Self-righteousness in light of transforming vision into reality.
For centuries, the Jews had faithfully worshipped in their synagogues each Sabbath, hoping and waiting for the Messiah to come (John 1:41; 4:25). Their prophets were silent because there had been no word from God for four hundred years. Into this silence, the Messiah was born in Bethlehem. He grew up in Nazareth, humbly dwelling among them. Though sinless, He joined sinners in baptism. Then He began publicly preaching, teaching, and performing numerous miracles.
Jesus’ lineage (Matthew 1:1; 2 Samuel 7:12-14), birthplace (Luke 2:4; Micah 5:2), hometown (Matthew 2:23; Isaiah 9:1), and ministry (Matthew 11:3-6; Isaiah 35:3-6) all fulfilled Messianic prophecies. However, each time Jesus told His own people that He was the promised Messiah, they tried to kill Him (John 8:53-59; 10:24-32; Luke 4:17-29). And eventually they did (22:66-71). Jesus had performed miraculous healings in front of them and even raised the dead, yet many of the Jews refused to believe Him. Unknowingly, they eagerly committed the most horrific act in all human history: They hated the promised Messiah without cause, and they crucified God’s Son. Why were they so blind?
Christ and self-righteousness
In Romans, Paul reveals the reason for the Jews’ blindness as he laments their loss:
Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes (Romans 10:1-4).
Our hope is in Christ; He is our Savior. This is where God’s transforming grace begins. We are rescued by His righteousness rather than by seeking to establish our own. We come to Him in faith because we realize we cannot save ourselves.
Self-righteousness is the most debilitating of all sins. It is self-sufficient and cuts off our path to rescue by causing us to deny our need for a Savior (Acts 4:12). The unrighteous are either blissfully ignorant or desperate enough to know their need for salvation and sinful state, but the self-righteous don’t easily see their need or that they are self-righteous. They’re dangerously confident. They consider themselves good and right and are unwilling to admit they’re wrong.
We’re all sinners in need of grace, but the self-righteous don’t see it that way. They believe the message of repentance applies only to the unrighteous. To suggest otherwise is to risk greatly offending them. In an effort to reach their hearts with a message their minds would reject, Jesus often spoke to the self-righteous in parables. Yet at times, Jesus was also direct, which is why the religious establishment wanted to kill Him. Here’s one of those direct moments:
“But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go, work today in my vineyard.’ He answered and said, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he regretted it and went. Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, ‘I go, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said to Him, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you (Matthew 21:28-31).
The moral of the story? Confronted by the power of His ministry, sinners knew they needed a Savior; but the self-righteous could not admit their guilt.
Law and unconditional love
With the “Thou shalt not” commands, it’s easy to think that not committing sin satisfies the law of love. Since, by definition, the unrighteous are those who sin, it’s natural to conclude that they’re the ones condemned by the law. It’s certainly true that the law of love includes abstinence from immorality, but the law of love is also an active command to love:
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4, 5).
You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:18).
Jesus taught that all the law is summed up in these two commandments (Matthew 22:40). Consequently, failing to love is also sin, but one that is harder to judge. The self-righteous fail to love. They’re like the second son in Jesus’ story. The Pharisees did not practice what they preached (23:1-3). For example, they had no compassion for the woman caught in adultery, a decidedly visible sin that is easy to judge. They were eager to condemn and stone her. In their eyes, she was clearly wrong and they were right. It never occurred to them that both they and the woman could be wrong, until Jesus showed them (John 8:1-11).
While we often talk in terms of the self-righteous and the unrighteous as if they were distinct categories of people, we’re all guilty of both sins. We all believe what we want to believe to justify ourselves (self-righteousness) into thinking that we’re OK to keep doing what we’re doing (unrighteousness). We’re all guilty of sins of commission (doing what we shouldn’t) and sins of omission (not doing what we should), thus violating the divine law of love (Psalm 19:12-14; James 2:8-13).
Jesus told us plainly that only God is good, yet we don’t believe Him. Instead, we want to believe that goodness comes from us. We feel His Spirit convicting us to do the right things, and we mistake it as our own good nature. We believe we are good because we love those who love us back. However, requiring others to love us back is a condition, making our love conditional. But the law of love requires us to love everyone unconditionally — even those who hate us. Read Jesus’ words:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Matthew 5:43-46).
We dismiss Jesus’ teaching as humanly impossible. Yet that’s exactly the point. In our human nature, we can’t love those who hate us. The law of love will condemn us because we don’t have what it takes to love others unconditionally. The law is the schoolmaster that brings us to Christ. His presence in us enables us to love others as He loved and commanded us (John 15:12) — even those who hate us. This is where His transforming grace is taking us!
Faith and transforming grace
Jesus wants the best for us, not because we’re good but because He’s good. Jesus gave His life for the ungodly, dying even for enemies who hated Him (Romans 5:6-10). That’s His good, divine nature. He wants to share that nature with us, but He waits for our permission to do so. To receive His nature, we must be willing to surrender our own independent human nature. That requires confessing our sins and admitting we need a Savior. We must come to trust in His righteousness instead of our own.
This has much to do with Transforming Vision into Reality (TVR). The first stage focuses on justification: We are set right by Christ’s righteousness through faith. His salvation is a gift, not a reward. Accepting this gift requires us to forsake our sin and self-righteousness. We acknowledge that goodness comes from God, not from us. Even though we have nothing to offer God, He accepts us as we are because He loves us unconditionally. When we submit ourselves and accept Jesus as Savior, we are not only forgiven by His grace but also transformed by His Spirit of grace, from being self-centered to being Christ centered. Our lives are flooded with gratitude. With our new nature in Christ, we no longer want to live for ourselves; now we want to live for Him and love like Him.
We love God because He first loved us. We love because He is love. And this love is His transforming grace in us.