Self-righteousness is No Better Than Unrighteousness
“Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time?” (Ecclesiastes 7:16-17 ESV)
Reading this superficially, these could be your favorite verses in the Bible. Don’t try to be too righteous. Don’t be too wicked. Perfect. Just a little sin to keep from being too righteous and just a little religion to keep me out of prison. It sounds like Scripture is giving us wiggle room to be a little naughty and a little nice.
While many people haven’t read this verse, many people live that way instinctively. They think, I want my life to be right there in the middle. Not too goody-two-shoes where I seem holier than thou. Not too bad that I have to worry about going to hell. As long as I am in the middle of the pack, I must be OK with God.
Self-righteousness is no better than unrighteousness because both lead you to hell. The gospel is not that God grades on a curve or as long as I am morally a ‘C’ or better, I must be OK. The gospel says we are all getting ‘F’s. It’s pass/fail and we all fail. So what does this mean?
Solomon is warning against two self-destructive lifestyles. On the one hand is the person who tries very hard to be overtly righteous. Not actually righteous or godly but trying really hard to appear to be so. This is the self-righteous Christian. Or as Doug Wilson describes him,
“Nice Christian. Priggish Christian. Sanctimonious Christian…Pursed lips Christian. Doctrinally correct Christian. Know-it-all Christian. Ostentatious Christian. Quiet-time-every-day-or-I’ll-go-to-hell-Christian. Conceited Christian. Orthodox Christian. UnChristian Christian.” (Doug Wilson, Joy at the End of the Tether, p. 76.)
In the fundamentalist circles I grew up in, these people were everywhere. I should know. I was one of them. We tried very hard to be externally righteous. We measured ourselves as morally superior to the morally mediocre around us.
The opposite is to throw off all constraint and allow our sinful natures to take over. To be overtly wicked. This is the fool and leads to self-destruction and there are many stories to tell of the tragic results of a life lived without constraints.
Self-righteousness is destructive too. The strict rules-oriented, graceless, professing Christian is eventually confronted with his or her own sin nature. Or life forces him to apply grace toward others which he doesn’t have in his heart. He can’t forgive others for failing his rules—even his children. He self-destructs because the self-righteous charade eventually catches up with him.
Better than denying we sin (self-righteous) or reveling in sin (unrighteous), is acknowledging our sin (verse 20).
Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
©2016 Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.
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