“For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:20

This statement must have been quite a shock to the ears of our Lord’s audience. The idea that anyone could hope to live with a righteousness that exceeds (shall abound still more than) that of the scribes and Pharisees must have been totally foreign to them. With all the codified rules, endless minutiae, hair-splitting and pomp, what average Joe could possibly outdo the religious elite? Our Lord was talking about the poverty of self-righteousness.

Self-righteousness is an ugly thing. It is ugly to God because it is a display of spiritual ignorance. Paul addresses the problem of religious self-righteousness in Romans 10:1ff, “They have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”

Self-righteousness is also ugly to men who highly value authenticity. Self-righteousness may be defined as righteous, moral, or proper in one’s own opinion, emphasizing the letter but not the spirit of religious law, sanctimonious; pretending to be highly moral without actually being so. Self-righteousness is bedfellow to self-justification. It is particularly dangerous when the self-righteous man is blinded to his own spiritual poverty and thinks that by being self-righteous he has earned approval of God (John 9:41, 2 Corinthians 10:12).

Self-righteousness is not the meaning of the biblical command that all men are called to live holy and godly lives. There is no doubt that God sets standards of behavior for men that are moral, just, and proper. It is the height of folly for Christians to stop behaving rightly for fear of being accused of self-righteousness. In fact, all who seek to live godly will run afoul of someone else’s derisive remarks because godly actions will be misunderstood as “holier than thou” or misinterpreted as a condemnation of the other guy’s own sense of license and entitlement. Job is a fine example of such false accusations.

It is healthy for every believer to regularly test his motives to see if there is latent self-righteousness hidden away in the heart. Solomon roundly denounces insensate self-righteousness in all its forms. Proverbs 12:15 states, “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but he who heeds counsel is wise.” Proverbs 16:2f reads, “All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the spirits. Commit your works to the LORD, and your thoughts will be established.” Proverbs 20:6ff declare, “Most men will proclaim each his own goodness, but who can find a faithful [trustworthy] man? The righteous man walks in his integrity; his children are blessed after him…Who can say, ‘I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin’?” Finally, in Proverbs 21:2 Solomon writes, “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the hearts.”

How can a believer guard himself from self-righteousness? First, practice daily self-emptying of all spiritual pride. Examine your heart and see if you have any dependence upon self-righteousness. Isaiah 64:6 reads, “But we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; we all fade as a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.” Psalm 130:3f says, “If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared.”

Second, own the fact that your righteousness is borrowed, not of your own making. This is key to defeating self-righteousness. It is also key to maintaining the right attitude when false accusations and misunderstanding are thrown your way. In Revelation 3:17f, our Lord challenged the lukewarm Christians of Laodicea with these words, “Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked—I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see.” In their poverty all they had to buy with was giving themselves fully to Him. May that be your daily commitment!

Finally, make certain every righteous act of obedience is motivated out of inward, vital, and spiritual life rather than merely external, lifeless, and fleshly form. Several verses propound this thought. Romans 2:28f says, “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God (Philippians 3:3).”

Righteousness that exceeds the pharisaical is what our God desires. Isaiah 57:15 declares, “For thus says the High and Lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, with him who has a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones (Luke 10:25ff, 16:15, 18:9 and Isaiah 66:2).” Clothe yourself in the righteousness of God and faithfully serve Him (Isaiah 61:10). Trust and obey.