“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. Otherwise, you have no reward with your Father in heaven.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
For the last several weeks, I have been working through the Gospel of Matthew with our Wednesday night Bible study group. It has been an absolute delight taking our time examining the story of Jesus as told by the converted tax collector. In particular, for the last few weeks we have been wading through the Sermon on the Mount. In the second part of Jesus’ most famous sermon, He talks about giving, praying, and fasting. And if you’re not paying close attention, it seems like those three things are really the focus of His comments. But they aren’t. Instead, Jesus is using those three things to talk about something that afflicts all of us. As we wrapped up our look at this section this past Wednesday night, I spent some time unpacking His larger (and more significant) point here. This morning, I’d like to share with you some thoughts on what Jesus had to say about self-righteousness.
Self-righteousness is sneaky stuff. On the one hand, we hate it when we see it in other people. Obvious, glaring self-righteousness is ugly and we know it. On the other hand, it is a much more common affliction than we would like to believe. It worms its way into all of our hearts and minds, and works itself out through our behavior a great deal more often than we’d like to believe. And when you survey the Scriptures on the matter, there are warnings against it sprinkled literally all over them from start to finish. They come in all different forms, but they’re everywhere. It’s almost like of all the things God wants to help steer us away from, self-righteousness sits right near or even at the top of the list. Why is this?
I think the biggest reason for this is that self-righteousness is fundamentally a delusion. Yet as far as delusions go, it is an incredibly powerful one. A truth about how the world works is that we cannot make ourselves righteous. We cannot achieve being right with people and right with God on our own. If you want proof of this, just take a minute and think over your relationships. Are every single one of them right? Is there any sin coloring any of them? There probably is. What’s more, you can’t fix all of that on your own. Some of it is completely outside of your control. Then, when it comes to our relationship with God, even a single sin separates us permanently from Him (without the intercession of Christ, of course).
If you have something going on in your life that is sinful, that thing is keeping you from God. Yes, you can go to Jesus and be made right with Him, but only if you come in a spirit of genuine repentance. And how do you know you are coming in a spirit of genuine repentance? Because your intent in that moment is to turn away from whatever it is and not go back to it again. That is, if you don’t agree with God about your sin, asking for forgiveness for it is meaningless and you will remain separated from Him. What you are doing instead in that moment (if indeed you are interested in being right with God) is trying to make yourself right with Him by your own power. But you can’t do it. You never will be able to either.
But in our pride, we want to be able to do it. We want to be able to do it because we want to be the gods of our own universes. But even if we are aiming somewhat lower than that, we want to be able to look in the mirror and know we did it. We want for other people to look at us and marvel at how awesome we are. Even when we have given mental assent to the notion of God’s sovereignty and authority, we still try to make ourselves right with Him on our own rather than going through Jesus. We talk about trying to do better or trying to be good. We aren’t ever going to be good enough for God, and as long as we keep trying in that direction, we are only revealing the fact that we haven’t yet really understood or embraced the Gospel. And if we haven’t yet really understood or embraced the Gospel, then we are separated from eternal life in God’s kingdom which is something He takes rather seriously. So, He cautions us against self-righteousness every chance He gets.
The reason Jesus hits on it so directly here in a passage where He does so through the vehicle of a variety of common religious pursuits, is because nowhere is self-righteousness a more insidious temptation than among followers of God. In a sense, it is an incredibly clever satanic ruse. If Satan can’t keep us out of the church, then he’ll do what he can to keep us from becoming a thriving member of the church. He does this by convincing us our position and standing in the church depend on our own efforts toward godliness.
Folks who buy into this deception look from the outside like they are the ultimate church members. They are eagerly involved in everything. They are there nearly every time the doors are opened. They serve on various ministry teams. They speak the language of faith fluently. And they even have a generally good attitude to match all of this. Everything about them says they are getting it right. But on the inside, things aren’t quite what they appear to everyone else.
On the inside, they operate from one of a couple of different positions. The first is that they walk around carrying a constant load of guilt and shame that they aren’t doing enough to be a “good Christian,” however they happen to define the concept. They are regularly worried that if they don’t keep up appearances, someone will notice the fraud they feel like they are perpetrating on everyone around them, and then they’ll lose everything they’ve work so hard to gain. These folks heard enough of the Gospel to be drawn to it, fell in love with the community who first introduced them to it, but never really got their heads and hearts all the way around it. The result is that they are perpetually living just short of it, working themselves to the bone to be good enough for God, all the while failing to understand their efforts are doomed to failure.
