The Son of Pharisees

paultheophaneskrisWhen the Apostle Paul stood before the Sanhedrin to answer for his teaching he “perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees [and] he cried out in the council, ‘Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial’” (Acts 23:6). It is clear that there was broad doctrinal agreement between the Pharisees and the Christians. Both held to the Law and the Prophets as the Word of God. Both taught the immortality of the soul, of eternal punishment and rewards in the afterlife, the resurrection at the end of the age, and the reality of angels and demons. The Sadducees denied all of this.

Josephus highlights another doctrine of the Pharisees held in common with Christians: the belief in God’s complete sovereignty and the corresponding believe in divine predestination.

Josephus explains that the Pharisees, “ascribe all to fate [or providence], and to God, and yet allow, that to act what is right, or the contrary, is principally in the power of men, although fate does co-operate in every action.… But the Sadducees… take away fate entirely…and they say, that to act what is good, or what is evil, is at man’s own choice (War 2.8.14). “And when they [the Pharisees] determine that all things are done by fate, they do not take away the freedom from men of acting as they think fit; since their notion is, that it hath pleased God to make a temperament, whereby what he wills is done” (Ant 18.1.3).

What can we say except that the New Testament teaches a similar view of divine sovereignty and human responsibility? For example, it should be evident to any student of Scripture that the Apostle Paul’s Pharisaic training is on full display in Romans 9. After Paul explains God’s election of Jacob over Esau and God’s hardening the heart of Pharaoh, Paul anticipates the objection we all have. “You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ … What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory” (11, 19-20, 22-23).

Like the Pharisees, the Apostle does not deny that the human will is free to choose what it desires. He denies that this choice is in any way outside of God’s eternal decree. Paul also insists that the will of man is not by nature inclined toward God (Rom 8:6-7; 1 Cor 2:14), so that conversion requires God’s supernatural intervention – a new birth.

Given Paul’s Pharisaic background, any alternate interpretation of Paul is frankly impossible. Controversies give rise to clarifying distinctions used to demarcate truth from error. For example, Jesus and Paul carry out a sustained polemic against the Pharisees on those areas where Christianity swerves sharply from the standard Pharisaic orthodoxy. Jesus and Paul condemned the “tradition of the elders” as either beside or contrary to the Word of God – our sole authority for faith and life. They condemned the Pharisees for emphasizing legal minutia and ritual at the expense of love and justice. Finally, the Pharisees believed God would account them righteous for their observance to the law while Christians insist that we are justified by Christ alone, through whom we have redemption – the forgiveness of sins, and that we receive the benefits of Christ through faith alone, apart from works of the law. Yet when speaking of God’s sovereignty, Paul sounds like a Pharisee.

It seems undeniable, therefore, that the Apostle Paul was not only a “son of Pharisees” regarding the doctrine of the resurrection, but also regarding the doctrine of God’s sovereign predestination.


sheepThis past week I received a note from my friend Sam Rainer, president of the Rainer Research group, a church research and consulting organization. Sam’s forecast was that “as the younger generation ages, they will not be represented by the homogeneous unit principal that was championed in the early years of the church growth movement.” For those of you who do not know, the homogeneous unit principal (hup) is a sociological description that states that people like being with people who are like themselves. This was all the church-growth movement needed to justify the continuing racial segregation of American churches. Segregation was not the aim, of course. I am not aware of any churches that actively excluded anyone. But, the church consultants argued, it is perfectly acceptable for white pastors to cultivate predominately white churches and black pastors to cultivate predominately black churches. But now Rainer Research tells us that “heterogeneity in church settings” is quickly becoming “more normative and more relevant.” This same week TIME magazine featured an article praising Willow Creek for abandoning hup and cultivating a more diverse congregation.

This is a welcome trend. But we are in the 2010s, not the 1950s. This is a trend that is very late in coming. For decades books on church leadership and growth propounded hup as a key to a healthier, more vibrant church. Why weren’t the Jack Welch type mega-leaders challenging hup? Why were they all like bleating sheep, lagging behind the culture, pathetically following current trends here, then there? The churches should have been – and should be – leading the way in racial reconciliation.

Christians generally recognize that racial segregation is contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Galatians 2:11-14; 3:28). But for the church growth gurus the sociological “is” becomes an imperatival “ought.” Therefore, only now that research shows that hup is waning among the younger generation, are churches beginning to loose their attachment to hup. Rather than denouncing hup as sin, church leaders are now dismissing it as less “relevant.”

For the Christian, the word of God is normative. Cultural trends must not be allowed to establish the norms for the Church of Christ. Only then can we transcend such cultural captivity and speak with authority, “thus says the Lord.”

Our churches have always opposed the homogeneous unit principle as a key for church growth. We have never put much stock in statistics and demographics. Our philosophy is that all types of people are in the same boat: we are all sinners and we all need Jesus as Savior. Jesus is not a panacea for whatever ails you. He is not a crutch to get you through life. He is more like the wheelchair who will carry you through to the life to come. I do not suggest that Calvinistic churches have outpaced our Arminian counterparts in achieving greater diversity in our congregations. Sadly, we haven’t. Nor do I pretend to have the answers. But I am hopeful that in this coming decade we will see a transformation across the ecclesiastical landscape as Christians of all shades overcome old suspicions, break down barriers and move toward a more visible expression of our unity in Christ Jesus.

Why the Manhattan Declaration is a Mistake We Cannot Overlook

The Manhattan Declaration, drafted by Charles Colson, Robert George and Timothy George, is concerned with the sanctity of human life, marriage and religious freedom. While we agree with the moral concerns addressed in this document, the Manhattan Declaration is a mistake we cannot overlook. Why? Although the declaration gets the cultural issues right, it gets the gospel wrong. Following the links you can read the insightful explanations from R.C. Sproul, Michael Horton, Alistair Begg, and John MacArthur Jr.