What is Self-Righteousness?

by Mike Ratliff

17 Because you say, “ I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, (Revelation 3:17 NASB)

Self-Righteousness: the attempt to meet God’s standards based upon one’s own merits.

A thorough study of our Lord’s earthly ministry reveals with certainty the following truth. Our Lord was merciful in every instance to those who were broken, humbled, and spiritually helpless before Him. On the other hand, the proud, the self-righteous, and the self-sufficient He rebuked and shunned, which is thematically summarized for us by James our Lord’s brother in his epistle. 

4 You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. 5 Or do you think that the Scripture speaks to no purpose:“ He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us”? 6 But He gives a greater grace. Therefore it says, “ God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” 7 Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double- minded. 9 Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you. (James 4:4-10 NASB)

I pray that you have seen very clearly my brethren that when the Word of God addresses self-righteousness that what is really being examined is a form of pride. What is the opposite of pride? It is, of course, humility. The proud may believe that they are prosperous (πλούσιός) in God’s economy, but, in fact, they are spiritually blind and, in our Lord’s own words from Revelation 3:17, wretched (ταλαίπωρος), pitiable (ἐλεεινὸς), poor (πτωχὸς), blind (τυφλὸς), and naked (γυμνός).

17 ὅτι λέγεις ὅτι πλούσιός εἰμι καὶ πεπλούτηκα καὶ οὐδὲν χρείαν ἔχω, καὶ οὐκ οἶδας ὅτι σὺ εἶ ὁ ταλαίπωρος καὶ ἐλεεινὸς καὶ πτωχὸς καὶ τυφλὸς καὶ γυμνός, (Revelation 3:17 NA28)

Here is my translation of Revelation 3:17 from the NA28 Greek text, “Because you say, ‘I am rich and have become wealthy and have no need,’ you do not know that you are the who is wretched and pitiful and poor and blind and naked.”

Those who are truly self-righteous are spiritually blind yet they do not perceive that this is so. Their blindness is deep and humility is something to which they give lip service. These people do not have a true self-knowledge nor do they have a correct knowledge of God. The humble, on the other hand, are those who have had a true revelation of God and then have meditated or contemplated themselves in that light. Humility, then, is honestly assessing ourselves in light of God’s holiness and our sinfulness. If we take that definition then look at our Lord’s assessment of the Church at Laodicea we see a people much like most professing Christians in our time.  Let us look at the letter our Lord dictated to the Apostle John to send to this church.

14 “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write:
The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God, says this:
15 ‘ I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. 16 So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth. (Revelation 3:14-16 NASB)

14 Καὶ τῷ ἀγγέλῳ τῆς ἐν Λαοδικείᾳ ἐκκλησίας γράψον·
Τάδε λέγει ὁ ἀμήν, ὁ μάρτυς ὁ πιστὸς καὶ ἀληθινός, ἡ ἀρχὴ τῆς κτίσεως τοῦ θεοῦ· 15 οἶδά σου τὰ ἔργα ὅτι οὔτε ψυχρὸς εἶ οὔτε ζεστός. ὄφελον ψυχρὸς ἦς ἢ ζεστός. 16 οὕτως ὅτι χλιαρὸς εἶ καὶ οὔτε ζεστὸς οὔτε ψυχρός, μέλλω σε ἐμέσαι ἐκ τοῦ στόματός μου. (Revelation 3:14-16 NA28)

Laodicea was located about forty miles southeast of Philadelphia and 100 miles east of Ephesus. It was known as a banking center and had a famous medical school. The city’s water supply had to be provided from a distant source through pipes. The resulting water was lukewarm and barely drinkable. By contrast, the neighboring town of Hierapolis had medicinal hot springs, and a cold mountain stream supplied neighboring Colossae. Our Lord is making an analogy of the spiritual condition of the church in Laodicea comparing it to the “lukewarmness” of their water. The word translated here as “lukewarm” is χλιαρὸς and describes water that is tepid. Hot water has healing qualities. Cold water is refreshing. However, water that is χλιαρὸς when drunk, makes one want  ἐμέσαι ἐκ τοῦ στόματός (to vomit from the mouth). The verb εἶ in which our Lord is telling the Laodiceans that they “are” χλιαρὸς is in present tense, indicative mood, and active voice. This grammatical verb form asserts something that is occurring while the speaker is making the statement. This is a true statement of their condition and it is a spiritual condition that makes the Lord as sick to His stomach as those who drink that tepid water.

Then in v17 our Lord describes the reality of spiritual lukewarmness, which we looked at above. It is marked by a self-righteousness that is all about religion or the forms of religiosity. Those in this condition do not listen to or obey the Holy Spirit. They are apostate. Apostates are professing Christians, but are proving their disingenuousness by not “walking” within the Lordship of Christ as a way of life. In vv18-20 we have our Lord’s offer of salvation as they repent of this for He is merciful to those who see the truth of their spiritual bankruptcy and turn to Him alone for their salvation.

18 I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. 19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent. (Revelation 3:18-19 NASB)

18 συμβουλεύω σοι ἀγοράσαι παρʼ ἐμοῦ χρυσίον πεπυρωμένον ἐκ πυρὸς ἵνα πλουτήσῃς, καὶ ἱμάτια λευκὰ ἵνα περιβάλῃ καὶ μὴ φανερωθῇ ἡ αἰσχύνη τῆς γυμνότητός σου, καὶ κολλ [ο] ύριον ἐγχρῖσαι τοὺς ὀφθαλμούς σου ἵνα βλέπῃς. 19 ἐγὼ ὅσους ἐὰν φιλῶ ἐλέγχω καὶ παιδεύω· ζήλευε οὖν καὶ μετανόησον. (Revelation 3:18-19 NA28)

What does it mean to be zealous (ζήλευε) and repent (μετανόησον)? Both verbs are in aorist tense, imperative mood, and active voice. This describes commands by our Lord to these people. It is what those do who truly buy gold refined by fire from the Lord. Simply making a profession of faith solves nothing if it is not also accompanied by a change on the inside that results in being zealous and penitent. The word translated here as repent, μετανόησον, is a command to change ones mind or way of thinking towards God and about oneself. This is the result of regeneration. God opens their eyes so that they will no longer be spiritually blind.

Self-righteousness is the result of human pride. All not born of the Spirit, that is, washed by regeneration (Titus 3:5), are spiritually dead and the best they can be is lukewarm like the church in Laodicea. They are all about self. They have their own righteousness or merit and think that is enough because they do not posses true salvation, but are driven by human pride. No one can be humble outside of God’s grace. Only true Christians can be genuinely humble. These see the truth about themselves in light of God’s holiness and their lack outside of Him. They understand that they bring nothing to God that is acceptable for their justification. The humble are never self-righteous because they understand that anything good they have or do is from God not them. On the other hand, in their zealous obedience to their Lord, those in spiritual darkness who believe they are the purveyors of what true Christianity is will accuse these true Christians of being self-righteous because of their obedience in speaking the truth in rebuke while never compromising.

Soli Deo Gloria!

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