Where Self-Righteousness Leads
by Rev. David Silversides
"And you will not come to me, that ye might have life" (John 5, 40).
Continuing on the subject of faith and works and the fact that we're justified by faith in Christ or not at all, our theme this evening is: where self-righteousness leads.
We've looked at the truth that sinners are justified, declared not-guilty by God, on the basis of Christ's merits alone being imputed to all those, and only those, who trust only in the Lord Jesus Christ. The faith of God's people, the faith of the forgiven sinner, shows itself in works, but those works do not merit, either in whole or in part, their forgiveness of sins from God. The Jews were largely self-righteous: they looked to their own efforts to keep God's law - to make them accepted before God. They thought that by their endeavours to keep God's law, they could secure the favour of God. Of course they were completely wrong but this self-righteousness was not a mere mental slip; it was a great sin and wickedness. It was expressive of a heart at enmity with God. Self-righteousness, self-confidence, the idea of earning acceptance with God, is not a morally neutral mistake; it is in itself an expression of sin.
1. SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS IS INCOMPATIBLE WITH COMING TO CHRIST
The first thing to learn is that: self-righteousness is incompatible with coming to Christ.
"And you will not come to me, that ye might have life" (text). So long as they thought they were righteous, they would never come to the Lord Jesus Christ. For Christ calls sinners to repentance, and those who do not see themselves as sinners, will never see their need of Christ. Certainly, they will never be willing to come to Him. They see no need of the Saviour. Those who do not regard themselves as sick will not go to the doctor. Those who do not see themselves as guilty before God and as sinners in His sight will not come to the Lord Jesus Christ. One of the greatest blunders that the church of Christ can make today is to stop talking about sin in the interests of conveying a positive image. If we stop talking about sin, it is argued we will have a better and more attractive image. The problem is that if we stop talking about sin then the cross of Christ becomes meaningless. If we proclaim Christ simply as a Friend, and indeed He is a Friend to His people, and not as a Saviour of guilty sinners, then we are not preaching or witnessing to the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. To fail to speak of sin is to insult Christ and His death on the cross.
If we cannot bring ourselves to speak openly of sin and of righteousness and of judgement, then how can be bear testimony to the Gospel? If we do not speak of sin and yet we speak of the love of God in sending His Son to die on the cross, those who hear may well say, "So what! Ok, Christ came to die on the cross; so what!" We must not therefore muffle the truth about sin. A church that cannot open its mouth about sin has become an irrelevance. People make a big deal about being relevant, about the need to be relevant. What they mean is, making ourselves look relevant in the eyes of those who do not see themselves as sinners. To be truly relevant we must tell people the truth about themselves, about sin, about judgement and about the Saviour of sinners. The self-righteous will never come to Christ unless by the grace of God they cease to be self-righteous; therefore we must not withhold the truth of God's law. Their transgression of it as well as our own and the need that everyone has, including ourselves, of the Saviour of sinners. "...you will not come..." (text): their self-righteousness was incompatible with coming to the Lord Jesus Christ. No self-righteous sinner ever came to Christ without ceasing to be self-righteous.
2. SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS WILL TRY TO JUSTIFY UNBELIEF
But then secondly: self-righteousness will try to justify unbelief.
The self-righteous will not come to Christ but they will also try to justify their not coming. They will not only not come to Christ but will seek ways of excusing their not coming. They not only disbelieve but will want to justify that disbelief. In the case of these men they saw no need of the Saviour of sinners and so they went on various ways to deny that He was the Saviour of sinners. Why did they bother doing it? Why didn't they just say, "Well, this isn't for me." But they didn't. You see those who think they are doing rather well in terms of merit before God, those who are deluded in that way; they don't like others, especially those they regard as inferior to themselves, claming to be saved by grace. The Gospel of saving grace through Christ is offensive to those who are self-righteous and trusting in themselves. It is offensive and something they do not think they need.
