Your unrighteousness will damn you. But not as quickly as your righteousness. The enemy of your soul is both your unrighteousness and your own righteousness. As Christ said,“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matthew 9:12). His point wasn’t that there are genuinely those who are spiritually “well.” Instead, there are those who think they are well, so they dismiss their need of a spiritual Physician.
The enemy of your soul is both your unrighteousness and your own righteousness
It is righteousness that most often keeps people from Christ, as Paul explains in Philippians 3, using himself as an example.
Paul was dependent on self-righteousness
(Philippians 3:4–6) Paul warns the Philippians against trusting in mere morality as the basis of their acceptance by God. The Jews of his day were trusting in Law-keeping—especially circumcision—to earn God’s favor (vv. 2–3). Paul cites himself as “exhibit A” as he argues that salvation by works is impossible. If there were anyone who could have earned God’s favor by sheer devotion, it would have been Paul. So he shares his spiritual résumé.
He was circumcised on the eighth day, as Leviticus 12:3 required (v. 5). Regarding his “stock,” he was of the nation of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin—a Jew’s Jew (v. 5). Beyond typical Jews, he was a Pharisee—with a Ph.D. from Gamaliel University, no less (v. 5; Acts 22:3). Even among his fellow Pharisees, he distinguished himself as a persecutor of the church (v. 6). The Jews who boasted in circumcision were lightweights and rookies compared to Paul. He was serious. Regarding the righteousness of the Law (and the Pharisaical amendments to the Law), he was blameless (v. 6).
There was no one who could claim to be more Jewish, more Pharisaical, more self-made as a righteous man than Saul of Tarsus. And his righteousness was damning him.
Paul repented of self-righteousness
(Philippians 3:7–8) Beginning in verse 7, Paul speaks of counting all of his religious credentials as mere “rubbish”—dung, to quote the King James Version. Three times he uses the word “loss.” It is as though he were filing spiritual bankruptcy, finally realizing that he was spiritually destitute (see Matthew 5:7). He repudiated his own supposed righteousness and renounced it, finally grasping that even his best deeds were but filthy rags in the sight of a holy God (Isaiah 64:6).
What Paul describes in this section is repentance—a turning from his own way to God (Isaiah 55:7). Paul had to repent of his righteousness as surely as a Hindu, Muslim, or Buddhist has to repent of his false religion in order to be saved. Why? Because any confidence whatsoever in your own merit is false religion.
“Nothing was so injurious to [Paul] as his own righteousness, inasmuch as he was by means of it shut out from Christ”—John Calvin
One of our Reformers, John Calvin, explains: “Paul . . . acknowledges that nothing was so injurious to him as his own righteousness, inasmuch as he was by means of it shut out from Christ” (Calvin’s Commentary on Philippians).
Paul depended on Christ’s imputed righteousness
(Philippians 3:8–9) Stripped of any merit of his own, Paul finally found true righteousness through Christ. He forsook his own righteousness in order that he might find what Luther called “an alien righteousness”—that is, a righteousness that came from outside himself. Paul counted his own merits as loss “in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (vv. 8–9).
What Paul, Luther, and Calvin needed—and what you need—is what Scripture repeatedly calls “the righteousness of God,” imputed to you because you believe in Jesus Christ as your only hope of salvation (2 Corinthians 5:21; see also Romans 1:16–17; 3:21–22). You need to exchange your putrid robes for the impeccable robes of your Savior (Zechariah 3:1–5; Isaiah 61:10). Your righteousness will damn you. Christ’s righteousness will save you. Repent of your righteousness.
Let the gospel turn you from self-righteousness to Christ’s righteousness.
(Taken from Gospel Meditations on the Reformation, a 31-day devotional by Chris Anderson, Joe Tyrpak, Carl Trueman, and Andy Naselli, written to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation by reminding Christians of our rich legacy.)