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The Spiritual Precision of Jesus

“For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him; but the tax collectors and prostitutes did believe him; and you, seeing this, did not even feel remorse afterward so as to believe him.”

Matthew 21:32

It is sometimes easy to miss the surgical precision in the words of our Lord. What is Jesus’ logic in this indictment of the religious leaders? It is presumably noteworthy that John’s ministry resulted in the repentance of sinners. The public vindication of the gospel is intimately tied to the changed lives it leaves behind. When those caught up in bondage to sin become free through a restored relationship with their Father, we can be sure that God is operative. But Jesus seems to be suggesting a bit more than this. The Pharisees, upon seeing the repentance of sinners, should have felt remorse themselves. After all, their own ministry had not resulted in the repentance of sinners. They should have recognized that the ministry of John contained something that theirs lacked, and caused them to question themselves. The gospels are full of Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisee’s self-evaluation. They did not consider themselves sick and blind, and precisely this was their chief disease and blindness. Instead of recognizing their manifest exposure, they settled for the greater convenience and self-flattery of doubled-down commitment to both their own righteousness and (what is frequently missed) their own role in being gatekeepers of the kingdom.

We are often the Pharisees in this text.[1] [1] Consider: When we are trying to persuade someone with the truth, at what point do we write them off as not worth the effort? One might similarly ask when we should write off someone morally – that is – when we should evaluate their spiritual efforts to suggest that they’re not really in the game. The Pharisees, it would seem, thought of the tax-collectors and prostitutes as beyond redemption. If not technically, at least practically and ministerially. And yet the irony becomes that it was precisely the sinners who painfully hungered for the Father, and found John’s gospel to be a relief – whereas the Pharisees were constitutionally numb to their spiritual desperation (and hid themselves in their public role as the would-be tutors of their fellows). And precisely their misreading of man revealed their false-religion, their instrumentalizing of God’s covenant to self-flattery.

In our era of social media, there is an epidemic of precisely this aspect of Pharisaical religion. And while the Reformed may claim to possess the right theological principles vis a vis the Pharisees, we can nevertheless be possessed by a Pharisaical spirit (which often hides itself in passion for theology, or some other cause). We easily move too quickly from the first motions of a relationship to having a definitive spiritual reading of someone – like the Pharisee who interpretively reduces the publican.

The rhetoric of this is fascinating. How many of us have witnessed legitimate and apparently sincere questions – or expressed  deviations of opinion – that occasion quite immediate calls to repentance? Sometimes there is a brief effort at exchanging ideas, but accusations of rebellion typically emerge after a round of comments or two. This is rooted in a tendency to read all problems (or even ambiguities) as a result of disobedience, and it is worthy of note that “obedience” often takes on the character (in such rhetoric) of manly “white-knuckling” endurance. The elect and reprobate are reduced to the courageous and the effeminate. Piety thus takes on the character of “proving one’s self.”

The sin of Pharisaism is, therefore, especially attractive to persons of a particular temperament – for whom a natural raw capacity for external rigor comes easily. Able to force themselves into a certain performance, they are thus able to deem the rest weak-willed, disobedient, and just unwilling to “do what it takes.” Sinners are perhaps unmoved by the invocation of the Pharisee precisely because the latter “comes off” as subtly needing precisely the sinner’s rejection in order to deem himself in the right. Analogously, how many Reformed would actually be happy if their rivals all repented (and they, consequently, lost a foil for their self-distinction)? Much modern spirituality strikingly manifests the same psychological and mental habits of our capitalist imagination, which requires a certain kind of “loser [2].”

