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Gospel Focus: Avoiding Pharisaism

The Lord’s Day Evening

August 8, 2010

Luke 18:9-14

“Gospel Focus: Avoiding Pharisaism”

Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Now turn with me tonight to the gospel of Luke.

We’re looking this summer, in a series which we have called, “The
Gospel-Centered Life,” and tonight I want to attempt to address the issue of
avoiding Pharisaism. And suitably
we’re going to read now the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector as we
find it in Luke 18. Before we read
the passage, let’s look to God in prayer.

Father, we thank You for the Scriptures.
This is Your Word. We are a
needy people and we need Your Word to come alive in our minds, in our hearts, in
our wills, in our affections. So
grant, Holy Spirit, that illumination that brings Your Word to life.
We ask it in Jesus’ name.

Hear God’s holy and inerrant Word.
Verse 9 of Luke chapter 18:

“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were
righteous, and treated others with contempt:
‘Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a
tax collector. The Pharisee,
standing by himself, prayed thus:
‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust,
adulterers, or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’
But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes
to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the
other. For everyone who exalts
himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.’”

Thus far God’s holy and inerrant Word.

I. Who were the Pharisees?

Now in this parable Jesus tells us the meaning of the parable before He tells us
the parable. He tells us in verse 9
that this parable is addressed to some, presumably Pharisees, who trusted in
themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt.
Now the Pharisees were of three sorts in the first century.
There were three Jewish sects, collectively known as the Pharisees, and
there were conservatives and liberals and something in between.
The conservatives were the disciples of Shemei and the more liberal
interpreters of the law were the followers of Hillel and then there was another
group of Pharisees known as the followers of Gamaliel, the Gamaliel we read of
in the gospels. It’s hard to
classify exactly where each individual Pharisee may lie.
It wasn’t a point but a spectrum, just as it would be difficult when you
addressed Christians today. There
are conservative Christians and liberal Christians and who-knows-what

Now this particular Pharisee is described to us.
He describes himself to us.
He’s a conservative. And two
particular things arise about him in his own self-description, let alone the
description that Jesus gives at the beginning as the explanation of the parable.
First of all he describes himself as one who is morally righteous.
He is not an extortioner. He
is not an adulterer. He’s not
unjust. We take him at his word.
He was a morally upright individual.
He wasn’t the kind of man who was in trouble with the law.
He wasn’t the kind of man who had a record.
He wasn’t the kind of man we might label as a criminal.
He’s a morally upright individual, a law abiding citizen.
He’s a decent individual, upright.
He may be self-righteous and you may not like him, but he’s moral.

The second thing he says about himself is he’s religiously devout.
He says he fasts twice a week.
Now you may have your opinions about somebody who fasts twice a week and
we’ll get to that in a moment, but he’s a man of religious scruple.
You might be critical of his scruples, but he is a man of religious
scruple. The law in fact only
required that you fast once a year on the Day of Atonement.
That was a requirement. But
this man fasts twice a week and he tithes.
He tithes everything. All
that he possesses, all that he gains in terms of good, he tithes.
Again, you may have your opinion about somebody as scrupulous as that
about the way he understands the law, but you have to admit he’s religiously
devout. You may think ill of him,
you may call him a legalist — let’s get the “L” word out.
Anyone who pays too much attention to the law for probably the majority
of folk here tonight would be thought of as a legalist.
I have a partner who, if I do one mile over the speed limit, I’m told
about it in a millisecond. She
believes in maintaining the law.

Now this man here is morally upright, he’s religiously devout, but he’s also
something more than that. He sees
himself as morally and religiously superior.
He’s morally and religiously superior to this tax collector. He’s not
like this tax collector. There’s a
contrast here in the parable between this morally upright, religiously devout
Pharisee, and this tax collector.
Now tax collectors were, for good or ill, regarded as sinners.
They were regarded as the scum of the earth as far as the Jews generally
were concerned, but particularly the Pharisees.
Collecting taxes in the Roman Empire
was a difficult business. The
Romans wisely farmed it out to local enterprises to collect.
And Jews would collect taxes for the Roman government.
The way they would do that would be entirely up to themselves so long as
the Roman government got their due tax.
So tax collectors were notorious at adding to the taxation burden
something for themselves. And
because they were serving an occupying power, force, they were disliked more
than tax collectors might be disliked generally among this audience this
evening. There was an added burden
here. The tax collectors were
working for a foreign power. They
were working for an invading power.
They were working for an occupying force.
And so collectively they were regarded as sinners.
This Pharisee regards himself as morally superior to this tax collector.

