by Phil Enlow

In Luke 11 we find Jesus teaching his disciples about prayer. They are taught to think of God as their “Father,” One who cares about their needs and responds to persistent prayer. Of course, they are also taught to honor Him and seek for His kingdom to come.

After pointing out that earthly fathers give good things to their children, Jesus makes an interesting statement in verse 13. “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

What I find amazing is the phrase that Jesus uses near the beginning of that verse: “though you are evil.” I can just hear a lot of folks in our day reacting, “Wait a minute! What did you just call me?” They would be highly offended, yet we have no record of the disciples reacting to what was said or thinking it strange — but it is something to think about!

First, there is no indication that Jesus said this in a condemning way but rather as a simple statement of fact. And he didn’t say, “you DO evil,” or, “you WERE evil,” but “you ARE evil,” a present-tense, ongoing condition.

He also didn’t say, “THEY are evil,” but, “YOU are evil.” He wasn’t referring to those society considered to be “sinners” like thieves and murderers. He was talking to his disciples, eleven of whom would become apostles, foundational to the establishing of his church!

Furthermore he didn’t say, “you make mistakes and come short,” rather, “you are EVIL.” Think about that! I am persuaded that there is a truth wrapped up in those simple words that is little understood in our day.

Theology that is at all faithful to the Bible recognizes the truth that mankind is fallen, sinful, and in need of salvation. You find expressions such as, “the depravity of man,” or “total depravity.” There are many who embrace these truths and vigorously defend them, yet I wonder how many really understand what they claim to believe.

It is one thing to see “mankind” as sinful and depraved; it is another to look in a mirror and with real spiritual understanding say, “YOU are evil.” “Mankind” is little more than a vague impersonal concept. The gospel message is very personal. It applies to YOU as an individual — and to ME as well.

Naturally, this sounds like a really unpleasant, negative subject! However, I don’t believe it is at all. After all, God demonstrated his love for us in that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Rom. 5:8. And don’t forget that Jesus’ words, “you are evil,” were preceded by the word “though.” Their condition, though real, was not an obstacle to the truth he was conveying about prayer and regarding God as a caring “Father.”

But it IS something that needs to be understood. And the further I go the more things I see that are affected by a lack of proper understanding. Of course, a relationship with God is impossible without a basic understanding of this truth. But many other things are seriously affected as well. It affects our relationships one with another as believers. It affects how we see sinners in need of salvation. And it deeply affects preaching. The gospel of Christ is meant to lead to joy and freedom. Far too often what is preached leaves people in a state of fear and bondage.

How God Sees Us

And so, let’s begin with a brief overview of how God sees the true condition of humanity. But let’s also, as we do, remember that these truths apply to US as individuals.

We are reminded in Rom. 5:12 that “sin entered the world through one man.” Of course, Paul was referring to Adam’s disobedience recorded in Genesis 3. His disobedience was a deliberate choice to rebel against God’s clear command and we are still living with the terrible results.

As God had warned it wasn’t just sin that entered the world but “death through sin.” As the very life Adam and Eve had received from God became “infected” with the principle of sin its very nature changed and the process of inevitable death began. Adam lived a long life — but he died.

Rom. 5:12 goes on to say, “in this way death came to all men.” Every one of Adam’s descendants inherited this sin-infected life we call “human nature” and all are subject to death.

Now if the verse were to end there we might suppose that we are all being punished because Adam sinned. But, of course, that is not so. The verse concludes, “because all sinned.”

Some people think we are sinners because we commit sins. They want to believe that they are basically good, but that they simply make mistakes and have weaknesses. They see sin as mere shortcomings affecting their outward behavior. After all, they say, “Nobody’s perfect.”

But consider the event recorded in Luke 18 where the man we call the “rich young ruler” addressed Jesus as “good teacher.” What was Jesus’ reply? In Luke 18:19, he said, “‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answered. ‘No one is good — except God alone.’“ His reply went far beyond mere questions of behavior to the true character of human nature.

Good People?

I seem to remember an interview following the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York in which a prominent Christian was asked, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” The answer given was the correct one: “There are no good people.” In the world we devise standards by which we regard some people as “good” and others as “bad.” But God’s standard is the one that matters and we all fall short of that. He IS the standard, and He IS perfect.

