The Reformed Life

Equipping followers of Christ to live in a manner worthy of their calling

Are You A Pharisee?

“Scripture warns believers of hypocrisy—called the “leaven of the Pharisees”—and its potential to spread quickly in the church. Outwardly, appearing as devout religion, this legalism hides destructive pride, idolatry, and even apostasy. How can the church today recognize and defeat one of Christianity’s most ancient threats? 

In this follow-up to his book Gospel People, Michael Reeves studies three essentials of Christian doctrine that the Pharisees misunderstood: biblical revelation, redemption, and regeneration. Calling modern evangelicals to a renewed commitment to gospel integrity, Reeves helps readers embrace a biblical, Trinitarian, and creedal understanding of the gospel necessary for true reformation (from the back cover).” 

A Sober Warning 

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy (Luke 12:1).” Who is Jesus speaking to when he utters these words? We might think that He addresses the crowd. No. Jesus says those words to His disciples. Hypocrisy, which Reeves refers to as “a lack of integrity,” was a danger for them. 

This is a warning that all Christians must heed. Why? Because hypocrisy is extremely hard to detect. Charles Spurgeon says of the hypocrite, “to the common observer he is so good a counterfeit that he entirely escapes suspicion.” 

Although cloaked by performance, the Pharisees failed to hear what God had spoken in His Word. Yet, the Pharisees’ problems aren’t limited to them. Reeves writes, “A Pharisaical or hypocritical spirit leaves such an obvious moral trail—from pride to people pleasing, tribalism, empire building, and lovelessness—that it is easy to diagnose it as a moral problem (15).” 

He goes on to state that this mindset is a theological issue. But don’t miss the characteristics of this position. Pride, people pleasing, empire building, and lovelessness can mark any of us. We would do well to heed the warning of Jesus, “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees.” 

Reeves concludes the first chapter by stating, “In the Gospels, Jesus spelled out three basic theological mistakes the Pharisees made:

  1. Their approach to Scripture
  2. Their understanding of salvation 
  3. Their disregard of regeneration (18)” 

Can you trace any of these characteristics in your own life? Let’s do some digging. 

A Warped View of God’s Word 

In John’s Gospel, Jesus confronts the Pharisees and says, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life (John 5:39-40).” 

This is one reason I enjoyed this book. Michael Reeves bases his points on Scripture. Each issue is expounded upon by looking to the text of God’s Word to expose the reality of what is being said. 

For the Pharisees, their issue stemmed from their heart. Reeves writes, “They looked down on others as they compared themselves with them. And they looked down to others to receive praises from them. But in looking down, they never saw what was above them. They never saw the high glory of God (22).” 

The problem Jesus ascribes to the Pharisees in John 5 was that they viewed the Word of God as an end in itself. They were guilty of believing that mere knowledge of Scripture could bring forth life. They failed to see the truth of Scripture as they read its pages. 

How easy is this for Christians today? One point directly challenged me as I read this book. Quoting Grant Macaskill, Reeves says, “If we treat a quiet time of reading Scripture as an end in itself, rather than as an exercise in listening to God, or if we treat scheduled fellowship events as the basis in themselves for Christian growth, we have lost sight of that vital point (25).” 

Reeves adds, 

If the Bible is mere information to learn, we have all the more reason to want it to be simple: it makes our expertise more possible. That way we can be more easily impressed by ourselves. The horrible result is an evangelical culture that is simultaneously smug and superficial. The gospel can be treated as the ABCs for outsiders and initiates only. The rest of us can bathe in the comfort of a knowledge that never drives us to our knees. And there lies the tell: Does our reading of Scripture drive us to Christ? Specifically, does it drive us to him in private prayer? 

Convicting. This was something that I struggled with while attending seminary. With the amount of reading, language parsing, and assignments, I began to view the ordinary means of grace as a means to check a box. Are we merely going through the motions? 

Read the following quote slowly and carefully. Don’t brush by it. Slow down. Take a breath. Here it comes. “For Scripture is like the gate of heaven to us, opening divine glories. Yet we can knock at the text every day and remain hollow hearted, with nothing in our bosom (38).” 

Christian, where is your hope? For the Pharisees, their hope was in Moses. More specifically, their hope was found in their external actions. 

Reeves concludes the chapter by saying, 

It can seem an almost comical error, these students of Scripture deducing the exact opposite of Scripture’s intention. But do we do any better when we set our hope in our own orthodoxy, our own piety, our own knowledge of Scripture? Hypocrites we remain—like them—unless the Scriptures lead us to place all our hope on Jesus, the one to whom they bear witness (39). 

Let those who have ears to hear, hear. 

A Distorted View of Redemption 

The third chapter is based on one of my favorite parables: The Pharisee and the Tax Collector. You can find this parable in Luke 18. If you know the story, you know that the pharisee walked away condemned, while the Tax Collector walked away justified. What was the difference between the two? 

First, the pharisee wrongly believed God would be gracious to him because of his performance. Reeves observes that the pharisee “strutted like a peacock before the world and worshiped not God but himself (43).” When I lived in Massachusetts, I regularly engaged the city with the gospel. I would hit the streets, eager to share with anyone who would give me an ear. However, when I got to the gospel, I was often confronted with this response, “I’m all set.” 

