Biblical Christianity faces numerous threats in our day, but one of the greatest is the common incorrect understanding of Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees. It may not be the first threat believers think of, as rationalistic attacks, appealing to science and reason, have intensified in the last generation, as have legal threats against the right to practice Christianity. Yet the claim that orthodox Christianity has misunderstood Jesus’ gospel, and that His condemnation of the Pharisees is really a condemnation of “religion” (understood to mean rules and regulations of a supernatural origin), and is thus a condemnation of Christian orthodoxy, is one of the most central charges, and arguably the most insidious, brought by today’s adversaries of the Christian faith.
This misunderstanding is increasingly heard in parts of the Evangelical world. A recent (2013) Barna study that found Evangelicals tending toward Pharisaical actions and attitudes included some mistaken criteria of what such actions and attitudes are (“I like to point out those who do not have the right theology or doctrine” – but Jesus did, against both the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matt. 16:6-12, 22:23-46), or condemning those who reject “Christian values” (which Jesus said are not to be rejected (Matt. 5:17-20)).
Jesus indeed had much to say about the pretense of virtue by pious people, and about how they are wrong to condemn others for transgressing rules which they themselves do not actually follow. He showed concern for the sufferings and needs of people generally thought of as sinners (who of course in fact were sinners) and responded to the faith that they showed in God by healing them. The Sermon on the Mount emphasizes faith in God and humility, while at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ reading from the Book of Isaiah to the Nazareth synagogue set out a gospel of deliverance of those oppressed in various ways from their suffering (Lk 4:14-20). Perhaps most provocatively, He said that religious rules and regulations could be set aside to meet human need (Matt. 12:1-14). Throughout the gospels, Jesus is seen in a ministry of addressing human need and condemning those who were considered religious exemplars, and were thought of as superior to ordinary people, and certainly to exemplary sinners.
Yet Jesus message was not fundamentally different from the faith of the Old Testament, for which holiness, obedience, and sacrifice for sin were central. Both at the beginning of John the Baptist’s proclamation of good news from God (Matt. 3:2), and Jesus proclamation of good news (Matt. 4:17) there is an admonition to “repent.” Jesus’ pronouncement of salvation to people on their showing of faith at times announced forgiveness, at times healing, and Jesus specifically said that one pronouncement amounted to the same thing as the other (Matt. 9:5-7, Mk. 2:9-12). In saying that He did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Matt. 9:13), He is telling us that the sinners were in fact sinners, not (or not merely) victims in need of deliverance. What about the first part of this verse, so often favored by liberals, saying “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice?” It appears again in chapter 12 of the Gospel of Matthew, and there it is in the context of Jesus as the Servant of the Lord, gently attending to those who are suffering, eschewing the quarrelsomeness characteristic of militant believers, and telling the Pharisees that religious rules and regulations may be set aside to meet human need. But it has to be noted that just prior to this, at the end of chapter 11, Jesus warns the Galilean cities of damnation for their failure to repent. How is this consistent with Christ as the gentle Servant of the Lord? In between these passages, at the end of chapter 11, He says He reveals the Father to whomever He wishes (Matt. 11:27). We know from the abundant testimony both the Old and New Testaments that God’s nature is holiness and love. It is this that the Son of God reveals, not in an intellectual way, as a doctrine of God, but in a convictional way, persuading and moving those to whom the Father is revealed. Such persons are elsewhere (John chapter 3) identified as being “born from above.” All persons who “labor and are heavy laden” are then invited to come to Him to find the joy of salvation. Jesus’ ministry as the saving Servant of the Lord was directed at such people, to penitent sinners desiring salvation from sin and the suffering that sin has brought into the world. To the impenitent, Jesus’ condemnation in chapter 11 of the Gospel of Matthew remains (Matt. 11:20-24), and it remains for us, as imitators of Christ, to proclaim.
But look again at the statement, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” It is a reference to Hosea 6:6. Here the King James and New International versions use the word “mercy,” but the New American Standard version uses the term “loyalty,” and the Revised Standard and English Standard versions use the term “steadfast love.” Israel and Judah are being rebuked because their righteousness failed in their duty to God. Reasonably then Jesus’ statement “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,” means that God desires a pure and humble heart, issuing in good works, not mere external observance. The statement certainly does not mean that God grants mercy without repentance, or that sacrifice is unnecessary for sin; the necessity of both sacrifice for sin and repentance are both abundantly clear from other Scripture (e.g., chapter 9 of the Epistle to the Hebrews, especially v. 12 and 22, and Lk. 13:1-5).
