A few weeks ago we began a new series of sermons from the book of Romans called “The Study of Salvation”. In his letter to the Christians at Rome, Paul provides a comprehensive explanation of the doctrine of salvation. The essential truths taught in these chapters help us to better understand and grasp what it really means to be “saved”.
Today’s message is the third in this series. Romans began by identifying the gospel of God as “The Message of Salvation”. From there, it moved into a lengthy discussion of “The Necessity of Salvation”. We will continue with this topic this morning. Whereas last week we talked about the condition of the unrighteous, today we will highlight the condition of the self-righteous and discover that they too are in desperate need of salvation.
The unrighteous were described as those who “suppressed the truth” of God which was “evident within them”. They are the those who completely reject God or worship some other alternative to Him. The Bible use names such as pagans or heathens to identify these people. Today we might call them atheists or agnostics. We learned last week that these unrighteous individuals are “worthy of death”.
But what about the self-righteous? These are people do who acknowledge the existence of God, and seek to earn His favor. The term refers to those who believe that moral living is a means unto salvation. This viewpoint neglects the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, and replaces it with a self-attained redemption.
Because the concept of self-righteousness is based upon doing good works, it requires some standard of measurement. There are several different ways that people measure their own perceived righteousness. We will examine three of them today - comparing your works with others, comparing your works against each other, and comparing your works against the Law.
I. THE SELF-RIGHTEOUS COMPARE THEIR WORKS WITH THOSE OF OTHERS (Romans 2:1-3)
One of the most common tactics of the self-righteous is to compare themselves with others. In so doing, they often judge themselves to be morally superior. There reasoning is similar to this… “I may not be perfect, but I am certainly more righteous than they are. God will surely accept me because I act a lot better than they do.”
Such thinking is extremely dangerous. First, it tends to create an arrogant attitude. If someone constantly exalts themselves over others, a prideful and haughty heart will soon develop within them. Secondly, it fosters an overly critical and judgmental attitude. When a person constantly looks down upon others they become insolent and hateful toward them.
Ultimately, such comparisons are foolish. God will judge all of those who practice ungodliness. The self-righteous are just as guilty as those they compare themselves to. Even though their specific acts of ungodliness may be different, their sinful condition is the same. The self-righteous are just as guilty as the unrighteous. They will not escape the judgment of God, and are woefully deceived if they think that somehow they will.
One of the most well-known passages of Scripture that illustrate this point is found in Luke 18:9-14. Jesus is addressing a group of self-righteous people as He tells the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. The pious Pharisee thanks God that he is not like the tax-collector, while the tax-collector cries out to God for mercy. Jesus concludes that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, while those who humble themselves will be exalted.
II. THE SELF-RIGHTEOUS WEIGH THEIR GOOD AGAINST THEIR BAD (Romans 2:4-11)
A second approach of the self-righteous is to compare their good deeds with their bad deeds. They seek to place all of their behaviors on a fictitious balance scale. They think to themselves, “If my good outweighs my bad, then God will accept me.”
The Bible tells us that God is kind, tolerant, and patient - providing each person with an opportunity for repentance. Repentance is the what the LORD desires. To repent is to consciously turn from sinful behaviors and to wholeheartedly seek holiness. A person who is simply trying to do more “good” than “bad” has not truly repented, because a repentant person would strive to do no “bad” at all. Thus, the self-righteous are storing up God’s wrath for themselves.
Some have misunderstood the statement that God will judge all people “according to their deeds” to say that He will weigh one’s good against their bad. This is simply not so. Further study explains that those who have received salvation will inherit eternal life and be rewarded on the basis of their deeds, but those who have not been saved will receive wrath and indignation and be condemned on the basis of theirs. The guidelines will be the same for all people whether Jew or Gentile. There will be no partiality in the LORD’s judgment.
I am reminded of a scene from the movie “Courageous” in which two police officers are conversing at the gun-range. Though the primary thrust of the film pertains to fatherhood, in this scene a young recruit “hopes that his good will outweigh his bad”. The older, more mature Christian explains that a Good Judge will render judgment upon the guilty based solely upon the person’s crime, not upon their past good deeds.
III. THE SELF-RIGHTEOUS BOAST IN THEIR ADHERENCE TO THE LAW (Romans 2:12-16)
A third variation of self-righteousness is known as “legalism”. We will touch on this briefly today, but will expound upon it even more thoroughly next week. This is a person who tries to earn God’s favor and attain righteousness by keeping the Law. They think, “I will acquire salvation through strict obedience to God’s commands.”
In these verses, when Paul refers to the Law he is talking about the Mosaic Law which was given to the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai. Not all people had heard this law, particularly the Gentiles. But whether a person had heard it or not didn’t really matter, because either way one would be judged by it or perish without it. Neither outcome would be positive. The message is clear - obedience to the law will not bring about righteousness or result in salvation. On the contrary, our disobedience to it exposes our sinfulness and need for Savior.
One of Jesus’ encounters seems to be quite appropriate for this particular topic. The story is of a rich young ruler who approaches Christ and asks what he must do to obtain eternal life. He claims to have kept all the commandments since his childhood, and appears to be a very sincere and obedient young man. Still Jesus tells the man that he is lacking something - his compliance is not enough. With this statement, Jesus reveals that obedience to the Law is not sufficient to obtain salvation. Instead, we must follow Him.
As we read in our focal text at the outset of this message, we are not saved as a result of our works. We might like to believe that our own moral behavior is better than that of others around us (and maybe it is). We might like to think that the amount of good we’ve done exceeds the amount of bad (and perhaps it does). We might even like to suppose that we’ve been faithfully obedient to God’s commands (and maybe we have for the most part). Yet in all three cases, we have put the focus upon ourselves and what we have done rather than on Christ and what He has done for us.
The self-righteous are “storing up wrath” that God promises to unleash upon them on the day of judgment. Their condition is just as desperate as the unrighteous, for the truth is the self-righteousness is merely a form of unrighteousness. Neither is “right” with God. Thus, they too are lost and in critical need of salvation.
If you have been trying to achieve righteousness through your own efforts, I urge you to realize the futility of your actions. We are saved by placing our faith in Jesus, who then grants us forgiveness of our sins and covers us with His righteousness. It is only His righteousness that can redeem us, never our own self-righteousness.