The Great Danger to the Church

The great danger to the church is not lawlessness, but self-righteousness.

Generally speaking, the great danger to the church isn’t antinomianism (living without law), but elevating our own standards and traditions to the place of law and assuming that by them, we gain God’s approval.

To be sure, lawlessness is a problem. Living as if God has no standards for his people is a problem. And for some in the church, it is the greatest threat. Living like the world, and not like the children of God, is a problem. But on the whole, I’m convinced, the greatest temptation for many in the church isn’t lawlessness. Most of us aren’t going to run out and indulge every fleshly desire, but we are easily lured into the trap of self-righteousness.

When we’re quick to take the speck out of our brother’s eye, but ignore the log in our own eye, that’s self-righteousness.

When we judge others because they don’t live up to our standards, but ignore the ways that we ourselves don’t live up to God’s standards, that’s self-righteousness.

When we fault others because they’re not farther along in the Christian life, but we ignore the grace of God at work in their lives and overlook where we ourselves come up short, that’s self-righteousness.

When we assume that we’re more worthy of God’s favor than our brother, that’s self-righteousness.

Here’s what Jesus said about the self-righteous:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9–14

We need to remember the principle of the last sentence: God will humble those who exalt themselves, but God will exalt those who are humble.

And we cannot afford to miss the penultimate sentence. Jesus considered the man who fasted and tithed and prayed and lived a clean life, and Jesus considered the man who was a self-professed “sinner,” and it was the latter who was justified, and not the former. The man who was justified–who was declared righteous in the sight of God–was the man who recognized his need for a Savior.

God is merciful to those who recognize their need for mercy. God justifies not the morally upright and self-righteous, but the sinner who looks to God for righteousness in Christ.

We’ll see this again and again in our study of Galatians. Self-righteousness through adding our own works onto the work of Christ is at the heart of the problem in the Galatian church. And what we’ve seen already in Galatians is that the answer is the true gospel – salvation by faith alone in Christ alone.

The remedy for our self-righteousness is Christ and his gospel. When we look to Golgotha, and we see Christ on the cross, where he died for our sins, we’re confronted with the truth about ourselves: there’s nothing righteous in me. I’m a sinner in need of a Savior.

Milton Vincent wrote that “Pride wilts in the atmosphere of the gospel.” If I want my self-righteous pride to be put to death, I need to remember the gospel, to meditate on the gospel, to preach the gospel to myself each day. I need to live in light of Christ’s righteousness, and not seek to prove my own righteousness.

Bert Watts has served since December 2016 as the Senior Pastor at Mountain Creek Baptist Church, where he has been on staff since 2012.

Photo by Raúl Nájera on Unsplash