It would be dangerously easy.
Just look at what is happening in society around us. The legalisation of ‘gay marriage’. Increasing pressure for acceptance of physician-assisted suicide, along with the inevitable redefinition of the role of doctors in relation to seriously ill patients. An acceptance of three-parent children – the products of techniques resulting from amazing advances in genetics. These developments – and more – show how far the nation has drifted from even a token acknowledgement of biblical ethical standards, standards which once were accepted almost without question even by those not personally committed to the Christian faith. Even in a conservative place like Northern Ireland, the same trends are evident, and as one local politician, himself a Christian, commented in a recent conversation: if the decisions here on moral issues were being made by the under 25s, the Christian position would lose every time.
It would be dangerously easy in circumstances like these to slip, or even leap, into self-righteousness. It can seem so obvious that those who hold to biblical standards are ‘better’ than others. They have not capitulated to the forces of evil. They have held the line. They have been faithful. Surely they must be spiritually superior to others and God must be pleased with them. And if we are honest, sometimes it’s not ‘they’ who are self-righteous – ‘we’ are. Though we might never say it out loud, in our hearts we may echo the Pharisee’s address to God, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evil-doers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector’ (Luke 18:11).
It’s sobering to see ourselves in the mirror of the Pharisees. Here were men who knew and loved the law of God, who could recite vast tracts of it from memory, who loved to discuss the practicalities of its application. These were men who took the greatest of care to observe the regulations for life that God had given, and in meticulous detail. They hated the sins that they could see around them and would have been at the forefront of campaigns to preserve moral standards. All well and good, but there was one fatal flaw: they ‘trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt’ (Luke 18:9).
That was the Pharisees’ problem. They did not really look at their hearts and so recognise their true spiritual condition. Considering only the sins visible outwardly, most could tell themselves that, since they were not doing those things, they were moral, even godly, people, people who satisfied God’s requirements. The truth, however, was powerfully exposed by Jesus: ‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’ (Mark 7:6). They were sinners, just as much as any tax collector, even if their sins were ‘respectable’ or hidden. In fact, if they had really given due attention to the demands of God’s law, they would have found their hearts being searched and their sin exposed, because, as Jesus showed in the Sermon on the Mount, the law addresses the heart.
It is dangerously easy to settle for the outward, a lot less uncomfortable, and yet the result is a self-righteousness that is offensive to God and that is also repulsive to the watching world. Many non-Christians are convinced that Christians are self-righteous hypocrites: sadly they sometimes don’t have to look far for the evidence.
The only solution is to focus on the glorious grace of God that brought Christ to die for us ‘while we were still sinners’ (Romans 5:8), sinners who apart from grace would never have been any different. We need to recognise that the answer to Paul’s question, ‘What do you have that you did not receive?’ (I Corinthians 4:7) is ‘Nothing’. We never accumulate merit before God: we will always be totally dependent on grace. We are not to be silent or inactive regarding the great moral and spiritual battles being fought out around us, but we must engage in them in a humble spirit, dependent on grace and free from self-righteousness. They we really will not be like other men, and God will have all the glory.