Conversion Experiences and Phariseeism

By Larry Ray Hafley

Perhaps you are familiar with the classic conversion experiences of those in denominationalism. They cite their “testimony,” or give their “experience of grace,”. relating how they “received Christ as” their “personal Savior.” Generally, upon their confession that “God hath for Christ’s sake” pardoned their sins, they are presented to their denomination as a candidate for baptism. At the next appointed baptism service (some weeks later), they are baptized into their particular denomination.

It seems not to matter to such people that their process of pardon is not found in the New Testament. They rely on their “calling,” “feel led of the Spirit,” and are quite satisfied with their “church home.” That they are led by a spirit, I do not deny, but the Holy Spirit of God does not lead them into an experience, a confession, a church and a baptism unknown to the Bible.

Christians have always pointed out the contradictions noted above and appealed to the word of God. Not a few have been truly converted to Christ. This is as it should be. Beguiled souls can be redeemed when they have been “taught of God” (Jn. 6:44-45).

Now, though, there are even some Christians who are telling of their mid-life conversion experiences. They sound something like this:

For years, I felt a chafing sense of legalism as I witnessed Phariseeism. in the church. Now, I have always been a member of the Lord’s church, and I don’t question my roots in the body of Christ. However, the harder I prayed and the more I went to church, the more frustrated I became. But a few years ago, I cast, off the yoke of brotherhood bondage. Today, my prayer life is more meaningful. I smile more often. Even my wife has noticed it. Our faith should be a happy faith! Everyone smile out there! That’s better. And it didn’t break your face, either, did it?

Brethren, we have “Nadabed and Abihued” the world to death. We have made laws out of some of our traditions, and that’s exactly what they are – traditions. We need a more positive gospel of love, and we need to learn to emphasize God’s grace. We’re turning people off with our commands and our laws. I’m afraid we’ve almost become the Pharisees of our day that Jesus condemned.

Now, don’t misunderstand me (some have in places where I’ve preached these things), but since I have allowed Jesus to be in my heart more than rules and regulations for the church – well I’ve been a changed person, and I feel more secure in my salvation. Honestly, I used to think I’d probably go to hell. I thought God probably hated me and was just waiting for me to do something wrong so he could condemn me, but now I don’t feel that way because of the change in my life.

Sound Familiar?

Brethren, have you heard a reasonable facsimile of the speech above? Keep your ears open. “Take heed what ye hear” (Mk. 4:24). “Take heed . . . how ye hear” (Lk. 8:18). You may hear such things, for they are being said. They are being spoken with great piety and sincerity, which makes them even more dangerous.

So, I hope that after this week, you’ll feel better, too. I trust that you’ll have the joy of knowing Jesus in your heart as I do and not just the drab and dreary knowledge of the laws and barriers in the church that some well meaning but misguided brethren have erected.

But one aspect is not clear. Why is it that a sectarian’s “testimony” of his “conversion experience” is unacceptable, but a Christian’s “testimony of his mid-life conversion experience is acceptable? If a. brother’s “personal testimony” of his conversion is to be a pattern, then why not receive the sectarian’s story of his conversion? One is as good as the other. But since when is a man’s “personal experience” to be my guide? Tell me why I must reject one as a pattern but accept the other. Until someone does explain that question, I shall reject both and cling to the word of God, for it “is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:16, 17).

If a man needs a mid-life correction, he should have it. He must regret, renounce and repent of anything that turns him, from truth. But I do not need to take Alka-Seltzer because someone else burps.

Phariseeism In The Church

The Pharisees constituted “the most straitest sect of our (the Jews) religion” (Acts 26:5). The condemnation of the Pharisees consisted of their:

(1) Doctrine – Matthew 16:6, 12.

(2) Hypocrisy – Luke 12:1; 16:15; Matthew 23:5,14, 23-31.

(3) Covetousness – Luke 16:14; Matthew 23:14.

(4) Outer Form vs. Inner Purity – Luke 16:15; Matthew 23:5,23-31

(5) Human Tradition vs. Divine Commandment – Matthew 15:3-9; Mark 7:9-13.

(6) Self-righteousness – Luke 18:9-14.

Phariseeism is not:

(1) Strong Conviction. Some equate firm, certain belief or conviction with smug, self-righteous Phariseeism. Paul, Peter and John were men of strong conviction (2 Tim. 1:12; 2 Pet. 1:3; 1 Jn. 4:6). Luke wrote of “things which are most surely believed among us.” He “had perfect understanding of all things” and wrote “that thou mightest know the certainty of those things wherein thou hast been instructed” (Lk. 1:1-4). Timothy was to continue “in the things which thou hast learned and has been assured of” (2 Tim. 3:14).

