Posted by: Philip Rushton | January 17, 2012

When Being Good Becomes A Sin

“Sin and evil are self-centeredness and pride that lead to oppression against others, but there are two forms of this. One form is being very bad and breaking all the rules, and the other form is being very good and keeping all the rules and becoming self-righteous.” Timothy Keller, The Reason For God, 177

I came across this quote in preparation for my men’s group this morning. This quote struck me as very odd. It is odd to think that our attempt at being very good can actually lead us towards evil, but I think Keller is on to something.

Keller is referring to a type of attitude that is similar to the Pharisees in the gospels. The Pharisees were rule keepers. They lived a very disciplined life and worked hard to avoid breaking any of the commandments. At the same time they developed a very oppressive disposition towards those who were not keeping the rules. The irony of the Pharisees approach to life is that in their attempt to be very good they ended up developing a self-righteous attitude that lead them to live a life that was not very good at all. They became angry, exclusive, and judgmental towards others.

Pharisaical religion is always a danger in the Christian life. In fact, I would say that it is one of the main problems with contemporary Christianity. Unfortunately, the church has gained a reputation for being judgmental and oppressive to outsiders. I’ve quoted stats before from Dan Kinnaman’s book UnChristian. This book traces the public perception that non-believers have towards Christians. The stats are depressing. While in 1996 86% of non-believers had a favorable view of the Christians role in society, in 2006 the number was down to 16%. When it comes to bible believing evangelicals, those with a favorable view of their role in society dropped to 3%.

I think Keller helps us understand what is at the root of the problem. When our faith is reduced to rule-keeping, we start to put our trust in our own goodness rather than in God’s grace. This develops within us a sense of pride or self-sufficiency that can have damaging consequences both personally and socially.

On the on hand, it can damage our inner soul. If we start putting our hope in our own goodness we will inevitably get frustrated when we make mistakes or fail in some way. This leads us on a pathway towards anxiety, insecurity, self-hatred and so on. On the other hand, it can also create social strife. When we base our life on the illusion of self-sufficiency and pride we can become judgmental to outsiders, exclusive, angry and so on.

Richard Lovelace puts it this way:

“Many . . . draw their assurance of acceptance with God from their sincerity, their past experience of conversion, their recent religious performance or the relative infrequency of their conscious, willful disobedience . . . Their insecurity shows itself in pride, a fierce defensive assertion of their own righteousness, and defensive criticism of others. They come naturally to hate other cultural styles and other races in order to bolster their own security and discharge their suppressed anger.”

The only thing that can set us free from the dangerous path of legalism is if we humble ourselves enough to receive God’s grace. And it does require humility. What sets us free from this never ending cycle of trying to prove our worth is by acknowledging that we actually need God’s help. This is what the gospel is all about. As Paul reminds us in Ephesians 2:8, “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

The irony of all of this, is that it is only when we humbly embrace the gift of grace that we can start to grow in the virtues we were pursuing in the first place. That is why the whole Sermon on the Mount – the great ethical teaching of Jesus – begins with him saying, “blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, and the mournful.” The starting point towards ethical transformation is a humble recognition that we need God’s help.

The point of this reflection, then, is not to abandon virtue and the pursuit of morality. The point is that the pursuit of virtue must begin in the humble recognition that we are all sinners saved by grace. If we do not start here we have lost the gospel and the Christian life degenerates into a dangerous legalistic religion.


  1. Well said! This is a clear, accurate reflection. Thank you for it.

  2. Thanks Victoria. Hope the King and Queen are having a good week!

  3. Well said. Humility is so necessary and yet hard to have also. A thought provoking piece. Thank you

    • Hi Daryl

      Thanks for your thoughts. You raise a good question – how do we gain humility? What does that process look like? What are your thoughts on that?

      Humility can be a bit of an elusive goal. The danger is always that we’ll become proud of our humility and thereby defeat the purpose! I’ve always like C.S. Lewis idea that we can have a false idea of humility. In mere Christianity he writes,

      “…Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all. If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.” (page 128, Mere Christianity)

      I like the idea that true humility expresses itself in a genuine love and interest in the other. Elsewhere Lewis talks about how humility is not about pretty girls thinking their are ugly, or smart people thinking they are dumb – instead it is about self-forgetfulness and a genuine concern for others above ourselves.

      I wonder if the starting point of this journey requires that we face some type of hardship or situation that makes us realize our dependency on God. The idea of facing our cross daily – gaining life through losing it. ??

      • Humility is tough, and often contrary to the natural reaction. Humility may be best learned by someone who models it.

        For me humility has come more through trials and failures than by learning it the easy way. Although, selfless service and kindness have worked as well.

        Interestingly enough, it seems my greatest growth comes through my greatest challenges, which I am thankful for. I have also found that keeping my heart pointed in the right direction through and beyond challenges has a huge effect on my attitudes and outcomes.

  4. Nice message. I thought you summed it up well at the end when you said not to abandon virtue or morality, but to start with the recognition that first we are sinners saved by grace.
    As you paraphrased Lewis saying pretty girls thinking they were ugly, I identified with them as a handsome man thinking of myself as ugly. (That was my attempt at humble humor)
    Anyway, I think if we keep being conscious of how sinful we are, balanced with the thought that the God of the Universe loves me and died for me, then we have a pretty healthy view of ourselves.

    • Hi Stan,

      Thanks for your thoughts. I appreciate the humor! I think you point us to an important balance. The only way we can avoid personal anguish and social strife is when the recognition of our sin is alleviated by the hope of the gospel.

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