Portrait of a Recovering Pharisee


by Nancy Scott

When Sally first heard the gospel at age eleven, she understood immediately that God’s grace is what saves us. She already knew her heart was full of evil and that she had nothing to bring to God. It made perfect sense that God would have to do the saving, if any saving was to be done. The solution of Jesus’ death on the cross was perfect, and she understood that He had died in her place.

The Bible church where Sally began her pilgrimage strongly taught the concept of grace. She learned that grace meant “undeserved favor.” Grace was getting something you didn’t deserve, whereas mercy was NOT getting what you did deserve. The gospel addressed both of these areas of life in the provision of Jesus’ death on the cross. So she fully understood that she came to Christ because God was reaching deep into her soul to regenerate her and to bring her to an awareness of her need and of His provision for her salvation. She entered the path to the kingdom on her knees, got up, and took off running.

By the time Sally was seventeen, life was not as clear-cut as it had been at the tender age of eleven. She had understood what it meant to be saved by grace; now she began wondering what it meant to live there. She began to struggle with the difficult choices of life and a tension in her desires to do the right thing. When she went to her Bible teachers for advice, they told her that God had given her all the resources she needed to live a victorious Christian life, and she only needed to avail herself of the Spirit of God who now lived inside her. If she tapped into His power, He would grant her the ability–and the desire she lacked–to do the right thing. The Bible teachers asked Sally if she did her daily devotions, and they recommended some helpful Bible studies. These things, they said, would help unleash the Spirit’s power to work in her life.

Sally took off running again. She dove into her daily devotions with renewed vigor, and even though she wasn’t a morning person, she began to get up an hour earlier. Sally was so grateful that God had given her this extra measure of grace to be so dedicated to him at such a young age. Things seemed to improve for a while.

Then something slowly changed. The excitement began to wear off, and Sally suspected that her non-Christian friends were having more fun than she. She indulged with them every now and then, only to feel tremendously guilty and to make a renewed commitment to God with each failure. The longer this pattern went on, the more confused Sally became. Why wasn’t God unleashing His Spirit inside her for victory anymore, even when she carried out all her spiritual practices and dedication? Why was the evil around her becoming more attractive instead of less attractive? Was it normal for her to find herself rededicating her life to God so routinely? Was this what it meant to live by grace?

After a few years of riding a spiritual roller coaster, Sally decided that Christianity was a good idea, but it just didn’t work for her. In her third year of college, bewildered and disillusioned, she abandoned her faith.

Much of modern Christianity, rather than being committed to the truth at all costs, instead fosters a safe place for us to hide from who we really are. One of the ways we do this is by re-defining righteousness into a manageable set of rules. We believe these rules to be divinely inspired, when, in fact, they may be defined by the geographic or theological subculture in which we live. The set of rules might include negative rules like “no drinking” and “no smoking,” as well as positive rules like “daily quiet time” and “church on Sundays.”

Because we are still fallen sinners even after we are converted, once we define a do-able set of rules to live by, something begins to happen to our self-concept. We may have understood thoroughly our need for the gospel of grace when we first turned to the cross, but once we practice our rules for a while, an illusion of self-satisfaction and confidence, in ourselves rather than in God, settles in unconsciously. We have now turned righteousness into a manageable set of guidelines, much like the Pharisees of Jesus day.

What was Jesus’ response to this approach to righteousness? In His sermon on the mount, He decried the Pharisees for equating the keeping of rules with true righteousness. He illustrated this with adultery, a sin most of us can manage to avoid, and reminded us that lusting after our neighbor’s spouse is no less evil than the act of having an affair. The Pharisee was able to convince himself, because he avoided the affair, that he was righteous, even though lust ran rampant in his heart. Jesus challenged this notion.

As Christians, we unite in our opposition against the forces of evil around us. Yet, we are often blind to the force of evil in our own lives. We see ourselves as “having arrived” because we no longer smoke or drink and because we now practice a habit of daily devotions. Our drive for self-justification is stronger than our drive for food or sex. It is the essence of our rebellion.

In many churches, the “spiritual” Christians are those who seem to have arrived at some magic formula for victory over struggle. Because we relate stories of success and victory in our Sunday School classes, rather than struggles with disappointment and failure, we raise a standard that, when we are honest, we can never live up to. When life throws its curves at us, and we do not seem to triumph, we begin to think something wrong with us that isn’t wrong with everyone else; we begin to think Christianity isn’t working.

