The problem with legalism is that it doesn’t feel like sin. It feels like holiness. It feels like true commitment and genuine devotion. It feels like something God should be pleased with. That’s why religious people are especially prone to it. Their perceived sense of spiritual goodness and moral superiority become an obstacle to receiving divine grace (as well as giving grace to others). Besides, they don’t really think they need it—at least not as much as other people do. In Jesus’s mind, however, legalism is just an ugly sin to be avoided.
Surprisingly, Jesus had more conflicts with the legalists of his day than any other group. They were constantly at odds throughout the Gospels. In the end, it wasn’t the “general issue sinners” who put Jesus on the cross; it was the legalists—those overly zealous, hyper-critical religious folks who looked down on everybody else. Later, the Apostle Paul had a similar experience. The legalists dogged his every step, distorted his message of grace, and then eventually beheaded him.
Up to this point in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has shared lavish grace and gentle correction with those at his table. This meal, however, shows us something different. Jesus unleashes his anger on the religious leaders of the first century, and it’s not pleasant. In fact, the encounter is downright confrontational. We might say Jesus “burned the meal” this time. But why? What made Christ so angry that he would issue six “woes” to the religious leaders he was breaking bread with? The passage tells us that Jesus gets “steamed” when:
we value external ceremonies over internal cleansing. (37-41)
our religious traditions become more important than God’s priorities. (42)
we’re driven more by the praise of others than by the praise of God. (43)
we lead others away from God and nobody seems to realize it. (44)
we raise people’s moral standards but offer no help to meet them. (45-46)
we claim to honor the very people whose message we violate. (47-51)
we obscure the beauty of God’s revelation with our own distortions of it. (52)
Sadly, the Pharisees didn’t see themselves as sinners in need of a Savior. They saw themselves as jolly good fellows who kept the law; therefore, God should accept them. To make matters worse, they imposed their “fence laws” (i.e., their own tedious additions and traditions to God’s simple laws) on everybody else—which just made life drudgery for everyone. They then looked down on people who didn’t keep the fence laws like they did, thus making them feel inferior to the religious elite.
That’s why Jesus saves his most stinging rebukes for the hyper-religious. They, more than anybody else, misrepresent the gracious heart of God. Even today, Pharisees offer a religion of “DO!” while Jesus offers a relationship of “DONE!” That’s why he announced from his cross, “It is finished.” Jesus paid it all, and now he gives salvation full and free to all who know they need his grace.
“But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (Philippians 3:7-9).
The dictionary definition of self-righteousness usually goes something like this: “Confidence in one’s own goodness or virtue, especially while being smugly moralistic and intolerant of the opinions and behavior of others.” That’s not a bad place to start, but it’s more descriptive of the symptoms of self-righteousness than the underlying disease. The deeper problem is legalism—the notion that we could somehow generate enough righteousness on our own to make ourselves acceptable to God for salvation. The idea is ridiculous on its face because it makes us partially our own saviors.
Jesus told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector specifically to “those who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else” (Luke 18:9). The pious leader in Jesus’ story assumed his acceptance with God was based on his own actions, while the tax collector recognized there was nothing in him by which he could commend himself to God; he was totally dependent on divine grace for his salvation. Quite significantly, it was the despised tax collectorwho “went home justified before God,” according to Jesus, not the religious leader (Luke 18:14). Repeatedly in the Gospels, Jesus warns his followers about the dangers of self-righteousness, emphasizing that without him, they could do nothing (cf. John 15:5).
The problem with self-righteousness is that it doesn’t feel like sin. Most of the time it feels like holiness. Most of the time it feels like something God should be pleased with—something that should make him smile. To do our good works, and catalog our achievements, and then present them all to God—that feels like something the Almighty should appreciate. After all, God is holy, and he demands holiness from his people, right?
Yet everywhere in Scripture, that kind of a self-righteous approach to God is sharply condemned. It’s sharply condemned not only in Luke 18, but also in Philippians 3. In fact, not only is it condemned in that chapter, it’s severely ridiculed. Paul calls it “garbage” in verse 9. Other versions say “rubbish.” Those are awfully polite translations.
