Six Signs of a Self-Righteous Mindset

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.

28 Comments on Six Signs of a Self-Righteous Mindset

  1. Great article! I think it could be said that self righteousness is the only sin. What sin is there if we are trusting Jesus for His righteousness?

  2. Hi Paul, guilty as charged. I fear that I find faith just as hard. At least I could (foolishly) attempt to keep the law, but how do I believe for stuff when I’ve not got help for that thing when praying before? How do I receive without getting rid of every drop of unbelief? God is faultless but my life is hard and broken, so the problem must be with me. ‘It is because of your unbelief’ It seems that faith points us back to self just as the law did. Oh what a wretched man I am, who will save me from this body of unbelief and faithlessness? Jesus? But will he do that if I lack faith? He doesn’t seem to.

    • Hi John, you don’t lack faith. Everyone of us has a measure of faith (Rom. 12:3) and you wouldn’t be writing to me if you had none. But if your faith is pointing back to you, it’s misdirected. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus. When unbelief speaks, speak back. Remind yourself of his good promises.

      I don’t know if it will help or not, but in a week or two I have an article coming out on the Works of Faith.

      • Thanks Paul for replying, I’m aware of the Romans verse. I guess I feel God’s promises always seem to come with a little asterisk (or is it one of those cross symbols!) and the asterisk is you need to have *enough* faith and no unbelief. I step out of the boat and trust, but mainly experience drowning. I know it shouldn’t stop me trusting him again, but it’s difficult. Not sure how to break the cycle. I ask the Holy Spirit, but don’t hear an answer. I guess that requires faith and no unbelief too.

      • I can relate. Life is hard and sometimes our prayers seem to go unanswered. Sometimes we feel like we’re drowning, as you say. When I’m in that situation, I set my face like flint and say, “Well, if I’m drowning, I’m going down believing that God is still good and he longs to be good to me.” I won’t give the enemy an inch.

        And on days when my mind is full of cares and worries, I throw those cares and worries in my Father’s face – not in an arrogant way, but I do it knowing that he loves me and that he can handle me at my lowest and worst. Grace isn’t just for Sundays and church services; it’s for the middle of the night when you can’t sleep because the ship feels like it’s sinking.

      • Hi John, Paul is describing faith working through love (Gal 5:6). Our faith is not in our faith, but in God’s love. While your faith may waver like shifting sand, God’s love is stable and unchanging. You can always rely on His love. Our focus remains on Him – His love, His faithfulness, His righteousness, His work, His ability, His life produced is us by His doing. When we look to self to produce life (love, joy, peace, faith…) we experience death. We experience His life by looking to Him to produce it in us.

    • Brother John. You are right. If our way of understanding faith puts us back on ourselves then it is no different than the law. Instead of how well am I obeying the law, it becomes how well am I faithing. For me it has helped to see faith centered around WHAT we believe rather than HOW MUCH we believe. Faith is about believing what Jesus believes. It’s about discovering what is real and true and agreeing with it. In my mind I define faith as what God believes… and seek to learn (under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit) what that is and align my understanding and beliefs with it. If we make faith something to figure out how to “do right” then it becomes a work. And a relationship built around works is no relationship at all… and we are right back to self-righteousness. Thankfully Jesus isn’t standing off to the side waiting for us to get our faith right, he has put HIS faith in us. He is more involved in our lives than we can imagine. We just need to realize it. It’s very hard for us to come to grips with the reality that there are no hoops to jump through in this thing. It’s too beautiful for us to grasp. But we’ll get there. I think the Father will settle for nothing less than for us to finally “get it”.

  3. Your self righteousness is as filthy rags*… Those denote monthly menstrual rags that are quite repugnate! You don’t even want to touch them! 😝 YUCK!!!

    • megagenius // August 6, 2021 at 7:37 am // Reply

      Self righteousness is the result of original sin, and ALL of us need the grace of God to deal with this insidious trap. What is the way out? Total surrender to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. You kiss the Cross so passionately until you have a mouthful of splinters, and then you are free to walk in a humble childlike utter dependence on God. You realize that salvation is of the Lord. O what peace and rest saturates you when you come to the end of yourself and lean on His everlasting arms. Remember, the Kingpin in self righteousness is wanting to be in CONTROL. Act against yourself. Seek not to be esteemed. Seek not to be secure. Seek not to be in control. I

  4. Great message. I was once legalistic and self-righteous without a full understanding of the grace of Jesus. But when I encountered the Lord Jesus Christ in a personal way and experienced and understood His grace, I became a new person. Self-righteousness crumbles in the truth of who Jesus is. Like Paul, anything else is rubbish apart from Jesus, including righteousness we try on our own and with our best to do and prove. It is the righteousness of Christ in me.

