Orthodoxy does not depend on what kind of heresy the Pharisees taught.

Some people act as if anyone points out that the Pharisees were probably not merit legalists, that person is a threat to the doctrine of justification by Christ alone through faith alone.

But this is simply unjustified. Paul positively taught justification by faith alone and this clear message is not dependent on a specific heresy on the part of the Pharisees.

I’ve been pointing this basic fact out time and again for years and years.

For example, here is something I wrote in 2002:


Paul writes:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2.8-10).

Sadly, many in New Testament scholarship don’t believe that Paul wrote Ephesians. That is too bad for them. But I note that we Evangelicals have here Paul’s statement about salvation by grace through faith apart from works and the context demands that these works are not “boundary markers” like circumcision, dietary code, or cultic calendar, but rather generic good deeds.

Paul also writes:

For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that being justified by His grace we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life (Titus 3.3-7).

Granted, Paul doesn’t mention faith explicitly, but do we not find here an affirmation of salvation by grace and mercy rather than anything we have done? Again the problem is the higher critical consensus that Titus is not a genuinely Pauline Epistle. But that is not a problem for Evangelicals.

My point is that reinterpreting Galatians and Romans could not, even at its worst, threaten justification by grace through faith apart from any and all good deeds. The only thing at stake is the possibility that mortal men whom we respect such as John Calvin and Martin Luther might have made some exegetical mistakes.


In Romans 4 we read,

For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about; but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness… (vv. 3-5).

Granted, some NP thinkers might think otherwise, but it seems clear to me that Paul is arguing against boasting in “the works of the law” by virtually equating it with earning favor from God. It seems to me that Paul’s argument presupposes that his opponents would recoil from such an idea. Paul’s critique will work only if Paul’s opponents think that it is wrong to claim to be earning God’s favor.

Whether or not all find the above interpretation convincing, there is plenty of reason why Paul would teach the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith alone in the context of arguing against nationalistic-covenant pride. For example:

Hear, O Israel! You are crossing over the Jordan today to go in to dispossess nations greater and mightier than you, great cities fortified to heaven, a people great and tall, the sons of the Anakim, whom you know and of whom you have heard it said, “Who can stand before the sons of Anak?” Know therefore today that it is the LORD your God who is crossing over before you as a consuming fire. He will destroy them and He will subdue them before you, so that you may drive them out and destroy them quickly, just as the LORD has spoken to you. Do not say in your heart when the LORD your God has driven them out before you, “Because of my righteousness the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,” but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is dispossessing them before you. It is not for your righteousness or for the uprightness of your heart that you are going to possess their land, but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD your God is driving them out before you, in order to confirm the oath which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Know, then, it is not because of your righteousness that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stubborn people (Deuteronomy 9.1-6).

Now here we have a statement that condemns self-righteous nationalistic pride and applies (and has been applied by Reformed preachers for centuries) to all forms of self-righteousness. Thus (1) the Bible does condemn merit theology in this passage and many others whether or not it was a widespread phenomenon that Paul had to deal with; and (2) Paul might well have found reason to mention the theology of grace found in passages like Deuteronomy 9.1-6 even if there were no merit legalists to refute.

Or to look at this another way, there are lots of passages that support the theology of grace of the Reformation in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. For example:

For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen, the things that are not, that He might nullify the things that are, that no man should boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, that, just as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1.26-31)Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that in us you might learn not to exceed what is written, in order that no one of you might become arrogant in behalf of one against the other. For who regards you as superior? And what do you have that you did not receive? But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? (4.6-7)

You know that when you were Gentiles, you were led astray to the dumb idols, however you were led. Therefore I make known to you, that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus is accursed”; and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit (12.2-3).

Now, one can simply read through this letter to see that some in the Corinthian Church believed they were especially spiritual and above the “weak” around them. Paul rebukes their boasting and emphasizes Christ crucified, just as he does in Galatians (c.f. First Corinthians 1.17, 23; 2.2; Galatians 2.20; 3.1; 5.24; 6.14). Furthermore, in both cases he appeals to their baptismal identity to deny the divisions they are maintaining (c.f. First Corinthians 12.12-13; Galatians 3.26-29). Yet, despite these striking similarities, no one has ever found it necessary to actually hypothesize a form of merit legalism behind the boasting of the Corinthian elite–even though Paul’s critique can be, and often is, used as a refutation of merit legalism.

So in the case of First Corinthians, Reformed pastors don’t seem to need merit legalists to exist as Paul’s opponents in order to derive and defend the doctrines of grace against more recent merit theologies. Why could not the same hold, in principle, for Galatians or Romans?

Certainly it is easy to interpret the unbelief of the Jews in Romans as a result of arrogance based on a false inference from their election.  I wrote in 2004:

But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree (Romans 11.17-24).

Paul says that the Gentiles now included in the Abrahamic Covenant can fall under the same judgment that the Jews fell under. Is there any way to interpret this passage so that it means, “Don’t you become merit legalists just like those Jews were all merit legalists”? No. What Paul says is that Gentiles must not become proud–arrogant toward another ethnic group, the Jews. Merit legalism is, of course, a form of pride. But that is simply not the direct object of this warning. I’m listening to John Piper preach on this passage and he quite clearly states that Paul is rejecting an attitude of ethnic superiority. So, since Paul is telling the Gentiles not to fall into the same sin as the Jews did, how can we say that Paul is dealing with merit legalism among the Jews throughout Romans? So on balance, Paul writes a letter which opposes the Gospel to something that the Jews are doing, arguing that God “is not the God of the Jews only,” but “of the Gentiles also.” He includes as a step in his argument that “God is one” and therefore could not be the exclusive property of Jews. He then ends a long argument warning believing Gentiles not to feel or act or think themselves superior the Jews on the basis of their election.

This also matches up well with what the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican actually says, rather than what some people, in my view wrongly, want it to say.

Again, orthodoxy is still orthodoxy. Salvation is by grace alone. Justification is by faith alone. The imputed righteousness of Christ is the only basis by which we can stand before God. None of that makes the Pharisees Roman Catholic.

Now, anyone is free to disagree with me and set forth their case. But some times the sheer level of invective leads me to question if disinterested exegesis is being attempted. I would remind you that God doesn’t think that right doctrine justifies wrong interpretation. Job said it right:

Will you show partiality toward Him?
Will you plead the case for God?
Will it be well with you when He searches you out?
Or can you deceive Him, as one deceives a man?
He will surely rebuke you
if in secret you show partiality.

Hat tip to Paul Duggan for drawing my attention to this text and its application.

4 thoughts on “Orthodoxy does not depend on what kind of heresy the Pharisees taught.

  1. pentamom

    I wonder if it is rooted in a tacit belief that all unbelief is rooted in merit legalism, and that there is no other way of not believing the gospel?

    Therefore, to deny that some particular gospel argument exists specifically to refute merit legalism is somehow to change the point of the gospel?

    You do see something of this tendency in much Reformed preaching — rarely are we warned not to rebel against God or give in to the flesh, we’re only supposed to worry about mixing works with grace.

  2. Pingback: Mark Horne » Blog Archive » A vague note on PCA process

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *