In his book “Tell It Slant”, Eugene Peterson brings concepts from parables and prayers of Jesus to consider for counseling, personal living through heart-transformation, and for our progressive sanctification. Peterson uniquely speaks to the heart that is open to change and that is my goal as a biblical counselor–to speak to hearts for the purpose of redemptive, godly change. However, as Christians we often believe that we have it all together and are not in need of change. We forget that no one is righteous and that Jesus came to call sinners (Rom 3:10; Mk 2:17). We are easily capable of being self-righteous instead of righteous through faith (Rom 1:17) in the sight of the Lord and in His atoning work on the cross, alone.
The sin of self-righteousness interests me as a biblical counselor in the area of self-examination and peer-counseling of my fellow ministry leaders. My first conviction came in the story “The Lost Brothers: Luke 15” in Chapter 7. Here, there are four “mini-stories” that show who the “lost brother” can be while Jesus does His authentic soteriological work. The first parable, known as “The Lost Sheep”, parallels the other three mini-stories in Luke 15 and highlights the degree that a Shepherd goes to rescue one sheep who strays from the flock. Peterson exposes the sin of the church, the heart-state of the Pharisee, at the point in the text just prior to the parable:
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And
the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying ‘This man receives sinners and
eats with them’” (Lk 15:1,2).
Just like the Israelites in Ex 16:2 who were dissatisfied with God’s way of provision of “bread of heaven” or “manna”, the Pharisees demonstrate discontentment and disapproval of God’s provision for salvation. They play judge and are self-righteous as if they know better than God. They “grumble”, or “diegongudzon” in greek–a word that has an onomatopoeiac sound of murmuring and muttering. Like the Prodigal Son story, the pretense and posturing of the Pharisees prior to the Lost Sheep story exposes the heart of jealousy similar to the older son when his run-away brother returns (Lk 15:28-30). I can almost hear 99 sheep “baa-baahing” in discontentment while Jesus seeks to save the one lost! Instead of rejoicing, as the angels do in heaven, the Pharisees grumble about the way Jesus saves the unrighteous. Do we also forget that Christ gave us His righteousness upon our acceptance of faith? For “when a sinner receives Christ, he also receives the gift of Christ’s own righteousness.”
There are heavenly benefits in the kingdom for our works and therefore you need an “ego-check” if you are one who produces fruit for the kingdom. Peterson explains:
“For as long as we hold on to any pretense of having it all together we are prevented from deepening and maturing in the Christian faith. For as long as we avoid recognition of our lostness we are prevented from experiencing the elegant profundities of foundness…Eusebeigenic sin can be prevented. It is as simple as it is difficult: lay our competencies and skills daily on the altar.”
So, how can we operate in regards to the sin that can prevent us from loving our neighbor as ourselves? This eusebeigenic sin–sin that appears as righteousness– is something that develops in the church likened to what Peterson borrows from a medical term “iatrogenic”, which explains how a disease can be developed in someone when being cured. We must therefore also call the aide of the church to bring awareness to this sin. In counseling, how are we to convict our brother or sister who is blind to sin that was actually formed in the church? My hope is that there is a way to rid ourselves of stumbling blocks that get in the way of unity while we humbly receive Christ, daily. A conscious recognition of our hearts is necessary.
“The best protection against eusebeigenic sin is an acute awareness of our lost condition in which we so desperately and at all times need a Savior.” In the gospels, we observe many altercations of Jesus with various legalists to the extent that they are considered the outsiders of the faith:
“Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples: “The scribes and the Pharisees are seated in the chair of Moses. Therefore do whatever they tell you, and observe it. But don’t do what they do, because they don’t practice what they teach. They tie up heavy loads…aren’t willing to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others (Mt 23:1-5a)”.
Jesus certainly gives every Christian a clear message. He states that “teachers of the law” are in effect, judgmental hypocrites as they “do not practice what they preach” (Rom 2:1 paraphrased) but they care more about their image and appearance. I call this the “look at me” syndrome often found in church leadership that delights in “lording over” (1 Pet 5:3) others. Peterson reiterates in chapter 11 that, “hypocrisy is slow-growing. In its early stages it is difficult to detect”. We need to see the fine line between healthy leadership worth following and the act of dictatorial lordship. The works of teaching are in and of themselves useless unless the Holy Spirit is working in and through the teacher as a gift–always for the benefit of another, not yourself! Leadership can only be performed in humble obedience and surrender to Jesus or as Luke 3:8 reminds us to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance”. Timothy Gombis supports Peterson’s observations:
“While ancient and contemporary Pharisees imagine that their efforts bring
about cultural holiness are what moves God to save, Paul says it is completely
a matter of God’s gracious initiative. God does not want any boasting in his
radically new society, no one setting himself over others, no one claiming a cozier
relationship with God than others.”
Jesus called sinners to become the righteousness of God and that includes the hearts of those of us who forget to rely upon Jesus for righteousness and can turn the church into a legalistic sea of Pharisees. The modern church is the “Israel of God” (Gal 6:16) which is now the legitimate righteousness in the new life in Jesus, not a church of only law-keeping, but a church that lives by faith (Rom 1:9). The true people of God are those whom believe in Jesus the son of God, faithfully, internally and of the heart (Rom 2:29) prior to any work to accomplish or law to maintain. It is Jesus’ righteousness that makes us acceptable to God and only through humble and realistic self-examination can this be accomplished. Our own righteous works are of no value to God. But righteousness in faith is a gift of God and as we humbly receive, enjoy and exercise it, it replaces our self-derived sanctimoniousness and posturing. We are able to help the lost brother continue on in progressive sanctification if we also humbly remain in Jesus.