What does the Bible say about self-righteousness?

Self-righteousness can mean two things that often go hand in hand: self-righteousness can mean seeking to save yourself through works, and self-righteousness can be a certainty that you are morally superior to others.

People often think that righteousness is measured by what we do or what values we hold. For example, if someone obeys the law and lives a morally pure life, he is considered righteous. The Bible, however, tells us that since people are sinful by nature, we cannot earn our own righteousness (Romans 3:10, 20, 23). The Bible teaches the concept of original sin: because Adam and Eve sinned, all of their descendants are corrupted by sin: "just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned" (Romans 5:12). Every human has a sinful nature (Psalm 51:5; 1 John 1:8), and therefore any good a person does cannot save him or make him better than anyone else. There is no true righteousness to be earned by self effort. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23); therefore, apart from Jesus Christ, all are in the same position before God—separated from him and deserving of death (Romans 6:23; John 3:16–18).

Clearly, we cannot save ourselves from our corrupted state, so God sent His Son, Jesus, to die for us, that He might impute upon us His own righteousness: "he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21). We do not have to work for our righteousness. Rather, we simply need to put our faith in Jesus, and God sees Christ's righteousness when He looks at us: "Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness" (Romans 4:4–5). Christ's death made atonement for our sins. Our salvation is not based on our works; it is based on God's grace received through faith (Ephesians 2:8–10), "for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose" (Galatians 2:21). Once we understand that we are sinful by nature and cannot earn righteousness by works, we can rest in God's grace towards us. This is the cure for self-righteousness.

This brings us to another problem of self-righteousness. Even people who have been saved by grace, and sometimes especially those people, feel morally superior because of the ways Christ has changed them, or the things they stopped doing because of Christ's work in their heart. Jesus tells a parable about a religious leader and a sinner that perfectly demonstrates what this self-righteousness looks like: "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 this: "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'" (Luke 18:9–14). This attitude of self-righteousness is a constant danger for those who are in Christ. Therefore we must always humble ourselves before God, realizing that it was only by His grace that we are saved, and not by our own works, and that it is ultimately God who transforms our hearts and lives (Philippians 2:12–13).

God hates self-righteousness because it is a lie. Self-righteousness drives people to pride rather than to love, and ultimately, self-righteousness separates us from God. For this reason we must continually humble ourselves before God, and rest in the assurance of His grace.

Related Truth:

What does it mean to pursue righteousness?

What is imputed righteousness? Why does Christ's righteousness need to be imputed to us?

Pride—What does the Bible say?

Does the Bible say anything about perfectionism?

What does the Bible teach about confidence?

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