We, too, are to “know the truth,” “the doctrine which (we) have learned” (Jn. 8:32; Rom. 16:17). We are to “hold fast the form of sound words,” “that which is good” (2 Tim. 1:13; 1 Thess. 5:21). We are commanded to understand what the will of the Lord is, and we can understand it when we read what the apostles wrote (Eph. 3:4; 5:17; 2 Cor. 1:13). Some apparently have strong convictions that such an attitude is Pharisaical. Are they Pharisees for their strong stand against Phariseeism?

(2) Keeping (Obeying) Commandments. Some insist that we are Pharisees if we demand obedience to commands, but the Pharisees did not keep the commandments of God (Matt. 23:2-4; Mk. 7:9). Jesus said, “If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death” (Jn. 8:51). Was he advocating Phariseeism? Is it Phariseeism to say, “He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me” (Jn. 14:21)? “If a man love me, he will keep. my words . . . . He that loveth me not keepth not my sayings” (Jn. 14:23, 24; cf. 14:15; 15:14). “Why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?” (Lk. 6:46) “Blessed are they that do his commandments that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city” (Rev. 22:14). Those who say. Phariseeism is demonstrated by stressing obedience to commandments and “rule keeping” have a problem. They have a rule against keeping commandments. Is their rule against rule keeping a form of Phariseeism?

(3) Condemning Error And Its Advocates. Since the Pharisees questioned Jesus and the disciples (Matt. 12:2; 15:2), some say Christians are guilty of Phariseeism. when they rebuke denominational doctrines. Is this true? Jesus answered the arguments of the Pharisees. He did not challenge their right to raise legitimate objections. He condemned their motives and confounded their allegations, but he did not deny one’s right to question another (1 Jn. 4:1; Rev. 2:2; 1 Thess. 5:21). Was Jesus a Pharisee since he rebuked error and its exponents (Matt. 7:15-28; 11:2024; 12:39; 15:13,14; 23: 1 ff.; 22:29)?

Was the apostle Paul a Pharisee in the negative sense? Observe his open and pointed reproof and rebuke of Peter and Elymas (Gal. 2:11-14; Acts 13:8-11). See his strong words of sarcasm and condemnation in Galatians 1:6-9; 4:12; Romans 16:17; 2 Timothy 2:16-18; 4:2-4; Titus 1:9-13; Philippians 3:2. If one does as Paul did, and is a “Pharisee,” then Paul was a Pharisee, too. “These things speak and exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no man despise thee” (Titus 2:15). Are those who condemn the “error of Phariseeism,” Pharisees for doing so?

(4) Pattern Theology. It is argued that exclusive, binding patterns are a symptom of Phariseeism. Some spit out the words “pattern theology” and “pattern mentality” as though they were vile terms. In short, if you believe the Bible is a blueprint, a pattern for one’s work and worship, then you are a Pharisee (cf. 1 Pet. 4:11; Col. 3:17; Matt. 28:20).

Is initial obedience to the gospel Phariseeism? There is a “form (mold) of doctrine” to be obeyed (Rom. 6:17,18). Is there a pattern for becoming a Christian? Is there a specific body of truth to be known, believed and obeyed, or is becoming a Christian a nebulous, ephemeral, hazy, subjective thing that “just happens” (Jn. 8:32; 2 Thess. 2:10-12; 1 Pet. 1:22)? If there are specific, certain terms or conditions to be obeyed,,i.e., a pattern, is this Phariseeism (Mk6 16:16; Acts 2:38; 19:1-5)? Was Jesus’ mercy and longsuffering in the salvation of Paul a case of Phariseeism? It is 46a pattern” for us (I Tim. 1:16). Was Jesus guilty of Phariseeism in saving Paul via this “pattern”?

Ironically, those who charge Phariseeism go to the Bible to prove their position. Is the Bible a pattern for teaching non-patternism? If so, do they have a “pattern theology,” a “pattern mentality,” and are they Pharisees when they use the Bible to prove non-patternism?

False Concepts

Those who have had a “mid-life conversion experience” and charge the church with being Pharisaical often hold to false concepts. First, they confuse biblical worship with “traditional, rote, going through the motions” religion. Those who make the charge often ref~r to their own “traditional past” when they “did all the right things,” but were devoid of “true love.” Well, that is their problem., Because they were once self-confessed Pharisees does not prove that others are. One may do things by rote and ritual and leave his first love, but that does not mitigate against the form of true worship (Rev. 2:2-5). Because Ananias and Sapphira, went through the motions of giving (Acts 5:1-11), does not justify a Monday night collection. Because the church at Corinth perverted the Lord’s supper with their tradition (1 Cor. 11), does not authorize a Thursday night communion. Nor do those examples make one a Pharisee if he contends for the biblical pattern (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2).

