The Not-So Lost Art of Pharisee Making

This week I followed a discussion that started off something like this: “New Presbyterian here. Anything I should know in your humble opinion?”  There were many answers given, some humorous, some ridiculous, some wonderful. Here’s a sampling of some of the answers. Remember, the question is, “I am a new Presbyterian; what should I know?

  • Bavinck.
  • The PCA and the PCUSA are not the same thing.
  • Babies are for baptizing.
  • The Federal Vision is bad.
  • The Westminster Standards and Three Forms of Unity complement each other very well.
  • We enjoy cigars- get smoking! Scotch helps too!
  • Psalms are for singing.
  • Grow a beard and say “covenant” a lot.
  • Buy a copy of the Westminster Standards NOW! (Free Presbyterian Edition) Carry it wherever you go.
  • Don’t neglect growth in holiness and love and compassion for others.

I enjoyed reading the answers that people gave. Many were obviously tongue-in-cheek and most of them were broad generalizations (except “Bavinck”) although attempting to be helpful. As I read through them I was reminded of two times in my life when questions were asked  related to the question “What should I do first?”

First, a True Confession: I have had times in my life when I was busy making good Presbyterians and not necessarily good disciples. (You may insert Pharisee where I wrote Presbyterian; I just can’t get myself to do it). During my college days, I remember a young lady who appeared to be newly-converted to Christ and was being discipled. She was eager to learn. Some ladies in the congregation were working through JI Packer’s Knowing God with her and others were investing themselves into her life. At one point in her discipleship, of which I was a part, she asked me about the Trinity. In the months and months of being a Christian, she had never had anyone talk to her about the Trinity… including me. Of course, she did know the reasons for and against covering her head in worship and the implications of the practice.

Head coverings but no Trinity. That’s sad, but like I said, it’s a true confession.

Another time, I was considering “first things” and asked people this question: “What is the FIRST thing that you would tell a new convert to do? How would you begin discipleship?”  Of course no one said to teach the pros and cons of covering one’s head in worship, but there were many unbiblical answers given, for sure. How would you answer the question? Seriously, answer it out loud.

What did you say? (Maybe the wild and free will tell their answer in the comments section.)  But back then, when I asked the question I got answers like the following:

  • Find a good church.
  • Read your Bible every day.
  • Learn the A.C.T.S. method of prayer.
  • Study the Shorter Catechism.
  • Memorize the Bible passages in the Navigator System.
  • Memorize the Shorter Catechism.
  • Study the Gospel of John.

These are good answers. Was your answer similar to these? Maybe yours was better and maybe there was some overlap between what you would teach a new Christian and what you would teach a new Presbyterian. As I reflect on my times of failing in disciple-making, I often wonder if I have made Pharisees in three easy steps (there I said the “P” word). I don’t think that I am alone in Pharisee-making. I truly believe that many in the church miss the answer that Jesus Christ himself gives to this question. Jesus’s answer concerning where to begin with a new follower of Christ should be our primary response, right? Jesus’s starting point should be our starting point. Right?

What should I teach first? What are the first steps of discipleship? What do I need to KNOW?  Here’s the Lord Jesus’s answer from Matthew 16:24:

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

Self-denial is what we need to teach new Presbyterians. Self-denial is what we need to teach new Christians. “Self-denial,” as an answer, should haunt us. I have never heard that answer given in any conversations I have had concerning first things for discipleship. Self-denial was not taught to me as a first thing. In my discipling of new converts I have not started with self-denial. I have never read a book on discipleship that starts with self-denial—and that includes both Navigator-esque books and confessionally reformed books.

Self-denial. It goes against our natural impulse that says “self-preservation.” It goes against our Western culture that says “self-promotion.” It goes against everything that is within us, because it leads to death. Our death. Self-denial leads to death.

So the next time someone lets you know that they are a new Presbyterian and asks you what they should know first…

The next time  someone asks what you would teach a new disciple…

The next time the Lord brings someone into your life to disciple…

… avoid the threat of The Not-So Lost Art of Pharisee Making that begins with any starting point other than Christ’s. Begin with self-denial. This is the first thing. “If any man would be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.


  1. bobhemp May 20, 2013 at 5:03 pm #

    Very good thoughts, Nathan.

  2. Phil Pockras May 20, 2013 at 5:03 pm #

    Self-denial is unto love and commitment to Another. Thus, we need, at the same time, to teach to love the LORD our God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strengths, and our neighbors as ourselves. This is done in and through the blood of Jesus, by the power of the Spirit of Holiness, Who both indwells us and enables us.

  3. Adam K May 20, 2013 at 5:21 pm #

    Good thoughts, Nathan. At the end of the day, we’re Reformed Presbyterians because we’re Christians, not Christians because we’re Reformed Presbyterians. If we focus only (or even primarily) on “distinctives,” our Christian life will tend to develop an abnormal heartbeat. Also, I agree with Phil: when we empty ourselves of love for self (and self-pleasure), we must be sure to fill the void with love for God and pleasure in Him. Again, wonderful post.

  4. David Carr May 20, 2013 at 7:32 pm #

    As with any other vital question, the answer is in the Bible, the only infallible guide to faith and life. Thanks for pointing out inadequate human answers and the Truth that is in and was spoken by Christ Jesus

  5. David Carr May 21, 2013 at 9:10 am #

    A striking thought along the same line from Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship: “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.”

  6. Jeremiah Wood May 21, 2013 at 6:10 pm #

    Thanks for that — I realize that I was the one that asked the question (small world)! Thankfully I have been a reader of Gentle Reformation for about a month and a half or so. I consider myself to be a growing Christian (as I can be considered mature in some ways and at the same time far from it), but irregardless, what you point out in this article cannot be emphasized enough; not enough for new Christians and not enough for experienced ones. However, I think you make some really excellent points about where to go with somebody following repentance and faith. A dear brother in the Lord, upon coming to the Lord in repentance and faith, started his walk with Romans 8, followed by Matthew 10. From that moment to this, he has been a truly changed man; but a big part of that had to do with what he read in Matthew 10. The change was night and day; he saw what was required of him to follow after Christ, which was a complete sacrifice of self.

    For somebody to be a true disciple, they must be willing to sacrifice all — and most importantly self — for the sake of Christ and His glorious Gospel.

    Your new Presbyterian friend in the service of Christ,


    Soli Deo Gloria

  7. Harvey Kirkpatrick May 23, 2013 at 12:14 pm #

    “Find ways to enjoy each day what Jesus has done for you.”
    That most likely will include self-denial.
    How you ground the motivations will probably determine whether you are running a school for Pharisee’s or no.
    Then again, in this life, we tend to pine and drift back to Egypt. Cue Keith Green song.
    Good words, thank you.

  8. Shawn Anderson January 23, 2014 at 6:44 pm #

    Thank you. Great post.

    I think Phil and Adam emphasize the other side of the coin. So you can emphasize self-denial, and also loving Yahweh your God. Reminds me of Paul’s “putting off” and “putting on” which was the theme of Jerry Bridges books, “Pursuit of Holiness” and “Practice of Godliness”.

    Looking forward to your follow up post on what “self-denial” looks like and how to deny self. 🙂


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