It's Not Me, It's You

The Bible makes it clear that self-righteousness is the premier enemy of the Gospel. And there is perhaps no group of people who better embody the sin of self-righteousness in the Bible than the Pharisees. In fact, Jesus reserved his harshest criticisms for them, calling them whitewashed tombs and hypocrites. Surprisingly to some, this demonstrates that the thing that gets in the way of our love for God and a deep appreciation of his grace is not so much our unrighteous badness but our self-righteous goodness.

In Surprised by Grace: God’s Relentless Pursuit of Rebels, I retell the story of Jonah and show how Jonah was just as much in need of God’s grace as the sailors and the Ninevites. But the fascinating thing about Jonah is that, unlike the pagan sailors and wicked Ninevites, Jonah was one of the “good guys.” He was a prophet. He was moral. He was one who “kept all the rules”, and did everything he was supposed to do. He wasn’t some long-haired, tattooed indie rocker; he was a clean-cut prep. He wasn’t a liberal; he was a conservative. He wasn’t irreligious; he was religious. If you’ve ever read S.E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders, than you’ll immediately see that the Ninevites and the sailors in the story were like the “greasers”, while Jonah was like a “soashe.”

What’s fascinating to me is that, not only in the story of Jonah, but throughout the Bible, it’s always the immoral person that gets the Gospel before the moral person. It’s the prostitute who understands grace; it’s the Pharisee who doesn’t. It’s the unrighteous younger brother who gets it before the self-righteous older brother.

There is, however, another side to self-righteousness that younger-brother types are blind to. There’s an equally dangerous form of self-righteousness that plagues the unconventional and the non-religious types. We “authentic”, anti-legalists can become just as guilty of legalism in the opposite direction. What do I mean?

It’s simple: we become self-righteous against those who are self-righteous. We become Pharisaical about Pharisees.

Many younger Christian’s today are reacting to their parents’ conservative, buttoned-down, rule-keeping flavor of “older brother religion” with a type of liberal, untucked, rule-breaking flavor of “younger brother irreligion” which screams, “That’s right, I know I don’t have it all together and you think you do; I know I’m not good and you think you are. That makes me better than you.”

See the irony?

In other words, some of us are proud that we’re not self-righteous! Hmmm…think about that one.

Listen: self-righteousness is no respecter of persons. It reaches to the religious and the irreligious, the “buttoned down” and the “untucked”, the plastic and the pious, the rule-keepers and the rule-breakers, the “right” and the “wrong.” The entire Bible reveals how shortsighted all of us are when it comes to our own sin. Steve Brown writes:

You will find criticism of Christian fundamentalists by people whose secular fundamentalism dwarfs the fundamentalism of the people being criticized. Political correctness and the attendant feelings of self-righteousness have their equivalent in religious communities with religious correctness. If you look at victims, you’ll find self-righteousness. On the other hand, if you look at the people who wield power, they do it with the self-righteous notion that they know better, understand more, and more informed than others…arrogance, condescension, disdain, contemptuousness, and pomposity are everywhere.

For example, it was easy for Jonah to see the idolatry of the sailors. It was easy for him to see the perverse ways of the Ninevites. What he couldn’t see was his own idolatry, his own perversion. So the question is not whether you are self-righteous, but rather, in which direction does your self-righteousness lean? Depending on who I’m with, mine goes in both directions. Arghhh!

Thankfully, while our self-righteousness reaches far, God’s grace reaches farther. And the good news is, that it reaches in both directions!

  • Steven Press says:


    I found that much of what you have said here today came to fruition during the last presidential election. Many fundamentalists thrust themselves into the race discussion and flew under the banner of “spiritual purity” by supporting candidates who were fundamentally heavy-handed. The overall message seemed to revolve around the idea that no one, other than Republicans, could truly be Christians (I identify as a Conservative). Furthermore, it was implied that a true Christian could not vote for Mitt Romney due to his current affiliation with the Mormon church.

    I couldn’t help but feel sickened as the criteria for meeting Jesus [where we are at] set forth by these particular self-righteous people became air tight and even unattainable.

    Reasoning with the self-righteous is next to impossible. They use the scriptures to back up their own understanding of particular sections of text and the debate becomes cyclical. I think what frustrates me most is not the arguer’s self-righteousness, but the innocent who are hurt by the religious shrapnel as he/she blazes a path through life. By the time a grace filled Christian approaches, the listener has already been burned by the legalist and wants no part in the discussion.

    In the end, I came to this conclusion. Labeling of this sort [Political – Christian or Non-Christian] becomes idolatry if your differences do not allow you to love others the way Christ would have you love them. Additionally, this self-righteousness is perpetuated by like-minded fundamentalists who consistently encourage a distorted version of iron sharpening iron. So the result leads to the in-fighting of the church and further casualties at the hands of all who are involved in the discussion.

    I think the self-righteous will fall under the weight of their own work. They have to. This is how it worked with me. I couldn’t handle the weight of my own salvation [through my own works] and I broke down severely. Other than that, I don’t see how the self-righteous can be debated away from their heavy-handed stance.

    I think that this would be an interesting topic for you to cover, Tullian. I would love to hear your insight on how we can approach the self-righteous or if we should even approach at all.


  • Leo Galletta says:

    Loved the Steve Brown sermon. Thanks for posting it.

  • […] It’s Not Me, It’s You […]

  • the Old Adam says:

    “… I don’t see how the self-righteous can be debated away from their heavy-handed stance.”

    They need the law. And poured over them, often. And that (hard) Word will either convict them and bring them to repentance…or it won’t.

  • David C. says:

    It is time you distanced yourself from the coalition in light of SGM and the coalition response. You need to speak out as your brother did. I love what you write and admire you but now is the time to take a stand or forever be lumped in this ungodly group !!!

  • PAUL says:

    David, can you be more specific? What is SGM and where can I read about it?
    God Bless

  • David C. says:

    Paul, just google the gospel coalition and SMG

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