Puritans and Pharisees can both get a pretty bad wrap from Christians and non-Christians alike. Stereotypes affect how we (mis)understand both groups and each term easily becomes a dismissive or derogatory label, rather than a word that helps us understand members of these two religious movements in their historical context.
But “Pharisee” deserves to be a negative byword due to Jesus’ evaluation of Pharisaism in the New Testament. It would be better if people used Pharisee specifically, rather than as a way of condemning anyone who is stricter on some point of ethics or theology than the speaker; and it would be more helpful if Christians understood what the main issues Jesus criticised in the Pharisees actually were – but there is such a thing as a “Pharisaic” outlook on life and it isn’t positive.
“Puritans” on the other hand get a bad wrap because they’ve been caricatured for centuries by people who disagree with their views on theology and their approach to the Christian life. The name itself is pejorative and meant to conjure the idea of someone who thinks they’re “holier-than-thou” and a restorer of “true religion.” But the dull and dour, no frills/no fun, legalistically strict Puritan is more a portrait drawn by their enemies (often enemies of the gospel) and often doesn’t reflect who they really were.
The Puritan is not in fact the Pharisee of 16th and 17th century England and America. Both may have shared a superficially similar emphasis on purity of religion and holiness of life – but the Pharisee on the pages of the New Testament and the Puritans of the still-fairly-young Protestant movement were fundamentally opposite to one another.
So what’s the main point of difference between the two? Well, generally speaking, for the Pharisee, outward displays of strict religious observance were where they placed all too much emphasis. The way they looked in front of others and the way they separated or distinguished themselves from “sinners” was often the key aspect of their daily devotion.
In perhaps the most famous denunciation of the Pharisees in the Bible (see Matthew 23), Jesus targets their desire for religious prestige before others (vv. 5-12); their selective, partial and unbalanced obedience to God’s commands (vv. 1-2 & 16-24); and their hypocritical inward corruption beneath their positive outward image (vv. 25-28). In the crescendo (vv. 29-39) Jesus effectively charges them with hatred of God, because of how they’re no different from their fathers who killed God’s messengers (and indeed they soon expressed their wicked rejection of God by conspiring to have His Son executed).
So when we use the name Pharisee as a negative label (by no means something we should do lightly!) we ought to use it to describe someone who is like an actor that dresses up as a “religious person” and performs for the approval of men and women, but who underneath is a different person (in other words a hypocrite). The Pharisee looks upright, especially in comparison to the more obvious “sinners”, but at heart he’s morally corrupt, unwilling to submit to God and in fact harbours hatred towards the true God and his servants.
Puritans at their best were anti-Pharisees. While they did believe outward behaviour and separation from certain kinds of sin (and sinners) were important (but for different reasons as we’ll see), they took Jesus’ warnings against the Pharisaic attitude very seriously. They held that godliness (which is properly understood as the right, personal, heart attitude towards God, as He reveals Himself to us) was essential for the Christian life and that anything done for God or man that was for outward show – rather than from the heart – was not only useless, but evil and dishonouring towards the King of Glory.
Consider these strong words from Thomas Watson, the Puritan I’m focusing my research on:
“To have only a name, and make a show of godliness, is odious to God and man.
The hypocrite is abhorred by all. Wicked men hate him because he makes a show, and God hates him because he only makes a show. The wicked hate him because he has so much as a mask of godliness, and God hates him because he has no more…The wicked hate the hypocrite because he is almost a Christian, and God hates him because he is only almost one.”
Being a religious hypocrite like the Pharisees, basically makes you a double loser!
Watson also echoed Jesus’ attacks on the Pharisees’ failure to deal with their sinful hearts or obey God inwardly as well as outwardly:
“He who fears God—dares not sin secretly. A hypocrite may forbear [avoid] gross sin because of the shame—but not clandestine, secret sin. He is like one who shuts up his shop windows—but follows his trade within doors. But a man fearing God dares not sin, though he could walk invisibly, and no eye see him.”
On the Pharisaic attitude towards God, he offers:
“Hypocrites obey God grudgingly, and against their will; they do good but not willingly. Cain brought his sacrifice—but not his heart. It is a true rule—what the heart does not do, is not done,” and “Hypocrites take God’s name in vain: their religion is a lie; they seem to honour God—but they do not love him; their hearts go after their lusts.”
Finally, he summarises well the goal of Pharisaic religion, versus the kind of faith he was promoting himself:
“The hypocrite makes use of religion, only [in the way] the fisherman [uses] his net, to catch preferment. He serves God for applause – hypocrites look not at God’s glory, but vain glory. They serve God rather to save their credit, than to save their souls…[but] an upright heart makes the glory of God his centre.”
The Puritans condemned religious hypocrites so heavily (Watson calls them “doubly damned” in hell) that they could scarcely afford to be found guilty of the same crime themselves! And so while people may accuse Puritans of being legalistic (generally a misconception, but space won’t permit a detailed defense here), they were not at all like the Pharisees of Jesus’ time. The main difference was that the Pharisees for the most part ignored Jesus’ charge of hypocrisy and selective obedience, whereas the Puritans listened to those same words and made every effort to deal with their inner corruption through repentance and faith, so that they might truly obey God from the heart by following Jesus instead of wanting to see him dead.
 Waiting For The Word TISSOT pharisees enraged (CC BY 2.0) flickr