The truth is that we are not sinners because we commit sins; rather we commit sins because we are sinners. Some may restrain the outward expression of their natures more than others but everyone has the same essential evil nature. We are the ones who make differences among people.

The truth about ourselves is made clear in the events of Noah’s day. Following Adam’s fall the human race degenerated into sinfulness until in Noah’s day only he and his family remained true to God. Despite God’s efforts to “contend with man” (Gen. 6:3), we find man’s wickedness described in verse 5 as “great.” From God’s point of view, “every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.” Apart from Noah and his family, the human race had so embraced evil, shutting their hearts to God’s voice, that judgment was the only remedy.

After the flood we find God making a promise in Gen. 8:21, “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood.” Again we see that our problem is not one of behavior but of the heart.

In Mark 7:21-23, Jesus made that exact point. He was commenting on the idea the Pharisees promoted that being “clean” or “unclean” in God’s sight had to do with their rules about such things as eating and drinking and other outward things.

But Jesus said, “For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’“

All Alike

The Jews of Paul’s day made a huge difference between themselves and Gentiles when it came to being considered righteous in God’s eyes. But Rom. 3:9-18 sums up the truth.

“What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.’

“‘Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.’ ‘The poison of vipers is on their lips.’ ‘Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.’ ‘Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know.’ ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.’“

That’s a pretty bleak picture. And, remember, Paul is talking about you and me! Note also that he included himself by asking, “Are WE any better?” The truth is that if God were to completely withdraw His influence from humanity the world would be far more terrible than it already is. We would live and die as intelligent beasts, pursuing our own lusts, and never once think about God. It is because of His mercy alone that He has not left us to that awful fate.


But suppose we were to inform people of what God requires? Wouldn’t that help? After all He can’t blame us for being ignorant. Unfortunately that wouldn’t help at all.

In Rom. 8:7-8 Paul says, “the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.” Human nature is basically hostile to God and godliness and CANNOT please God. We have neither the desire nor even the ability to please Him. We are, by nature, enemies to all that is truly good.

The Unseen Kingdom

But it gets worse. Eph. 2:1-3 reminds us: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.” Note that Paul includes himself in all this.

We do not live in a neutral world. The unseen realm is populated by a kingdom of wicked spirits completely devoted to keeping mankind in a prison house of sin. Col. 1:13 refers to this as the “dominion of darkness.”

Thus the true picture of the human condition is far worse than merely “bleak”; it is utterly hopeless. In ourselves we have no goodness whatever. By nature we love what God hates and hate what He loves. And even if wanted to change — which we don’t — we have no ability to do so.

That leaves only one possible answer: if our situation is to change, God must act.

Ways God Strives with Men

It is evident that before the flood of Noah’s day God was “striving” with men, that is, He had worked in various ways to turn them from their descent into wickedness. It was only when there was no more capacity for response that judgment came. This “striving” continues in our day and takes several forms.

One form is the witness of creation. It takes a willful blindness not to see that there is a Creator behind the wonders we observe in the universe. Paul, in Rom. 1:20 says, “… since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”

The pull of their earthly lusts causes men to close their eyes to this witness, suppressing it, even claiming to be wise in so doing. In reality they become fools. Rom. 1:22, 2 Pet. 2:3.

Rom. 1:24-25 continues, “Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator — who is forever praised. Amen.”

Thus through nature itself the voice of God reaches out to lost humanity, reproving sin.

Another way God speaks is through the voice of conscience. Rom. 2:14-15. God has placed in everyone’s heart a voice that gives them an inward sense of right and wrong. This voice does not come from a supposed “good” part of human nature; there is no good part — and — this voice is a reproof of the desires of human nature. Our nature does not work againt itself! And the voice surely does not come from the devil! Rather it is another witness by which God seeks to draw the hearts of men back to Himself.

Can you imagine a world in which there was no sense of right and wrong, good and evil, at all? It would be a world such as that imagined in history by Charles Darwin, a world of bloody struggle and death, a world where the strong ruthlessly rule over the weak, where only the “fittest” survive. It is only the mercy of God that there is any restraint against evil at all.

