The elusive nature of behavior modification

Jesus_PhariseesI’ve always found it interesting that Jesus only got angry with people who behaved themselves. Of course, these were the scribes and Pharisees in His day.

He never got angry with those who were considered despicable sinners. Actually, He befriended them, hung out with them, and ate and drank with them in their sinful houses.

Add to this, Jesus would often forgive their sins, on the spot, and scandalously tell them that they were saved…no altar call, no sinner’s prayer…no blood sacrifice…just outright undeserved forgiveness.

Jesus was also a bit subversive. He constantly contradicted the scribes and Pharisees’ interpretation of the Law and made them angry. (“You have heard it said, but I say….”) He actually seemed to enjoy ticking them off by healing the sick on the Sabbath, telling people to love their enemies, and so forth.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, were always angry with sinners. They had no “sinner” friends and wouldn’t be caught dead going into sinner’s homes. In fact, they separated themselves completely from the “sinful world” (Pharisee means “separatist”) and were often seen boycotting what they didn’t like in the secular Roman world they lived in.

The Pharisees were not subversive. They were in strict obedience to every jot and tittle of the Law and their religious traditions. They only forgave people’s sins by way of blood sacrifices and ritualistic cleansing.

Which makes me pause and wonder, which of these two best describes us?

Furthermore, does the world see us more like Pharisees or like Jesus?

Can we just say, ouch! 🙂

Woman_at_Jesus_FeetAfter reading about Jesus, one could almost come away with the idea that only sinners and those who disregard religious ordinances are righteous! Of course, this would miss the whole point.

It’s not about behaving or not behaving at all. It’s about believing.

The point is, we can only obtain God’s righteousness as a free gift by faith, not by trying to attain some state of righteousness by our behavior. As it’s been said, we receive it when we stop trying and start trusting.

This is the point Paul made over and over again. Righteousness is a free gift of grace through faith (Rom.5:17). It’s literally God’s own righteousness…living in us…that now empowers our heart and reshapes our way of thinking and acting.

Behavior modification and ritual observance, on the other hand, only makes one self-righteous and religious. Pharisees worked very hard to become righteous and were not; Jesus makes the worst sinners righteous when they simply come to Him. Again, this was Paul’s point later in Romans:

So what does all this mean? It means that people who are not Jews were made right with God because of their faith, even though they were not trying to make themselves right. And the people of Israel, who tried to make themselves right with God by following the law, did not succeed. (Rom.9:30-31 ERV)

This is the elusive nature of behavior modification. The more we try to attain righteousness by trying harder to behave, the farther we move away from God’s righteousness. As Paul said to the Galatians, when we attempt to do this we have actually fallen from grace (Gal.5:4).

Again, we’re only trying to create our own righteousness, not live in His.

On the other hand, when we come to Jesus we automatically receive all of His righteousness as a free gift. Then it becomes all about cooperation, meaning, we let Him behave for us by His Spirit. Through this cooperative process, He progressively transforms our hearts from the inside-out, making it like His. I’ve written a lot about this in times past so I won’t belabor it here.

I’m just wondering what would happen if we started acting more like Jesus than like the Pharisees. I’ll ponder this as I sip my Starbucks coffee in a plain red cup this holiday season.

Photo credit (top):  © V. Gilbert & Arlisle F. Beers

About Mel Wild

God's favorite (and so are you), a son and a father, happily married to the same beautiful woman for 37 years. We have three incredible adult children. My passion is pursuing the Father's heart in Christ and giving it away to others. My favorite pastime is being iconoclastic and trailblazing the depths of God's grace. I'm also senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in Wisconsin.
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6 Responses to The elusive nature of behavior modification

  1. John Cummuta says:


  2. Steve Austin says:

    THIS IS SO GOOD! PARDON MY YELLING. Can you still hear me? No, seriously, such a fantastic shifting of a paradigm I’ve held for such a long time. It’s about believing, not behaving. Thanks for sharing. –Steve

  3. Lance says:

    Mel, you’ve done it again but so smooth in the delivery like maybe a nice Starbucks latte. Funny bro. Wonder how many got that one?

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