The problem with self-righteousness is that it doesn’t feel like sin. Most of the time it feels like holiness.
The original word is skubalon, which means “dung,” “manure,” “excrement,” and a few other words that preachers aren’t supposed to say. Why such colorful language? Why such a linguistic jolt in holy writ? Because there’s an important distinction to be made between presenting our good works to God as a gift and presenting our good works to God as currency. The gift says, “Thank you, God. I obey you because I love you.” The currency says, “Pay up, God. I’ve been good; you owe me.” The two approaches are light years apart.
But what’s so terribly wrong with that second view? It sounds logical, doesn’t it? I do this, and God gives me that. Quid pro quo. Makes sense. But here’s the problem: Self-righteousness is offensive to God because it fails to take into account that—as fallen human beings tainted by sin—there’s something inherently deficient with even the good things we do. Just take an honest look at your motives and attitudes some time. Have you ever done anything with completely perfect attitudes or motives? Chances are slim. No one bats a thousand all the time, so without God’s mercy, we’re toast.
When one of my swim coaches was in college, he used to walk past the President’s house every day on the way home from practice. The university President had a horse, and my coach would stop by and pet it every day, feeding it apples and other treats. After doing this for several years, my coach developed a good relationship with the horse, so one day he just took it home with him. He stole the President’s horse!
Word went out over campus radio that someone had stolen the President’s prize possession. It was a major scandal since the man loved his horse. After several hours of not being able to locate the animal, the college began offering a sizeable cash reward for its safe return. When my coach heard about the monetary reward, he returned the horse…and collected the cash!
Now, we can probably all agree that it was a good thing that my coach returned the President’s horse. It was a good work. But I’m sure we can also agree that there was something very wrong with that good work. Here was the thief now cashing in on his own criminality! And so it is with fallen people before a holy God. Even the good things we do are tainted to a certain extent.
Self-righteousness is offensive to God because it fails to take into account that—as fallen human beings tainted by sin—there’s something inherently deficient with even the good things we do.
So, when we do our good works and present them to God, it must always be with the understanding that we’ve already stolen something from him. We already have a criminal record against him. And trusting Christ alone is the only way to get rid of our rap sheet against heaven. That’s what Paul argues in Philippians 3. Consider the “good things” he could point to in his own life that contribute nothing to our standing with God:
Religious ceremony cannot make us right with God. “…circumcised on the eighth day” (5a)
Ethnic identity cannot make us right with God. “…of the people of Israel” (5b)
Social status cannot make us right with God. “…of the tribe of Benjamin” (5c)
Orthodox tradition cannot make us right with God. “…a Hebrew of Hebrews” (5d)
Theological conservatism cannot make us right with God. “…in regard to the law, a Pharisee” (5e)
Spiritual enthusiasm cannot make us right with God. “…as for zeal, persecuting the church” (6a)
Impeccable morality cannot make us right with God. “…as for legalistic righteousness, faultless” (6b)
It’s all skubalon, says Paul. Having seen Jesus for who he is and what he’s done for the entire human race on the cross, Paul abandons all reliance on a good resume to make himself right with God. Indeed, he fires a silver bullet into the heart of self-righteousness by telling us to reject all sources of self-righteousness, and trust in Christ alone for salvation. Or, to put it simply, Paul tells us to take out the garbage of self-righteousness. It stinks to high heaven, and it needs to be removed.
Why? As human beings created in the image of a good God, we were made to do good works—but there’s nothing meritorious about those good works. We don’t congratulate water for being wet. It’s supposed to be wet. Nor do we congratulate human beings for doing good things. We’re supposed to do good things. It’s how we’re made. As a result, we can never put God in our debt by doing good works. As Edward Mote put it:
My hope is built on nothing less Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness I dare not trust the sweetest frame But wholly lean on Jesus’ name
Paul’s desire was to be found in Christ, not having a righteousness of his own that comes from keeping the law, but that which comes from trusting in Christ alone for salvation—“the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (Phil 3:9). He took out the garbage of self-righteousness. We must do the same.