Reformed Theology

Holier Than No One

“Nothing in men is more odious and offensive to God than a proud conceit of themselves and contempt of others; for commonly those are most unholy of all that think themselves holier than any” (Matthew Henry).

In this post I’m going to talk about a topic that’s near and dear to my heart: religious hypocrisy. No, I don’t really mean that part about it being “dear” to me–at least, not anymore. But I did grow up in the church, as a sort-of-P.K. son of a worship leader, and, as my family were not Reformed, I spent most of my life looking down on those who didn’t “make the right decision” to believe in Jesus and turn from their wicked ways. By God’s Providence, I was finally enlightened by the truths of the Doctrines of Grace about five years ago.

Yesterday, also by God’s Providence, I listened to last week’s sermon from Mark Driscoll on 2 Peter 2, which had a lot to say about pride, idolatry, and hypocrisy. And last night, also by God’s Providence, I read this passage as part of my regular Bible-reading routine:

I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me;
I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me.

I said, “Here am I, here am I,”
to a nation that was not called by my name.
I spread out my hands all the day
to a rebellious people,
who walk in a way that is not good,
following their own devices;
a people who provoke me
to my face continually,
sacrificing in gardens
and making offerings on bricks;
who sit in tombs,
and spend the night in secret places;
who eat pig’s flesh,
and broth of tainted meat is in their vessels;
who say, “Keep to yourself,
do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.”
These are a smoke in my nostrils,
a fire that burns all the day.
Behold, it is written before me:
“I will not keep silent, but I will repay;
I will indeed repay into their bosom
both your iniquities and your fathers’ iniquities together,
says the LORD;

because they made offerings on the mountains
and insulted me on the hills,

I will measure into their bosom
payment for their former deeds.” (Isaiah 65:1-7, ESV)

Pride is so deceitful. It is the sin of Satan (1 Tim. 3:6, NASB, cf. Isaiah 14), with which he tempted the first woman, Eve (Gen. 3:4-6), by which temptation the entire human race was hurled into the state of Total Depravity. It was reflected dramatically in the sin of Babel (Gen. 11) and is the root of the general idolatry that is the default condition of human beings throughout the ages.

This same idolatry affected the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. They put on airs, cleaned the outside of the cup (Mt. 23:25), but didn’t pay any attention to the inside. They did not recognize that those who worship the Father must worship in Spirit and in Truth (John 4:23), and not merely in external compliance.

And this same idolatry affects us today in the church. It comes from two sources. One is from inside a person, as the “Prodigal’s older brother” mindset rises up in those with religious hearts who look down on repentant sinners, and the other is from the pulpit, as wolves arise from among the flock to draw the sheep astray (2 Peter 2:1, Acts 20:29-30, cf. Mt. 7:15). This is why it is so important for all church-goers to be “Bereans” and study the Scriptures for themselves (see Acts 17:11).

I once heard a pastor preach about how people would accuse him of being “holier than thou,” and he actually decided to take this as a compliment, since, as a pastor, he believed he was called to be holier than his flock. I called him on this, and my rebuke was not well-received.

The phrase, “holier than thou” comes from the older English translations (including the King James Version, the American Standard Version, and the older editions of the NASB) of Isaiah 65:5. The message of the text is clear: God disproves of hypocrites, and uses the phrase “holier than thou” to identify the hypocrisy of those of whom he disproves. The exposition of this text by a multitude of preachers ever since the first English translation of the Scriptures has led to the phrase being adopted into popular culture as a euphemism for a fundamentalist hypocrite.

