On one occasion, Jesus told a parable to address “certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others” (Luke 18:9). Self-righteousness is clearly a sin. And just as self-righteousness was a problem in Jesus’ time, it remains a problem today. However, the term has acquired a much broader sense as people use it as a favorite pejorative to levy against any with whom they disagree religiously. Atheists use it to refer to all who believe the Bible is a Divine standard. “Progressives” (cf. 2 John 9) and other sinners use it to refer to those who try to call people out of sin.
In debate, it is necessary that the opponents define their terms. Otherwise, they will often end up in a “verbal dispute,” where the opponents are not actually debating the facts, but simply reflecting their different understandings of terms being used. This is why those who use the term “self-righteousness” should confine their usage of the term to a precise definition. Or, to put it another way, “If you’re going to insult me, please do it correctly.”
“Righteousness” simply means that one’s conduct is upright according to a standard. The righteousness God commends demands that one’s conduct is upright according to His standard, which from the day of Pentecost has been the Gospel, the New Testament of Jesus Christ (John 12:48; Romans 2:16). So what is self-righteousness? Let us consider whether various usages of the term use it correctly.
Is self-righteousness the belief that one way is better than another? In today’s politically correct climate, it is common to hear such sentiments as “We’ll just agree to disagree,” or, “What’s right for you may not be right for me.” Public schools indoctrinate children from a young age with the doctrines of pluralism and multiculturalism, which effectively say, “No one way is better than another.”
As such, it is not altogether surprising the tumult that arises when a dissenting voice speaks out, saying, “No this is wrong, and here is what’s right.” Instead of examining whether their beliefs and practices could be improved, they assault the dissenter as “self-righteous.” Because he believes he has a way better than the way they are currently following, they demonize him.
But one way is better than any other. The Lord has always made clear that He only provides one singular way (Genesis 18:19; Judges 2:22; 2 Kings 21:22). If the Lord provides a way, is it not better than any other way that man could fathom? “Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein” (Jeremiah 6:16; emphasis LM).
Contrary to the good way of the Lord are the varying ways of man: “The way of the LORD is strength to the upright: but destruction shall be to the workers of iniquity” (Proverbs 10:29; compare with 14:12). “O LORD, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps” (Jeremiah 10:23). There is only one narrow way to acceptability to God and eternal life in heaven (Matthew 7:13-14; John 14:6). Surely it is not self-righteousness to observe that God’s way is better than any man’s way.
Is self-righteousness the understanding that one must live a certain way to have the hope of heaven? Even many religious people claim that anyone who believes this is self-righteous—“What, do you think you are going to earn your way to heaven, you self-righteous works salvationist?!?” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE) defines self-righteousness as “A term that has come to designate moral living as a way of salvation; or as a ground for neglecting the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.” The two possible definitions in this sentence are very different from one another, and the second will be discussed later. As to the first, designating any way as “a way of salvation” is erroneously to deny that there is only one Divine way (see previous point). And it is certainly incorrect to affirm that moral living in and of itself can produce salvation. However, moral living is a necessary component of salvation.
This might be a good time further to emphasize that there is a distinct difference between righteousness and self-righteousness. The most basic definition of righteousness pertains to right-doing. The Greek word commonly translated righteousness, has as a definition “the quality or characteristic of upright behavior.” When Paul (and the psalmist) noted, “There is none righteous, no, not one,” it was because of the wickedness that people did (Romans 3:10ff; Psalm 14). Moses exhorted the Israelites to do what God instructed, that they might be righteous: “And it shall be our righteousness, if we observe to do all these commandments before the LORD our God, as he hath commanded us” (Deuteronomy 6:25; emphasis LM). That was not only true under the Old Testament; it remains true under the New: “Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous” (1 John 3:7; emph. LM). Friend, that is not self-righteousness, that is simply righteousness. And while self-righteousness may be condemned, God commands and commends righteousness in the strongest terms.
No, the understanding that one must live a certain way to have the hope of heaven is not self-righteousness.
