Tens of thousands of sermons have been preached against self-righteousness, and yet it is as necessary to turn the great guns of the law against its walls to-day as ever it was.
So with my hesitation at writing this rather long blog removed, I continue.
Who is a self-righteous person?
We are all aware that a self-righteous person is a person wrongly and deceptively assured that he, or she, is full of right feelings, right thinking, and right doing. Self-righteous people have made themselves seem right to themselves, and therefore superior, at least in their own opinion.
These people we negatively characterize as self-righteous, or smug, or conceited, or preachy, or hypocritical, or prideful – pride is always a byproduct of self-righteousness. We might say they are goody-goodies, usually with a sneer on our faces, not because we think they really are but because we know they think they are. We easily see the not so righteousness of their lives while they are quite oblivious of it.
The opposite of self-righteousness is humility.
The opposite of self-righteousness of course is humility, a trait quite foreign to the self-righteous. I say this because a self-righteous person cannot experience humility while they are under the priggish pride-producing spell of self-righteousness. I know this because I have been under that curse all to often only to emerge from it, quite filled with shame and quite surprised that it has taken me in again, and so I swear never to yield to its deceptive tentacles again.
My resolve doesn’t always hold though, and I’m sure the gateway into this insidious self-righteous snare is by means of comparison. (Obviously the comparison is not between God and me.) Rarely, it may begin when I compare myself to a murderer, or a thief, or a drug addict or a child abuser. More often it may begin when I compare myself to someone who simply dresses, thinks, speaks, looks, or acts differently than me. By “differently” I mean to imply that I don’t approve. Even more often it may even begin when I compare myself to a self-righteous person; it is easy enough to find one after all.
Warning: This comparison is a trap.
Be warned that if you are not just now self-righteous, it is a trap to compare yourself to the self-righteous. It is a tricky backdoor trap since, in the comparison, you easily become one of the self-righteous by assuming you are more righteous for not being so smug. Self-righteousness can creep in of course in any comparison where I, or you, come out the winner.
Though I am in the right, my own mouth would condemn me;
though I am blameless, he would prove me perverse, Job 9:20, ESV.
You really can be truly righteous.
Of course one can really be righteous without being self-righteous. But, if true righteousness does not originally spring from inside self, and here I am assuming the doctrine of total depravity and taking the Apostles’ (John and Paul’s) word for it, then real righteousness must begin with someone outside of self. In his essay, Two Kinds of Righteousness, the great reformer Martin Luther said there are two true kinds of righteousness.
- Alien Righteousness
- Actual Righteousness
Alien righteousness is Christ’s righteousness.
Alien righteousness as Luther explains is Christ’s righteousness. It is all that Christ spoke, did, and suffered – his suffering was in obedience after all. It is Christ’s perfect doing of God’s perfect will. It is the fullness or completeness of Christ’s right doing in God’s opinion. This alien righteousness, the reformers explain, is imputed to us from outside of us.
When we say that God imputes Christ’s righteousness to us, it means that God thinks of Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us, or regards it as belonging to us. He ‘reckons’ it to our account. (See Romans 4:3 where Paul quotes Genesis 15:6.)
Another way to say that God regards us as righteous is to say that God justifies us. In a real, binding, legal way, God counts us, reckons us, declares us just. God does this because from his perspective, we are truly righteous. We get this alien righteousness, Christ’s righteousness, imputed to us, thought of by God as ours, by means of our faith in Christ.
Temptation may creep in from unexpected places.
At this point, you might be tempted to feel a little proud of your faith or your repentance. Faith implies repentance after all. You might even be tempted to feel a bit puffed up about your humility and let self-righteousness rise again. After all, you have it and you have noticed that others don’t.
If you feel the pull of this temptation, remember that your faith and your repentance are gifts from God. You wouldn’t have either if God didn’t give them to you. And your humility comes from the Spirit’s work in your life that transforms your nature (your character) into the nature of Christ.
If you trust to your faith and to your repentance, you will be as much lost as if you trusted to your good works or trusted to your sins. The ground of your salvation is not faith, but Christ; it is not repentance, but Christ. If I trust my trust of Christ, I am lost. My business is to trust Christ; to rest on him; to depend, not on what the Spirit has done in me, but what Christ did for me …
Why this is reassuring.
