Profiling Modern Pharisaism

Some months ago the minister of our church began his sermon with the following comment: “The Pharisees were the evangelicals of the New Testament”. If this is true, it ought to strike fear into the hearts of all who call themselves evangelicals. For it was the so-called evangelicals that Jesus criticized more scathingly than any other group (see e.g. Mt. 23).

Most of us associate the Pharisees of the NT with hypocrisy, with “putting on a mask” or pretending to be what they were not (Mt. 23:27f.). So the question immediately prompts itself: Am I (or are you) as a professing evangelical guilty of pretending to be what I am not? Generally speaking, I personally would not readily associate myself, or the evangelicals I have known, with play acting and dissembling. They have not appeared to be like the Pharisees Jesus criticized for insincerely putting on a show (Mt. 6:16; 23:5) or for a meticulous adherence to legalistic formality (Luke 18:12). But is there more to the issue than first meets the eye?


I have always associated the word evangelical with the evangel, the gospel as portrayed in the NT. Evangelicals profess to regard Scripture, or the apostolic foundation of the gospel (Eph. 2:20), as their final authority and court of appeal in matters of doctrine. They are, in other words committed to the Bible as the word of God. But are they as good as their profession? After all, the Pharisees of the NT saw themselves as children of Abraham (cf. John 8:33) and true disciples of Moses (John 9:28), yet Jesus nonetheless subjected them to blistering criticism. In Mark 7:6f., it is noticeable that Jesus locates their hypocrisy in their nullifying the word of God by their tradition. Considering the wildly different doctrines presently propounded by modern evangelicals, the suggestion is that many are, first, simply failing to understand the Bible. Since we are all be guilty of that from time to time, we need to be always ready to take another look and if necessary to revise our opinions. After all, Jesus warned us about getting things wrong and of the need to avoid acting as if we had one eye when in fact we have two (cf. Mt. 18:9). But, second, it would seem that many are in fact sidestepping Scripture and appealing to other authorities. Perhaps we are failing as our predecessors in the NT did. Anyhow, the issue is worth subjecting to further examination.

The Pharisees were of course but one group among the Jews at the time of Christ. On occasion, Jesus even supported their stance on matters of crucial importance to the gospel. For example, he took their part, as Paul did later (Acts 23:6-9) against the Sadducees with regard to the resurrection (Mt. 22:23-32). The latter he accuses of ignorance and failure to appreciate the power of God rather than deliberate distortion of the Scriptures.


One of the disturbing features of the modern scene is the tendency of some to equate their denomination or sect with Christianity. Here in Australia, at least on TV, Roman Catholicism is regularly equated with the Christian faith. Then again many evangelicals refer to their stance as “Biblical and Reformed”, thereby adding to Scripture. When we consider that the Reformation occurred nearly 500 years ago, are those who embrace Reformed theology saying that despite believing that doctrine should always be subject to reform (semper reformanda) no further progress in understanding the faith has been made? As long ago as 1609, John Robinson, pastor to the Pilgrim Fathers, while acknowledging the greatness of Luther and Calvin was convinced that God had more light to break forth from his word. Yet even post-2000 some evangelicals give the impression that their traditional creed is fixed and unalterable (semper eadem), and to be classified as unorthodox is equivalent to denying Scripture. I suggest, however, that the boot may be on the other foot and that the source of so much doctrinal error in evangelicalism is a refusal on the part of the so-called orthodox to re-examine Scripture.

The Need for Conversion

When writing to the Galatians Paul left his readers in no doubt that to teach what he called a “different gospel” (1:6, ESV) led to distortion, and, even if this so-called gospel appeared to emanate from an angel from heaven, it should be rejected on pain of being cursed. In general, in my experience most evangelicals cling to the doctrine of justification by faith which was Paul’s main consideration especially in Galatians. But the apostle implies that other doctrines are also of basic importance, and, if they are misunderstood, disregarded or distorted, they can, when taken to their logical conclusion, undermine the faith. On the assumption that the Christian faith constitutes a complete worldview, a comprehensive, connected whole, any perversion of its parts threatens not only its unity but also its intelligibility. This comment requires expansion with reference to infant baptism, for example.

