You Might Be a Pharisee If…You Attempt in the Flesh What Only God Can Do

What makes someone a Pharisee?

We have a tendency to use the term as a pejorative, to label those with whom we disagree. It is common for those who lean a little to the left to label fundamentalists and conservatives as Pharisees. The appellation was common, and I believe largely unfair, in the Baptist Identity debate that dominated Baptist blogs a few years back. We tend to put this bullet in the gun and aim it at those on the other side of whatever debate in which we are currently involved.

That is not what this series of posts is going to be about. There is little to be gained from trying to pin the label on others, fair or not. Jesus warned us against pulling specks from our brothers’ eyes while we still have beams in our own. What concerns me is whether the attitudes, methods and traits exhibited by the Pharisees can be seen in me, in my church, and even in my denomination. I need to look at myself and my own spiritual issues and tendencies.

I have enough problems with my own Pharisaic tendencies without trying to confront everyone else’s.

You Might Be a Pharisee If…

With apologies to our brother-in-Christ Jeff Foxworthy, I am going to steal his old comedy standard to identify the tendencies and characteristics of Pharisees. You might be a Pharisee if you see these tendencies in your life. I have identified around 10 or 12 of these, but as this series goes on I may combine some of them or separate them. Who knows how many I will discuss.

Today, we start with the heart and soul of Phariseeism.

The Pharisees may not have been the comic book villains we Christians have portrayed them as, but they had a fundamental problem. They were scholars of the law and they realized how hard it was to keep that Law. So, they devised their human systems, which Jesus labeled as “traditions”, to give a clear set of rules by which one could consider himself to have fulfilled the Law of God. They reduced the impossible Law of God to manageable steps.

Moises Silva points this out in the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible article on the Pharisees.

“A prominent Jewish scholar believes that the Pharisees, in contrast to the idealistic prophets of the OT, appreciated the weaknesses of human nature and adjusted the impossibly high standards of the Law so as to take into account the realities of life.”

The Pharisees were passionate to see God’s Law observed, but also were populists who desired to help the people find a way to fulfill that difficult Law. When Paul was recounting his life as a Pharisee in Philippians 3, he claimed that in terms of legalistic righteousness, he was faultless. Paul knew better than to assert that he had perfectly fulfilled the Law of God – his entire doctrine of grace was built on the impossibility of keeping the law. He, a former Pharisee, was claiming that he had followed the Pharisaic traditions which were designed to be accessible to sincere Jews.

Silva expounds further on this.

The Pharisaic regulations were numerous and aggravating, but at least they could be fulfilled. Those who followed scrupulously the rabbinic traditions were in danger of concluding that their conduct satisfied God’s demands (cf. Paul’s description of his own preconversion attitude, Phil 3:6). And a muted sense of one’s sin goes hand in hand with a false sense of spiritual security; the need to depend on God’s mercy no longer appears crucial.

This was the fundamental fault of the Pharisees. Yes, they were legalistic and rigid, they opposed Jesus and the early church, and they were all about power and control. But their chief fault was that instead of casting themselves on the mercies of God’s grace, they attempted to build an edifice by which they could climb the Law of God to attain the favor and pleasure of God.

Here is the heart of the problem with the Pharisees.

1) The Law of God is hard; no, it is impossible.

God gave a Law that was a standard for human being. If we kept the Law perfectly, we could please God, earn his favor and win a spot in glory with him for all eternity. But, as Paul would later conclude, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The Law is perfect, but we are not.

In fact, for human being like us, with our sin natures, the dictates of the Law are beyond our abilities. Let’s be honest, we don’t even make it past the first commandment. “No other gods.” Nothing in this life is to take the place of or be a rival in our affection for Almighty God. We are to love him with all our heart and all our soul and all our might. (Don’t you hate that word “all” sometimes?) But we are all guilty of allowing other things to come between us and the purity of our passion for God, are we not?

One commandment; one failure!

And who among us wants to claim that we have perfectly kept the command to honor our parents? I believe that my mom and dad would say that in general, I was a good kid. But there were times when my behavior could not honestly described as honoring to them.

There are commands that I can hold my lapels and claim to have kept fully. I have never committed adultery, before my marriage or since the day I took my vows. I’m such a good boy, right? But then, Jesus doubled down on this command by saying that if I had looked upon a woman with lust in my heart, I have committed the sin of adultery in my heart. Certainly, the consequences are different, but the sin is the same.