All this should be reassuring since Christ’s righteousness, once yours is yours forever. Because it is yours through an irrevocable faith given to you and because it belongs to Christ who through faith you are united to, you can never loose it (John 10:27-29). Also, because it is Christ’s righteousness, you can never do anything to make it imperfect (Romans 8:1). You can’t mess it up!
Just as real sins, verses Adam’s sin imputed to you, are real acts that you do that God does not approve of, righteous deeds are real acts that you do that God does approve of. Righteous deeds are evidence of your moral or justifiable qualities – your righteousness. Righteous acts have some righteousness in them. They are things you actually say or do or suffer that are right in God’s opinion. They are the result of faith in Christ and serve as practical evidence of your faith.
You cannot have actual righteousness unless you also have imputed, alien righteousness. True actual righteousness (I am giving the Protestant understanding here) in our actions is only possible because of God’s sanctifying work in our hearts that begins at the point of regeneration – new spiritual birth- the point in time when, through the instrument of faith, the Spirit begins to dwell in us. The indwelling Holy Spirit sanctifies us; he changes, sometimes slowly and sometimes quickly, our moral nature to be more like Christ’s holy nature.
What About People Who Obey the Law or a Law?
“Well” you might say, “There are plenty of “good” people in the world who do a lot of good things. So why say that only people of faith can do righteous deeds?”
I have a friend who has intentionally chosen a specific set of moral laws to obey. Her personal laws are good things. I would even say they are biblical things that mirror God’s character. They are things like: doing your best; helping those in need; telling the truth; not stealing, cheating, or murdering; and being dependable and faithful. Despite all her good moral qualities, my friend is not a believer – she does not have faith that Christ’s work will save her. Instead she justifies herself by maintaining positive daily checks on her list of self-imposed laws.
What about her? Hebrews 11:6 says, “”Without faith it is impossible to please God,” and Paul says in the last part of Romans 14:23, “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” In, his sermon, Whatever Is Not from Faith is Sin, Dr. John Piper comments:
… the all-pervasive fault in every sin is its character of unbelief. … Unbelief is what mainly displeases God in every sinful act. … A failure to delight and trust in the promises of God is the greatest insult you can pay to God and therefore the primary offense in all sin.
… do not say to yourself, “‘My sins are slight, or my sins are few.” For according to Romans 14:23, everything you do is sin. If you are not trusting Christ for forgiveness and are not resting in his daily work on your behalf, then none of your actions comes from faith, but every one of them (even the most noble) is sinful and an insult to the infinitely trustworthy God.
What about the Pharisees?
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven, Matthew 5:20, (ESV).
In his commentary on Matthew, Dr. D.A. Carson notes that the Pharisees and teachers of the law … were among the most punctilious in the land. On Matthew 5:20, quoting commentator David Hill, Carson says that it is not that the Pharisees “were not good, but that they were not good enough.” Carson continues: “What Jesus demanded” in the Beatitudes ‘is the righteousness to which the law truly points and anything less ‘does not enter the kingdom.'” In his book, Right With God p. 30, D.A. Carson adds:
It is the penitent sinner, not the self-righteous Pharisee who leaves the temple justified in the sight of God (Luke 18:9-14).
What About the Righteous People in the New Testament?
In the New Testament God’s righteousness is connected to his salvation and to faith.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealedfrom faith for faith,as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’ Romans 1:16-17 (ESV).
God’s vindication of his righteousness in saving sinners is what puts Jesus on the cross. Romans 3:21-26 says:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (ESV).
In the Old Testament righteousness is connected to God’s salvation.
Likewise, in the Old Testament, God’s righteousness is a means of his salvation. Dr. John Frame explains that in 1 Samuel 12:6-11, God’s act of saving sinners is explained as his righteous act and wonders how the deliverance of a sinful people who didn’t deserve to be saved can accord with God’s standards? Frame looks at similar patterns in Isaiah 46:12-13 and other passages and further questions:
So why does this deliverance provide evidence of God’s righteousness in particular? Does it not, indeed, pose a problem for God’s righteousness, calling it into question?
Answering his own questions, Dr. Frame explains:
Although the cause of the afflicted is righteous, compared to that of their oppressors, God delivers them, not because of their own good works, but because they cry out to God for mercy. They are, therefore, justified by faith in God’s righteousness, not their own. In Isaiah 45:24, they confess that ‘in the LORD alone are righteousness and strength’ [underlines mine].
We will never be perfectly holy in this life.