Infant Baptism and Its Theological Support

While infant “baptism” appears to jeopardize justification by faith, there is good evidence available to suggest that this can be overcome to some degree. Even some Catholics have acknowledged the need for conversion at a later stage in the lives of the “baptized”. And most Anglicans lay a good deal of emphasis on confirmation, even if it is not a biblical doctrine. (I deny that it corresponds with circumcision and bar mitzvah.)

However, if this paedobaptist tradition is supported, for example, by a false covenant theology, not to mention original sin or an equation of baptism with circumcision, the issue becomes much more serious. For our entire worldview is greatly affected by it. As it happens, even baptists are tarred with the same (Augustinian) brush as their counterparts in non-baptist churches. And this clearly accounts for much of the doctrinal mayhem confronting us today.

Original Sin

Then, let us take a quick look at that time-honoured dogma of original sin. First, it needs to be recognized that the Jews and the Orthodox have never embraced it. Second, it has been virtually set in cement in the West by Augustine. He did not read Greek, and where the latter has “because all sinned” in Romans 5:12, he read “in whom all sinned” (Latin ‘in quo’). In other words, he believed that we all sinned “in Adam” and were therefore born sinful. (The only text I can discover in the Bible that might possibly support this idea is Psalm 51:5. But since it runs counter to more explicit teaching and the general belief of the Jews, we must assume that David, under the stress of his sin with Bathsheba resorted to hyperbole. (Compare e.g. Ps. 58:3, cf. Isa. 8:4; Job 31:18.) Augustine went on to distinguish between Jesus and the rest of Adam’s descendants by arguing that since the former was born of a virgin without “carnal concupiscence”, he was therefore innocent. This contrasts with the author of Hebrews who tells us that the only way in which Jesus differed from the rest of us as a human being was that he did not personally sin (Heb. 2:17f.; 4:15). The implication of this is that we, like Adam and Eve who until they broke the commandment knew neither good nor evil, are all, like Jesus himself (cf. Isa. 7:15f.), born innocent (Dt. 1:39, cf. Num. 14:3,39-33, etc.), or as Paul says “alive” (Rom. 7:9). It is only with the advent of law that the trouble starts (cf. Rom. 4:15; 1 Cor. 15:56, etc.). As ordinary men and women of dust we prove incapable of keeping it (1 K. 8:46, etc., as God, who planned to justify us by faith in Christ, always intended), while the man of heaven proved that he could (John 8:46; Rom. 8:3; 1 Pet. 2:22, etc.).

Covenant Theology

In light of this it should come as no great surprise that when the Reformers, or rather their successors, came to develop a covenant theology, they posited a covenant with Adam regarded as the head and representative of all his posterity. So they taught that when he sinned all sinned ‘in him’ (cf. Bengel’s comment: omnes peccarunt, Adamo peccante). But not only is this not taught in Scripture, it is actually contrary to its basic teaching. For Moses (Ex. 32:33), Jeremiah (31:29f.) and Ezekiel (18), for example, insist that sin cannot be transferred. Moses went so far as to lay it down as an axiom that the child could not be punished for the sin of the parent (Dt. 24:16, etc.). Yet even today writers tell us that we sinned in Adam (see, e.g. Horton, pp.88f., Collins, p.277, etc.), and adhere to the notion of the imputation of Adam’s sin. The latter is based on a glaring fallacy implicitly contradicted by Paul himself. For if the wages of sin is death and all died (Rom. 5:12), they must have earned their wages. Imputation is ruled out of court for the simple reason that it excludes wages (Rom. 4:1-8).