I could also claim that I have never committed murder if Jesus had not added to the burden by saying that if I hate someone, I’ve committed murder in my heart.

No wonder it says that we have all sinned and have fallen short! The Law is simply too hard for us.

2) God intended the law to be a guide to Christ, not a way of salvation.

Paul defines the purpose of the law in Galatians 3:24.

So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.

The word guardian has been translated schoolmaster, pedagogue (that’s the Greek word) and in various other ways. The concept, though, is pretty clear. God’s Law was not meant to be our path to salvation. God knew that we could not keep it. The purpose of the Law was to show our utter inability and our need for Christ. By our failure, we would learn just how badly we needed Jesus Christ.

3) Grace is for failures.

Those who recognize their sin against God and realize they have no hope of righteousness through the law will then cast themselves on the Savior for their salvation. Because our loving Father knew our sin, our failure, he provided another way, the way of grace. It is the only way for sinful humanity. God did for us what we could not do for ourselves. Jesus lived the perfect life we could not live, earning the favor of God we could never merit. He died to pay for our sins and rose to offer life to those who believe. God did it, because we couldn’t!

4) Instead of walking in grace, the Pharisees constructed a system of works.

Instead of casting themselves on the grace of God, the Pharisees constructed a system of works in which they attempted to make the Law of God possible. “Follow these rules, perform these rituals, and observe these requirements, and God will accept you.” They dumbed down the righteousness and perfection of God to make it possible for human being to please him by their religious observance.

You Might Be a Pharisee If…

The Pharisees constructed their system of simpler steps to fulfilling the law of God. That Law was impossible and was meant to lead them to dependence on God. But instead of dependence, they turned to independence; to their own traditions which made them believe they were pleasing God.

Almost all of us here know that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone. Paul challenged the “foolish” Galatians to remember that living the Christian life is as much a work of grace as salvation.

Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Galatians 3:3

We need Christ every bit as much for our daily life as we did for our initial experience of salvation.

And the Christian life is hard – a God-sized task. Everything God commands for me to do is beyond my own ability and I must rely on the power of the Spirit of Christ within to enable me.

I fear that often we make the mistake of the Pharisees as we approach Christian living. As the Pharisees reduced the glory of God’s Law to a series of manageable steps, so we try to reduce the Christian life to equally manageable steps.

Many Christians believe that they are “good Christians” if they do certain things and refrain from certain others. If they attend church, work in its ministries, give their tithes and offerings and participate in the church’s rituals, then God must be smiling on them. Of course, they must also refrain from activities like smoking and drinking and pornography and immorality. If they do the dos and don’t do the don’ts, they are pleasing to God.

Of course, there are things every Christian should do and other things every Christian should not do. I am not arguing for a lack of Christian standards or behavioral norms. But we must be careful not to reduce the amazing life of God to a set of rules, moral principles, beliefs, or religious practices.

The Christian life goes far beyond a set of religious duties, rituals or activities. It is much more than observing a set of prohibitions. The Christian life is DEATH. We are to die to our sin and to the lives we had without Christ. We die with Christ and are raised to walk a new life in him. We are made new creations, indwelled by the Spirit and transformed to be like Christ. In our new lives, Christ is Lord of all and we live completely for him. That goes far beyond religious activity or moral strictures.

American Christianity has been trying to reduce the demands of the Christian life, downplaying the hard things and offering a faith that God offers no one. Jesus said that anyone who wanted to follow him would have to deny himself and die (take up his cross). Anything less than that is a perversion of Christianity.

I can go to church, read my Bible, tithe and give offerings, avoid the big sins, and still have a heart of selfishness, self-righteousness, greed, lust and pride. Phariseeism reduces Christianity to easy steps that mimic but are not really the full work of God. The chief failure of the Pharisees was not that they added to God’s commands, but that they attempted to make it possible for us to do in the flesh what can only be done in the Spirit. It is my observation that the American church is often guilty of that same fault.

The essence of Phariseeism is attempting to do by our own power what can ultimately only be done by God. It is a fault as common today as it was 2000 years ago when Pharisees walked the earth.


  1. Bill Mac says

    My mother was a attender of a church in a holiness denomination. Good people but absolutely rigid. She could not be a member because she would not give up her television.

    Legalists do not have an over-developed sense of sin but rather an under-developed one. They focus on discrete sins and not on sinfulness. We have discussed this repeatedly in a men’s study that I teach. If salvation could truly be lost, I would have lost it long ago. I would lose it nearly every day.