  5. Good essay, but plenty of people who get accused of being proud and self-righteous (as people accused me as a teenager) are aware that they are sinners, but frightened and confused about what God’s message actually is. When I was a child, people said things to me like ‘Jesus is like soap – believing in soap won’t make you cleaner if you don’t actually wash in it,’ but when I asked what I actually needed to do (corresponding to ‘washing’), they told me off for being proud and wanting to do things in my own strength.

    I had been told that being a Christian meant having a personal friendship with Jesus ‘just like his disciples’, so, as I didn’t literally hear Jesus speaking to me as if he was physically there, I concluded that I must be a hypocrite and not a real Christian. When I talked to grown-ups about how hard I found it trying to be a Christian, I got the same response: ‘If you’re “TRYING” to be a Christian, it means you’re too proud.’

    I did find what I thought of as the message of grace unfair, but that was because I assumed the message was, ‘We’re all sinners, but God is only interested in saving those who are criminal enough for their redemption to make a dramatic story – your sins are too boring to be worth forgiving, so you’re going to hell.’ I wish I could have known that God’s grace really was for all.

  6. We all suffer and struggle with self righteousness to varying degrees and intensity. The only answer is Jesus and what He did for us at the cross.God knows we struggle with it and He is not condemning us for it at all. He is helping us with it even when we are praying for Him to deliver us from it and it feels like He is not listening or not willing or nothing is changing or getting better it seems to be getting worse. That is the time to ignore the accusations of self and the devil that tries to convince us that we are doomed and nothing is working,I know easier said than done ,and to keep praying to Him for His help and turning to teachings of Gods Grace and what Jesus accomplished for us at the cross. I keep reading and rereading Joseph Prince Destined to Reign.Its time now for us to stop falling for condemnation and to fall for Gods Grace.It is our blood bought right from Jesus and to know Him and Him crucified at the cross for us and what He did for us there and our benefits and rights as Gods kids because of what Jesus did for us at the cross solely because He loved us that much. I am praying for us all.

  7. Michelle Lee Vrieze // August 6, 2021 at 10:00 am // Reply

    If someone does something good, and feels a tiny twinge of feeling good, then that person is going to Hell? Like, helping old lady get groceries. Even if that person does NOT in that person’s heart believe it has anything to do with earning his or her way into Heaven. So a person can have believed on Jesus alone, but this sounds like Jesus will cast out that person if they so much as have a tiny feeling of feeling good about doing something.

    “I know I said I will in no wise cast you out, but you helped Granny with her groceries and felt good about it, so I will go against what I said and will cast you out.”

    • Feeling good is not the same as being self-righteous. Self-righteousness is believing there are things you can do to make yourself right with God.

      • Michelle Lee Vrieze // August 6, 2021 at 4:08 pm //

        I think if I recall right this site some place has something about eternal security. How can a person be eternally secure if he or she is constantly thinking Jesus is looking for loopholes to get rid of him or her?

      • He isn’t. Jesus looks on you with undiluted love and he will save anyone who gives him so much as a glance. The cross is the proof.