To be clear, many are beset by such sins without being totally possessed by a Pharisaical spirit. Indeed, one is liable to struggle with sins of this sort at some point in the maturation process. And it is precisely for this reason that we must learn to diagnose its presence. Consider, for instance, the peculiar rhetoric of the pastoral “drive-by,” where what sounds like very shepherding language is used within seconds of being made aware of a situation. One gets the impression that dramatic invocations to repentance (in performatively warm wrapping) are sitting in one’s pocket like easily distributed breath-mints. It is no wonder that they often fail to hit the target. Christians are tempted to script themselves as prophets who are faithfully proclaiming the whole counsel of God (though God’s whole counsel, in such circumstances, looks suspiciously like the negative photocopy of whatever is popular at the time, and usually just means that one is bold to bring up the scary verses and mimic the less savory biblical moods at a moment’s notice). But such practices more obviously bespeak ideologues who need to tell themselves that they proclaim the whole counsel of God. Clearly, external gestures can be cheaply appended to a natural assertiveness and labeled courage, but this is not leading and is rightly rejected. By contrast, one who submits to the way of Christ dares not to fully judge himself, much less his neighbor. Godly tutors most certainly give their judgments, but they also seek to give mentees the tools to become wiser than they, and eschew deference merely to their authority-vibes. In this, they mimic the leaders of the post-apostolic church, who deliberately sought to distinguish their authority from apostolic authority, and to reflect this distinction in their pastoral rhetoric.

Jesus, likewise, shows us a better way. The Pharisees did not think John was from God. But then, the very persons whom they considered the paradigm of sinfulness, whom they never got to repent, repented. And even then, says Jesus, they did not themselves repent and believe John’s message.

Let us apply this. Imagine that someone was questioning whether or not the Bible taught that women could have offices in the church. And let us further imagine that one interlocutor immediately responded by quoting a few texts at them and telling them to repent – reducing all of their questioning to sin (rather than to confusion or lack of clarity). To be sure, very often these are mixed up. But imagine that someone else subsequently came along and actually got the questioning person to reconsider their position. Perhaps they listened to the questioner for a bit. Perhaps they answered their questions with deeper exegesis. Perhaps they discerned that behind their rejection lay personal wounds or larger questions about gender within the modern world. And perhaps this person was able to scratch all of these itches (some quite legitimate!) as well as help them work through where they might be merely willful in the scenario. In short, they “won their brother.” In such a case, it seems to me that the principle that Jesus lays out above would reveal the first person’s need to self-evaluate. If you wrote off a brother who demonstrably can be won, you are writing off both the power of God and the hunger of man.

In truth, real persuasion involves “coming near.” Rhetorically, this means that real communication takes patience. The message of the gospel is inflected through a whole person’s act of communication with another whole person. This involves taking others seriously (including treating and speaking to them like adults). Paul spent a whole day in synagogues. He complimented his pagan interlocutors. He both criticized, but also thickly affirmed, his congregations. Paul, and Christ before him, were complex rhetoricians, both in principle and at a technical level. In crafting their words, they aimed at man with precision.

This precision was in part universal and in part circumstantial. Especially in regard to the latter, one frequent mistake in our own time is that we conflate the regurgitation of selected biblical “moods” with being biblical. Rather, to be trained by Scripture is precisely to achieve its precision relative to one’s immediate fellows. It is crucial to distinguish this from a Finney-esque psychological manipulation, which would circumvent the critical faculties in evoking the moment of decision. Rather, like Paul, the goal is to persuade a man in full possession of his rationality and critical faculties. Indeed, these must come alive. Conversion, for Paul, is a matter of sobriety. “I am not insane,” Paul says to Festus, “What I am saying is true and reasonable.” (Acts 26: 25) Festus’ accusation contrasts to Paul’s own agreement with God’s charge that Paul “kicked against the goads” (agitating like an insane person). Christian faith is especially awake!

Tragically, it is a very plain fact of reality that people who are persuadable are written off impatiently all the time. Indeed, we are perhaps all guilty of this. And where we observe it, it speaks both to the fact that we have misjudged persons that only God can see, and that we have also misjudged ourselves. Indeed, in such circumstances, we have not proclaimed the whole counsel of God, but have precisely failed to do so. And this is spiritually dangerous. When we draw lines that God has not drawn, we risk cultivating a religious system (even if wrapped in technically correct nomenclature) that reduces, for us, to a mere collection of shibboleths. In truth, we ourselves are as desperately wicked as those who are in the trenches with a lot of these questions. Christ came for the sick, not the healthy. But Pharisaism is constitutionally resistant to repentance, because it is founded in a primal and very deep lie (a false self-evaluation that functions to solidify a fleshly coherence).