  2. Dale Pugh says

    “The essence of Phariseeism is attempting to do by our own power what can ultimately only be done by God.”
    Very good summation, in my opinion. Jesus’ confrontations with the Pharisees were marked by their dependence on self-righteousness. He simply stated that such an approach would always come up short. God’s grace is not effective in my life because of what I do. What I do is the result of God’s grace at work in my life.
    Good series, Dave. And good reminders for my own introspection and to allow God to point out my Pharisaical tendencies.

    • Christiane says

      ” . . . with God all things are possible. ”
      (from the Gospel of St. Matthew 19:26)

      • Dale Pugh says

        Your quote is Jesus’ response to the question, “Who then can be saved?” That question was asked because the Rich Young Ruler, one who looked like he had done everything right, refused to believe in Jesus and let his actions follow his faith. As a strict follower of the Law he had proven himself to be “righteous” by human standards, but he was missing the one thing that truly makes one right with God–when confronted with the claims of Jesus, he turned away. Like so many of us he emphasized the wrong things and he died in his sin and unbelief.
        Will we trust what we do to save us? Then we too will die in our sin and unbelief. Will we trust in the finished work of Jesus on the cross? Then we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and are saved.

        • Greg Harvey says

          Putting faith in adherence to Law doesn’t save you. Putting your faith in Jesus Christ–or in the OT saints trusting in God to provide deliverance in the future–does result in salvation if God accepts your faith as genuine and accounts to you righteousness because of that faith.

          Only God can examine our faith and determine if it is acceptable to him. Our efforts to structure that conversation in our favor demonstrate a lack of faith in Him to do that examination justly. Depending on externals to structure that conversation is precisely such a lack of faith. A point Jesus not only made abundantly clear but highlighted with the speck/log analogy.

          • Greg Harvey says

            “or in the OT saints” was intended to be “or in the case of OT saints”. Amazing how much less sense it makes with two less words than intended.

    • Dave Miller says

      What interested me in my study was the idea, held by Silva and others, that the Pharisees’ main problem was not so much adding to the Law, but simplifying it to make it easier for people to believe that they have fulfilled it.

      I see such a corollary between that our modern church practices of simplifying the faith to help people that they are okay with God, even though they have not died to self.

      • Dale Pugh says

        I see his point, as quoted in the post, but I wonder how it jives with Jesus’ words in Luke 11. He says to the lawyers, who were in league with the Pharisees, that they were willing to lay burdens on others that they themselves were unwilling (unable?) to bear. Seems that Jesus held the view that those making the rules were placing unnecessary religious regulations on people. I do see, though, how Silva comes to his conclusion. Interesting thoughts.

  3. Greg Harvey says

    Excellent! I realize that some will look at this and say the rigor isn’t there to define the concept, but that’s exactly why this is spot on. Demanding escape from the category requires addressing the arrogance of the Pharisees in ourselves. We’re uniformly bad at it and in my experience many very well liked and prized leaders at the core of their being depend heavily on self-satisfaction as a core dynamic that defines them.

    Maybe most do. Perhaps all. CB Scott should think back to his previous comment regarding my thoughts on Paige Patterson in terms of what I’m saying here and in terms of what HE has said in the past. I’m not someone who makes a point of bringing people “down to my level”. But I’m a fierce opponent of the portion of Pharasaical behavior that emphasizes human privilege and honor as a consequence of office. I’m not saying Paige has crossed that line. But I worry about any of our longer-term leaders crossing it. Yes, God is there to correct them. But we’re part of that correction process and should be vigilant in opposing it.

    Pharaseeism is about humans intruding on what is God’s province in any way and in every way. We need to develop a nose for ALL of the “control issues” that are markers of the disease. Luckily I spent my entire youth being trained to recognize it and it has served me extremely well in my corporate career in dealing with non-faith occurrences of the same behavior. It’s NOT just a faith problem. It’s a consequence of sin and how it warps our thinking even once we’re redeemed.

    Or to put a very fine point on it: I worry about how my continuing sin causes me to cause misery to other people precisely through the mechanism of justifying myself when I don’t perceive what I’m doing is really “wrong’. I would argue that God might be immediately convicting me of that sin, but that if I ignore the conviction long enough I can start seeing it as a form of righteousness which is, in a word, hideous. And I would further argue that–just based on responses I’ve seen on this board–that I’m not the only person with this problem. 😉 <– plus I use emoticons still

    • volfan007 says


      Help me to understand exactly what you’re saying about CB Scott and Dr. Page Patterson? Are you alluding to them being Pharisees?


