Self-Righteousness

During Jesus’s journey to Jerusalem, He taught His disciples, but He also often addressed the hypocritical Jewish leaders.  In Luke 18:9-14, we read,

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’  But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.  For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The message to these people who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” was, “If you think yourself to be righteous, you are in for a rude awakening.”  Their mindset was completely off.  They may have followed some of the law externally, but they were, in fact, hypocrites.  They were self-righteous, not righteous by God’s perfect standard.

Several verses later, we meet such a person.  Beginning in verse 18, we read,

And a ruler asked Him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good?  No one is good except God alone.  You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.'”  And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.”  

At this point, Jesus could have easily torn down this statement.  This was a man who had committed adultery, at least in his heart.  He had committed murder at least in his heart.  He had surely stolen at some point in his life, starting with stealing from God.  Surely he had lied at least once.  And surely he didn’t perfectly obey his parents.  But instead, we read,

When Jesus heard this, He said to him, “One thing you still lack.  Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

God demands of this man full devotion and total obedience.  He commands that we lay down our idols, and in this man’s case, his idol was his riches.

We then see, in verse 23 that “when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich.”  We don’t know for sure what happened to this man, but sadly we have no record of him becoming a follower of Christ.  Then, we read,

Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!  For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

This makes Jesus’s audience uncomfortable.  They said, “Then who can be saved?”  A good question.  If a man like that couldn’t be saved, then who could?  Here was Jesus’s answer: “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”  In other words, ultimately no one on their own can be saved.  Everyone has idols.  Everyone has sinned.  It is impossible for them to be saved.  But with God, it is possible.  He changes the heart of man.  He opens the eyes of the blind.  He removes hearts of stone and replaces them with hearts of flesh.

If you are reading this and you think that you are righteous enough to enter heaven on your own merit, you’re kidding yourself, like I used to kid myself.  You are like the Pharisee in the parable, and you’re like the rich ruler.  But God is not impressed by your outward obedience, because outward obedience is useless without internal worship.  Romans 14:23 says, “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”  God calls us to humility.  He calls us to total devotion.

Now, again, this should make us uncomfortable.  We should, like those listening to Jesus, ask, “Then who can be saved?”  And the answer is still the same: “What is impossible with man is possible with God.

There’s a song that proclaims, “Who, O Lord, could save themselves, their own soul could heal?  Our shame was deeper than the sea, Your grace is deeper still.  You alone can rescue.  You alone can save.  You alone can lift us from the grave.  You came down to find us, led us out of death, to You alone belongs the highest praise.”

John 3:16 says, “whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life.”  And if that were the end of the story, then we would be in big trouble, because left to our own devices, the total number of those who would believe in Him and not perish would be zero.  But, as Ephesians 2:5 says, “even when we were dead in our trespasses, [He] made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved“.

Today’s readings:
Psalm 26
Genesis 25:1-18
1 Chronicles 29:22b-30
Luke 18:1-30

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