  8. Excellent article! A self-righteous mindset seems basically synonymous with the fallen mindset, or at least a direct byproduct of it. Adam’s inner world changed dramatically due to partaking of the tree of doom. Catastrophic mental blindness took over and we’ve been hiding in the bushes from the lover of our soul ever since. God didn’t change, but Adam’s ability to perceive reality did. Self-righteousness, like Adam’s fig leaves, is our attempt to cope with the way we perceive things in the darkness of our fallen minds. And it makes us sitting ducks for religious marketing. The Father, Son and Spirit will not let this stand – they have much better for us than to leave us that way. God did not cloth Adam because he had an issue with looking at him, but because he was accommodating Adam’s new fallen mind – a tender act of grace. The very beginning of a long and bloody journey to restore humanity. God has to come to us in our fallen, sinful and blind state, met us there and bring us into restoration from there – because that’s where we are. What good is God’s forgiveness or love if we can’t receive it, process it, and be affected by it? What’s the point of showing a beautiful painting to a blind person? God has to address our inner worlds and turn the lights on from the inside. That’s what the cross is about – God stooping to us in our self-righteous minds and saying “I’ll meet you there, because that is where you are. I’ll go into your black darkness to get you.” Whatever the problem of sin is, the apostle Paul said that Jesus BECAME it. The thing about our self-righteousness is that there is simply no need for it. It’s unnecessary and pointless. Jesus is and always has been our righteousness.

  9. Yes Jason I agree and also I think a sense of. condemnation is behind self righteousness. All believers need to be reeducated by Holy Spirit about LOVE Gods unconditional love for us all .Once we are secure,sure and stable about His love for us and that He has more than enough love to go around and that noone is more favoured, loved or blessed than another and that we are sure that we do not have to fight and compete for His love,approval,blessings,attention,affection etc as we are already accepted,loved and approved of by Him in the Beloved-Jesus then we can relax and enjoy Him because self righteousness to me is like trying to prove your worth value and stems from a sense of insecurity about yourself and a fear of failure and as deep down you do not believe you deserve Him but deserve rejection and condemnation but on the surface it comes out as I am good,better than some etc as a way of covering up this sense of inner wrongness and unloveableness and only Holy Spirit can heal this in us.We are all still hurting,damaged kids inside who are trying to still protect ourselves from more hurt,damage and disappointment due to being in this fallen world.But thank You God because of Jesus there is healing and freedom from this.

  10. Paul enjoy what you are posting and it makes difference to my entrenched self-righteous, religious legaistic life that has been destroying my life. I’m trying to get hold of the book ‘The blow on legalism’. I’ve been failing to get through patreon. Please help me. Is the any way the South African can buy your products.

    • Hi Viki, my ebooks and study notes are free for patrons and supporters, so the only way you can get it is by signing up on Patreon as a patron. If you click the link above, it will take you to a page with a red button that invites you to join Patreon.

    • Viki, I understand your pain and suffering and so does the Lord more so than I .It is awful to fall under “ the curse of the ministry of legalism,religion” and its heavy oppressive accusation of guilt and condemnation, it feels like a dementia from Harry Potter it sucks the life and joy of Salvation right out of you and it is easy to fall for and to fall for condemnation especially if you like me already have a very sensitive prone to guilty conscience.I come against and stand against this lying accusation with you in the mighty name of Jesus Christ. The Lord wants you free of this more than you do and He will do it. Nothing no one can stand or come against Jesus and the cross and His precious shed blood. Amen.

  11. Did you say that your patrons free because it looks like we still have to pay to view your stuff.

  12. The one part that I would take as unquestionably sound and on-target:
    “The defining ingredient of self-righteousness is that you are providing your own standard of righteousness.”
    Enuff said, I think.

  13. Dan G Mbugua // December 22, 2021 at 3:05 am // Reply

    Excellent article once again bro Ellis! It is now about 10 years since I got the revelation of justification by Faith and God’s àmazing GRACE, but still I sometimes find myself sinking into self righteousness: I need to do more for God, I must labor alot for my “star” to shine brighter in eternity,God must be angry with me after a particular failure etc. Some if these self righteous believes could have their rightful place if the primary focus is CHRIST not in themselves per-se. It’s a daily battle between Spirit and flesh.

  14. Hi, I don’t where I stand with God… I’ve been wanting to believe, yet I always get so fearfully and unsure… It‘s always been painful, I feel a lot of condemnation and I try to remind myself of God’s love… Then I also get worried if I ever received it…

    I’ve prayed a lot… But there’s always something new… Then Today I saw your test and well it kinda left me feeling uncomfortable and unsettled… I don’t (think I) go around being holier than thou but I do struggle trying to believe that God loves me…

    I find myself constantly worried about where I am…

  15. Thank you for the reminder it was very refreshing. I find myself often looking inward and the reminder to keep my eyes on my redeemer Jesus Christ is exactly what I needed. Thanks again Paul and God Bless.

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