It is also offensive if others claim to be saved by the grace of God in the Lord Jesus Christ. It is not difficult to see why. Because they see themselves as superior to others, they don't want others claiming to be saved by grace when in their own eyes they are doing such an excellent job and are ahead of the field in terms of salvation by merit. So the man born blind to whom Christ gave sight in John 9 declaring by that miracle that He was the Light of the World. They cast him out of the synagogue because he kept speaking well of Christ the One by whom he could now see. They weren't interested in the fact he was blind and he could now see, even physically they weren't interested in that. What did it matter to them that this fellow could now see? What riled them was that he kept speaking about Christ as the One who had done it: the Lord Jesus, this Jesus of Nazareth. "And they cast him out" (John 9, 34). They said to him, "Thou wast altogether born in sins, and dost thou teach us?" ["Who do you think you are?"] "And they cast him out" (John 9, 34).
The elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son, what was he so miffed about? What was the matter with the man? Well it was this: he thought he merited favour and he couldn't stomach the idea that the younger brother had been shown grace. The self-righteous are deeply hostile to salvation by grace either being preached to themselves or being claimed by others. In this passage these men go to some lengths in opposing Christ. In John's Gospel particularly we sense the mounting tension between Christ and His enemies. You can see the development, how the antagonism of the Jews, especially the leaders, become stronger and stronger as Christ discloses more and more of Himself as the Saviour of sinners. Here they first of all claim that Christ was a sinner: "And therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him, because he had done these things on the Sabbath day" (John 5, 16). They claimed that He had broken the Sabbath. They were wrong!
What He had broken was their false imposition upon the fourth commandment. But Christ defends His Sabbath activity of healing the man: "But Jesus answered them, My Father worketh hitherto, and I work" (John 5, 17). He's pointing out here that when God set the example after working on Creation as it were, after spending six days on the work of Creation and then rested the seventh day and blessed it as the Sabbath day; God was not inactive on that first Sabbath day. He ceased from the activity of Creation but He was active in the work of Providence: in preserving and governing all His creatures and all their actions. So that the Sabbath then is not for total non-activity, it is for different activity: "Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work" (Exodus 20, 9), but the Sabbath is for the worship of God and the works of necessity and mercy. It's for different activity not just cessation of activity; ceasing one kind of activity, engaging in another. In showing this Christ declares that He shared with the Father in the work of Providence, so He says: "My Father worketh hitherto, and I work" (John 5, 17).
The response to this was that having accused Him of being a sinner, they now accuse Him of blasphemy and deny His deity: "Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him, because he not only had broken the Sabbath, but said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God" (John 5, 18). They caught on, rightly, that Christ saying "My Father worketh in me, and I work" (John 5, 17), was a claim to equality with the Father. Then Christ responds by showing them just how much they were ignoring the works given to Him by the Father to do: "Then answered Jesus and said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise. For the Father loveth the Son, and he showeth him all things that himself doeth: and he will shew him greater works than these, that ye may marvel" (John 5, 19-20). Christ is telling them that they take no notice of the works given to Him by the Father to perform. You might think that these people hadn't a proper testimony to the truth, but they did: they saw the miracles and they beheld Christ displaying His glory in those works appointed of the Father for Him to perform. But it didn't change them. You must never think that miracles, witnessing miracles, was ever intended to change men's hearts because it wasn't and it didn't.
In Luke 16, the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Lazarus is in Abraham's bosom in paradise. The rich man in hell says: "Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father's house: For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment. Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead" (Luke 16, 27-31). This man in hell is here represented as saying, "Give my brothers the opportunity I didn't have". There is an expression of enmity here. "Let Lazarus go back from the dead; that'll do it. They'll repent. They'll avoid ending up where I am!" But the answer was that they had Moses and the prophets, they had the Scriptures. Let them hear them. He says, "No, no, no - if someone goes back from the dead, then they'll repent." Christ says if they won't hear Moses and the prophets neither will they repent though one go back from the dead." You say, "Surely if someone went back from the dead there would be converts?" There might be fear, there might be horror, there might be bewilderment, but on its own it wouldn't produce one single genuine convert to Christ.
