The dictionary definition of self-righteousness is “confidence in one’s own righteousness, especially when smugly moralistic and intolerant of the opinions and behavior of others.” Biblically speaking, self-righteousness, which is related to legalism, is the idea that we can somehow generate within ourselves a righteousness that will be acceptable to God (Romans 3:10). Although any serious Christian would recognize the error of this thought, because of our sin nature, it is a constant temptation to all of us to believe we are, or can be, righteous in and of ourselves. In the New Testament, Jesus and the apostle Paul came down particularly hard on those who attempted to live in self-righteousness.
Jesus’ condemnation of self-righteousness was especially harsh in His treatment of the Jewish leadership of the time. Six times in Matthew 23, Jesus condemns the scribes and Pharisees for rigidly adhering to their legalistic traditions in order to make themselves look better to others. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector was specifically told by Jesus to “some who trusted in themselves, that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9–14). The Pharisee assumed his acceptance with God based on his own actions, whereas the tax collector recognized that there was nothing in himself that would cause God to approve of him. Over and over again in the Gospels, Jesus clashes with the Pharisees and scribes about true righteousness. At the same time, He spends a great deal of time and energy warning His disciples about the dangers of self-righteousness, making it clear that, without Him, they could do nothing (John 15:5).
Paul’s treatment of self-righteousness is no less scathing than Jesus’ was. He began his great argument in Romans for the grace of God by condemning the Jews’ self-righteous trust in circumcision (Romans 2:17–24). He follows that up in chapter 10, saying that the Jews tried to gain acceptance with God based on their own righteousness, demonstrating ignorance of the true righteousness of God (Romans 10:3). His conclusion is that Christ is the end of the law for righteousness, not man (verse 4).
Paul’s letter to the Galatian church also addressed this issue. These believers were being told that they had to do certain things to be acceptable to God, specifically, to be circumcised. Paul goes so far as to say that this is another gospel and calls those who advocate it “accursed” (Galatians 1:8–9). More tellingly, he tells his readers that, if righteousness could come from their own actions, then Jesus died “for no purpose” (Galatians 2:21), and that righteousness could come “by the law” (Galatians 3:21). Paul’s conclusion about the Galatian believers was that they had been foolish in their attempt to be perfected by the flesh (Galatians 3:1–3).
It would be an understatement to say that every believer is plagued by this attitude. It is in our sin nature to try to do something to merit our salvation. The costly freedom of grace, bought for us by the blood of Jesus with no contribution from us, is difficult for our prideful hearts to understand or appreciate. It is far easier to compare ourselves with one another than it is to recognize that we cannot measure up to the standards of a holy God. However, in Christ we can know true righteousness. In Christ, we can know the forgiveness of sin that comes to us through grace. Because He stood in our place, we benefit from both His sinless life and His sin-bearing death (2 Corinthians 5:21). Because of His sacrifice, we can face our sin and bring it to the cross, rather than try somehow to be good enough for God. Only in the cross can we see the grace that covers all our sin and defeat the constant tendency toward self-righteousness in our hearts.