Unlike alien, imputed righteousness, our actual righteousness is not perfect since it is not Christ’s righteousness but our own produced by the power of Christ in us. In this life, though we grow in holiness, we will never be fully sanctified in the sense that we are totally holy (without sin) until we see Christ (Romans 6:12-13; 1 John 1:8). However, as Grudem points out it does not mean that you are doomed to be forever ruled or defeated by a particular sin or by a particular pattern of sin (Romans 6:14).
What about the Scriptures that say we are already sanctified?
Just as there is a sense in which you are already righteous (imputed righteousness) there is also a sense in which you are already sanctified (set apart as already holy). See 1 Corinthians 6:11 and Acts 20:32. I am not talking about this ‘already’ sense.
All this is important because you will die.
Either you will die or you will live to see the return of Christ. In either case only a perfect righteousness will give you peace with God (Romans 5:1). Imperfect righteousness brings God’s wrath (Romans 1:18). Comparisons between your goodness and the goodness of others will not do. Explanations of all you’ve suffered will not do. Lists of all your good deeds will not do. Even evidence of improvements in your moral character will not do.
If you’ve gotten this far in my blog, Spurgeon says what I sometimes slip into thinking and what I think others may be thinking:
Well, I believe I am as good as others, and that this fuss about a new birth, imputed righteousness, and being washed in blood, is all unnecessary,’ but in the loneliness of your silent chamber, especially when death shall be your dread and grim companion, you shall not need me to state this, you shall see it clearly enough yourselves; see it with eyes of horror; and feel it with a heart of dismay, and despair, and perish because thou hast despised the righteousness of Christ.
In the end I must ask myself, “Do I want part of Christ’s glory so badly that I would refuse his salvation in order to justify myself and loose the possibility of salvation.” Or I must ask, “Am I okay with Christ having all the glory in saving me?” This blog begin with Spurgeon’s words, and so I leave you with his urgent plea:
Blessed privilege of the believer! But if you live and die unbelievers, know this, that all your sins lie on your own shoulders. Christ did never make any atonement for you; you were never bought with blood; you never had an interest in his sacrifice. You live and die in yourselves, lost; in yourselves, ruined; in yourselves, utterly destroyed. But believing—the moment you believe, you may know that you were chosen of God from before the foundation of the world. Believing, you may know that the righteousness of Christ is all yours; that all he did, he did for you; that all he suffered, he suffered for you. You do in fact, in the moment you believe, stand where Christ stood as God’s accepted Son; and Christ stands where you stood as the sinner, and suffers as if he had been the sinner, and dies as if he had been guilty—dies in your room, place, and stead.
Carson, D.A., Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, chs. 1-12, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995, pp. 146-147.
Carson, D.A., Right With God: Justification in the Bible and in the World, Eugene: OR, Wipf and Stock, 1992, p. 30.
Frame, John M., The Doctrine of God: A Theology of Lordship, vol. 2, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002, pp. 451, 455.
Grudem, Wayne, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994, p. 726.
Piper, John, Whatever Is Not from Faith is Sin, August 24, 1980, By John Piper. ©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org ©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Used by Permission, accessed April 17, 2014 from http://www.desiringgod.org/sermons/whatever-is-not-from-faith-is-sin
Spurgeon, C.H., “A Blow at Self-Righteousness,” Sermon no. 350, delivered Dec. 16, 1860, accessed April 12, 2014 from http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0350.htm
Scripture related to …
- alien righteousness: Psalm 31:1; Romans 3:21-22; Philippians 3:9; 1 Corinthians 1:30.
- faith and repentance as gifts of God: Acts 5:31; Acts 11:18; John 6:29; Ephesians 3:14-17; Hebrews 12:2; Romans 10:17; Romans 12:3; Titus 3:7.
- transforming work of the Spirit: Matthew 11:29; Philippians 2:5-8; Titus 3:5; 1 John 3:9; Romans 6:11,14, 18.
- works of righteousness that serve as practical evidence of your faith: James 2:18, 26; 2 Corinthians 13:5; Galatians 5:19-24.
Propitiation: If you want to know more about propitiation there is a free lesson available in the Creating Art from Theology Artist’s and Leader’s Guide.
More about sanctification: Grudem points out, p. 749, that “sanctification involves the whole person, including our bodies” (2 Corinthians 7:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:23) and so “will not be entirely completed until the Lord returns and we receive new resurrection bodies” (Philippians 3:21).