The Jews, the leaders, admit Christ had performed miracles: "Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, What do we? for this man doeth many miracles" (John 11, 47). They didn't deny it. They didn't do what the liberals do and say, "Well, they didn't really happen." They knew they had happened. They knew that Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead - the other Lazarus. But their response was to make a definite decision to put Christ to death. That was their response. The problem was not lack of testimony. Never think that the problem when people won't accept the Gospel is to do with lack if testimony or evidence. Or if you try to prove it and do it well enough that that will do the trick, because it won't. The miracles recorded in Scripture are quite sufficient for those who heart's are receptive to the truth: "And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name" (John 20, 30-31).
But Christ goes on to say that in ignoring the Father's testimony through the works that the Father gave Him to do, they are ignoring the One to whom God the Father has committed greater works. He has committed all judgement unto the Son; He has committed the execution of His purpose of quickening sinners through the Gospel to the Son; and He has committed the final judgement to the Son: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live" (John 5, 25). There He is speaking of life-giving, spiritual quickening from the dead, because that hour now is: "Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation" (John 5, 28-29). He's telling the Jews they have ignored the works the Father gave Him to do. But do they not realise the Father's view of the Son! The Father's view of Him as God the Son manifest in the flesh is that He is to be the Mediator King, that He is to be exalted to God's right hand to execute the Father's will in quickening sinners dead in sin and in finally executing judgement: "Because he [God] hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom He hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead" (Acts 17, 31). They ignore the Father's testimony and the testimony of the miracles appointed to Christ to perform.
Do they understand that they are opposing the Son of God? Do they understand that they are opposing God's anointed? Do they understand that they are opposing the one who will be given a Name above every name? Then He tells them they are ignoring John's testimony: "There is another that beareth witness of me; and I know that the witness which he witnesseth of me is true. Ye sent unto John, and he bare witness unto the truth. But I receive not testimony from man: but these things I say, that ye might be saved. He was a burning and a shining light: and ye were willing for a season to rejoice in his light. But I have greater witness than that of John: for the works which the Father hath given me to finish, the same works that I do bear witness of me, that the Father hath sent me" (John 5, 32-36). He says He received greater testimony than John's but nevertheless they have John's testimony. John's testimony was a light or a lamp. It's the idea of not being the source of the light but of being a bearer of that light. And his witness was true, and his witness was clear. He was a burning and a shining light, but still they took no notice. Not only did they ignore the testimony of the Father's appointed miracles performed by Christ, not only do they ignore John's testimony, but they ignore the testimony of the Scriptures: "And ye have not his word abiding in you: for whom he hath sent, him ye believe not. Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me" (John 5, 38-39).
He's saying, "You are supposed to believe the Scriptures. You men claim to believe the Scriptures; if you believed the Scriptures you would believe me. The Scriptures testify of Me; they are all about Me. So you haven't God's Word dwelling in you." "For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me. But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my words?" (John 5, 46-47). Instead of trusting in Moses, instead of misusing the Old Testament law and trying to make it a vehicle of their own self-righteousness and merit for the favour of God, if they'd really understood and believed and received Moses' testimony in the Old Testament Scriptures, they would believe on Christ because Moses testified of Christ. Moses endured himself the reproach of Christ. And the ceremonial law given by God to Moses pointed to Christ. The law showed men they were sinners and they needed the Saviour set forth in the sacrifices of the tabernacle. So they had ignored all of that: they ignored the miracles, they ignored John's testimony; they ignored the testimony of Holy Scripture in the Old Testament.
3. SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS IS INCOMPATIBLE WITH LOVE TO GOD
Then thirdly: self-righteousness is incompatible with love to God.
"But I know you, that ye have not the love of God in you" (John 5, 42). There is something truly awful, or awesome, about Christ's words here: "I know you, that ye have not the love of God in you" (John 5, 42). Here is Christ, the Christ of God, God manifest in the flesh, saying to these men: "I know you, [that despite all your religious pretensions and profession] ye have not the love of God in you" (John 5, 42). If they did not honour Christ it showed that they did not have love to God in them despite all that they claimed to be. Christless religion expresses hostility to God. We said something similar yesterday but this further confirms it. A religion that does not want Christ as the Saviour of sinners, that religion is an expression of antagonism to the living and true God. They distorted the true view of God and of His law to conveniently serve their self-righteous aspirations and delusions. Their pride, their desire to save themselves, to be the god of their own salvation, meant that they took the Old Testament and they mangled it. They distorted the Old Testament view of God, and they took His law and ripped the insides out of it and then added a multitude of banal odds and ends unto it. They then patted themselves on the back and said, "We are righteous."
4. SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS MUST BE ATTACKED
Fourthly: self-righteousness must be attacked.
Self-righteousness must be attacked, it must be opposed. It must be opposed by the preaching of the law. Christ tells them at the end of this chapter that their trust in the law of God was based on a complete distortion of that law. If they really received Moses' testimony, they would see they were sinners in need of Christ the Saviour. The law of God is to be declared in its true meaning, including the commandments, so that sinners, by the blessing of God, will see that they are sinners. The apostle says: "for by the law is the knowledge of sin" (Romans 3, 20). What is sin? Sin is the transgression of the law. So how do sinners learn that they are sinners? Well, they must see what God's law really requires of them. When they see what God's law really requires, they'll know that they are sinners.
You remember the rich young ruler who came to the Lord Jesus Christ in Mark 10, 17-22. He comes running to Christ: "Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?" (Mark 10, 17). It is every evangelist's dream someone asking - "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" "And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God" (Mark 10, 18). It stops him in his tracks. What is this use of the word 'good'? Christ was good and Christ was God, but this young man was rather too free in his use of the term 'good' because he didn't really understand what goodness was. Then He tells the young man: "Thou knowest the commandments..." (Mark 10, 19), and He mentions some of the commandments. The young man said, "Master, all these have I observed from my youth" (Mark 10, 20). There are people who that, aren't there? Perhaps you think it! He hadn't kept them.
In the Sermon on the Mount Christ expounds those commandments to show that hatred in the heart breaks the sixth commandment; lust in the heart breaks the seventh commandment - "Thou shalt not commit adultery". But he thought he had. So the Lord Jesus pinpoints his most cherished sin and He asserts His rights over the man's possessions: "go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor" (Mark 10, 21). And he went away sorrowful because he had many possessions (Mark 10, 22). Christ was exposing the fact that when it came to it, he was a covetous man and he loved his possessions. He would rather have his possessions than eternal life in Christ. Christ was showing the man that he was a sinner.
In the Lord Jesus' dealings with the woman of Samaria, she was quite interested in having a discussion about the right place to worship. She was quite interested in this 'living water'. Christ says to her: "If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given living water. The woman saith unto him, Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep: from whence then hast thou that living water? Art thou greater than our father Jacob, which gave us the well, and drank thereof himself, and his children, and his cattle?" (John 4, 10-12). She is thinking of the fresh water down at the bottom near the spring. The Lord Jesus speaks again: "Jesus answered and said unto her, Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst: but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life. The woman saith unto him, Sir, give me this water, that I thirst not, neither come hither to draw" (John 4, 13-15).
She is saying, "Make life a bit easier for me." "Jesus saith unto her, Go, call thy husband, and come hither" (John 4, 16). There is a sudden jar, a jolt. She is saying, "Give me this water!" But she didn't know what she was talking about. She thought it was something that would make life easier. He says, "Go call thy husband" and she says, "I have no husband". He says, "You haven't a husband, that's quite right." "For thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband: in that sadist thou truly. The woman saith unto him, Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet. Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship" (John 4, 18-20).
Let's get off this and get on to the old church questions. Christ was bringing her face-to-face with the fact that she was a sinner. On the day of Pentecost, have you ever noticed how Peter shows, what some would no doubt regard wrongly, as insensitivity and abrasiveness. He says, "Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2, 36). He is saying you did it! "Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?" (Acts 2, 37).
Sinners must see their sin, to see their need of Christ. How much does a sinner need to see his sin? How much conviction of sin is necessary? Simply this, enough to give up all hope in ourselves. In Romans 7 the apostle relates his own experience: "What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead. For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me" (Romans 7, 7-11). He goes on to say, "...that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful" (Romans 7, 13).