Natural Corruption

If infants, who do not know the law, die, since imputation is out of the reckoning, there is obviously another explanation for their death! This brings up another subject. According to the Bible the corruption of the material creation is natural. God made it that way (Ps. 102:25-27; 103:14-18, etc.) No wonder God has established his throne in the heavens (Ps. 8:1; 113:4, etc.), and not on the impermanent earth (Ps. 103:19) which is his footstool (Isa. 66:1). That explains the plan of salvation. To gain eternal life (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5, etc.) mortal man must escape from the natural corruption to which even the incarnate Jesus himself was subject (John 8:57) by keeping the commandments. He can’t. But Jesus could and did. He thus began his exodus (Luke 9:31), died for others, took back his life (John 10:17f.) since death had no claim on him, (Acts 2:24) and made his escape (Lu. 9:51; Rev. 12:5) by returning to the glory of his eternity (John 17:5, cf. Eph. 1:20f.).

Since infants who know neither good nor evil never receive the commandments in any form, they cannot be either righteous (Dt. 6:25; 1 John 3:7) or sinful (Rom. 4:15; 7:1-13, cf. 6:16). Furthermore, since they are not covenant children like Noah, they sometimes succumb naturally like all flesh (Gen. 6:17; Ps. 49:12,20), that is, apart from moral considerations, to the corruption of the material world of which they are a part.

The upshot of all this is that the so-called Christian, but what is in reality the Augustinian, worldview propounded by many is deeply flawed. The idea that God created a perfect world to be ruled over by the perfect human beings Adam and Eve is traditional twaddle. Our first parents were not by nature holy and righteous, least of all perfect, and the creation they were called on to rule was manifestly imperfect or defective in some sense (cf. Rom. 8:18-25; Heb. 1:10-12, etc.). If Adam and Eve were perfect, their fall into sin and the ruin of the creation over which they were intended to exercise dominion is a complete mystery. It is not only contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture but also absurd. From Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22 the picture is different. The temporal creation and the eternal Creator are differentiated throughout the Bible. The one is on no account to be worshipped, the other is (Rom. 1:23,25)!

What has this to do with Pharisaism? A whole lot! It proves that if we adopt at some point an erroneous but traditional interpretation of the Scripture we claim as our authority, we are inevitably jeopardizing the faith we claim to uphold. It may be true that God can overcome error and use people who genuinely misunderstand. Calvinists argue that God did this in the case of the Wesleys who were Arminian. Genuine misunderstanding, or the doctrinal immaturity that has always characterized the church to some degree, is one thing but persistence in clinging to dogma that is shown to be false is another. To claim as Christian what is manifestly unchristian (cf. Isa. 5:20) is a serious matter and may lay us open to the charge of the Pharisaism that Jesus so heavily criticized.

Over thirty years ago I myself wrote a book indicating that there was something seriously amiss with traditional Reformed theology. My principal criticism was leveled at received covenant theology. Of course, I could have been wrong and perhaps still am. But I continue to await the refutation of my own thesis on the one hand and to see the justification of traditional views on the other. All too often assumption masquerades as proof. Let me illustrate what I mean.


Some twenty or more years ago I read Murray’s “The Imputation of Adam’s Sin”. When I had finished it, I wrote somewhere that he had “cheated”. My complaint was that at the end of the first section of his book his argument had fallen short of the proof that the doctrine required. (This is scarcely surprising since, as I have noted above, it is incapable of proof. Paul’s own teaching in Romans shows that it is built on a blatant error.) In the second section, however, he simply assumed what needed to be proved.

More recently Collins has presented us with his “Genesis 1-4” which in some respects has much to commend it. However, my complaint is again that he has “cheated”. He promises proof of a creation covenant. Despite many hints, inferences and assumptions, this proof never materializes. Again this is hardly surprising since Scripture not only fails to refer to such a covenant but also in the nature of the case it cannot do so. The material creation, as the flood which threatened it implied, lacks both covenant and guarantee. It is, as Genesis 1:1 asserts, temporal and not eternal. Its ultimate destiny, like that of the body of flesh which derives from it (2 Cor. 5:1) is oblivion. Thus the contrast between the Creator and the created is maintained throughout the Bible (Isa. 51:6, etc.). Jesus himself says: “Heaven and earth will pass away but the word of God will abide forever” (Mt. 24:35). Once the material creation has served its purpose of nurturing the children of God (Mt. 24:8; Rom. 8:18-25), it will be dispensed with, not least by Jesus himself when he returns in the glory of God as a consuming fire (2 Thes. 1:7; Luke 17:29f.; Mt. 22:7; Heb. 12:29; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12; Rev. 20:11; 21:1-4). In other words, the message of the Bible is loud and clear: there is no ultimate future for either the flesh or this world in general. The present age must give way to the age to come (1 Cor. 7:31; 1 John 2:15-17, etc.).

