The New Phariseeism—Performance-Based Spirituality?

The Apostle Paul struggled with Phariseeism. Phariseeism, as I am defining it in this context, signifies fixation with external religious practices and confidence in one’s own “Superman” or “Superwoman” performance; such fixation replaces authentic confidence in God as the basis for one’s salvation.

In Paul’s day, certain religious leaders were getting inside the hearts and minds of Christians and getting them to move away from relational trust in Christ to confidence in the flesh. These religious leaders were seeking to convince Gentile Christians that faith plus circumcision equals salvation. For Paul, these religious leaders’ demand that Gentile Christians be circumcised signified the mutilation of relational trust. We find Paul discussing this problem and providing a response in Philippians 3:1-21.

I doubt many Gentile Christians today are debating whether or not to be circumcised to make sure they are saved. However, we often struggle with a more subtle form of performance-based spirituality expressed through a certain kind of Protestant work ethic. I wonder what Paul would have made of those attempts to assure ourselves of our salvation and adequacy as Christians through our spiritual performances and forms of religious expertise?

Performance-based spirituality is nothing new. ‘Faith plus circumcision’ is simply an old form of it. The age-old problem of performance and capacity-based spirituality vs. relational spirituality is alive and well. Forms of performance or capacity-based spirituality are more subtle today, though they are always relatively easy to measure. As my friend Joe Enlet has argued, “Too often our approach to spiritual formation is a series of ‘cut and paste’ activities. We start with a ‘sanitized’ view of the gospel and then we attempt to ‘match’ our living to that. This ignores the depth and complexity of life and  breeds a static, performance-oriented spirituality of having all your ‘ducks in a row.’”

Performance-based spirituality often manifests itself in discussions of strong Christian leaders. For all his strength in Christ, Paul was weak—intentionally so, as we find in 1 Corinthians 2 and 2 Corinthians 11 and 12. Paul did not succumb to the attempt to find his confidence in the power of his personality and strength as a leader. Another friend of mine, Chris Laird, speaks to this issue when he writes: “Mind you, I have always secretly desired to be a ‘strong man;’ but the longer I look at scripture, I just don’t see it.  We don’t see the kingdom going forward on the coattails of ‘Great Men,’ but on the bloody despised backs of men like Paul, who was a weak abomination.”

Certainly, Paul could have played the game of performance-based spirituality. After all, he had reason for unparalleled confidence in the flesh. Consider what he writes in his critique of Christian Phariseeism:

Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless (Philippians 3:1-6; ESV).

Though Paul could have boasted in his flesh, we find in verse 7 and following that he places his confidence in Christ. After all, those who trust in Christ are circumcised of heart. They are the true circumcision, according to Paul: “For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3; ESV).

This was no academic debate for Paul. One needs to keep in mind that the leaders Paul is challenging here were moving about in churches. They were not outsiders. In fact, they were master performers inside church walls. I need to be on guard that I am not someone who is guilty of advocating forms of religion that involve boasting in the flesh and that inspired Paul’s cutting critique. We all need to be on guard against boasting in our spiritual performances rather than Christ.

So, how shall we proceed? From inability to ability to expertise? No, but by considering everything a loss compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord.  It involves discounting a righteousness that comes from boasting in this or that law and counting on a righteousness that comes through relational trust in Christ. Such trust involves forgetting what lies behind us by way of our performance and pressing forward in Christ in view of his performance on our behalf (Philippians 3:7-14).

In place of proceeding from inability to ability to expertise, we need to proceed by way of responding to Christ’s initiative and provision of his life and repenting and daily being reborn. As Martin Luther wrote, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance” (Martin Luther, “95 Theses,” number 1).

Such repentance does not mean less work, but more work—the work of faith. The circumcised of heart will not fall back and coast; rather, they will run hard to the finish line to take hold of the one who has taken hold of them (Philippians 3:12-14). They will work harder than anyone, yet without boasting in themselves. After all, as Jesus told another Pharisee, those who are forgiven much love much. Those who are forgiven little love little (Luke 7:47). Or as that former Pharisee Paul wrote,

Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed (1 Corinthians 15:8-11; ESV).

How confident in Christ’s love are we who confess Christ? What are ways that we struggle with performance-based spirituality today in your estimation? What recommendations might you have to move us from placing confidence in our performance to placing confidence in Christ’s performance of the faith on our behalf? How might we encourage one another in view of Christ’s love to live out the faith so that God’s grace toward us is not in vain but bears relational fruit?

About Paul Louis Metzger

Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including "Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths" and "Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church." These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.

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