God has also borne witness to mankind through various acts of judgment against wickedness such as Noah’s flood, the destruction of Sodom, the destruction of Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea, and many others. In each case the consequences of continuing in pride and wickedness became apparent to all who knew of these judgments. Psalm 105:7.

And, of course, the witness of the gospel beginning with Pentecost has been a most specific call to men to turn from their wickedness and to avail themselves of a perfect provision for full salvation. In the gospel the truth of how God has acted — in spite of man’s wickedness — is revealed. The cross of Christ and his resurrection have become the focal point of the only hope mankind has to escape judgment to come. What we could not do for ourselves, God has done.

Only eternity will reveal all of the ways God has spoken to men, striving with them to turn them from evil. Some of these are the general ways mentioned above, but God also deals with people in very personal ways through circumstances and speaking to them in their hearts. As Heb. 3:7-8 says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts ….”

The Human Response

So how do men respond? Two broad categories of response come to mind. Paul refers to the first in Romans 1, a response of suppression and deliberate rebellion. It can and does lead to a place where the voice of conscience is silenced and men have been “turned over” to the darkness and sin they have persistently chosen. The sense of right and wrong has been perverted in favor of their cherished lusts. They call good evil, and evil good, inventing their own self-serving “moral” code. Isaiah 5:20.

But most men recognize some kind of value system that is outside of themselves. When Adam and Eve had sinned, one effect was that they became conscious of their nakedness and they felt shame for the first time. However, their reaction was not to defiantly declare that nakedness was a good thing, rather they made aprons out of fig leaves. Their action typifies what humanity has done in one form or another ever since. The broad expression for this is “self-righteousness.”

The standard by which this form of “righteousness” is measured may come from religion, society, philosophy, family, or any combination of these. People learn acceptable behavior, typically in their younger years, by way of example, repetition, discipline, and sometimes through the consequences of violating the standard!

In this way people generally become “civilized” and able to function as part of a society. In this way they have a seeming “goodness,” both in their own eyes and in the eyes of others. Their outward behavior (mostly) conforms to the standard. As in the case of the fig leaves, the shamefulness of their true nature is covered up.

Of course, there is no improvement in their actual nature. In fact, since pride is the very essence of sinful human nature, self-righteousness, far from correcting the problem, actually makes it worse. The prideful result is nothing less than evil pretending to be good!

The one most deceived by self-righteousness is self! It enables people to look in the mirror and be totally blind to what God sees. He doesn’t see as we do. We look at the outside, but He looks at the heart. 1 Sam. 16:7. Remember what Jer. 17:9 says: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”

One of the clearest examples of self-righteousness is that of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. They had taken the Law of Moses and re-worked it into a rigid religion of external behavior and ritual. Everything they did was meant to convince others — and themselves — that they were righteous, specially regarded by God.

Jesus rightly called them “hypocrites,” quoting from Isaiah: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.” Matt. 15:8-9.

That is the essence of self-righteousness. It is based on “rules taught by men,” and sometimes even on rules devised by the individuals themselves!

But the truth about ourselves is that no matter what “rules” are followed, even ones given us by God Himself, we are totally incapable of living up to them and achieving righteousness through any form of self-effort. Remember Rom. 8:7-8.

Nonetheless human nature will drive men to cover their spiritual “nakedness” with some sort of self-righteousness and so delude themselves as to their true condition.

Coming to terms with our true need is the very foundation of salvation. I rejoice in the finished work of the cross and the glory of the resurrection but these truths have no real significance to one who does not see his need. No one can bring his own righteousness to God and expect to be received.

Becoming Aware of Our Need

Thus the first need in a sinner is for “conviction.” A conviction is a deeply-held belief. In this case it is a belief that results from God working with the heart to reveal the truth about the sinner’s need.

This is not a mere intellectual matter. There are those who have been convinced of the doctrine of man’s depravity without ever truly seeing it in themselves. Conviction does not come from intellectual argument, or from emotional preaching. It must come directly to the heart by the work of the Spirit of God.

Real conviction bypasses a man’s defenses. If tears away the fig leaves and shows him the truth. One result of divine conviction is shame and sorrow. Excuses are gone. The faults of others become irrelevant. It is the only path to repentance — a total reversal of direction. In 2 Cor. 7:10, Paul wrote, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.”

