Of all the strong holds of sin, the most difficult, by far, to be pulled down, is that of self-righteousness. It is the most subtle and the proudest. It is common to all. There are many sins into which, as individuals, we may not have fallen; many proclivities to which we may not lean. But in all of us, by nature, is hidden the principle of self-righteousness, as the terrible heirloom of our fallen parents.
In the garden of Eden Adam was innocent, but when he fell the first thing he did was to establish his own righteousness, he “made himself an apron.” That is, he felt that he could not bear exposure—could not tolerate the eye of God; but, instead of crying for mercy, he endeavoured to conceal his fall by an apron of fig leaves. This is the first instance of self-righteousness—I do not follow out the history of Adam.
Shortly afterwards we find Cain and Abel engaged in their various offerings. That of Cain lacked the token of self-condemnation death—and God therefore had no respect either to Cain or to his offering. But if it lacked the token of self-judgment it abounded in the spirit of self-righteousness. Costly, luxuriant and beautiful it may have been—but it indicated rather Cain’s good estimation of himself, than what was due to God. The character of the offering expresses the state of the offerer—and just as the “fruits of the ground,” offered in life and beauty, denied the principle of sin, and consequently, death, so the offering of Cain was the expression of his own merit. It was the positive denial of his fallen state before God—and his offering, spite of its costliness, was therefore hateful to Him. In Cain, as in his father, we see the workings of self-righteousness, although, doubtless, more fully developed. Hence the pride of his heart displayed itself in the murder of his brother, and “wherefore slew he him? because his own works (that costly offering) were evil and his brother’s righteous.” Here then, in these earliest days, we find two notable instances of that sin which has only developed as years and dispensations have rolled round.
Now let us pass on to Job. Granted that there was “none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feared God and eschewed evil” still, from the sequel of his history, it is plain that he had much to learn, both his own natural badness, and also of the patience of God. No doubt he had life before he is introduced to our notice, yet between life and peace there exists a vast difference. Life—that is the first work of the Spirit of God in the soul, instead of carrying peace, may and generally does, bring the very opposite. And Job had life—was a quickened soul, but was at the same time, sadly ignorant of himself. The crucible of trial into which he was put brought out the real state of his soul—He said “I am clean without transgression, innocent; neither is there iniquity in me” (Job 33:9). Self-righteousness of a truth! Could a man go further in denying his state before God? Impossible; and yet presently we bear him any “Mine eye sees THEE wherefore I abhor MYSELF” (Job 42:5-6).
The lesson was now learned. Job had looked into the mirror and had seen himself as he had never done; not only so, but he had also seen the Lord. This was enough. It produced repentance. But there is an immense difference between saying “I abhor myself” and “I am clean without transgression.” This is full-blown self-righteousness, that the very essence of true and divinely-wrought repentance.
Let us now turn to the pages of the New Testament for further illustration of our theme.
Many pictures of this principle are drawn by the hand of the Master—drawn with faithful accuracy. There stands the proud Pharisee in the temple—disdaining his brother Publican—and saying—“God, I thank thee that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican; I fast twice in the week; I give tithes of all that I possess.”
Quite so! Your opinion of “other men” is as low as your opinion of yourself is high! Most eloquent in your description of the sins you have avoided—silent, at the same time, as to those of which you are guilty; loud in the declaration of your good works, but not a word as to deeds of omission; once you mention God, five times you speak of yourself. O proud Pharisee! you are only one of a class, a sample of an immense community.
And then there is the “elder brother”—let us listen to his language—“Lo these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment, and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with may friends.” Enough, enough, Job over again—“neither transgressed I at any time.” Could a man with a grain of conscience speak thus? Elder son, loveless brother, stranger to the joys of the Father’s house, detestable impersonation of pride and self-righteousness, your merriment is not that of the Father, your friends are not those of the Father, your place is outside the house of the Father, and your end, it may be, is seen in that of the rich man whose care for his brethren was only awakened when he sought that they should not go to his place of torment.
And then there are the “five foolish virgins,” as like the wise as they could possibly be outwardly—on the same road, about the same business, clad in the same kind of dress, cherishing the same hopes—but, and this made all the difference, they lacked the oil. This was the one distinguishing mark. And what availed the lamp, or the snowy garments when the oil was wanting? “And the door was shut”—shut upon them; and the Bridegroom said, “I know you not.” Their profession was unmistakeable, but it was one of self-righteousness.
These instances are presented by the Lord in the way of parables—His favourite way of illustrating truth—yet there are cases of actual occurrence disclosed to us.
Let us look at one where self-righteousness seems to reach its very climax. The scene is intensely solemn. The Son of Man comes and all His angels with Him. Before Him are gathered all nations. He passes sentence upon them according to their treatment of His “brethren.” To those who have befriended such in their time of distress He awards eternal life—to those who, on the other hand, have failed so to act He passes the sentence of everlasting punishment. But notice, unabashed by the display of glory around them, and stout in self-vindication, the wicked make answer “When saw we thee an hungered, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?” Oh! daring spirit of self-righteousness—does not even the solemnity of this awful tribunal strike thee with terror and break thee down? No! Then, what will? The terrors of Hell? Nay, no power in Heaven, on earth, or in Hell but one can make thee yield, and that is the power of love. There is such a power as “the omnipotence of loving-kindness,” at least, so said one of earth’s great ones. True even that power may be resisted. “Ye do always resist the Holy Ghost,” said Stephen to those who had been exhorted to “save themselves.” The ear and heart may be closed—for man is responsible, and is dealt with by God as such—yet “love” is the only all-subduing power, and he who resists the wooings of love wilfully closes the door of mercy against himself.
Let this be remembered that in God’s sight “there is none righteous, no not one.”
And any claim to righteousness must, therefore, be groundless, just as all human ideas of righteousness must necessarily be wrong. The first step on the right road is the discovery of my own unrighteousness; and the confession of this leads to blessing. The endeavour to established my own righteousness is insubjection to God—it is rebellion of the worst kind, as we have seen in Cain. The acknowledgment of guilt is, on the other hand, the first act of faith, as in Abel, and the means of justification. This exalts God and really honours man—that denies God, therefore dishonours man.
My reader, the Cross speaks of two things—the love of God and the absolute unrighteousness of man. Had man been righteous, or could he by any means of his own obtain righteousness, there would have been no need of the death of Christ. But “without shedding of blood is no remission;” again “the Son of Man must be lifted up.” Hence there is no blessing but through the cross, and, hence too, human righteousness does not exist. Yet notice, at the cross God displays His righteousness (Rom. 3), and, with adoring gratitude be it said, thereby justifies him that believes in Jesus. Think of this mighty truth—that God is just and a justifier! Oh! What issues meet at the Cross! What a point of contact for God and man. There God is glorified and the sinner who believes is saved!—Yes indeed, but to refuse the Cross is to offer terrible affront to God—it is to despise all that love could do.
Reader can you do this?