It is because of Israel’s pride and hypocrisy, as the rebellious and contrary people they were (v. 2), that God had decided to call the Gentiles to himself (v. 1). Here is what Matthew Henry wrote in his famous Commentary:

The most provoking iniquity of the Jews in our Saviour’s time was their pride and hypocrisy, that sin of the scribes and Pharisees against which Christ denounced so many woes, v. 5. They say, “Stand by thyself, keep off’’ (get thee to thine, so the original is); “keep to thy own companions, but come not near to me, lest thou pollute me; touch me not; I will not allow thee any familiarity with me, for I am holier than thou, and therefore thou art not good enough to converse with me; I am not as other men are, nor even as this publican.’’ This they were ready to say to every one they met with, so that, in saying, I am holier than thou, they thought themselves holier than any, not only very good, as good as they should be, as good as they needed to be, but better than any of their neighbours. These are a smoke in my nose (says God), such a smoke as comes not from a quick fire, which soon becomes glowing and pleasant, but from a fire of wet wood, which burns all the day, and is nothing but smoke. Note, Nothing in men is more odious and offensive to God than a proud conceit of themselves and contempt of others; for commonly those are most unholy of all that think themselves holier than any.

(Notice how Henry’s language here clearly alludes to the parallels in Christ’s judgment of the Pharisees in passages like Matthew 6-7, Matthew 23, Luke 18:9-14, and the like.)

One of the principles of Covenant theology is that we interpret the Old Testament in light of the New Testament rather than taking the passage on its own as if there were no New Testament commentary on it. Here is what Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, says about this passage in Romans 10:20-21 (ESV):

Then Isaiah is so bold as to say,

“I have been found by those who did not seek me;
I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.”

But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.”

Paul says that verse 1 of Isaiah 65 is about the Gentiles, and verse 2 is about the Jews. The rebellious people who are the object of of the prepositionary phrase in verse 2, are the same people who provoke the Lord and sacrifice in verse 3, who sit in tombs and and eat pork in verse 4, who say, “I am holier than thou”, in verse 5. The context of the passage in Romans 10 is that Paul is talking about the Jews who try to achieve righteousness based on the law. Therefore, the Holy Spirit’s own interpretation of Isaiah 65 is that the rebels in question are religious hypocrites who thought they were fulfilling the letter of the law on the outside. They are not out-and-out public apostates, “in the far country”, who never claimed to have anything to do with Yahweh. They are those who were “ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness” (Romans 10:3, ESV). They were trying to establish their own righteousness by man-made religion, adding things that were never commanded in Scripture.

Those who compare themselves by themselves are not wise (2 Cor. 10:12). Jesus really did level the playing field. In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free (Gal. 3:28). We are all a kingdom of priests (Rev. 1:6, cf. 1 Tim. 2:5), and none of us is holier than the rest (Mt. 23:8-9). But we are all called to be holy as Christ is holy (cf. Mt:5:48, Leviticus 20:26), and we will not reach perfection until we are dead (Rom. 7:24, 2 Cor. 5:1-10). In the meantime, we can’t compare ourselves. All we can do is keep our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith (Heb. 12:2). As we get further along in the life-long marathon that is the Christian walk, we will find ourselves more sanctified than we were when we began. But certainly, young preachers must not claim to be more holy than congregants who have walked with the Lord for twice as long as they. Our shortfall is infinite, so when we measure between ourselves in comparison, the difference is immeasurable. Infinity minus one and infinity minus one hundred are still infinity.
Even Saint Peter, the one who the Romanists claim as the first pope, said that the faith of all believers is “of equal standing” with the Twelve Apostles, because it is obtained not by human exertion, but by the righteousness of Christ (2 Peter 1:1).

When Dr. Addison Leitch spoke of the doctrine of depravity, he said, “If sin were blue in color I would be blue all over.” Notice his use of the first person. He wasn’t just saying this is the state of unregenerate man. Even one who is born again would still have his selfish motives for seemingly the most righteous acts exposed by the ultraviolet lens of God’s judgment.

Dr. Robert S. Rayburn wrote the following in Tabletalk last year:

Once Francis of Assisi became a celebrated figure and the object of constant adulation, he is said to have assigned to a fellow monk the task of reminding him of his failures and of how little he deserved the praise he was receiving. There are other reasons to confess our sins to one another constantly, but the mortification of our pride is chief among them.

Oh, what a joy for a teacher of God’s word, to have a companion to keep you grounded, who has overcome the fear of man and is not afraid to tell it like it is, who will be willing to tell you the things you don’t want to hear. Such a brother (or sister!) is a rare gift indeed. (Thank you, Christina!)


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