Gordon E. Johnson


Sin in Its Most Subtle Form - Self Righteousness

Romans 2:1-29 (NKJV)

Gordon E. Johnson
Rio Grande Bible Institute


In Paul's first exposé of man's critical problem (Rom.1:18-32), he faced directly the most blatant forms of sin --immorality in all its varied forms: fornication, adultery, homosexuality, murder along with covetousness, envy, avarice, pride. His final condemnation is that double guilt of practicing these sins and also approving and justifying them (v. 32). Paul wrote this exposé from Corinth, noted precisely for such sins. Against such sins God's holy wrath is being revealed (v.18).

Paul enters into a dialogue with his reader who seeks to justify himself in the presence of the above blatant sins. The reader seems to agree with Paul's stern denunciation of gross sins but from an assured position of self righteousness. The religious Jew indeed viewed the Gentile, the Samaritan, as basically inferior to his own righteousness before God.  Paul must now denounce with greater fury this veiled form of sin. Without mentioning the Jew by name, he dissects the human heart, seen earlier in the Gentile but now anticipating the Jew's prevailing sin.

"Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge, for in whatever you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things" (Rom. 2:1) Then addressing such self complacency, he follows up by a rhetorical question: "And do you think this, O man, you who judge those practicing such things and doing the same, that you will escape the judgment of God?"  Paul exposes the deadly deception of the pharisaical Jew which detests the sin of the Gentile sin while reveling in a far more deceitful sin of his own. This contrast can be so clearly seen in Jesus' denunciation of the Pharisees in Matt.23.  With eight stern «woes», Jesus calls then: "Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell?" (Matt. 23: 33). We can measure the peril of religious self righteousness; the tax collectors harlots heard him gladly but scribes and Pharisees crucified him (Matt. 21:31, 32).

If Jesus saw so clearly the deceitfulness of self righteousness, Paul is more than justified in saying: "Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance? But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God" (vv.4, 5).

Paul in Romans speaks so clearly of the peril of sin and the need for trust and faith that some authors have suggested Paul did not preach repentance. How wrong can they be?  He spends 63 verses (1:18-3:20) to define sin and its consequences. He hardly needs to call for repentance. But here in 2:1-5 no other conclusion can be drawn from his denunciation.

Paul Faces the Deadly Sin of His Own Country Men, the Jews  Romans 2:17-29

Without mincing words Paul directs himself to the Jew by name: "Indeed you are called a  Jew, and rest on the law and make your boast in God  . . . ."  With some twelve apt descriptions of their privileges that God in grace had given gave them, he demolishes their self righteousness with five rhetorical questions: "You who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that man should not steal, do you steal? You who say do not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? (2:17-24). The climax comes with the statement that levels their pride: "For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you, as it is written" (Ezek, 16:27; 36:22).

But Paul has one last devastating argument for Jewish pride and self righteousness. The Jew considered his rite of circumcision to be his passport to heaven. It set him apart from all others as better and a member of God's special people.  But here Paul "uncircumcises" the circumcised by stating: "For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit and not in the letter; who praise is not from men but from God" ( 2:29). Whether it be unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18-32) or self righteousness (2:1-19), God cannot tolerate either. In fact the latter is much more deadly than the former in terms of facing it and breaking with it.

A Much Broader Application is Served for the Believer

It would be easy to sit back and blame the Jew for self righteousness, but the sin of «spiritual» pride was the original sin of Lucero; he contemplated his God given beauty.  That angelic creature with free will contemplated his beauty, as if it were his own, and this gave rise to that first sin (Isaiah 14:11-15; Ezek 28: 12-19).  Pride results in egotism, selfishness, rebellion and independence of God. From that root springs every sin.

It is that misplaced righteousness that blinds the heart and makes for the most dangerous sin, both in the unsaved moral person as well the best trained Christian worker. In fact, more often than not, self righteousness as a sin is much nearer to us in our walk with God than the sin of adultery and covetousness.  Its danger is its subtly, its façade of holiness when it is a cover for the worst sin. Those were the areas of my own life that God had to deal with openly and harshly.  Possibly the greater the giftedness, the academic preparation, the profession of spirituality and success, the greater the danger of self righteousness.  No one is immune from this besetting sin.   Self righteousness often issues in forms of legalism by which we judge others. May God help us!

Some Powerful Deductions from God's Denunciation of Self Righteousness

1.       The human heart apart from the grace of God is capable of any sin imagined.

2.       The grosser sins are calibrated as bad, the lesser sins as more tolerable.

3.       The worst of sins are those that deceive us and create the illusion of piety.

4.       The Gentile was condemned in Rom.1, the Jew and the human heart stand more condemned in Rom. 2.

5.       Privilege and  prestige heighten greatly the temptation to self righteousness

6.       Only the Holy Spirit can convince the unbeliever and the believer of this sin.

7.       In Christian work the sin of self righteousness to very prevalent and seldom faced for what is really is.

8.       God judged the sin of Ananias and Sapphira because of their desire for a spiritual reputation equal to Barnabas and his wholehearted obedience Acts 4:32 - 5: 11.

9.       Their sin constituted a lie to the Holy Spirit and stood in the way of revival.

10.   My most urgent prayer should be: Lord deliver me from my self righteousness and give me only the Righteousness of Christ, Paul's great desire of Phil. 3:8-10.

E. Gordon Johnson
Rio Grande Bible Institute
Edinburg, TX 8539
October 7. 2007