When God brings a sinner to true repentance, all illusions of goodness are gone, leaving only need and a desire for mercy. A sinner does not draw upon some supposed “goodness” to “choose” Christ and the gospel as though he is a kind of salesman peddling a better product. There is a real choice but it is not based on goodness but the very opposite; it is the renunciation of any claim to goodness and an appeal for mercy based upon the promise and provision of another. It is not “rising to a challenge” but simple surrender.

This kind of choice is only possible where God is at work by His Spirit. That is what “grace” is. It is God acting and providing both the motivation and the ability by which a sinner repents and believes. None of this comes from within the sinner so he has nothing to boast about. Eph. 2:8-9. It is simply surrender to God’s saving power through Christ. This inability is the reason we are told to call upon him while he is near. Isaiah 55:6.

How could such a thing possibly be unless God takes the initiative and acts — or unless a sinner is truly brought by divine revelation to a knowledge of his need?

Examples given by Jesus include the tax collector praying in the temple and also the “prodigal son.” In contrast to the Pharisee, who bragged about his goodness, the tax collector demonstrated the genuine conviction and shame he felt over his need and simply prayed, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Luke 18:13. His words conveyed more than the simple English word, “mercy.” The word in the Greek was an appeal for an atonement based upon sacrifice, an appeal that recognized no other basis by which to approach a holy God. He was received.

The prodigal son in Luke 15 had abandoned all sense of worthiness, even to be considered his father’s son and it was in that spirit that he returned. What a wonderful picture of our Heavenly Father’s love we have in that he was totally received as a son and his return celebrated.

The Need for a Divine Encounter

All true conviction is basically a “divine encounter.” This encounter may be very quiet and personal or it can be much more dramatic. AND, the conviction that comes from encountering God in a personal way isn’t confined to unbelievers. Often it is the only way forward spiritually for believers as well.

Isaiah was a prophet of God sent to warn the backsliding and sinful nation of Israel. In chapter 5 we find him over and over again pronouncing “woe” to those guilty of various sins. The danger in this is that we begin to see ourselves as “good” and others as “bad.”

In Chapter 6 we see the Lord opening Isaiah’s eyes to the truth. I am persuaded that this vision of himself was utterly necessary in preparing him to utter the glorious prophecies we find later in the book.

Isaiah is caught up and sees the Lord seated on a throne, high and lifted up. Angelic beings continually proclaim his holiness. The entire scene is one of glory and absolute purity.

The Lord did not need to point out Isaiah’s uncleanness; he felt it — instantly. Now it was no longer woe to others but “woe to me.” It is one thing to compare ourselves with other human beings but one genuine divine encounter is enough to dispel any illusion of goodness we may have.

In this encounter we see the Lord providing the solution to Isaiah’s need. He didn’t command Isaiah to “try harder” or to “straighten up and fly right”! Rather a coal from the altar touched Isaiah’s lips and the Lord told him, “your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” The altar represented a place of sacrifice and pointed forward to the cross where our sin and guilt were dealt with once and for all.

The Lord had an important job for Isaiah but for it to be effective Isaiah needed to see himself in a true light, as a sinner just as much in need of God’s mercy as those to whom he ministered.

After Job had been allowed to come through a terrible time of testing and questioning, the Lord revealed Himself to Job in a special way. Job and his supposed comforters had just engaged in a long theological debate about sin and righteousness and Job had steadfastly clung to a belief in his own righteousness.

But when God’s revelation came he said, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” Job 42:5-6.

Throughout the scriptures we see this kind of reaction in those who have an encounter with God, or even with an angel: Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Daniel, Ezekiel, Peter, James, John, and many others.

This is why Jesus was hated and feared by the religious leaders of his day. John 1:4 tells us, “In him was life, and that life was the light of men.” In John 3:19-20 Jesus told Nicodemus, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.”

All it took was for men to be exposed to God’s life expressed in Christ and their “fig leaves” were torn away, their delusions of righteousness exposed. And most hated him for it — especially the religious folks!

As we have said, the truth about ourselves is a necessary foundation for any relationship with God. What we ARE is the very thing we need saving FROM. Jesus didn’t die to enable us to feel better about ourselves or to fulfill our earthly desires; he died to deliver us from the dominion of darkness and give us a brand new life — one with an eternal future!

