Confessions of a Self-Righteous Soul

Carissa Forest

Self-righteousness (n):

1. the art of seething at someone else’s sin while remaining passively tolerant of Your own inward corruptions.

2. the delight in subtle self-exaltation over Christ-exaltation in doing good deeds.

The Respectable Sin I Tolerate

Self-righteousness is an insidious, “respectable” sin that often masquerades as holiness.

I know, because it’s always been a lurking temptation for me, my own master deceiver.

All-too-aware of how others violate God’s law, I allow a free pass for my flesh to slip past His commands––magnifying the sin of others while minimizing my own “shortcomings.”

My eye-roll, scoffing laugh, pious head-shaking at the sins of the culture, the church, my family, all betray the fact that I implicitly believe I am better than all of them.

Unlike Christ, who looked on the masses with compassion, “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36), I choose to focus entirely on others’ sinful inclinations as an ego-booster—a way to elevate my spiritual status.

“At least I’m not like them, right?”

Self-righteousness masks deep insecurity—the fear that I am actually not as great as I think I am, hiding the truth that I am rotten to my core. Vanity and self-loathing are two sides of the same coin, feeding and driving each other.

Self-righteousness corrupts even outward service. Patting myself on the back for serving my family is not the humility-driven cry of the servants, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty” (Luke 17:10).

I often breathe a sigh of relief, thinking I need less of Christ’s shed blood than that person over there.

I forget a crucial truth––we are all equal at the foot of the cross.

Redemption loses its luster when I am able to identify more sin around me than in my own heart of hearts.

Christ came not to call those who think they’re righteous to repentance, but sinners.

He came to seek and save the lost—those lost in a labyrinth of sin and those lost in the lie of self-atonement.

I stiff-arm the love of God when I say I am no longer in need of daily, continual grace.

The result? The gospel is flattened, Scripture becomes one-dimensional, and grace is cheapened and cheated of its full splendor.

“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.’” Luke 18:11

Praise God, His mercy is strong enough to break the stubbornness of sin and the stubbornness of self-righteousness.

“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!’” Luke 18:13

It is that kind of humility that breaks a cycle of self-righteousness.

A Church-Wide Epidemic

An anti-gospel view can all-too-easily seep into the church––that grace should be extended to others with sparing stinginess and countless strings attached.

Incurvatus in se (curved in on oneself), the self-righteous are doomed to the twisted perspective that grace is received through entitlement.

The gospel does not free us to look with condescension on those who are trapped in sin. It does free us to come alongside a struggling brother or sister and exhort with a blend of grace and truth.

“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.

Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.

For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” Gal. 6:1-3

“Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” 1 Cor. 10:12

It’s often easy to look down on those who don’t listen to a particular Bible teacher, don’t subscribe to a particular strain of theology, or wrestle with a sin-struggle foreign to our own experiences.

It’s easier to apply God’s truth to that person or that church than to turn the lens inward.

The gospel frees us from a theological superiority complex. It gives us the honor of proclaiming Christ crucified––foolishness to the world, and a mere arguing point for those trapped in self-righteousness.

The only way to fight self-righteousness is for the abundant grace of God to break us.

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved…” Eph 2:4-5

“Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” Rom. 2:4

Beholding the riches of God’s kindness and grace––bridging the chasm between His holiness and our utter unworthiness––is true freedom.

The only difference between us and unbelievers, quite simply, is Christ. Not intrinsic worthiness, not the weight of our offering to God of our “goodness,” not anything but the free and undeserved measure of God’s grace in Christ.

That grace, as it has been lavished, is a stewardship.

We have received grace upon grace (John 1:16), and we must display that––not only in a passion for the truth to be upheld and submitted to, but in the care and building up of the sinners around us.

God didn’t save us because of something in us, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).

Now after salvation, God does not show favor on us as mechanical do-gooders, but because we are His children, justified by Christ’s redemptive work.

We are seen as righteous because of His imputation, not our inward righteousness. The point of Christ’s active obedience is that He lived the perfect life we never could.

Not only must we repent of blatant sin, but repent of the gospel-scorning poison of our own self-righteousness.

“We have all become like one who is unclean,

and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” (Is. 64:6a)

Piosity—that vapid attitude filled with empty platitudes—is no substitute for robust piety.

The word “piety” often conjures up a caricature of tight-lipped, lemon-sucking, severe Puritans.

But true piety emanates the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—like rays radiating from the sun.

Our actions should be motivated by deep love and devotion to the One who enables us to display His glory through gospel activity in the world. No other motivation will suffice.

Compassion for the lost. A desire to see God’s Word honored and obeyed. A deep hatred of the sin that plagues our fallen consciousness. These are the motivators that will fuel humility, as we keep a gospel-saturated perspective with profound thankfulness for His divine grace.

“But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…” Gal 6:14

See Christ as lovely, and the ability to do any good a reason to praise Him––as a gift of His sealing Spirit, continually refining the rough edges of our fallen hearts.

When we see Christ face-to-face in eternity, all our mixed motives, contempt for others, and disregard for God’s grace will be swept away in the staggering reality of His radiance.

Until then, be diligent to fight “respectable” sins like self-righteousness––to the praise of His glorious grace.

“For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever and ever.” Rom 11:36

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