Few would deny that we live in an acrimonious time. Not many years ago, the general consensus in this country concerning speech was, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (a statement Wrongly attributed to Voltaire). Today, that long revered free speech mantra has been flipped on its head. Individual worth is determined by one’s agreement and affirmation (perhaps including militant affirmation) of a group’s prevailing assertions and practices. Personal identities often seem to be reduced to asserting what one is not. On September 9, Neil Shenvi (Christian apologetics from a homeschooling theoretical chemist), a friend and occasional guest on our “Unknown Webcast,” posted a gentle reminder of the futility of this widespread practice on his Facebook page to any who rely on faulty and changing standards of measuring whether someone else is a “good” or “bad” person.
Each of us builds an identity on not being a Bad Person.
“At least I’m not woke”
“At least I’m not MAGA”
“At least I’m not a pervert”
“At least I’m not a bigot”
Jesus says: You are a Bad Person. By nature, you’re just as lost as the people you despise. But you can be forgiven.
Shenvi’s “Bad Person” identity game exposes one’s view of personal righteousness vs. biblical teaching. Biblically, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). But forgiveness and redemption are available to all who call on Jesus (Romans 10:9-13) Yet, it is our human desire to see ourselves as “maybe flawed,” but at least a far better person than the other guy over there. The pot calls the kettle black.
It makes sense that unbelievers would resort to using themselves as the standard of measuring righteousness. Having rejected God’s standard of holiness, they are their own highest authority, and their opinions the highest standard of measurement.
However, this type of finger-pointing can, of course, be an issue among the people of God, and something which Jesus Himself spoke to in Luke 18:9-14:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Notice the Pharisee who defined his identity as “I am not like other men.” His superiority in his own mind is comprised of the unrighteous acts he does not personally commit and two righteous things that he does practice – fasting and giving tithes – that others can observe him doing and be impressed by his personal piety. He elevated himself as the standard of measure by which he judged the tax collector. The tax collector’s focus was using a different standard of measure, God’s holiness. Therefore, being convinced of his terrible inability to measure up, he “beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” The view of a “righteous life” was quite different for each man. One was based on being measured against God, and the other was being measured against “other men.” In Matthew 5:21-48, Jesus spoke to the very claims the Pharisee enumerated in Luke 18, demonstrating that righteousness isn’t simply what someone does or doesn’t do but how they fill their minds and hearts. For example,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28)
Once we measure ourselves and our rather pitiful righteousness against God’s unchanging holiness, we see ourselves as we are. With that recognition, we tend to be slower to pass this type of judgment on others. Jesus’s much-misunderstood statement regarding not judging others (Matthew 7:1-5) refers exactly to this type of judgment. We are to judge right from wrong and true vs. falsehood, but not to apply this type of pharisaic judgment on other sinners while giving ourselves a pass or perhaps even a pat on the back. God is the judge. We are to practice personal humility, looking at our own selves with clear eyes. The Apostle Paul wrote to at least two of the churches, the church in Rome and the church in Corinth, directing their attention to the proper standard of such measurement. In Romans 12:3:
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.
To the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul pointed out that those who use themselves as the standard or measure “are without understanding”:
Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding. (2 Corinthians 10:12)
This does not mean we are not to address active unrepentant sin within the church, but even that must be done with great humility, knowing our own weakness. And as Paul pointed out, he didn’t judge those outside the church (1 Corinthians 5:9-13) at all. We sometimes tend to confuse judging sinful behavior with the satisfying feeling of judging ourselves as intrinsically better than someone else – that truly reprehensible sinner over there. That is the moment when self-righteousness creeps in and captures us. As Paul points out, we tend to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think. Why do we do it? It’s simply not pleasant to confront our faults and sins, and it’s quite comforting to tamp those thoughts down by judging someone else as far worse. Comforting or not, though, Christians are not to do it.
There are some Christians who seem to believe they can determine if someone else is a Christian or not based on observable behavior. Yet, by the “observable behavior” criteria, we would have to conclude that many Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others that proclaim a different Jesus and different gospel – but act “Christianly” – are, in fact, Christians. But they are not, for the very fact that they reject God’s gift of imputed righteousness, preferring to, or thinking they must, establish their own righteousness by their own efforts. They either do not know or just won’t believe that God offers salvation as a gift – because NONE of us could earn it. (There is no concept of grace in these groups. Many cultists do see that they are failing miserably to measure up to God’s righteousness and live in a carefully hidden despair.)
On the other hand, in 1 Corinthians 5:9-13, we see someone who is born again living in unrepentant sin. If he were to be judged on his outward appearance, he would not appear to be a Christian at all. He was to be turned over “to Satan for the destruction of the flesh.” That sounds awful. Yet, instead of teaching that this man was not a true Christian, Paul continues, “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” What we can see does not tell the whole story of someone’s relationship with God.1For a more in-depth look at this, we recommend Bad Heir Day
We often forget we live in a fallen world. The culture in which we live today is more like the first century than any time in between. Thought shapers largely reject Judeo/Christian morality and ethics at the national and international levels. There is an assault on those who hold firmly to the word of God, biblical teaching, and living. The Apostle Peter wrote to a group in the First Century who were also targets of an unbelieving culture. The popular apologetic verse (2 Peter 3:15) he penned, “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you,” is couched in the middle of several exhortations, one of which speaks to the very ideas Neil Shenvi posted:
Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. (2 Peter 3:9)
Rather than responding in kind, exacting an eye for an eye, we are to “make a defense” for our faith, in which we can address issues, proclaim the gospel, and give the reason for the hope we have and to do so as Peter wrote:
yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. (2 Peter 3:15-16)
Is it easy to respond in this way? It is not at all easy, “in the flesh,” to follow Peter’s instruction to respond to an attack or an accusation with gentleness and respect. In fact, we have all blown it – time and time again – and if we are at all honest, we know it. If you have not failed in this way, then you have in some other way – none of us will arrive at perfect righteousness in this life. We are not yet what we will be. Yet, we must not despair – and certainly not give up – because God continues to work in and through us. That’s why reading over these scripture passages is so essential, so the Lord may bring them to our minds when we need them.
Our true identity is in Who we belong to, NOT in our own righteousness. Thank God!Ω
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