God has chosen for our sanctification in this life to be a slow and incomplete process which holds out the promise of eternity in the Kingdom where true righteousness and moral beauty will be ours forever. God’s gracious intervention in this life reveals to us the depth of our problem of sin and who we really are before Him. As His grace invades our hearts, we begin to understand that, no matter how hard we try, we can’t reach deep enough into our souls to flip a switch that will enable us to do the right thing automatically. Only God can do that, and He will, but He has designed it to happen fully, finally, in the next life. He could have changed us immediately, but He didn’t. God has not yet changed our moral nature, but He has changed our perspective. And as we mature in our faith, we become more and more convinced of the value of righteousness as we see and experience our own lack of it. This lack causes us to hunger and thirst after righteousness, if we are, indeed, God’s children.

What happened to Sally? Fortunately for (and unbeknownst to) her, her salvation was in God’s hands the whole time. And He is faithful. He eventually drew her back to Himself after her many years of open rebellion. Since then she has spent a lot of time trying to figure out what went wrong the first time around.

Luke 7:36-50 describes Jesus’ dinner with Simon the Pharisee. A sinful woman interrupts their dinner to anoint Jesus’ feet with costly perfume and to wash them with her tears. When Simon objects (to himself), Jesus tells him a story about two men who owed different amounts of money and whose debts were both canceled. Jesus asked Simon which debtor he thought would love the moneylender more, the one with the larger debt canceled or the one with the smaller debt. This story intrigued Sally because she so strongly identified with the sinful woman. Sitting in a church full of seemingly perfect Christians, reading this story, she wondered how anyone who had not strayed like she had could love Jesus as much as she did. She understood the depth of her rebellion in that moment.

Sally’s thoughts, however, raised a question: Why would her sins qualify her for a deeper relationship with God than those Christians around her who had not rebelled as wholeheartedly as she? This seemed to be what Jesus was saying in his story about the two canceled debts. Years later, Sally realized she had missed the point, when a different interpretation of this passage solved her dilemma. She understood that the difference between Simon and the woman was not, after all, the amount of debt owed. Both owed the same enormous debt to goodness, a debt canceled at the cross. The difference was how they perceived their debts: Simon perceived himself as someone who did not owe that much; the woman knew better about herself. Jesus intended the story to show Simon that his perception of himself was wrong. In fact, when God’s grace reveals to us who we are and who He is, we recognize the depth of the debt we owe, whether we have rebelled openly or in ways that are more socially acceptable and, therefore, less noticeable.

Sally began to understand what went wrong with her Christianity the first time around. She saw that in her early years she was Simon, someone who did not recognize the depth of her own evil. She had perceived herself as a special case, granted grace by God to be better than most. After God graciously gave her a dose of her own evil, she finally recognized the kind of heart she had had all along. In the aftermath of all the pain and heartache, it was good for her to go there, for her to know that God is the one saving her, and that she is at His mercy. Fortunately, He is merciful, and the very evil she hid from, she now strives to admit and repudiate.

In her new understanding of living in grace, Sally recognizes the mix that this life is. She understands that the change in her perspective on her evil, her awareness of it and her growing distaste for it, is evidence of her faith, not her ability to achieve a different level of success. Because, even if she can do the right thing now, she is no longer naive enough to confuse her ability with true goodness deep in her heart, the goodness she still lacks, but longs for more and more. She struggles to acknowledge her own evil and how it works its way into every breath, all the while trusting that God is saving her, drawing her into the kingdom with each passing day, because her taste and her longing for goodness grows with each struggle.


Nancy Scott, a teacher at McKenzie Study Center, has a B.S. degree in zoology and an M.S. degree in biology. Nancy’s focus is helping university students understand Christianity in the light of the problems of science, faith, and contemporary intellectual issues.


This article (first printed November, 1995, in McKenzie Study Center’s monthly newsletter, “News & Views”) is Copyright 1995 by McKenzie Study Center. All rights reserved. Permission is granted for individual use and reproduction provided that this document remains intact, with this copyright message clearly visible. Commercial use and reproduction rights are held by McKenzie Study Center, and this document may not be resold or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from McKenzie Study Center.



Gutenberg College and McKenzie Study Center are programs of Gutenberg College, Inc.

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