Holiness: The Problem with Thinking You Are So Good

I went through most of the New Testament compiling a list of positive character traits taught and enjoined upon us by Jesus and the apostles, either by direct teaching or by example. I found twenty-seven such traits. I was not surprised by the frequent references to love and the conclusion that love is undoubtedly the primary Christian character trait. After all, Jesus did say that love to God and to our neighbor are the first and second commandments (Matthew 22:37–39).

It is easy to consent to the primacy of love and yet so difficult to practice it. Some years ago, in an effort to help me put “shoe leather” to the concept of love, I stated a couple of verses from the great love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, as action statements. As you read over these action statements from verses 4 and 5, ask yourself how you are doing in your day-to-day practice of love. Is there any room for self-righteousness in the light of this practical standard of love?

  • I am patient with you because I love you and want to forgive you.
  • I am kind to you because I love you and want to help you.
  • I do not envy your possessions or your gifts because I love you and want you to have the best.
  • I do not boast about my attainments because I love you and want to hear about yours.
  • I am not proud because I love you and want to esteem you before myself.
  • I am not rude because I love you and care about your feelings.
  • I am not self-seeking because I love you and want to meet your needs.
  • I am not easily angered by you because I love you and want to overlook your offenses.
  • I do not keep a record of your wrongs because I love you, and “love covers a multitude of sins.”

While not surprised by the primacy of love in New Testament teaching, I was surprised by the almost forty references to humility, either in the use of the word itself or in concept, and the obvious importance both Jesus and the apostles put on that virtue. Yet how little attention do most of us give to growing in humility. The opposite trait of humility, of course, is pride, and there is no pride like that of self-righteousness, feeling good about our own religious performance and looking down on others’.

Jesus not only gave us the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, but also the story of the prodigal son (see Luke 15:11–32). The emphasis of that story is, of course, on the love, compassion, and grace of the son’s father. Jesus could have stopped, however, at the point in the story of the father’s forgiveness and glad celebration over the return of his son. As far as the father’s compassion was concerned, Jesus’ point would have been made. But He didn’t stop there. He proceeded to tell us about the jealousy and resentment of the self-righteous older brother.

Jesus’ criticism of the older brother is implied rather than stated. But it is obvious that He puts the older brother in the same category as the self-righteous Pharisee. Yet the older brother would have qualified as an elder or deacon in any of our churches today and would have been highly regarded. We need to learn the lesson Jesus was teaching and to see the hideousness of the sin of self-righteousness.

The problem with self-righteousness is that it seems almost impossible to recognize in ourselves. We will own up to almost any other sin, but not the sin of self-righteousness. When we have this attitude, though, we deprive ourselves of the joy of living in the grace of God. Because, you see, grace is only for sinners.

After love and humility, there are at least twenty-five more Christian virtues to put on, among which there is surely a lot of room for all of us to grow. Yet to the extent that we miss the mark in those positive Christian character traits, we are sinners in need of God’s grace.

written by Jerry Bridges

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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