The frequent run-ins between Jesus and the Pharisees were a clash between the Pharisee’s preoccupation with external things and Jesus’ emphasis on the spiritual kingdom. The Pharisees were interested in keeping their status quo, the rigid forms of religious law, looking good to their peers, and maintaining self-righteousness and a respectable position before the public.
Jesus, on the other hand, cared more about their relationship with God and their inner state. They cared about saying the right thing to look good while Jesus cared about them being real. They wanted rules and laws while Jesus wanted them set free to follow the Spirit wherever He would lead them. Unlike the Pharisees, Jesus was willing to be unpopular if standing for the truth would help some to advance in their spiritual walk with God.
The Pharisees are alive and well, but now calling themselves Christians. They are as focused on the externals as the Pharisees were – trying to fit in by keeping all the rules; shunning those who don’t do as they do; jockeying for positions among the church’s internal religious hierarchy; vying for power and control, maintaining personal righteousness by keeping their church’s standards or beliefs. All of these things I’ve seen in my own heart during my spiritual journey.
If any of these were to ask, “How can I be sure I am saved,” I would ask them to ponder the following:
“For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love” (2 Peter 1:5-7).
Here, Peter tells us to progress in our spiritual pursuit of good character. Not only to believe, but cultivate a harmless and guiltless character; not stopping there, but grow in the knowledge of Jesus; and not stopping there, but control their own passions and subject them to the leading of God; and remain firm in their convictions about God and not waver all the time; and grow in the various stages of Christian love to one another.
The Pharisees were not concerned about these marks of inner spiritual growth. Many Christians aren’t either. I know I wasn’t; I didn’t know God well at that time, so the rituals and forms of the church were more real than God was. Only after the passage of time did God become greater than the church rituals and forms.
This is the salvation that Jesus came to win for us – a child of God of godly character. “There is none that seeks after God,” we are told in Romans 3 of the unregenerate, and this is still true of many in church. All of these graces grow in those who seek after God, not after the external things of this life. This is more than the self-righteousness of, “I go to church, believe in my God, and do the best I can.”
Instead of trying to fit in, we can know the liberty of being accepted just as we are. Instead of jockeying for position, we can enjoy the liberty of humility, where we genuinely rejoice in the advancement of others. Instead of doing good so others will see us and praise us, we enjoy the liberty of serving because we see real worth in the ones we serve, following the nudge of the Spirit to serve friend or foe, high or low. These graces are the work of the Spirit in us, and take time to grow.
Jesus didn’t come to destroy us or take away our personality or dehumanize us, but to help us see who we can be in Christ. We can know the freedom that Christ enjoyed of liberty from damaging religious bondage and rules, free to let God move us wherever He wishes because we are enjoying a love affair with this God. There is no struggle with free will versus God’s sovereignty because we have come to trust Him in all things. This is the salvation of the soul; it is more than “I’m going to heaven when I die.”
Is it important that we cultivate the inner spiritual life and go through the stages Peter wrote about? It is indeed crucial, because he continues,
“For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins” (2 Peter 1:8-9).
If we are focused on appearances, then we are shortsighted — we care more about the short-term benefits of this life rather than the eternal implications of standing before the throne of God and giving an account of our soul. We are short-sighted when we choose the shallow things of this world over the deep things of God.
In other words, these fruits of the Spirit are proof that we have been seeking God and are being changed by the encounter. Jesus came to make us more spiritual, not more religious. To know and enjoy God, not just know more stuff about Him.
If you have been a Christian for a long time and find that your pursuit of God has been minimal, I can suggest a few books that will show you how to put the teachings of the Bible into use for real growth:
Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster
Present Perfect, Gregory A. Boyd
I Quit!, Geri Scazzero
The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Andrew
Free online: http://thepracticeofthepresenceofgod.com/onlinetext/