Author: Michael Reeves

Publisher: Crossway

Year: 2023

Michael Reeves, president and professor of theology at Union School of Theology in the UK, is a model of Christian scholarship. Indeed, he exemplifies Paul’s exhortation to “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). And as such, I’ve found that anything he writes is worth taking the time to read.

My interest was especially piqued then when I came across his latest book with the provocative title, Evangelical Pharisees. There seems to be a slew of books out at the moment written by evangelicals rebuking conservative Christians for their worldliness and hypocrisy. Evangelical Pharisees is one of the few to do so though in the light of the Biblical Gospel.

The Hidden Cancer

Reeves rightly contends that the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees is an ever-present danger for followers of Jesus (i.e. Matt. 16:6). This is because the human heart is always tempted to trust in itself rather than Christ. And just like a serous sickness, such as cancer, can be hidden from our attention, so too can our own self-righteous hypocrisy.

Reeves’ writing is not only saturated with Scripture but also references to historical theology. His approach is obviously one which comes from deep reflection on the Christian life and wise pastoral application on how to avoid the many pitfalls. What Reeves argues for most of all is a greater love for Christ Himself in response to a greater vision of who Christ is and what He has done. As Reeves states:

It is easy to brush off Pharisaism as the foible of the zealous, a merely temperamental weakness. A pharisaical or hypocritical spirit leaves such an obvious moral trail—from pride to people-pleasing, tribalism, empire-building, and lovelessness—that it is easy to diagnose it simply as a moral problem. Yet what the Pharisees show us that Pharisaism is not just the crankiness that comes with a hardening of the spiritual arteries. First and foremost, it is a theological issue. The Pharisees were as they were and acted as they did because they denied the gospel. Their mercilessness, love of applause, and trust in themselves all flowed from a refusal to listen to Scripture, a refusal to receive a righteousness not their own, and a refusal to see their need for a new heart. Their character was a manifestation of their theology.

Reeves offers a fantastic analysis of the problem and solution in three main parts: Revelation, Redemption and Regeneration. This is also bookended though, with a terrific introduction and conclusion.


Reeves rightly points out that the Pharisees—like evangelicals—had a high view of Scripture. The problem was, they saw a knowledge of God’s revelation as an end in and of itself, rather than as a means to having a deeper relationship with God. As the Lord Jesus Himself said in a stinging rebuke to the Pharisees: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40).

Reeves shows that we who are evangelical can fall into precisely the same error. In our pride we gain more and more knowledge of God’s Word, but it doesn’t result in repentance or faith. Instead, much like the Roman Catholic understanding of sacraments, we view reading Scripture as functioning ex opera operato, i.e. something which automatically communicates God’s grace. Reeves gives the following striking quote from Grant Macaskill:

If we treat a quiet time of reading Scripture as an end in itself, rather than as an exercise in listening to God, or if we treat scheduled fellowship events as the basis in themselves for Christian growth, we have lost sight of that vital point. We can enjoy these practices for the wrong reasons—taking pleasure in the acquisition of new knowledge, drawing on the social energy of a fellowship group, and feeling affirmed by our religious habits, all while directing none of our attention toward Jesus himself. And if we compartmentalize Jesus within one bit of this, losing sight of the fact that he is the mediator of everything, then everything else will become distorted. If I approach the OT, for example, as something I read to learn about God’s commandments for how I am to live my life, rather than as something in which I seek to listen to Christ and understand what his presence in my life will look like, I have fallen into the trap of Pharisaism.[1]

Reeves challenges us that the evidence as to whether or not we have fallen into this trap is the quality of our prayer life. Like the Pharisees, do we pray well in front of others (Matt. 6:5) but not when alone with God? (Matt. 6:6). As Reeves states: “It is that unseen, natural outflow of the soul that best demonstrates the difference between a saint and a Pharisee.”

A particularly memorable illustration which Reeves gives is taken from an essay by C.S. Lewis, “Meditation in a Toolshed”. Lewis relays the encounter of being in a darkened toolshed and seeing a golden beam of light coming through a crack in the door. His point, is that there is a world of difference between observing the beam and looking up through beam to the outside. As Lewis memorably describes:

Instantly the whole previous picture vanished, I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, ninety-odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the bean, and looking at the beam are very different experiences. [2]

In a similar way, there is a great danger for us as evangelicals to accurately observe the truth of the beam, shining into the darkness of our world, and yet not directly engage in it – to fail to see the beauty of Christ in all His glory from which the ray of sunlight shines from.


In this section, Reeves spends time focusing on Jesus’ famous parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14). Reeves applies the text of Scripture incredibly well here, but it was another quote from C.S. Lewis which he gives that really stood out by way of application:

All initiative has been on God’s side; all has been free, unbounded grace. His own puny and ridiculous efforts would be as helpless to retain the joy as they would have been to achieve it in the first place. Fortunately, they need not. Bliss is not for sale, cannot be earned. “Works” have no “merit”, though of course faith, inevitably, even unconsciously, flows out into works of love at once. He is not saved because he does works of love: he does works of love before he is saved. It is faith alone that has saved him: faith bestowed by sheer gift. From this buoyant humility, this farewell to the self with all its good resolutions, anxiety, scruples, and motive-scratchings, all the Protestant doctrines originally sprang.

It is striking to read a quote by Lewis which is so unequivocal regarding the Biblical perspective on justification. Reeves goes on to explain though, that good works can only truly be produced when one knows that they are forgiven and eternally loved.


The logical conclusion to ‘revelation’ and ‘redemption’ is according to Reeves, ‘regeneration’. This is where the author takes special aim at what is known as “Sandemanianism”. This was a debate from early last century which emphasised faith as an intellectual assent to Gospel truths rather than a heart-felt trust. Of particular interest was the impact it was to have on preaching. Reeves quotes Lloyd-Jones as saying:

Those holding Sandemanian views are always opposed to warm, emotional preaching, and any preaching which would have the effect of bringing people to a feeling, and a sensible knowledge, of the fact that they were sinners.

I must say that I have often question whether this was present in some evangelical preaching of the Gospel today. There was no question that it was theologically correct, but it lacked a passion and zeal which one would expect to be connected with the communication of one who is an ambassador of Christ. I found this point intriguing and something which I’d like to think about further.


This is a relatively short book—just over one-hundred pages—but presents a profound personal challenge to anyone who reads it. Indeed, it’s the type of work which makes the reader often stop, pray and call out to God in confession and repentance.

Probably the highest praise that I could give to this work is that it is the type of book that you’ll want to give away so that others can be blessed as well. While others have offered a cultural critique of evangelicalism, this book is a thoroughly Scriptural one. And as such, it has the power to cut through the ugly tribalism that has dominated evangelical Christians in recent years.

Evangelical Pharisees is a book I’d highly recommend, and upon finishing it you will probably—like myself—want to benefit from even more of the author’s work.

– Mark Powell

[1] Grant Macaskill, Living in Union with Christ: Paul’s Gospel and Christian Moral Identity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019), 132.

[2] C.S. Lewis, C.S. Lewis: Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces (London, HarperCollins, 2000), 607.