      • Jess Alford says


        I don’t know about Dr. Patterson, but CB Scott is a five whiskered cal-fish, and a liberal.

      • Dave Miller says

        I missed that whole exchange. Honestly, I’m not much of a moderator or editor these days, for reasons that are both personal and irrelevant.

        But I completely missed the exchange to which Greg refers.

        I do have one question for Jess. What is a cal-fish?

  4. Jess Alford says

    I want to be up front with you here, as much as it pains me to say this,
    Great Post. You might be a Pharisee if your momma has a beer sitting
    on the end of the ironing board. No, wait a minute, that’s something else.

  5. Bruce H. says


    I was asked to lead an exercise class in push-ups, set-ups, jumping jacks and so forth. As the one who lead the class, I was able to perform the exercises fully. I was able to extend the repetitions because I was the one who set the pace. I see that as Phariseeism in a way. We see scripture saying one thing and even though we cannot meet what we see, we preach what others need to do. That is a Pharisaical approach to walking the Christian walk.

  6. volfan007 says


    I do think that a lot of people confuse “Pharisee ism” with someone, who is stricter than they are. Or, they think that a person is a Pharisee when they say that God demands holiness.

    I think you’re post is good, and that Silva’s thoughts are interesting… about the Pharisees simplifying the law to something they could do, and feel justified.

    I really think that “Pharisee ism” is when someone thinks that they are justified by their works. They think that they are righteous based on how good they are; religious things they’ve done; the “good” family they were born into; etc. They look down on others in condemnation, because they think they’re better than other people.

    So, I think that some people….not you, but some from the past that you mention in your post that threw around the term frequently….are confusing people encouraging Churches to have sound doctrine, and sound practice, and being holy because HE is holy….with being Pharisaical. And, some people call others, who are stricter than they are in thier Christian life, as being Pharisaical. But, in reality, they are not being Pharisaical, but just hold to stricter views about how to live the Christian life….as a Believer. For example, while I dont believe that women have to wear thier hair in a bun, and wear long skirts, like some Pentecostal groups around my area believe; I would not call them Pharisees just for holding to that view. I dont agree with them, and I dont think the Scripture teaches that; but I wouldnt call them Pharisees for holding to such a belief. I think they’re being a little too strict…..but….well, you get the picture.


    • Dave Miller says

      Here’s what I did, David. I have heard the “Pharisee” label thrown at so many different people in so many different ways, that I decided to try to figure out what was really at the root of it.

      Certainly, legalism is part of it – I will write about that in the future. But as I researched, I found this concept in more than one source, and it just hit me that this is kind of what we do today.

      Instead of realizing that God’s Word, will, and ways are beyond our abilities, we tend to simplify them to make them accessible, humanly possible.

      Most people today think that Christianity is simply going to church, working in the church, giving money, and trying to be a good person. That is Phariseeism in a nutshell. They simplified Judaism so that people who were not in obedience to the Law would THINK they were.

      Christianity in America has created a false and Pharisaical Christianity, in which you can be a “good Christian” without denying yourself, dying with Christ or rising to walk a new life.

      That, to me, is the heart of Phariseeism.

      • says

        One of the ways Phariseeism manifests itself in this simplification is by reducing everything to externals. You may end of with such a large collection of externals that most people regard it as ‘harder’, but it’s still simpler than dealing with the condition of your heart, and lets you neglect things like justice, mercy, and faithfullness.

        • says

          The continuum of legalism must be a circle because I see the same reduction of the gospel by the rampant antinomianism I run into at my non-denom church. The gospel becomes a simple declaration unhooked to a changed life pursuing holiness. I saw the same type of thing at the SBC mega we left before I came on staff at my church.

          I wonder if there is a pattern at work in this gospel reduction: Smaller, traditional congregations struggle with legalism while contemporary focused churches struggle with lawlessness. Galatia versus Corinth?

          • says

            I am using The Gospel Project youth curriculum and am on Unit 2 Lesson 7 – The Grace Shaped Family of God. The lesson is primarily about the Jerusalem Council regarding legalism. It’s good stuff. It really resonates with me, a 49 year old who grew up in a traditional SBC church where I did see (and practiced) legalism.

            The problem I find now is that I do not see that same legalism in my church context; I see the opposite. I constantly hear from my non-denom friends about their freedom in Christ (absolutely true) without hearing about their pursuit of holiness.

            I remember Pastor Barber one time posted (as best I remember it) that he thought antinomianism to be a bigger threat to the gospel than legalism.