Is self-righteousness a concern about the prominence of sin? Non-Christians are generally not all that opposed to Christianity when professed Christians remain in their church buildings, singing happy songs and praying happy prayers. However, when non-Christians perceive that Christians are speaking out against sin, they become hotly indignant (compare with 1 Kings 22:8; Amos 5:10). They may even misuse a verse or two of Scripture to scold the self-righteousness they perceive in Christians: “Let him that is without sin cast the first stone!” “Judge not, you self-righteous prude!” Of course, they ignore the reality of their own judging and stone-casting; but just the same, they assault those concerned with sin as self-righteous.
Our world is growing increasingly immoral (compare with 2 Timothy 3:13). Numerous television programs glorify sexual intercourse outside of marriage. Shows such as Cougar Town and Two and a Half Men take it to a whole new level of repulsiveness. Girls are being sexualized at a young age. A video has recently been widely circulated across the internet of seven-year-old girls performing a dance routine clad in very skimpy outfits, such as one might expect in the Victoria’s Secret fashion show, and simulating sex moves onstage in their routine. There is a “dating service” advertising on television whose sole function is to hook up married persons (from different marriages) for an adulterous affair. Should not Christians be deeply concerned about such immorality and tolerance for immorality in their midst? As the psalmist lamented,
Horror hath taken hold upon me because of the wicked that forsake thy law….Rivers of waters run down mine eyes, because they keep not thy law….I beheld the transgressors, and was grieved; because they kept not thy word (Psalm 119:53, 136, 158).
We likewise ought to be gripped with horror, having rivers of waters pouring from our eyes at the wickedness around us. Is that self-righteous, or righteous? The Holy Spirit inspired the following description of Lot in Sodom: “[God] delivered just Lot, vexed with the filthy conversation of the wicked: (For that righteous man dwelling among them, in seeing and hearing, vexed his righteous soul from day to day with their unlawful deeds;)” (2 Peter 2:7-8; emph. LM). God says it is righteous, not self-righteous, to be vexed with the filthy conduct of the wicked.
Christians are not only to be inwardly concerned with wickedness, they are to speak out against it. As Christians are commanded to “walk as children of light” (Ephesians 5:8), the Scripture expounds, “But all things that are reproved are made manifest by the light: for whatsoever doth make manifest is light” (verse 13). To be light, one must reprove sin, making it manifest. Christians are to “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them” (verse 11). Although one may have committed sins in the past, this does not preclude him from calling others to repentance once he has repented himself (Matthew 7:5; Acts 3:19). Others will not like it when Christians shine as lights, making manifest the wicked deeds of the wicked world (John 3:20; 7:7). However, the world’s contempt for Christian care and concern makes it neither unrighteous nor self-righteous.
Is self-righteousness a rejection of God’s provisions for righteousness? Scripture clearly defines self-righteousness when it speaks of Jesus rebuking those individuals who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous” (Luke 18:9). Paul would later say of his Israelite counterparts,
Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved. For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God (Romans 10:1-3).
God has provided the pattern of righteousness, the Gospel (1:16-17; 6:17). God has provided the propitiation of righteousness, the willing death of Jesus Christ His Son (3:25-26; 5:9; 1 John 2:2). God has provided the pronouncement of righteousness, His own Divine decree that a formerly sinful man or woman is “justified” (Rom. 8:33; 1 John 1:9).
Whenever one refuses to submit to God’s provisions for righteousness, he “trusts in himself that he is righteous.” Again revisiting the ISBE’s definition of self-righteousness: “A term that has come to designate moral living as a way of salvation; or as a ground for neglecting the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.” Anything which a person considers sufficient of himself, to the neglect of God’s pattern, propitiation, or pronouncement of righteousness, is self-righteousness. To delude oneself that he has no need of God is self-righteous. To ignore and refuse to address one’s sins is self-righteousness. To seek forgiveness by a pattern other than the Gospel (which demands hearing, faith, repentance, confession of Christ’s Deity, immersion in water, and subsequent holy living) is self-righteousness.
Sadly, this true self-righteousness abounds, yet those guilty of it persist in accusing others of it while refusing to see it in themselves. “There is a generation that are pure in their own eyes, and yet is not washed from their filthiness” (Proverbs 30:12). Such people who so readily hurl the wrongful accusation against others need not only to correct their inaccurate use of the word—they especially need to purge themselves of their self-righteousness by submitting themselves to the righteousness of God.
 William Owen Carver, “Self-Righteousness,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. James Orr, et al. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1956), 4:2715.
 dikaiosun, in in Bauer, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 248.
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