What the apostle is saying is this. He was a sinner but when the Lord God came, the more he realised God forbad something, the more he wanted to do it. He is saying that he was alive without the law, that is, he was fairly sure of himself; he thought he'd be all right. But when the commandment began to bite home in what it really required, he found that so great was his corruption of nature that the knowledge of what God commanded made the sin forbidden all the more attractive. He said, "...when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died" (Romans 7, 9). That is, he despaired of saving himself and making himself righteous in the sight of God. In Isaiah 57: "Thou art wearied in the greatness of thy way; yet saidst thou not, There is no hope: thou hast found the life of thine hand; therefore thou wast not grieved" (Isaiah 57, 10). Sinners must not only be wearied, they must say, "There is no other hope of making myself accepted in the sight of God." There must be self-despair.
The extent of conviction of sin varies. If you read John Bunyan or John Newton, you will find huge differences. But there must be the abandonment of all hope of being accepted before God on the basis of our own life, conduct, thought and endeavour. But that does not mean that Christ is only offered to those who are thus convinced. Christ is offered to sinners, not just to convinced sinners. But only convinced sinners will see any value in the Christ offered to them.
Our forefathers distinguished between what they called 'the way of faith' and 'the warrant of faith'. The 'warrant of faith' is that someone is a sinner and Christ is offered to sinners: to sinners, all kind of sinners. Christ is offered to convinced sinners, Christ is offered to unconvinced sinners. But the 'way of faith' is that a sinner is brought to a point of being convinced of his sin so that he sees his need of the Christ who is freely offered to him in the Gospel.
Christ is offered to all sinners. These men were far from being convinced sinners. But Christ does not say they haven't come to him because there were no offers of mercy addressed to them; far from it. Christ had offered mercy to these men. It was not lack of the offer of the Gospel; it was a lack of heart-willingness to come. It was because, not being born again of the Spirit, they loved darkness rather than light. They had been invited to come to the Lord Jesus Christ, but Christ says, "...you will not come to me, that ye might have life" (text). They had been invited to the marriage feast of the King's Son but they would not come. The reason they did not come was not lack of testimony, they had the miracles, they had Christ's words, they had the testimony of John the Baptist, and they had the Old Testament Scriptures. There was no lack of testimony concerning Christ. There was no deficiency in truth made known. Nor was it lack of offers or indications to come to the Lord Jesus Christ. The obstacle was a wicked and evil heart of unbelief: they did not want Christ! There pride meant that they loved their own self-righteousness and the darkness of unbelief. They saw no beauty in Christ that they should desire Him (Isaiah 53, 2).
If you are not a Christian, why are you not a Christian? You say, "Well, it's just some wee thing that stops me." It isn't! The reason any sinner doesn't come to Christ is because they do not want Christ. That's why Christ said, "Ye must be born again" (John 3, 7). We need the work of the Holy Spirit to change our wicked, proud, rebellious, hearts into hearts that desire and want Christ. But let me assure you, anyone who wants Christ as the Saviour of sinners, can have Christ. Anyone who wants Christ can have Christ. Christ does not say to these men, "You don't come because the way is prohibited to you". There is no barrier in the testimony sent to them. The only obstacle, the only hindrance to you coming to Christ is not in the Gospel or in the offers of mercy in Christ Jesus; it is in the sinfulness of your own heart. Only God can change that heart. But there is nothing between your soul and Christ but an evil heart of unbelief. The Gospel is sent to you and Christ is freely offered to you: "...to you is the word of this salvation sent" (Acts 13, 26).
The apostle Paul declared that in the synagogue in Antioch in Pisidia in Acts 13. He says indiscriminately to them: "...to you is the word of this salvation sent" (Acts 13, 26). Later on some them despised the truth, and as many as were ordained unto life believed. But the apostle says, "...to you is the word of this salvation sent" (Acts 13, 26). And it is sent to you - in the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Why do you not come to Christ? What fault do you find in Christ that you do not come to Him? What is so deficient in the Lord of Glory, the Saviour of sinners, that you will not come to Him? Do you not see the wickedness of your not coming to the Lord Jesus Christ? Your self-righteousness, your pride, is a wicked thing. You self-righteousness will lead you to hell; whereas Christ takes all those who come to Him to heaven and to glory and to life everlasting.
You must abandon your self-righteousness and come to the Lord Jesus Christ: "...whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely" (Revelation 22, 17). Amen.