          • Dave Miller says

            I think you are right. I believe that Bart posted that – it would have been a couple of years ago.

          • says

            I deliberately said “One of the ways”, because I think there are more than one way that people simplify things. Part of it is different things are ‘simpler’ to different people. E.g. some people learn largely by memorizing lists of small concrete pieces of information, largely without trying to connect them. Others learn by connecting things together and making mental maps of the information in their heads. People who strongly tend towards the first group *will* find long lists of externals *simpler*. People in the second group, not so much (for what it’s worth, I’ve found that people who fall solidly in one or the other group (I’m definitely in the second group) often don’t understand or get easily irritated by people in the opposite group). I’m sure there are other things that make different approaches ‘simpler’.

    • Dave Miller says

      And you are right that the common, and I believe false, view of Phariseeism is just about being stricter.

      It is not about the standards by which you live your life, but about whether you embrace the Way of the Cross (dying with Christ and rising to walk a new life) or if you walk the Way of the Flesh.

  7. says

    I’ve heard what the Pharisees did described as ‘putting a hedge around the law’ – adding man-made restrictions to try to keep you from even getting close to breaking the law. Does this dovetail with the simplification concept, or are they perhaps two different views of the same thing?

    • Christiane says

      this sounds like ‘avoiding the near occasions of sin’ in my Church . . .

      sounds more like ‘common sense’ to me

        • Christiane says

          Hi BEN,

          if a Christian person KNOWS that they have a weakness in a certain area, such as abusing their bodies through taking illegal drugs,
          if they renounce drug use and give up that abuse and are penitent;
          is it not ‘common sense’ to avoid going back around the same ‘friends’ who led them into drugs, and who still use?

          I would think ‘common sense’ is one of God’s gifts to us . . . and avoiding ‘the occasions of sin’ (the places, people, and atmosphere that encouraged that sin) is part of the ‘wisdom’ that comes to rational people from the God of Reason.

          going back into a bad situation can be viewed as ‘tempting fate’ for someone with a weakness, or if the person is a Christian, it may be seen as ‘testing God’ . . . not something wise to do, when God has already led one out of trouble and forgiven self-abusive illegal behaviors. We are not to mock God.

          That is one way of looking at it, I suppose.
          At least in my faith, where the term ‘avoiding the occasions of sin’ is understood to mean ‘don’t knowingly place yourself where you may be seriously tempted to turn back to sin and away from God’

    • Dave Miller says

      Sounds to me like two different ways of describing the same phenomenon. The key there is that keeping the Pharisees’ traditions made you feel like you were blameless, you had not actually kept the law of God.

      • says

        Which means they’re kept in a ‘comfortable ‘ (and possibly addictive) sense of self-righteousness, and pride, when they ought to be falling to the ground in grief at their own sinfulness.

  8. Jess Alford says

    Can folks really not see the beam in their eye while making a mountain
    out of the tiny specks in others eyes? I’ve looked at this problem many
    different ways and came up with only one conclusion every time. If the Holy Spirit does not convict them of their sin, they are lost. The Scripture teaches that God corrects his children, if they receive no correction they
    are not lawful children.

    • Jess Alford says

      Many times it’s a lot harder to reach a lost church member than someone that has never made a profession. Yet, I’ve seen it happen
      about twenty times, plus or minus a few.

  9. Christiane says

    When I think of a Pharisee, I think of two things:

    1. self-righteously pointing the finger at others
    2. walking past a suffering person whose needs are urgent

    I am most certainly guilty of the first one, no argument.
    But that second one, I think I am too kind to do consciously . . . and now I think ‘what about the times I might have worked to prevent situations where people get into trouble, and I was too lazy or selfish to contribute to the community to make it safer and better, more welcoming for people with special needs, for the elderly, for single mothers, for young people . . .
    and yes, I see that there have been many times I might have done something positive and instead did nothing.

    no excuses . . . not in my Church . . .
    I did sin when I avoided responsibility to my family, my co-workers, my community, my Church . . .

    so at least in my case, I can say ‘mea culpa’,
    and not fall back on ‘it was impossible to obey Christ’s commands’.

    maybe that is the difference I see between my Church and one that permits people a pass by saying they couldn’t possible follow Christ’s Royal Law.


  1. […] to hell. Look back at verse 15. The Pharisees were leading their followers not to God, but to hell. I wrote on this some time ago, and identified the work of the Pharisees. They attempted to articulate a path whereby human […]