The fleshly nature has two ways of expressing itself. The first is the one we are most aware and ashamed of: it is our desire to sin. But the second way is also bad, and maybe worse because we are not ashamed of it – we’re even proud of it: it is our desire for self-righteousness.
When I say self-righteousness, I’m not talking about a holier-than-thou attitude, or a hypocritical righteous facade. I mean sincerely trying to do the right thing through one’s own willpower and determination, but apart from reliance on the power of God. This kind of ‘righteousness’ falls far short of the righteousness God requires for salvation or for living the Christian life. That law-keeping is insufficient for salvation can be seen in Mark 10:17-23.
A young man came to Jesus and asked what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus replied with the commandments, “Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not give false testimony, Do not defraud, and Honor your father and mother.” The man replied, “Teacher, I have observed all these things from my youth.”
Jesus did not call the man a liar, nor did He try to undeceive the man on his ability to keep the ten commandments. This young man was able to keep the letter of the law – I’m sure not perfectly, but Jesus didn’t make an issue of it. But also notice Jesus did not say, “Don’t worry about it then. You kept the Law, you’re in!” Instead, He said, “One thing you lack. Go, sell whatever you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me, taking up the cross.” Jesus said eternal life requires more than just keeping the ten commandments.
As he walked away in sorrow, Jesus said, “How difficult it is for those who have riches to enter into the Kingdom of God!” This amazed His disciples because the Law says nothing about wealth hindering one’s entrance into heaven. (Actually, the Law mentions nothing about heaven.) The Law even includes blessings of wealth on those who keep its commands (Deuteronomy 7:12-24, 28:1-14). But Jesus’ told the man to sell all he had, give to the poor, take up the cross and follow Him. The reason He did so was to reveal the fleshly heart condition that was keeping him from eternal life. The man was still a slave to his fleshly desires.
The righteousness of the flesh looks deceptively good because it claims the letter of the Law as its standard. We think if we can keep the letter of the Law, we’re righteous. We can see this in the Pharisee’s prayer in Luke 18:11-12:
The Pharisee stood and prayed thus to himself, God, I thank You that I am not like other men; extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.
– Luke 18:11-12 (VW)
Again, there is no indication that the Pharisee was being deceptive in his prayer. He was able to live up to the letter of the Law. And yet, it was the sinful tax collector who left justified, not the law-keeping Pharisee.
I can see Paul in this Pharisee. Before he was saved, Paul was also able to live up to the letter of the Law “blamelessly” (Philippians 3:4-6). But once he was saved, Paul realized his legalistic self-righteousness had brought him no closer to God. You see, the letter of the Law covers only a portion of the standard of righteousness. It is only the beginning.
Imagine somebody handed you a bottle with the label “Lemon Juice” on it, but you were suspicious that it might contain something else that was perhaps poisonous. How would you know the contents matched the label? You would test it against the characteristics of real lemon juice.
Lemon juice is a slightly yellow sour liquid. As you look at the bottle, you see it is a yellowish liquid, but how can you tell it is sour without tasting it? You can do a litmus test. Blue litmus paper turns red when dipped in acid. So you dip the litmus paper in the liquid and it doesn’t turn red. You have proved the liquid is not lemon juice.
But even if the paper did turn red, that would not prove the liquid was lemon juice, because any acid will do that. To prove the liquid is what it says it is, it has to pass all tests for lemon juice (which goes beyond testing just for ‘a slightly yellow sour liquid’). Each test by itself can only disprove what it is. Only all of the tests together can prove what it is.
The Old Testament Law is like a litmus test for righteousness. If you break just one command, then you are not righteous. But even if you keep all of the Law to the letter, that still doesn’t prove you are righteous. The Law is only one test – just enough to disprove our righteousness, but not enough to prove it. Jesus gives more tests for righteousness in Matthew 5:17-48. You may have kept the letter of the Law in regards to murder, and yet still be guilty of murder. You may not have committed adultery by the letter of the Law, and yet still be guilty of adultery. Keeping the letter of the Law does not prove you are righteous, because you still fail the other tests. But by breaking the letter of the Law (i.e. any one command), you immediately prove yourself a sinner.
For whoever shall keep the whole Law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all.
– James 2:10 VW
If you break one command of the Law, the Law has done its job in proving you a sinner (Romans 3:20).
The flesh thinks it can live up to the Law, but doesn’t realize the Law actually condemns it. Jesus shows us God’s righteousness is so perfect, we have no hope of fully meeting all of its requirements. We have to exceed the letter-of-the-Law righteousness of the Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). The Pharisee’s righteousness, and ours, are just filthy rags.
Self-righteousness is done in our own power, with no real need to be grateful to God. It is not the righteousness of (i.e. from) God . Only Christ’s righteousness satisfies God’s standard. But that righteousness will only do us good if we forsake our own weak, fleshly attempts. When Paul was saved, he abandoned his own “blameless” legalistic self-righteousness, and trusted entirely in the righteousness of Christ. Let’s follow his example.
But no, rather, I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the Law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.
– Philippians 3:8-11 (VW)