Fear as a Potential Root of Self-Righteousness

fear2Self-righteousness sends people to hell. Any attempt to stand before God convinced that we are somehow “good enough” in our own selves reveals a level of arrogance and pride that is rivaled only by Satan’s. Yet, not all self-righteousness can be boiled down to hubris. Fear might also be a possible root of this sin. Where fear is at the root of self-righteousness different counsel will be needed.

Fear knows more honestly about one’s weaknesses and failures. The person who is genuinely afraid can assess their own life and righteousness and give an honest evaluation of “sinner.” But this same fear can also keep them from turning to God to have it addressed. A person who misunderstands salvation, or misunderstands the character of God can turn to good works in an effort to better themselves before coming to God. They fear being exposed before Him, and as such desperately want to experience change. They are still seeking self-righteousness, but notice that the root is utterly different.

Not all legalists are mean and spiteful, full of themselves and seeking to judge others. Many are broken, terrified, and overwhelmed with their own sin. They fear hell. They fear the judgment of God. They’ve heard the gospel and they want to believe it, but they fear that their own sins have made it just beyond their reach. Their efforts at good deeds, at “keeping the law,” at being righteous are not driven by the belief that they are good enough, better than others, but rather they are driven by the knowledge that they are not. They know they are not good enough and it scares them, so they turn to legalism to secure their conscience.

Of course the different root doesn’t change the outcome. There is no confidence in works of the flesh, for no one will be saved by keeping the rules (Rom. 3:20, 28). The only security for the fearful person is the finished work of Christ. You can never satisfy God on your own, apart from Jesus (Rom. 8:8). The more you try the more insecure you will feel. But notice that this alternate root changes the way we counsel those who struggle with self-righteousness.

The proud and arrogant person needs to be confronted with their sin. They need to see they are far more sinful than they realize. They need to read through Romans 1-3 and see how no one escapes God’s judgment, and they are like all mankind. They need to read Ephesians 2 and see that they were born an enemy of God and only Christ can change that state. They need to believe that they are “dead in the trespasses and sins” and that only Christ can make them spiritually alive. They need to see that their good deeds are as filthy rags to God, when done apart from Christ (Isa. 64:6). Lots of self-evaluation, inventories, and specific confessions will turn this person closer to the truth. They need hard repentance.

But the fearful person does not need this same counsel. They know of their sinfulness and it terrifies them. They need to be turned ever more to the truth of God’s mercy and compassion. They need to believe that even as sinners they can come to God because of Christ. They can enter his presence without fear because of Jesus (Eph. 3:12; Heb. 4:16). They need to be thrust upon the mercy of God, encouraged to see God’s great grace and deep affection. They need to believe John 3:16 with freshness, and Romans 5:8. They need to know that God can forgive their sin, transform them, and welcome all broken-hearted sinners into his presence. They need to see that their efforts at self-justification are futile, yes, but more than that they need to see that they are unnecessary. It is God who justifies, no one can condemn (Rom. 8:33-34). Not even their own heart can withstand God’s justification (1 John 3:20).

It’s important that we not treat all self-righteousness the same. Legalism is sin. It rots out true religion and distorts the very gospel that is the foundation of all hope. Yet, not everyone turns to legalism for the same reasons. Sensitive and wise counsel seeks to get to the root. Different roots require different counsel.

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