People may become connected with churches for many reasons but a divine revelation of their true need is the only thing that will open a door to being “connected” to God and His kingdom. Becoming “religious” is no substitute for real salvation. Until a man truly sees himself as a shameful unworthy sinner he will never know God.

Not all will humble themselves before a revelation of their need, but for those who do, what a glorious door of hope is opened! Instead of feeling guilty, hopeless, and humiliated he finds forgiveness, hope, acceptance, and love. Fear gives way to joy and peace.

What no man can do for himself, God has done perfectly and completely through His Son. Trying gives way to trusting. Everything needed for a sinner to be transformed into a saint who will feel at home in a place such as Isaiah saw in his vision is fully provided.

This Truth Matters to Christians Too

Obviously, then, the first and greatest reason why this truth about ourselves matters is simply that salvation is impossible without it. But that is only the beginning. This truth is equally foundational to the Christian life. The moment we forget what we are in ourselves we get off track and the results are not good.

Col. 2:6-7 says, “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.”

Receiving Christ Jesus as Lord involves coming to a place of utter need and turning completely to him in faith to meet that need. According to Paul, the Christian life is lived the same way. We are just as unable to live a godly life in the strength of our human nature as we were to gain acceptance with God in the first place.

The Danger of Self Confidence

The simple fact is that coming to Christ in saving faith does not improve human nature in the least. It remains just as evil as it ever was. Our “default setting” as human beings is to trust in ourselves, our strength, our ability, our wisdom, etc. Learning NOT to depend upon ourselves is a long and sometimes painful process. Jesus reminds us in John 15:5 that, “apart from me you can do nothing.” It is easy to read that and not really understand that he was talking about US!

Paul refers to one such painful lesson in 2 Cor. 1:8-9 where he writes, “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.”

In Phil. 3 Paul warned believers of teachers who clung to the Jewish law with its rituals and observances, like the circumcision of male infants. In verse 3 he said, “For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh.”

Note that last part — “who put no confidence in the flesh.” Everything in Paul’s background had taught him to trust in religious zeal and law-keeping, not to mention the fact that he was a Jew and not a Gentile. After he encountered Christ he saw the worthlessness of these things and discarded them like garbage in favor of the righteousness that was from God and that was to be gained by faith in Christ.

But when you read the whole passage it becomes evident that Paul is not talking about a simple one-time salvation “event” but rather a new way of life. His aim in life was to enter into a real practical experience of the new life he had been given. He learned that living the new life could not be done with human ability. In fact it could only be done as he died to his human ability and put his whole trust in Christ’s life.

Sour Milk

I mentioned that human nature cannot be improved. In a way it is like milk that has been left out too long and has become sour. There are living organisms that have invaded the milk and corrupted it. It is spoiled, changed throughout. There is no way to “un-sour” it. It can only be discarded and replaced.

That is what salvation is about. It is the process of replacing human nature with divine nature. Human nature has been spoiled by sin to the point it cannot be fixed. But in Christ God gives us “milk” that cannot spoil — ever! How foolish is it that we continue to rely upon the “sour milk” of human nature as we live out our earthly lives. Yet how easily do we do it!


Carelessness and self-confidence are dangerous things in spiritual matters. After Paul pointed out some Old Testament examples he said in 1 Cor. 10:12, “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” Thankfully, this verse is followed up with a promise of God’s faithfulness in life’s trials but the warning is a very real one.

David, a man after God’s own heart, got in such a careless state that he committed adultery and murder — and wasn’t even conscious that he had done wrong until the prophet faced him with it. His repentance, recorded in Psalm 51, was deep and genuine, but there were a lot of painful consequences.

Peter was very sure of himself when Jesus warned him what was coming after his arrest. Peter didn’t believe him, didn’t pray, and grievously failed, denying three times that he even knew Jesus. It’s wonderful that he found a place of forgiveness but there is a lesson there for all of us.

Self-confidence is as natural as breathing, but it is part of the problem, not the solution! Prov. 28:26 says, “He who trusts in himself is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom is kept safe.” I’m afraid I’ve been a fool far too often! How about you?