The tax collector can’t even look up to heaven.
His eyes are cast firmly down upon the ground.
He’s riddled with a sense of guilt, guilt over his sins, over his
failures, over his shortcomings, over the many transgressions that he is aware
of in his own life. He beats upon
his breast — a sign of contrition — and all he can do is pray the sinner’s
prayer. “God, be merciful to me, a
sinner.” That’s all he can say.
He begs for mercy. It’s not
just that he doesn’t seem himself as superior to someone else, no one else comes
into the picture. It’s just him and
God and he begs for mercy. He seems
unaware even of the presence of the Pharisee.

Now here’s, as we say today, the kicker.
Jesus says, “That man, the tax collector, the man who prays the sinner’s
prayer, the man who says, ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner,’ that man goes to
his home justified, that is to say in a right relationship with God, rather than
the other. The tax collector, the
one who is conscious of his sin and can only beg for mercy, that man goes home
justified in a right relationship with God and the Pharisee does not.”

Now let’s examine this Pharisee a little.
It’s very important. This
man is not trusting in good works that he has accomplished all by himself
without any assistance whatsoever from God.
No, he’s not, as we might say, a Pelagian1

or for that matter even a semi-Pelagian.
He gives thanks to God. The
reason why he is morally upright, the reason why he is religiously devout, he
sees as due to the sovereignty of God, even to the grace of God.
He gives thanks to God for what he sees as his moral and religious
position. The good works that he
brings now to the surface in this prayer are not good works accomplished by his
own unaided effort, but they’re good works which God has enabled him to do and
he’s trusting in that. They are his
good works. They are his good
works. Notice how Jesus puts it in
verse 9 — “He told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were
righteous.” This man was giving
thanks to God for his righteousness, but he was trusting in that righteousness
which was his, wrought by God in him.

Now, many of you are aware that in these last few years a great deal of research
has been done about the Pharisees and some of us have been told by scholars and
others that we got the Pharisees all wrong, that we read the Pharisees through
the lens of the Reformation and Luther’s understanding or misunderstanding of
the medieval Roman church and we’ve read that back into the gospels and we’ve
read the Pharisees wrong and villainized the Pharisees accordingly.
Well be that as it may, what is it that Luther says about medieval
Rome? It
wasn’t that medieval Rome believed that you bring before God works
that you do all by yourself. No,
medieval Rome believed in the grace of God, they believed that the works that we
bring before God are works that are wrought in us by God and by His Spirit and
by the grace of God, but they remain our good works.
What’s wrong about the Pharisee?
Because the Pharisee is doing, it seems to me, exactly the same.

I want to ask tonight this very simple question — What’s wrong with the

II. What’s wrong with the Pharisees?

Well you might be tempted to say what’s wrong with the Pharisee is he’s a
legalist. He’s a legalist.
Well, yes he is a legalist.
He’s trusting in works that he himself has done, even though he’s
crediting that the origin of these works lay in the sovereignty of God.
God worked these works in him but they’re his works.
And if you trust in your good works, even if you credit those good works
to God, but they are your good works, and you lay the foundation of your
assurance of your relationship with God on those good works, that’s legalism.

And Jesus is saying in this parable, “that
will end up in you not being
.” You will go home,
if that’s where you are tonight, that the basis of my relationship with God is
what I do — my moral stance, my religious devotion.
And even though you may say, “God made me like this,” if that’s the basis
of your foundation, if that’s the basis on which you think that you are right
with God, Jesus is saying here, “You are mistaken.
You are absolutely mistaken because that belief, that trust, that
confidence in good works, good works that you perform — and they are good works;
they’re not bad works, they’re good works — good works, even good works that you
think God has wrought in you can lead you to hell.”

Isn’t that what Ligon told us this morning in another passage in Luke?
“Fear Him who can cast both body and soul in hell.”

On what basis, on what basis does God cast body and soul into hell?

On the basis that the confidence that I have about my relationship with God is
based on something that belongs to me.

Now I want to ask you tonight, and I want to ask you who are Christians and
believers and you make a profession of faith,
what is the basis, what is the
foundation of my right standing with God?
what basis will God say to me, if He takes me home tonight, on what basis will I
hear Him say, “Welcome into My kingdom”?
You see, even as Christians we can so subtly and so easily become
Pharisaical. We do good works.
We are religiously devout.
We’re in church on Sunday evening for goodness sake.
I mean, who else goes to church on Sunday evening anymore?

And I wonder tonight, I wonder tonight, does it enter into your head as you sit
here and sing these wonderful hymns and read the Scriptures and fellowship with
each other that God must now be pleased with us, and that is the foundation upon
which I rest all my hopes that I am in a right relationship with Him?

Jeremy was telling you last week we must — I assume Jeremy was telling you last
week — we must never confuse how good works function as the fruit of
justification and the root of justification.
If you make good works the root
of justification you are not in a right relationship with God.

