How to Spot a Pharisee
MARCH 1, 2017
A friend sent me a quote by C.F.W. Walther, a Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod founder and probably its best-known theologian. I’ve thought about that quote all morning.
If you don’t like the quote, just stop reading there. You’ll probably end up outraged and offended…and that’s kind of “in” these days. Everybody is outraged and offended, so you can join that very big club. (Another friend said there ought to be a Sunday school class called The Outraged and Offended and it would be the biggest class in his church.)
Here’s the quote: “While it is indeed necessary to preach against gross vices…such preaching produces nothing but Pharisees.”
You want to feel guilty? (That’s neurotic but it is the gift that keeps on giving and a place where some people like to live.) Read Romans 1-3 but don’t read it at night before you go to sleep because it will keep you up. It’s in-your-face about sin and, unless you’re dead, it will make you wince. Then Paul in Romans 7 confesses his sins so that everybody knows he’s not an outsider of the human race. And then, just when you think Paul is writing a New Testament version of the book of Ecclesiastes, he writes something so amazing and wonderful it will take your breath away: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2).
I teach seminary students they should preach the law to get people guilty enough to run to Jesus. It’s God’s methodology of evangelism. Then they should preach grace until people profoundly and deeply understand its unconditional and radical nature. And I always add, “Preach it again so they won’t get discouraged. Then, if you must, preach on sin.”
The truth is that knowledge of sin is the least of a Christian’s problems…with serious Christians anyway. I’ve never met a Christian who doesn’t want to be better than he or she is. That’s true and it’s true of me too. I know about my sin and, Lord knows, I have spent a good deal of my life trying to manage it, hide it or fix it. And frankly, I haven’t been that successful.
I’m writing this in January. Tomorrow morning I’m going to Birmingham as one of the speakers (along with David Zahl and Dudley Hall) at a conference sponsored by my friend, Jack Williams (among others), a state congressman who profoundly understands grace and wants everybody else to understand it too.
The conference is “Coming Back Stronger.” It’s a great name because it presupposes that if one comes back…one has left.
And we do leave, don’t we?
As you know, in Jesus’ story about the prodigal son in Luke 15, there were two sons. One went to live with the pigs in a far country. The other son stayed at home, went to church, obeyed all the rules, and flossed every morning. Now let me tell you the rest of the story (Jesus told me and he’s a friend of mine).
The son who went to the far country went back there. They always do. Okay, he didn’t stay as long this time, but he did go back. And that’s not all. The “perfect” brother went to the far country too. He got tired of being good and when he wasn’t, faking it. So in a fit of anger and frustration, he made his way to the far country as well. They almost always do.
However there is a difference. The rebellious son came back, perhaps more than once, because they (i.e. those who have been loved and know they don’t deserve it) always do. The other son went to the far country, built a house there and stayed because they (i.e. those who are faking it) almost always do.
Steve, you are so frustrating! Don’t you care about sin?
Actually, I do. I’m an expert. I know the horror and destruction of sin. (It’s why the Bible talks about it so much.) Almost all my life I’ve watched sinners sin and, as a preacher/teacher, tried to do everything I knew to prevent it. But I know it firsthand too. I know the darkness, destruction, and guilt of my own sin. While I haven’t built a house in the far country, I regularly rent a place there…and I’m ashamed to even admit that.
I just got off the phone with a missionary friend with a large radio ministry in Mexico. He has been criticized for being antinomian (not caring about sin or the law) and asked me how to handle it. He knows I’ve been there and have the T-shirt. Frankly, I gave him some good advice. (I’ve been doing this for a long time and, while I may not be all that smart, I’m not stupid and have learned some important things along the way.) I told him to not let it go, but to address it over and over again. And then I told him to tell the critics that sin is dangerous not only because of what it does, but because of how, when we think we’ve conquered it, we can become Pharisees. That kind of self-righteousness is the most dangerous place in which we can live. Walther was right.
Did you hear about the man who walked into a bar and saw a dog playing poker? In his astonishment, the man asked the bartender, “Is that dog really playing poker?”
“Yes, he is.”
“Actually,” the bartender replied, “it really isn’t. He’s not very good at it. Every time he has a good hand, he wags his tail.”
You can always tell a Pharisee. (No, it’s not because he or she wags his or her tail.) You can always tell Pharisees by where they live and set up permanent residence. If it’s in the far country, don’t bother to kill the fatted calf or prepare the party. They probably won’t show.
You can tell when someone gets grace too. They often blush, sometimes are ashamed, and on occasion lie about being in the far country. But watch them. You’ll find they almost always run back to the Father because they know that living in the far country is a dark place and remember the Father’s love.
And each time they come home, as Lincoln said about the South after the Civil War, “It will be as if they never left.”
He asked me to remind you.