For many, they refused to bow their knee to Christ because they didn’t see a need to bow their knee to Christ. The pharisee failed to recognize his need for redemption, while the tax collector readily understood his need for grace. For the pharisee, grace was deserved because of what he did. 

The sins of the tax collector were pleasant to him [the pharisee] for how they amplified his own supposed honor before God and the world (44). We see this today, don’t we? People may not claim perfection, but hey, they’re better than the guy down the street! That should count for something, right? This was the pharisee. Reeves writes, “He [pharisee] is the model for all who want to be seen as holy and better than others, who reject their need for redemption, who think discipleship is about becoming better versions of ourselves (44).” 

Yet, how easily can we embark on this dangerous journey? Reeves notes, “We can comfort ourselves with the thought that God is merciful to sinners and eagerly apply the word of God, which rebukes sin in others, yet bristle with offense at any suggestion that we are less than perfect (46).” 

Ouch. Do our works misguide us? Have we failed to recognize the glory and splendor of God’s grace? This tempts everyone. Where is your confidence, friend? What is the foundation you stand upon before a Holy and Righteous God? Is it in your performance? Or is it Christ? 

Please, don’t use Christ as a mask to hide the reality of your heart. We can assent to gospel truths, but have they gripped our hearts? Mercy and grace will not be sweet until sin is bitter. Reeves says, “When our self-identity is rooted in our performance, of necessity we will be overly attached and sensitive to the views of others. Hard-hearted, maybe, but thin-skinned. If I find my worth in the approval of others—as the Pharisees clearly did—naturally I will pander to them. I will struggle to say no. Trust in self can sometimes lead to acting like an insensitive bulldozer; more commonly, it leads to self-protective cowardice. And spiritual lethargy (50).” 

“What’s the cure?” you ask. It’s the gospel. The cure is found in the reality that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. We must repent of our sins and lay hold of Christ. However, we must be careful here. Let us not deceive ourselves. We’ll be tempted to propose some hollow acts of penance. Let’s not sacrifice legitimate repentance for the show of penance. 

The Apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthians, says, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death (2 Cor. 7:10).” Are you guilty of showing penance without genuinely being repentant? The gospel of justification by faith alone is the solution for our trust in self. 

Reeves concludes this chapter by stating, 

If Christians are to have integrity as people of the gospel, the message of the cross and the justification offered through Christ’s blood alone cannot be treated as a message beyond which anyone graduates. It must be our humbling and happifying meat and drink. It must continually ring in our ears and sound on our lips, tearing down our self-confidence and giving us instead faith’s bold gladness to God (61). 

As I have said many times from behind my pulpit, “the gospel is the foundation and motivation of faithful Christian living.” 

A Lame View of Regeneration 

The Pharisees were guilty of being outwardly holy and void of godliness inwardly. They were, as Jesus called them, “whitewashed tombs.” 

Reeves notes,

Outwardly, they had no other gods before the Lord; inwardly, they trusted in themselves. Outwardly, they kept the Sabbath; inwardly, they did not rest on the Lord. Outwardly, they were innocent of crimes against their neighbors; inwardly, they treated those not of their sect with a merciless lack of love. Their external behavior made them seem impressively righteous, but in their hearts they were outright and thoroughgoing transgressors of the law (64). 

We need grace. Everyone needs grace. The Scriptures say that no one is righteous; no, not one. The Scriptures say that we are dead in our trespasses; we cannot reconcile ourselves to God by our strength. The Scriptures say that all fall short of God’s glory. 

We cannot know God’s grace, mercy, or love without some understanding of ourselves as sinful creatures in need of mercy (77). Our hearts are sewer pits before coming to faith in Christ. Puritan Richard Sibbes once wrote, “our hearts do not only need to be convicted; their desires need to be turned. 

This was the Pharisees’ problem. They wrongfully believed that they “could manufacture their own goodness and righteousness by external changes, the Spirit changes us from the inside out by transforming what we enjoy (80).” 

Jesus said to Nicodemus, “You must be born again (John 3).” This is true of every person. We cannot change our place with God by our merit. We need to be made new. The Pharisees would scoff at this idea, do you? Are you offended that you are a sinner at heart, a rebellious lawbreaker? Does the thought fluster you that God needs to give you a new heart before you can grasp Christ’s beauty? If so, and you call yourself a Christian, you might be a pharisee. 


Reeves concludes his book by writing on the Pharisees and God. They had a warped view of God. I’ll save you from those observations. I’ve taken enough of your time. But here’s what I would say, you need to get this book. You need to read the pages and absorb what Michael Reeves has put on them. Don’t read this halfheartedly. Please slow down and hear what he has to say. 

This book challenged and convicted me; as it did, the Holy Spirit gave me a fresh view of the gospel’s splendor. Evangelical Pharisees is a short read, just over 100 pages. I would recommend this book to everyone, especially pastors. But I would add that those in the “Bible Belt” should definitely read it. If we’re not careful, nominalism will creep in and destroy our lives and churches. 

I’ll leave you with this quote by Michael Reeves. “Loving the glory of men more than the glory of God is an itch we know all too well. We feel it inside of ourselves and see it all around us. What hope is there for us? There is only one: “the gospel of the glory of the blessed God” (1 Tim. 1:11).” 

If you would like to purchase the book, you can do so at the link below!

Soli Deo Gloria,

Josh Chambers

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  1. Unconditional Election- Part 1
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