Self-righteous religious people think of life as a ladder. Your righteous acts move you up the ladder towards God. Your sense of well-being comes from your place on the ladder. Nothing makes you feel better than being able to look down on other people. Pharisees need tax-collectors to make them feel righteous.
But self-righteousness is not the preserve of religious people! It has its secular counterparts. Everyone is trying to find salvation. They might not ask, “What must I do to be saved?” But everyone has some sense of what it is that would make them satisfied, fulfilled, accepted. Success in business, the admiration of men, a beautiful home, a liberated homeland, a secure future, the worship of women, a great body, wealth and prosperity, the acceptance of friends, a happy family, a wonderful holiday.
Think about the people you know. Think about yourself.
1. How do they define salvation? How will they know they’ve arrived?
“I’ll be happy, fulfilled, accepted if …”
2. What must they do to be saved? What law or rules must they follow?
“To achieve this I’ve got to …”
3. How do they view people who don’t measure up to this law?
“People who don’t fit in are …”
4. What happens when they don’t measure up?
“When I don’t achieve then …”
For the Pharisees it went like this. Salvation is national renewal. This will be achieved by personal purity. Those who don’t measure up like tax collectors, sinners, the poor must be ostracised
Every version of salvation involves a principle, a rule, a law. If your idea of salvation is to be accepted by friends then your first commandment will be: “Thou shalt not be uncool.” And uncool people must be avoided at all costs. If your idea of salvation is a beautiful home then your prophet will be Martha Stewart. Your rule will be antique pine, tiled floors, distressed paint. Or maybe clean lines, white walls, no clutter. Your first commandment will be, “Thou shalt not be untidy.”
If other people don’t measure up then we despise or avoid them. Yet, like the Pharisees, we need them so we can feel good about ourselves. And if we don’t measure up then our “god” turns on us and condemns us. Life is seen as a race and you’re a loser if you’re not successful, wealthy or attractive.
But self-salvation doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because none of these versions of salvation deliver. They don’t bring satisfaction, identity or joy because we were made to know God and glorify him. Anything less is a cheap substitute. They’re not salvation!
And self-salvation doesn’t work because we can’t measure up. If you want to be admired by blokes, but you’re not blokey enough then you’re condemned. Even on a good day you’ll worry what others think of you. If want security and prosperity, and you loose your job then you’re condemned. Even when you have a job, you’ll be anxious, over-busy, unable to say no. “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 2:16)
The good news is that Jesus has not come “to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
He offers true salvation: being welcomed to God’s feast. And when we don’t measure up, we’re not condemned. Instead of condemning us, our God is condemned in our place. So salvation is not found through obeying any kind of law, but “through faith in Jesus”.