Personal Pharisaism

So, I am compelled to ask whether I personally am a Pharisee? Am I seeking to make tradition and confessionalism my final arbiter and so rendering the word of God ineffective? Over the years I have not only changed churches (though not always as a result of conviction) but also changed my opinion. As one who embraces the notion of constant reformation (semper reformanda) and of maturing in the faith (cf. Phil. 3:12-16), I trust that I shall continue to do so. If the perfection or glory of God is my aim in Christ, I can do nothing less.

But if this is so, I must ask whether you, the reader, are a Pharisee? Lacking the insight and the perfection of Jesus I cannot answer that question for you. If the cap fits wear it! If it does, then add your name to those who seek for a new reformation. On the other hand, it is vital for all of us as individuals to change our views only as prompted by conviction and insight. If these are missing, it is far better to remain with time-honoured tradition. At least it has the backing of some of the great names of the church whom God blessed in their time, and these are not to be lightly tossed aside. Clearly we should all make haste slowly. But in these days when we are being challenged both within and without the church, make haste we must. For only the truth will make us free (John 8:31f.).

The Question of Truth

This brings up another point. If the truth is something that the world has suppressed (Rom. 1:18) and failed to attain to (1 Cor. 1:21), then it is vitally necessary for the church which is meant to be the pillar and bulwark of the truth to propagate it (1 Tim. 3:15). The failure of the Jews to do this resulted in judgement, first, in the Babylonian exile, then in the punishment and dispersion of the Jews by the Romans. If God has vented his wrath on his own in times past, he may well do the same again in our time. This time the Assyrian may not be the rod of his anger (Isa. 10:5) but the Muslim in general may be. The Pharisaical refusal of those who claim to acknowledge the Bible as the word of God to abide by its teaching threatens the veracity of Christian witness.


A false worldview has other implications which cannot be dealt with here. I therefore allude to just one. It is vital for Christians in these days of potential suicide bombers to emphasise the natural impermanence and corruption of the temporal creation (Ps. 102:25-27; Isa. 40:6-8; 51:6; Mt. 24:35; Rom. 8:18-25, etc.). Apart from other considerations, this can only mean that those who blow themselves up lose their corruptible flesh permanently (Gen. 3:19, cf. Rom. 8:13; Gal. 6:8). Their hope of lapsing into the embrace of buxom beauties in the world to come is forever forlorn. In heaven, as Jesus clearly taught in accordance with the Bible in general, there is no marriage for the simple reason that we shall be the children of God who is spirit (1 Pet. 4:6) and hence like the angels (Luke 20:34-36, cf. 1 Cor. 15:50).


The Augustinian worldview with its stress on the original perfection of creation, original holiness and righteousness (*1), original sin, “Fall”, universal curse and the eventual redemption of the material creation is not only lamentably unbiblical, it is ludicrous, and it is high time it was abandoned. Failure to jettison it can only lead evangelicalism at best to marginalisation, at worst to total rejection (Mt. 23:38). And then there is the possibility of the judgement of God in more tangible form. We have been warned.

*1 A more blatant case of putting the cart before the horse would be difficult to find. Even Jesus had to begin his pilgrimage in innocence (cf. Isa. 7:15f.), achieve righteousness by keeping the law and then to fulfil all righteousness (Mt. 3:13-17) in his bid to attain to the perfection of God (Mt. 5:48; Heb. 1:3f.; Rev. 3:21, etc.).



C.J.Collins, Genesis 1-4, Phillipsburg, 2006.

M.Horton, God of Promise, Grand Rapids, 2006.