“But where is the line?” one might ask. When do we write someone off? There are both biblical and commonsensical ways to navigate the answer to this. One measure is simply the above. If someone else put out more pedagogical and moral effort and got someone to repent whom you had previously dismissed, then that is a judgment upon you. But how do we make such judgments well? It is difficult to speak in absolute terms outside of concrete circumstances, but a few things seem clear:

First, God is incredibly patient. It is worth noting that the history of prophetic discourse depicts a God who is truly slow to judgment. Indeed, the exile of Israel comes when God evaluates Israel to be beyond remedy (2 Chronicles 36:16). In the case of Israel, this involved some very dramatic warnings, but only in the face of irreducible rebellion, along the line’s of the “boasting” (not struggling) sinner in 1 Corinthians.

Second, we risk failing to proclaim the whole counsel of God not only in our failure to warn people, but also in our failure to withhold final judgments, and our failure to believe and hope all things (sometimes even despite initial impressions). Proclaiming the whole counsel of God does not merely consist of regurgitating all the correct propositions, but communicating with a divine heart, divine proportion, and in a divine way. It is one thing to know what love and wrath are in a technical sense. It is quite another to know when to invoke them in a concrete circumstance, relative to a particular person. The Pharisees believed in divine love, but not for the adulteress. But Christ did not condemn her, even if He did tell her to go and sin no more. How often do we play the Pharisaical role? Where do we refuse to suffer the pain of actually winning a brother? Real persuasion is costly. Its parody (what I have elsewhere called “prophetic performers [3]”) is cheap.

Third, perhaps we get a decent indication of how to put this together from something like Alcoholics Anonymous. At an AA meeting, the standard that permits one to show up, be heard, and work through one’s issues is simply that one isn’t refusing help. There are guides and sponsors, those further along and those still working through enormous psychological confusion and intense will, etc. But the standard of inclusion in AA is simply that one is in the fight. The question is never whether you have failed, or how much you failed, or whether you will continue to fail. It is whether you absolutely refuse healing. And there are objective measures of this. Paul immediately cuts off those actively boasting about their sin. This relationship with one’s sin would be like bringing alcohol to an AA meeting, and that won’t do. That messes it up for everyone else. The purpose of excommunication in the New Testament is not that we remove sickness out of the body on the premise that we’re righteous and the sinner is not. Rather, we remove cancer precisely because we ourselves are liable to be sick, and it is spiritually contagious.

Of course, one could say all of this and just create another Pharisaical shibboleth. This is easily done where the above emphases are reduced to abstractions about simply being gracious, erring on the side of love, and constitutionally lacking the ability to speak prophetic rebuke (except toward “judgy” folks). This too requires repentance. Being the “nice guy,” after all, can be just as self-protective, just as scripted into one’s identity, just as convenient a badge of righteousness when all it involves is capitulating to social pressure and disassociating with theological “barbarians.” This is not true godly caution, but cowardice (and it is just as much a threat to our hearts). But, the abuse of a thing is no argument against its proper use. We serve a God who pursues straying sheep, who slowly persuades sinners through incredibly thick layers of confusion and will, who spends decades softening single hearts, but who (like an AA sponsor) graciously refuses to leave us alone. And this is good news to the Pharisee. The last word of Christ to the Pharisees, after all, was not to condemn them, but to die for them. “He who sins much loves much,” Jesus once said to a Pharisee. The irony, of course, is that one Pharisees would later realize that he was the chief of sinners. But precisely in learning this, he would become chief in the art of love. Perhaps no writer in history wrote more wisely concerning love than the Apostle Paul. Recall his profound formulae. Love “does not seek its own,” “believes all things,” and “hopes all things.” This moral vision is the fruit of a gospel that pushes man outside of himself and so opens Him to a life of friendship with God. Only (finally) in the freedom of divine friendship can one learn to love with God’s heart, and judge with His judgment.

Joseph Minich (Ph.D, The University of Texas at Dallas), is a Teaching Fellow at The Davenant Institute [4]. He is the author of Enduring Divine Absence. [5]