And all of our good works, all of our good works must stem as the outflow
of gratitude for grace that has already been received in the Gospel.

My friends, what Jesus is teaching here is ever so subtle.
It’s subtle because it’s the endemic sin; it’s the endemic temptation of
the children of Adam in the Garden of Eden.
Satan planted a thought, he planted a seed, and that seed was — God is
hard to please. He’s set you in
this garden and He’s forbidden you to eat of all the trees of the garden.
He’s forbidden that. You may
have a right relationship with God, but it’s going to be on the other side of
trying to please Him because He doesn’t really, He doesn’t really want to give
you these good things. That’s the
seed that Satan sowed in the Garden of Eden.
It’s endemic. It’s the
default of the natural heart. Every
false religion, every false religion, every deviation from the Gospel is a
variation on self-justification, on trying to please God — a reluctant God.

Do you remember the parable that Jesus said about the two brothers?
We emphasize the prodigal son, but the older brother, do you remember
what the older brother said when the father killed the fatted calf and gave the
ring and showed all this affection and tenderness toward the prodigal son, what
did the oldest son say? “All these
years I’ve been slaving for you.
I’ve been slaving for you.”

Does that ring a bell tonight in your hearts as you think about your
relationship with God, that it’s a kind of slavery, it’s a kind of bondage, it’s
trying to ring out of God just a little affection by doing more, by performing
more? And Jesus is saying, watch
out for that.

Watch out for that Pharisaical spirit that says, “Here are my good works.
Lord, I read the Scriptures every day this week.
Lord, I had some good times in my quiet times this week.
I came to church twice today.”
That my friends, that can damn you.
That’s what Jesus is saying.

III. What is the cure for Pharisaism?

What’s the cure for Pharisaism of this kind?
And the cure, of course, is the Gospel.
The cure is Jesus. The cure
is that little word, and it’s so important, from the Reformation —
— by grace.

Yes, the good works that the Pharisee performed were by the grace of God, but he
was trusting in his own good works nevertheless.
They were his own good works.

And the Gospel says even if you do everything, even if you fulfill the whole —
supposing you could fulfill the whole law tonight.
I mean, supposing you could be like the rich young ruler in the next
section of this eighteenth chapter of Luke – you remember Jesus said to him, He
took him to the Ten Commandments and this rich young ruler said, “All these I
have done from my youth.” Imagine,
imagine if you could fulfill the law.
Turn back to chapter 17 and verse 10 — “So also, when you have done all
that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants.
We have only done what was our duty.’”
Even if you could do everything,
even if you could fulfill the law, you are still,
Jesus says,
an unworthy servant.
You’ve only done what was your duty

How can I then be in a right relationship with God?
Not, not through my righteousness. Even if I think that righteousness has
been in some way worked in me by God.

It must be by an alien righteousness, the righteousness of another.
He who has made sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be reckoned
the righteousness of God in Him.

What’s the basis of my confidence
tonight? It’s not my good works.
It’s not my Bible reading.
It’s not my church attendance. It’s
not the fact that I’m a member of First Presbyterian Church.
It’s not that I’m a covenant child.
What’s the basis of my assurance that I’m in a right relationship with

That the perfect righteousness of Jesus has been reckoned to my account and my
sins have been reckoned to Jesus’ account.
It’s by faith alone in Christ alone and by grace alone apart from the
works of the law.

This is a very subtle thing. Paul
had to warn the Galatians that they had started in the Spirit but were now
trying to continue in the flesh.
Every day, every single day we must say to ourselves, “On Christ the solid Rock
I stand; all other ground, including my moral uprightness and my religious
devotion, all other ground is sinking sand.”

Young people, what’s the basis on which you are in a right relationship with God
tonight? And it has to be that I am
building my life on the finished work of Jesus alone.
“Nothing, nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.”

Let’s pray together.

Father, we feel the subtle temptation of having begun in the Spirit to revert to
the flesh, of having begun by faith and continuing by the works of the flesh,
and we want to be able to see again tonight that it is of grace from beginning
to end. Even if we could fulfill
the whole law, we would still be unworthy servants.
So we pray the sinner’s prayer, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
We pray for anyone here tonight who perhaps has never fully realized what
it fully means to be a Christian, what it means to trust in Jesus only, what it
means to rid themselves of all self-confidence and cast themselves entirely upon
Jesus. So grant it by Your Spirit
for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Please stand. Receive the Lord’s

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with
you all.


1. Pelagius (AD 354 — AD 420/440),
denied the doctrine of

original sin as developed by

Augustine of Hippo, and was declared a

heretic by the

Council of Carthage. His interpretation of a doctrine of

free will became known as

Pelagianism. Man was
thus able to freely choose good or evil.