[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church, entitled "Beware of Following in the Pharisees' Footsteps". Click on the title to listen to the audio.]
As we study passages about the Pharisees and their errors, it is wise to take a long look at ourselves to consider ways in which we may be like them. In Mark 7, we see that the Pharisees were a deceived bunch. Though they were the religious elite and were considered theological scholars, they had conformed their lives and teaching to an idea of superficial cleanness which warranted the rebuke of Jesus. The word Jesus uses in Matthew 23 is "Woe to you..." It is a matter of utmost importance when God the Son looks at your life and pronounces 'woe.'
Not wanting to hear that 'woe' fall on our ears, we must be on guard against following in the Pharisees' footsteps. In fact, one great scheme of the devil seems to be to convince God's people that the essence of their religious success is to keep up Pharisaical appearances. Satan longs to convince us to honor the Lord with our lips but leave our hearts far from God (Mk. 7:6b). If we become convinced that God is truly pleased with us doing certain religious acts and saying right religious words of worship (regardless of the condition of our hearts), then the devil really has us. For when this happens, it is not long before we begin to believe, like the Pharisees, that it is these efforts that keep our status with God secure and right.
What is the ultimate danger in thinking this way? What effect does this have on the gospel's place in our lives? The answer to both of these questions is this: our heart abandons the gospel. In fact, it belittles the gospel of Jesus, such that the gospel is no more important than a movie ticket. What is it that you do with a movie ticket? Well, it is important to have a ticket if you want to get in, right? Once you're in, though, of what use is the movie ticket? One may keep the movie ticket from an important first date, as a kind of souvenir, but that's it. It goes in a scrapbook, and you pull it out every once in a while to fondly remember the day you used the ticket. You don't actually need the ticket anymore...you already got in...and the ticket is mostly irrelevant to the rest of the experience.
When we choose to step into a Pharisaical understanding of our relationship to God, Jesus and His gospel are no more important than a movie ticket. Of course, the Pharisees never 'got in' to begin with, but you understand the analogy. For us as Christians, it is certainly true that Jesus Christ has made a way of entrance into the kingdom...that He is the door (John 15:7). We did 'make it in' by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Yet, is that the end of our need for Christ? Is the rest of the Christian life a self-made training session in which we become like spiritual Stepford wives? We work hard to keep up the right, religious, superficial appearance, and we train ourselves to be passionate about keeping up these superficial appearances!
I would suggest to all of us that, as Christians, we are just as in need of our Savior and just as dependent on Him as the first day we believed. The cross has become no less relevant and no less important...if we have grown in our spiritual life, it has actually become more important to us than ever. The blood of Jesus is still our only hope for cleansed sin. The grace of our God is magnified over and over again as we continue to sin and go back to God for mercy. Our justification before God is still based on faith in Christ...a continual faith in Christ over a lifetime. We are still right with God ONLY on the basis of Jesus Christ and His righteousness on our behalf...we never get past this!
So, if all that is true, then how can we battle our inner Pharisee? Well, I want to suggest four things that may help as we fight.
1. Remember the gospel: Don't let yourself forget the gospel or its importance. Pick up a book like The Cross-Centered Life by C.J. Mahaney or The Discipline of Grace by Jerry Bridges or The Cross of Christ by John Stott. These kinds of books will help you think on the wonder of what Christ has done and how it affects us daily. Read the first eight chapters of Romans over and over and over. Don't forget the gospel!
2. Remember the sinfulness of sin: This is part of the gospel, I know, but it seems that battling our inner Pharisee means being reminded of just how far gone we really are as sinners. It means remembering the depths of the sin from which we have been plucked. It means never forgetting how deceitful sin is and how easy it is to become sinfully self-reliant. The Enemy Within by Kris Lundgaard would be a helpful resource here.
3. Memorize Scripture: If we are to properly wield the sword of the Spirit (i.e.- the Bible), then we must make sure we have a firm grip on it. And, if we are going to fight a battle centered on the gospel in our hearts and minds, then it would be helpful to memorize those passages which are especially related to the gospel. Memorize 2 Corinthians 5:21 - "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." Memorize Galatians 3:13 - "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us..." These are just two examples of Pharisee-killing texts.
4. Don't be satisfied with spiritual intellect: Books and sermons and theological resources abound in our culture...I mean, I've already suggested a few in this blog entry. There are more Bible study helps today than ever before. The temptation is to believe that gaining more and more knowledge makes us more and more acceptable to God. If we just read "x" amount of theological books this year, then we will feel that we have sufficiently grown. If we can just make it through our Bibles in a year (or less), then we have jumped forward in the Christian faith. Now, do not misunderstand...it is not a bad things to set a goal to read a certain number of books in a year or to read through the Bible. However, it is not sufficient. Our learning must impact our lives...the way we think, love, treat our wives, comprehend the atonement, raise our children, etc. I listen to Alistair Begg on the radio sometimes, and I love the little slogan that comes just before the music swells at the end of each program: "Where the learning is for living." That's what I'm trying to say here...learning is for living, not just for learning. The inner Pharisee loves when we learn for learning's sake...fight against it and apply what you learn.
5. Pray: There are times in all our lives when we feel as though we are merely going through the motions. We may do certain spiritual disciplines, but we are certain our hearts are not engaged. We read or study as if to 'check the box' for that given activity. When we sense this, it is important to lay our hearts bear before God, to confess our apathy or distance from Him, and to ask Him for the grace needed to re-engage our hearts. We should ask Him to shine His holy spotlight on our hearts and expose any patterns of sin we may have ignored. Our feelings must not be our determinative measure of faith, but we should pay attention when our hearts are not fully engaged in spiritual disciplines.
6. Find some help: This is not an invitation to seek out a professional counselor. All I mean by this is that you should involve someone else in helping you fight the inner Pharisee. If you are married, then your spouse can be a valuable resource because he/she knows you better than anyone else. If you are not married, then find someone older than you, of the same gender, and open your life up to him/her. Allow these kinds of people to ask you probing questions, to seek our your motivations, and to help you see your own heart. You must be honest and vulnerable to do this because it is sometimes a painful process, and yet, it can be extremely beneficial to the fight for spiritual authenticity.
The fight against the inner Pharisee is not one that will go away in this lifetime. As long as the presence of sin remains, the path to superficial spirituality remains clear and available...you might say it is a broad way. By God's grace, may we continue to find the strength to fight the inner Pharisee.