Pharisees and Works Righteousness

Question
Would the Pharisees have said that they could earn their salvation by being righteous enough? Would they have denied that God showed them grace in saving their souls? And if their answers to these questions would be the same as ours, how can we tell what a Pharisee would look like in our day and age?
Answer
It is my understanding that the Pharisees did not teach works-based salvation. According to the New Testament, their doctrine of salvation had some flaws, but trusting in personal merit is not listed. The doctrine of salvation by works is more generally attributed to the early Christian Judaizers (e.g., Gal. 2).

They Pharisees are, however, accused of believing that they would be saved by simple virtue of descending from Abraham (Matt. 3:7-9). On the other hand, they are also said to have believed that they would find eternal life in the Scriptures (much as we believe; John 5:39). They were also rigorous in following the Law, as they understood it (cf. Phil. 3:5). Probably, they believed that God would bless them if they obeyed the Law (since that is what the Old Testament actually teaches). And probably at least some of them understood that obedience sufficient to merit eternal life could not be accomplished by fallen people, so that eternal life could only really be obtained through God's grace (which the Old Testament also teaches), but the Bible does not make this explicit.

Whether or not they believed in salvation by works, however, is not the point of the biblical texts about them. The frequent points made about them in the New Testament are that they were false teachers (Matt. 16:12; Luke 7:30) and hypocrites (Matt. 22:18; 23:1ff.; Luke 12:1). What characterizes them most often is their attempt to catch Jesus in violations or refutations of the Law. They are commonly portrayed as affirming the traditional interpretations and applications of Judaism and of the traditions of the elders, and as refusing to adopt new teachings when the old ones were shown to be wrong. On at least some important points, their doctrine if not their practice appears to have been more sound than that of the Sadducees (Acts 23:6-8; they also accepted the entire Old Testament canon, unlike the Sadducees).

Modern people who commit the same sins committed by the Pharisees in Scripture would be those who reject the truth in favor of traditional interpretations, and hypocrites. Among the forms of hypocrisy that characterize the Pharisees in Scripture, we find: demanding higher standards of others than of oneself, and being more interested in the outward appearance of righteousness than in true righteousness of the heart. Matthew 23 contains the fullest description we find of them in Scripture.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.