Self-righteousness is the worst disease to ever afflict the human race. Self-righteousness will keep you from grace and lock you out of the kingdom.
For this reason, great preachers like Martin Luther and Charles Spurgeon made a habit of preaching against self-righteousness.
But do you know what self-righteousness is? Do you recognize its symptoms?
What is self-righteousness?
Self-righteousness is trusting in your own righteousness (Luke 18:9). It is believing there are things you can do to make yourself right with God.
Self-righteousness is sometimes manifested in feelings of superiority towards others. “I am right, you are wrong. My way is better than your way.”
But self-righteousness can also be reflected in a low sense of self-worth (“God can’t possibly love me”), an inflated sense of self-importance (“I need to do more for God”), and outright unbelief (“I am beyond the reach of his grace”).
The defining ingredient of self-righteousness is that you are providing your own standard of righteousness.
When you decide what is good and right, perhaps on the basis of your own moral judgment or the law, you are eating from the wrong tree and usurping God’s role as the Righteous Judge. True righteousness comes from trusting in Jesus, the Righteous One (2 Cor. 5:21).
If you wanted to scan yourself for the symptoms of self-righteousness, here are six markers to look for:
1. The self-righteous mindset is sin conscious
The self-righteous man boasts in his sinless state. “You will not find in me any iniquity or sin” (Hos. 12:8). He is convinced that he is without sin (1 John 1:8) or that others are responsible for his mistakes. “It was the woman you gave me” (Gen. 3:12).
In contrast with Jesus, the self-righteous man avoids sinners lest they contaminate him with their sinfulness. “Do not come near me, for I am holier than you!” (Is. 65:5).
He is quick to defend himself – “Can anyone bring charges against me?” (Job 13:19) – but in claiming to be sinless, he is effectively calling God a liar (see Rom. 3:10). By claiming to be good, he is contradicting Jesus who said “There is none good but God” (Mark 10:18).
2. The self-righteous mindset is legalistic
The self-righteous man boasts about his religious performance – “I fast twice a week and give a tithe of all I get” (Luke 18:12) – and he loves God’s laws. “I have kept the commands of God from my youth” (Luke 18:21). He does not realize that he is an idolater glorifying in himself.
The self-righteous man can never admit weakness and he never says sorry. Because he has zero tolerance for failure (“No excuses!”) he takes few risks.
While he thinks of himself as blameless in terms of the law (Php. 3:6), he is quick to condemn those who break the rules. He thinks sinners must be punished because “the rules need to be protected.”
3. The self-righteous mindset feeds on comparisons with others
The self-righteous man justifies himself by comparing his performance with others. “Thank God I’m not like other men” (Luke 18:11). He is proud of his reputation and pedigree and eager to draw attention to his good deeds (Matt. 6:2).
Quick to judge others, the self-righteous man lacks compassion (“I would never do that”), and he derives a perverse pleasure from fault-finding (“Look at what you did”). Putting others down reinforces his own inflated sense of importance.
4. The self-righteous mindset is hypocritical
The self-righteous man sees himself as a rule-keeper, but in truth he only obeys those rules which are easy (Matt. 23:23). The hard laws he dismisses. “They were for another time and place.” Thus the self-righteous man is a lawbreaker and a hypocrite (Jas. 2:10). Being lukewarm, he is further from grace than the sinners he despises.
5. The self-righteous mindset is independent
Jesus said “Apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5), but the self-righteous man didn’t get the memo. “I am rich and have need of nothing” (Rev. 3:17).
Since the goal of the self-made life is to stand on one’s own feet, the self-righteous man has trouble receiving from God. “If I didn’t earn it, I won’t want it.” He cannot receive the free gift of God’s righteousness because he is too busy establishing his own (Rom. 10:3).
The self-righteous man is more than happy to do things for God, but he will never ask for anything from God. By his self-reliance he is effectively saying, “I don’t need a thing from you Jesus. You died for nothing.”
6. The self-righteous mindset is hostile to grace
Since he is not a wretched sinner, the self-righteous man has no need for grace. Indeed, he detests grace for it undermines everything he has worked for. Like the elder brother, he thinks grace is unfair (Luke 15:28-30).
Unacquainted with grace, self-righteous people are the most stressed-out people around. They carry heavy loads and don’t know the meaning of rest. They hear the happy sounds of a grace party thrown for prodigals, but their pride won’t let them join in.
The remedy for self-righteousness
Self-righteousness is the deadliest sin of all. In a classic sermon on self-righteousness, Spurgeon explained the problem:
A self-righteous man does not and cannot trust Christ, and therefore he cannot see the face of God. None but the naked man will ever go to Christ for clothing; none but the hungry man will ever take Christ to be his food; none but thirsty souls will ever come to this well of Bethlehem to drink. The thirsty are welcome; but those who think they are good, are welcome neither to Sinai nor to Calvary. They have no hope of heaven, no peace in this world, nor in that which is to come.
Self-righteousness is a grave deception. To be disabused of such a powerful lie, we need a stronger truth, and Jesus provides it.
“You are dead,” said Jesus to the self-righteous Sardians (Rev. 3:1).
“You make me sick,” said Jesus to the self-righteous Laodiceans (Rev. 3:16).
“You are naked and wretched!” (Rev. 3:17) Jesus spoke like this to wake the self-righteous from their stupor.
If you think you need nothing from God, hear the hard words of Jesus. Then take a good look into the mirror of the law and allow those righteous commands to plow the self-righteousness out of your heart.
Then once the law has revealed your true state—wretched, naked, blind and desperately in need—run to the Lord and receive from the rich supply of his grace.
Want to learn more about the subtlties of self-righteousness? Check out Spurgeon’s sermon, “A Blow at Self-righteousness,” rewritten in modern English and available now on Patreon.