The Gospel is the proclamation of the Kingdom of God, with Jesus Christ as King and Savior. It is the fulfillment of the Law (Matt. 5:17-20), and the embodiment in the New Covenant of the message of Scripture, which is God’s holiness, and human sin and redemption. Holiness is inseparable from God’s love. Holiness is the purity of spiritual separation from sin. That sin involves uncleanness and holiness involves separation from sin is very clear to anyone reading the Law of Moses. Jesus declared that the true defilement is moral, that of the heart (Matt. 15:10-20; Mk. 7:5-20), not physical or ceremonial uncleanness. It is this ceremonial uncleanness, and this only, that Jesus said may be set aside to meet human need (Matt. 12:1-14). It should be particularly noted, as the present writer pointed out in an earlier article, that Jesus did not lessen the Old Testament’s sexual strictures, instead, He strengthened them. In saying that evil proceeds from the human heart in the passages noted above (Matt. 15:19-20; Mk. 7:20-23), Jesus reasonably declared a doctrine of original sin. But in understanding sin as impurity, Jesus’ doctrine of holiness was not essentially different from the Pharisaical idea of righteousness, which was derived from the Law. Jesus condemned only the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, not their ideals. The Pharisees were hypocrites because of the depravity of human nature, which Jesus specifically referred to, not because the Law is oppressive and they could not live by it.
The Gospel Christians proclaim is thus the gospel of faith in Jesus Christ, repentance from every known sin (knowing that God will deliver us from hidden faults, Ps. 19:12) identified from the commands of Christ and the apostles, and the moral (as opposed to the ceremonial or national commands) of the Old Testament, which they incorporate. Jesus’ hearers had the Old Testament commands, while we have the New Testament commands as well given explicitly in Scripture. The etymology of the Hebrew and Greek words translated in English as “repentance,” and thus the repentance Jesus commanded, involve both sorrow and a “turning from,” which was a turning from the world and its sin, as Israel was repeatedly counseled to do, and toward Him and His righteousness. This is shown when people responded to the preaching of John the Baptist by confessing their sins and being baptized (Matt. 3:4-6; Mk. 1:4-5). Those who came to Jesus thus obviously came in faith and repentance, repentance from sin as understood by the Old Testament, and turning to Jesus as Lord, thus implying a changed life and indicating a changed nature. That Jesus believed in human depravity and understood people to be turning from it is, as noted above, very evident from His own words concerning the sinfulness of the heart. In revealing the Father, which results in the new birth, Jesus revealed the Father’s holiness and love, effecting the beginning of sanctification (making holy) at the time of turning to Him in faith (also made possible by God). It is thus not true that Jesus’ salvation in the Gospels involved healing only. It involved first of all faith in God, which is to say faith in Jesus, repentance from sin, as sin is understood in Scripture, and forgiveness of sin. Healing was only part of that. It is thus not true that those who are saved and being sanctified are being Pharisaical in condemning sin and exhorting to repentance. The righteousness that they claim is a righteousness of holiness, as well as love, a righteousness given by God, the opposite of self-righteousness.
Look at the term “self-righteous.” Analyze the two words that are compounded in this term. It means a person’s own righteousness. Moral autonomy is the very essence of self-righteousness. This is the reigning moral doctrine of our day, well expressed in Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s “mystery clause” (that we define our own reality, and hence our own virtue). In condemning sinful men and women, we are not being self-righteous, but pointing to the righteousness of God. It is rather impenitent sinners, believing in the propriety of their moral autonomy, who are being self-righteous.
A common idea that people have is that a morally pure person who condemns the impure is self-righteous. To the contrary, such a person would have been made pure by God. If one is in fact impure, but condemns impurity in others, then that of course is hypocrisy, and indeed was what Jesus was condemning in the Gospels. But condemning impurity, even condemning impurity in others, is not necessarily Pharisaical or self-righteous. Those who are saved and who are being made holy can indeed know that their moral condition is better than impenitent sinners. The sin remaining in their lives means that they are indeed in some measure hypocrites, but God’s grace in their lives means that they are not hypocrites in the full measure of those who remain impenitent, and as with the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, their moral ideals are not wrong (Matt. 23:1-3), nor should their condemnation of sin be unheeded.
We should not be misled, unnerved, or defensive when adversaries of Biblical faith condemn traditional Christians as Pharisaical. Like Jesus, we agree with the moral ideals of the Pharisees, which God gives us in His Word, and like Jesus, we condemn those who depart from them. But unlike the Pharisees (and those who advocate moral autonomy), we do not depend on our own righteousness to be good, but on Jesus Christ.