Second, they say, “Our church laws and traditions, though essentially correct, turn others off.” No one should devise human laws and traditions, whether they repel or compel others. But what specific items, though “essentially (scripturally) correct,” should we reject so as not to offend some people – immersion for the remission of sins? Elders in every church? Lord’s day communion and contribution? Singing without a piano? What? Preaching Jesus as the Son of God “turns off” many people (Acts 9:20; 18:4-6). Should we abandon this as a “church law and tradition”?

“Two songs, a prayer and another song” are rote, ritualistic worship; it is too trite and traditional, or so we are told. Well, is it scriptural? Do you pray before your meals three times a day? If so, is it “trite and traditional”? Worse yet, is it Pharisaical? Sectarians have objected to serving the Lord’s supper every Sunday for the same reason. It makes it too common, they say. Should we dispense with the weekly communion because they consider it too formal and rigid?

Shall we have spontaneous singing to break out of the rut of this alleged ritualism? How about during preaching and praying? Should we sing then? Some think humming hymns during the Lord’s supper is “a nice touch.” How about humming during prayer or preaching? After a while, though, humming during the Lord’s supper would become trite and traditional. That is the way of all fads. When a fad gets old, it becomes a tradition – sprinkling, instrumental music, beads and candles – all are examples.

Some like applause after a sermon. How about hissing and booing a poor sermon? Some prayers are better than some sermons. Shall we clap for them? If your wife and kids hummed hymns while you gave thanks for breakfast and applauded after you were through, would you commend them for “breaking out of the rut of trite and traditional” thanksgiving?

Third, some say, “We have freedom in Christ. God did not deliver us from one law simply to enslave us under another one.” Certainly, we have freedom, liberty in Christ (Jn. 8:32,36; Gal. 5:1). Paradoxically, our freedom is contained in “the perfect law of liberty” which we must look into and continue in (Jas. 1:25; 2:12). Even Galatians 5:1 commands us to stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free. Are we “free” to disobey that command? Liberty has its bounds, its restraints (1 Cor. 8:8-13). “For, brethren, ye have been called into liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13).

Some who promise liberty make themselves the servants of corruption (2 Pet. 2:19). Some who promote and promise freedom in Christ become servants of human traditions and enemies of divine truth. Diotrephes was not “free” to oppose apostolic doctrine. Was John a “Pharisee” for opposing him (3 Jn. 9-11)? Hymanaeus and Philetus were not “free” to teach their views without Paul exposing them (2 Tim. 2:16-18). Was Paul a “Pharisee”? The Corinthians were not “free” to cause confusion with their spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 14). Was Paul a “Pharisee” for putting limits, for setting rules and restrictions on their exercise of spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 14:23-33)?

Frequently, an appeal is made to Romans 14 for freedom. The very first verse of that chapter contains a command and a prohibition! One must receive the weak brother, but not to doubtful disputations.” Am I “free” to disobey? The strong brother is not free to despise the weak brother (v. 3). One is not free to cause his brother to stumble (v. 13). One is not free to exercise his rights if they cause a brother to stumble (vv. 14, 21). Usually, when a denominational preacher is hemmed in and cannot justify his doctrines, he will flee to Romans 14, but the chapter has rules in it, the very thing he is trying to avoid.

But while we are speaking of freedom, I, too, am a “free man in Christ.” As such, am I free to:

(1) Preach and bind baptism “for the remission of sins” (Acts. 2:38)?

(2) Preach that sprinkling is not baptism (Rom. 6:3,4; Col. 2:12; Acts 8:36-38)?

(3) Preach that Jesus built his church, not Martin Luther’s, or any other man’s (Matt. 16:18)?

(4) Preach that Jesus is the head and Savior of only one church (Eph. 1:22,23; 2:16; 4:4; 5:23-25; 1 Cor. 12:20; Rom. 12:4,5; Col. 1:18,24)?

(5) Preach that the Lord’s supper should not be carnalized with a common meal (1 Cor. 11)?

(6) Preach that some will subvert your souls by teaching doctrines not found in the word of God (Acts 15:24; Gal. 1:8,9; 2 Thess. 2:1-3,15; 2 Jn. 9; Matt. 15:8,9)?

Will those who spout and flaunt their “freedom” tell me whether I am free to preach the things above? Am I free to oppose them when they, under the cloak and guise of freedom, endeavor to bring in their doctrines, or am I bound not to do so? Or is their “freedom doctrine” a one way street? They want freedom, but they usually deny it to those who oppose them. Finally, if, freedom is as broad as they say, am I not free to be a Pharisee? Or is there a law against one being a Pharisee? (For a more complete and thorough study of Phariseeism, see James D. Bales’ book, Faith Under Fire, from which I shoplifted many of the above thoughts. The rest I simply plagiarized.)

Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 10, pp. 304-306
May 18, 1989