Pharisees and works-righteousness

by Mike Ratliff

24 “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. 25 Once the head of the house gets up and shuts the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock on the door, saying, ‘Lord, open up to us!’ then He will answer and say to you, ‘I do not know where you are from.’ 26 Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets’; 27 and He will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you are from; depart from Me, all you evildoers.’ 28 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 yourselves being thrown out. 29 And they will come from east and west and from north and south, and will recline at the table in the kingdom of God. 30 And behold, some are last who will be first and some are first who will be last.” Luke 13:24-30 (NASB) 

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 of 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.

7 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? 8 Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; 9 and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. 10 The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Matthew 3:7-10 (NASB)

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.

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

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

12 Then they understood that He did not say to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Matthew 16:12 (NASB) 

The Greek Word for teaching is διδαχης (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.

8 ‘This people honors Me with their lips,
But their heart is far away from Me.
9 ‘But in vain do they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’” Matthew 15:8-9 (NASB) 

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.

20 So then, you will know them by their fruits. Matthew 7:20 (NASB) 

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

43 For there is no good tree which produces bad fruit, nor, on the other hand, a bad tree which produces good fruit. 44 For each tree is known by its own fruit. For men do not gather figs from thorns, nor do they pick grapes from a briar bush. 45 The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart. Luke 6:43-45 (NASB) 

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.

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

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.”

2 For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. 3 For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. Romans 10:2-3 (NASB) 

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?

16 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. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “ But the righteous man shall live by faith.” Romans 1:16-17 (NASB) 

21 But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; 25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; 26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Romans 3:21-26 (NASB) 

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!

6 thoughts on “Pharisees and works-righteousness

  1. Mike you have an uncanny knack of finding all my favorite unpreached verses. If only we could get these message out from the pulpits! 😄

    Have you ever written on:

    John 6:44  No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day.

    Which was so important that Jesus repeated it…

    John 6:65  And he said, Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father.

    Have you written specifically on these verses?


  2. I want to add a couple of additional thoughts. I agree today it is often the more doctrinally sound Bible believing people in the church who are seen as Pharisical, not the Works Righteousness people. And it is also the Works Righteousness people who come out most often to speak about showing “fruit”. In this case fruit being works, not good doctrine. You made a good point a few weeks ago about the fruit/works that come along as part of our sanctification after true salvation.

    Another dimension is adding the doctrines of man, in the sense of creating new or reviving old ideas instead of following the old paths of good doctrine.

    One of my favorites verses is:

    Jeremiah 6:16  Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein.

    I’m currently facing a church that has decided it’s a good idea to again practice Lent and this year to follow the teaching of: The Circle Maker – Mark Batterson reviewed here….

    I see both these being sold as the “old paths”, newly practiced but they seem more to me to be man’s doctrines being promoted as the way of the the church.

    Trying to figure out a wise and uplifting course to deal with this.


  3. John 6:44 You are right…and more than once. For example..
    Conversion does not equal regeneration
    Posted on January 3, 2019 by Mike Ratliff

    The Doctrine of Unconditional Election
    Posted on May 4, 2017 by Mike Ratliff

    Search is a useful function.


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