, self-exalting person can be called 'Christian' in the first place.

Another thought hit me, though. If you are reading any evangelical writing today, you will constantly hear the concern for the gospel...its recovery, its clarity, its centrality. Why is that? What's being done to the gospel to change it? Well, that is probably the subject of a book and not a blog, but I'll mention one thing that is relevant to our text and the idea of a 'spirit of the Pharisee' being with us today. What would be the gospel of the Pharisee?

Think about the scene here in Mark 2. The Pharisees, who would say they are good...they live good lives...would like to see a Jesus who affirms their way of life, who takes them (as good men) and just raises them to the next level of living. In other words, following Jesus would just be a means of sprucing up an already full and good life. This is why they are appalled at Jesus' statement that He did not come for them. Their shock grows into hatred, so that they will eventually begin to plan their destruction of Jesus (Mk. 3:6).

This is not too far off from the Jesus that some preach. Preaching often comes across as this: "You have a great life. You do good things, and that's wonderful. But you're missing really need Jesus. He'll take your life to heights you've never known before." Something else heard from preachers (or Christian radio personalities, for that matter) is that everyone is lonely, or needs purpose, or has a hole in their heart...if they'll just be really honest and look deep enough. The problem with these kinds of statements is that many people who do not believe don't feel this way. They don't feel restless, they feel like they do have purpose, they have plenty of friends, and their lives are just fine...thank you very much. So, they see no use for a gospel about a man who takes away loneliness, gives purpose, or fills a void.

This brings us back to Jesus' statement...He came to call sinners. His message was, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel" (Mk. 1:15). This is very different from the messages represented in that last paragraph. This is a message which calls for repentance. The kingdom of God is at hand, and the King will judge all. The need which Jesus came to address is not primarily an experiential need of this is the need to be prepared to stand before the King of the Universe and have hope. Sinners standing before a holy God have no such hope. Jesus came to call sinners. He came to give His life as a ransom for many (Mk. 10:45). He came to die, taking the full wrath of God against the sin of the sinner, so that the sinner might be declared righteous by God (2 Cor. 5:21).

This mission is not about loneliness or purpose. True...Jesus is a friend who sticks closer than a brother (Prov. 18:24). Christ, our purpose is changed and we accomplish the good works that God has ordained for us (Eph. 2:10). Jesus did not suffer the wrath of God so that we wouldn't be lonely but so that we wouldn't be lost. He did not bear our sin in his flesh so that we would have purpose but so that we would be prepared to meet the God who created us in His image.

The gospel of the Pharisee would say that humanity is long as you're a good person, you will be fine with God. Jesus may add benefits of friendship and purpose, but even without Him, you can still be right with God.

The gospel says "For by the works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight" (Rom. 3:20), and while justification (i.e.- being made right with God) is a gift of grace through the work of Christ (Rom. 3:23-25), the gospel clarifies that God will only justify the one "who has faith in Jesus" (Rom. 3:26). The gospel is not something we add to an already good life that is pleasing to order to enhance. The gospel is the message that we are dead in our transgressions and sins, but by grace through faith, we can be saved from the wrath which is to come.

Which will you believe? Which will you share with your family member, friend, neighbor, or co-worker? The gospel of the Pharisee or the gospel of Jesus? Beware, the gospel of the Pharisee does not save, for it is no gospel at all.