The religion of works-righteousness

by Mike Ratliff

“Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” (Luke 13:24-30 ESV)

Many who believe they are Christians are not. They have a form of righteousness, but it is not the righteousness born from above. It is self-righteousness. One group that contended with John the Baptist, our Lord Jesus Christ and His disciples, was the Pharisees. Who hasn’t heard believers accusing other believers of being Pharisees? These accusations are usually thrown at people who are stricter than the accuser in their judgments of saved and lost. The Liberal calls a person who judges on the basis of regeneration as the only evidence of saving faith as being a Pharisee. The mainstream church-goer calls all fundamentalists Pharisees. The antinomian calls those who preach Lordship salvation Pharisees.

Is this accurate? Are these examples of modern day Pharisees? Let us look in the Word for our answer.

Who were the Pharisees of the Bible? They were the religious conservatives within Judaism. They held very strictly to the Torah and the Talmud and were outwardly very moral. They were the leaders of the majority of the Jews and were very popular with the common people. They were revered by their followers for their religious zeal and dedication, and they were models worthy if imitation. Their main opposition were the Sadducees, the religious liberals within Judaism. They did not believe that the damned will be punished eternally in hell and that the saved will dwell eternally in heaven. The Sadducees were popular among the high-class minority.

The first mention of the Pharisees in the Bible is found in Matthew 3:7-10.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 3:7-10 ESV)

Why would John the Baptist say that the Pharisees, who were outwardly moral, zealous, and religious, were the brood of vipers? Why would he say that they had not brought forth good fruit? Isn’t obedience to the law good fruit? Who was he to judge the hearts of these fine upstanding religious people? Wasn’t he being too harsh with them? Couldn’t he have toned it down a bit? Was “brood of vipers” really necessary? Isn’t that mean and unloving? How did he expect to gain an audience with such language? Didn’t he know that one catches more flies with honey than with vinegar? And what was he doing lumping them in with the Sadducees who didn’t even believe in an afterlife?

John the Baptist was absolutely correct in his rebuke of the Pharisees. Both John and our Lord reserved their harshest words for these men as well. The reason Liberal Theology has so decimated the Church in our day is that most Christians have believed the lie that they must not speak up or confront other professing Christians. Why? They believe that it will reflect badly on Christ and the Church to have these contentions made public. Contrary to post-modern thought, neither John the Baptist nor our Lord refrained from telling the truth.

However, before Christians can emulate them, they must know the reason why the Pharisees were judged to be lost by our Lord and John. We cannot make these judgments based on any feelings about them. We cannot “discern” that they are lost. We must look at the evidence and judge them to be lost based on Biblical truth alone.

Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (Matthew 16:6 ESV)

The Greek words for watch is ορατε or horao. It means to discern clearly. What were the disciples to beware of? The answer is found in Matthew 16:12.

Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (Matthew 16:12 ESV)

The Greek Word for teaching is διδαχης or didache. It means instruction or doctrine. The disciples were warned by our Lord to beware of their doctrine. Their doctrine was the evidence that they were lost. Now I know that many believe the doctrine of the Pharisees to be correct, but their problem was their legalism. Those who say this often use this argument to call those who insist on correct Gospel doctrine Pharisees. However, our Lord’s words tell us that their problem was their doctrine not their legalism. They did not hold Orthodox doctrine. Instead, they held heterodox doctrine.

1. not in accordance with established or accepted doctrines or opinions, esp. in theology; unorthodox.
2. holding unorthodox doctrines or opinions.
[Origin: 1610–20; < Gk heteródoxos of another opinion, equiv. to hetero- hetero- + dóx(a) opinion (Compare dokeǐn to think, suppose) + -os adj. suffix]
—Related forms
het·er·o·dox·ly, adverb Unabridged (v 1.1)
Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006.

The Pharisees held unorthodox or heterodox doctrine. Jesus also tells us that they worshiped God in vain.

“‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'” (Matthew 15:8-9 ESV)

These men did worship and appeared to be very worshipful. However, since they held false doctrines they were lost and, therefore, their worship was in vain. Their doctrine was not of the Sacred Scripture, but was the doctrines of men. They emphasized tradition over Biblical commandments. (Matthew 15:6) They did not abide in the doctrine of Christ. (2 John 9) Since their doctrines were of men instead of the Sacred Scripture, they made their judgements on their vain imaginations. If you have ever participated in some “theological discussions” with emergents or liberals then you will recognize that one.

Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. (Matthew 7:20 ESV)

How can we know of what someone’s doctrine consists? Jesus said that we can know this by observing their fruit.

“For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:43-45 ESV)

I know that many have not grasped this truth, but our Lord is always right and He says that the fruit is what a person’s mouth speaks because the mouth speaks what is in the heart. Therefore, we can know what the Pharisee’s doctrine consisted of by observing their spoken words from the Bible.

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: (Luke 18:9 ESV)

This passage introduced Jesus’ parable about the tax collector and the Pharisee praying in the temple. He spoke it directly to the Pharisees. The Pharisees relied on themselves for their righteousness. This is self-rightetousness. They believed that their good works merited them God’s favor. Their doctrine or theology was one of “works-righteousness,” that is, what they “do” instead of trusting in what God has “done.”

I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. (Romans 10:2-3 ESV)

This description by the Apostle Paul is of all self-righteous Jews, not just the Pharisees. It is also a description of all self-righteous professing Christians who are depending upon their own works to save them instead of trusting in what God has done for them. Zeal for religion based in the knowledge of false doctrine is nothing but an abomination to God. According to this passage we see what the missing piece is in all “Pharisee’s” doctrine. What is it? They are ignorant of the necessity of submitting to God’s righteousness. Where can we learn of God’s righteousness?

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:16-17 ESV)

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it– the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26 ESV)

People who are ignorant of God’s righteousness cannot submit to it. Therefore, they go about establishing a righteousness of their own. This is why we stress the Sovereignty of God so much here. This why I try to end each piece I write with “Soli Deo Gloria.” This is why we must come to terms with God’s righteousness if we are ever going to grow in Christlikeness and become Spirit-filled. Only those who walk by faith are obedient in their submission to God’s righteousness for every deed done in the flesh is sin.

This is also why we must learn proper doctrine such as Salvation is by Grace through Faith. We are justified by faith alone, apart from works. Through this we learn that the righteousness which saves us is imputed to us. It is Christ’s righteousness, not our own. If we take this to heart we will not view our salvation as a correct decision, but instead, we see it for the miracle it is. This changes everything in how we serve Him. How can we be self-righteous if our salvation was entirely by Grace?

Phariseeism is the Religion of Works-Righteousness. Christians in bondage to this will view their salvation in the context of a decision. They will attempt to live this out by being as religious as possible. Of course, unless they are regenerate and have the Holy Spirit, they will eventually stumble. Some will remain religious of course, but without the supernatural power of a regenerate heart, saving faith, and The Holy Spirit they will find their own righteousness instead of possessing Christ’s Righteousness. This is confusing sanctification with justification. Justification is a declaration by God of not-guilty on our behalf. Sanctification is the process whereby Christians are conformed unto the image of Christ as they abide in Christ. Those in the Religion of Works-Righteousness attempt to sanctify themselves by being religious. They believe their “works” merit them favor from God. It is no different than what the Pharisees did in Christ’s day.

Undoubtedly there are some genuine Christians in the Religion of Works-Righteousness. I pray that God will draw them out of it into the light. We must not condemn, but pray for and share the truth with them. It is not being Pharisaical to tell the truth.

Soli Deo Gloria!

3 thoughts on “The religion of works-righteousness

  1. There you go again – telling the Truth rather than currying favor with men. From Noah to the end of this age – God has been calling men to Himself, separating out the kingdom of and its citizens from the kingdom of this present world and its denizens. May we who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb be unashamed to make Him known and be known as His!


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