The other folks are the ones who genuinely don’t understand the Gospel, and who don’t really understand that they don’t understand it. They’ve never really gotten past a very rudimentary grasp that mostly translates to “be good and do good.” Folks in this second camp will often be the more teachable of the two groups, but they will have the hardest time embracing the teaching they receive. They haven’t really gotten to where they are on the same page with guys like Paul and Peter (not to mention Jesus) about the real seriousness of sin, and figure that as long as they are trying hard, God will overlook a few things. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth, but it is an easy lie to buy.
Whichever of these two camps we tend toward, they both result in a play at self-righteousness rather than a genuine embrace of the Gospel. Instead, if our salvation depends on God through faith in Christ, then a couple of things are true that are difficult to swallow. The first is that our sin is a whole lot worse of a problem than we often imagine it to be. We imagine sin to be bad, of course, but unless we fall to one of the “big” sins, it’s only kind of a middling bad. It’s more of an irritation on the road to righteousness than anything more debilitating than that. The truth, however, is that sin leads to death and eternal separation from God. We are completely broken by sin (a doctrine theologians call “total depravity”), and we cannot escape sin’s grasp on our own. In other words, it’s a whole lot bigger of a problem than we might imagine.
The second truth is that all of our efforts toward righteousness are worthless and wasted. Let that statement sit on you for just a second because it’s big and heavy. All of our efforts toward righteousness are worthless and wasted. They are so, that is, as long as we believe them to be in any way efficacious in making us right with God. The difficult truth here is that they aren’t and they won’t. There is nothing you will ever do that will improve your standing before God or somehow make Him happier with you than He already is. Nothing. As Jesus tries to make clear throughout the first half of chapter 6, that includes religious deeds as well. Neither giving nor praying nor fasting nor anything else we might throw into that category will ever make you any more right with God than you are right now.
It may be helpful to think about all of this in these terms: There are not degrees of righteousness. We often imagine that very thing to be the case. We imagine someone who does certain things in certain ways to be more righteous than someone who doesn’t do those same things in those same ways. That whole line of thinking, though, is a lie. The truth about righteousness is that it is an either-or proposition. Either we are righteous (that is, right with God and people), or we aren’t. The whole notion of self-righteousness completely fails to understand this basic reality about it. Righteousness is not some kind of a scale in which we gradually progress upward, growing ever closer to God as we do, until we finally hit the acme and achieve the title. In other words, righteousness doesn’t work like progressing a character in a video game.
And before I tell you how it does work, let me note how good a thing this actually is. If righteousness depends at all on our efforts, then all of the religious caste systems where the haves gain better access to the gods than the have-nots were right. People with the most resources at their disposal can climb that ladder faster and higher than those who have to give most of their attention to simply getting through the day. It means God is obligated to show more attention and favor on those who have managed to climb closer to His kingdom than those who haven’t. It means the uber-righteous can rightly look down on those who haven’t achieved such status as insufficiently devoted to the cause. Basically, every caricatured depiction of the Church in the Middle Ages would be exactly how things work. And all of the folks who lambaste such an unjust system and reject is accordingly would be right. If God’s character was something other than it is revealed to be across the pages of the Scriptures, we’d be dealing with such nonsense as that. Fortunately, it isn’t and we aren’t.
Righteousness is not a title earned by effort. It is an imputed status. That means the distinction of righteousness is something given to us. We don’t have it and then we do. And the difference between the former and the latter is a gift. Okay then, by whom is this righteousness given? By Christ. When we place our faith in Christ, He imputes to us His right standing before God. We go to Him, acknowledging He is Lord, believing He rose from the dead, and committing our lives to Him, and He in return extends the blanket of His right standing before God to us. With this given status now ours, when God looks at us, even where we were previously covered in sin and hopelessly separated from Him by it in spite of our best efforts to alter that sad reality, He now sees nothing but the righteousness of His Son, and bids us to enter into His presence to enjoy the relationship we were created for in the beginning. And again, nothing we do has any impact on this glorious outcome save one thing: putting our faith in Christ.
Maybe this is all new to you; maybe it’s not. My hope and prayer is that this very morning you will quit trying to make yourself good enough for God, and let the righteousness of Christ gained by your faith in Him become the gift that gets you there. Your righteousness isn’t enough and won’t ever be. But His is. Trust in Him and enjoy being right with God.