Paul's Passing Thoughts

Do you Misrepresent the Pharisees? Well Then, You Just Might Be an Antinomian

Posted in Uncategorized by Andy Young, PPT contributing editor on April 25, 2016

Originally published September 7, 2010

I heard it again yesterday in a Sunday morning message: the Pharisees were really, really good at keeping the Law, but at the end of the day Jesus said that our righteousness must surpass that of the Pharisees.  Alas, proof that we can’t be justified by keeping the Law (which no one would argue with). The pastor, in this message that is one of many in his series on The Sermon on the Mount, even said something like this: “The Pharisees’ efforts at keeping the Law wasn’t the issue, they were good at keeping the Law.” But is that true? And by the way, considering who the audience was at that church (primarily saints gathered for worship and the hearing of the word), and the fact that his topic was the role of the Law in Christian living, why was he even discussing justification in that context? Based on his view of the Pharisees and their supposed efforts to be justified by keeping the Law, one of his statements to *us* was “you don’t keep the Law by trying to keep the Law.” Hmmm, really?

We certainly are not justified by “trying” to keep the Law, but should we try to keep the Law in order to please and obey our Lord? Yes, I think so. Now, I don’t know this pastor very well, but I know him well enough to know that he wouldn’t dream of synthesizing justification and sanctification, but due to the fact that our present church culture is awash in an antinomian doctrine that does just that, are pastors propagating such a synthesis unawares? Yes, I think so. In his sermon notes, the top of the page has statements like ”Things Jesus wants us (“us” would presumably be Christians) to know about the Law.” The top part of the notes are also replete with “we” in regard to the Law, but the bottom part has statements like: “We live in the Age of Grace; salvation is not of works,” but yet, the whole message clearly regards the role of the Law in the life of a Christian. Therefore, whether unawares or otherwise, he clearly extended the relationship of the Law in regard to Justification into the realm of sanctification.

Here is where we must call on our good friend Jeff Foxworthy who developed a program for helping people who may be rednecks but don’t know it. He presents several different questions from different angles of thought, and depending on the answers to the questions, “you just might be a redneck.” Likewise, if you misrepresent the Pharisees, you just might be an antinomian without knowing it.

First of all, we can see from the very same proof text used to demonstrate the idea above that the Pharisees were not guilty of attempting to keep the Law in order to be justified:

[9] “Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. [20] For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19,20).

So, as the reasoning goes, verse 19 indicates that “we” should revere God’s Law, but since the Pharisees were really, really good at keeping the Law (an assumed interpretive criteria) we shouldn’t “try” to keep the Law because that’s what they tried to do, and our righteousness must surpass theirs because you can’t be saved by keeping the Law (and again, why are we discussing salvation in this context to begin with?). But we can see just from this text alone that this interpretation is not true. In every literal English translation that I could find, the coordinating conjunction “for” links verses 19 and 20. As we know, coordinating conjunctions join two complete ideas together and indicates the connection between the two. In all cases, the translators saw fit to translate the conjunction “for” from the Greek texts. If Jesus was contrasting the two ideas, a different conjunction would have been used like “but,” ie., the Pharisees do verse 19 really well, “but” not perfectly, therefore you need a righteousness that is perfect (this is true, but not what Christ is referring to here). No, the conjunction used is “for” which indicates “reason”(reason why): because the Pharisees were guilty of verse 19, they (the audience) were not going to enter the kingdom of heaven if they where like the Pharisees in regard to habitually breaking the Law of God and teaching others to do so. Also, I think the Lord’s reference to being the least or the greatest “in the kingdom” (verse 19) is in reference to degree and set against the example of the Pharisees who were guilty of doing (breaking the Law and teaching others to do so) habitually which was an indication that their souls were in peril. Therefore, even if the assumption regarding the Pharisees ability to obey the Law outwardly is true, it’s the wrong transition; a better transition would be “but” and would read something like this: “Christians should obey the Law ‘but’ even if you keep the law as good as the Pharisees do, it will not get you into the kingdom, so you need a righteousness that surpasses theirs.”

Granted, depending on how you diagram the sentence, you might be able to make a case either way, but is it true that the Pharisees were experts at keeping the Law outwardly? No. From other Scriptures we know that the Pharisees were guilty of verse nineteen; specifically, they replaced the Law with their own traditions. That’s why Jesus immediately launches into the whole “you have heard that it was said….but I tell you”starting in the following sentence (verse21). Not only that, Jesus says specifically in Matthew 15:1-9 that His contention with the Pharisees (and the teachers of the law as exactly referred to in verse 20) was the fact that they twisted the Scriptures according to their traditions:

[1] Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, [2]”Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”[3] Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? [4] For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ [5] But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,’ [6] he is not to ‘honor his father’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. [7] You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: [8] ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. [9] They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.'”

The Pharisees were not proficient at keeping God’s law outwardly. In fact, they didn’t do so at all, but rather propagated teachings that were “rules taught by men.” Therefore, the Pharisees were guilty of neglecting the true Law and teaching others to do so (Matthew 5:19). They were not the poster-children for some campaign to demonstrate the futility of Law-keeping, especially in regard to believers. In fact, Christ said their lax attitude toward the Law was indicative of those who will not enter the kingdom. For this reason the Pharisees were not the greatest in heaven as the masses supposed, but the least, if they were even in the kingdom at all. Therefore, when Christ told the crowd that their righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees, He wasn’t talking about the imputed righteousness of Christ that the Pharisees were supposedly trying to obtain themselves for salvation (besides, they were not attempting to do that to begin with as I have demonstrated), but rather the true righteous behavior demanded of kingdom citizens. If Christ was talking about an imputed righteousness (for sanctification), why would He have not simply said so? For example: “Your righteousness must not only exceed that of the Pharisees (which wouldn’t have been hard to do anyway, and therefore by no means a profound statement by Christ), but ( a contrast conjunction) must be a righteousness that comes from God alone”…for sanctification.

If you misrepresent the Pharisees as the first century poster-children for “let go and let God theology” because they supposedly tried to keep the Law, you just might be an antinomian. But in part two, we discuss another question that may give credence to the possibility: Do you misrepresent obedience as outward alone? Well then, you just may be an antinomian.


2 Responses

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  1. jeff said, on April 25, 2016 at 4:55 PM

    His statement you quote, “We live in the Age of Grace; salvation is not of works,” troubles me too. It implies that people not in the “age of grace” were saved by works. I think that’s another misconception: that Jews were indeed saved by works. People have always been saved by grace through faith. Works have always grown out of that faith, and without the works, there must not be faith. I think salvation has been a fairly constant, straightforward issue throughout the ages. Faith comes by hearing God’s Word. Hearing God’s Word results in doing God’s Word. To make that more complicated is to begin to play theological games that usually end in antinomian theology.


    • Paul M. Dohse Sr. said, on April 25, 2016 at 7:18 PM

      I agree, but I also believe that many, many questions remain unanswered in regard to how all of the details fit together, and those questions will only be answered from the collective research of God’s people in general without academic presuppositions. The one new man has always been laity for the most part. The means God chose, for the most part, is the un-noble and the lowly.


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