The Absurdity of Legalism

Very closely related to this is the kind of preaching I referred to earlier that puts people in bondage, namely legalism. Legalism tends to equate godly living with “rules-to-live-by.” Like the Pharisees of old the religion of the legalist is based on rules made up by men.

Few would try to take us back under the law of Moses but there is a tendency in some circles to see the New Testament as a book of rules and commandments to live up to. There are those who even teach essentially that we are saved by grace but kept by our works. If we aren’t careful we can lose our salvation.

One of the most ridiculous examples I heard of occurred many years ago when Bro. Thomas and a few others visited a “revival” service in one such church. The evangelist spent his entire message preaching energetically against things he regarded as sinful. A lot of it had to do with how people dressed.

Then he got to women’s hair. He railed on and on about how evil it was for women to cut their hair. At one point he said something like, “You women who have cut your hair, you had better PRAY that it grows out before the rapture or you won’t go!” It would be almost comical if it weren’t for the fact that some people believe like that! How tragic.

It is a religion of do’s and don’ts. And someone who spends most of their time preaching against sin can scare people into very emotional “altar” services where they repent and resolve to do better. And all they do is go round and round, like Samson grinding at the mill.

The problem with that kind of rule-based religion is that it depends on human strength. “Here is what it means to be godly; now go do it — or else!” People are left trying, failing, feeling guilty and fearful, repenting, resolving to try harder, and failing again. And round and round it goes. I have no doubt that among such are some very sincere people, but what a terrible trap.

And it’s all based on a lie. It makes no sense to convey to people that they must live up to a standard of some sort in order to gain or keep God’s favor — if it is impossible for us to live for God in our own strength! It is a prescription for frustration, bondage, and failure.

Paul himself had to learn this the hard way. All of his upbringing had taught him that zealously obeying God’s laws was the path to godliness. Romans 7 reveals his experience of trying to serve God that way.

Rom. 7:14-20 says, “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.

“I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.”

His conclusion as to what is happening is in verse 23: “I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.” That “law” Paul discovered was simply the sin nature he was born into this world with that made it impossible for him to serve God through keeping laws.

Law Actually Strengthens Sin

But that’s not all. Far from helping, preaching law in any form actually makes the problem worse! Back in Rom. 7:10 Paul said, “I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.”

In 1 Cor. 15:56 Paul said, “the strength of sin is the law.” Human nature is such that if you attempt to impose righteous laws it rises up in rebellion. The hold of sin actually becomes stronger! Think about that!

God uses the law to show us our need but salvation is by grace. Grace is divine life and ability that God gives. Where people live by that life instead of by “trying harder,” righteousness happens. Rom. 8:1-4. Human nature can produce only sin. Divine life can produce only righteousness. Understanding that is critical, both for godly living and for fruitful preaching.

It opens a real door of hope, not in anything of ourselves but in an ongoing experience of God’s grace. Godly living becomes a matter of faith in a continual supply of divine help that enables us — from the inside — to be the kind of people He wants us to be.

A crude illustration of this would be flying. It would be ridiculous to expect a man to fly. He is subject to a law called gravity that holds him down. No matter how hard he tries or how high he jumps, gravity will always win.

Then one day he quits trying to fly and commits himself to an airplane. Does that do away with gravity? Of course not! It simply introduces a power that is able to overcome the pull of gravity. The power is not in the man himself but in the plane. He cannot look down on all the earth-bound people and say, “Look at me; I can fly. What’s the matter with you?” And if he should be so deluded as to step out of the plane, gravity will immediately take over.

The power to live the Christian life comes always and completely from the life of Christ within. We can never take credit for it or suppose that our old nature is now gone and we have somehow become “good.”

But that is exactly what so easily happens. A person comes to Christ and their life is changed, cleaned up, and they very subtly begin to think of themselves as “good.” Sadly, the other side of that “coin” is that they begin to think of others as “bad,” forgetting that their human nature hasn’t changed a bit.

Honesty in the Pulpit

Far too many preachers carefully maintain an image before their people of someone who has achieved a certain amount of spiritual stature and godliness. But what is conveyed to the people, perhaps without the preacher intending to, is a picture of spiritual attainment through willpower and sincere self-effort.

The people are left feeling that the preacher is “above” them and “better” and if only they would try harder they could reach his advanced level. And so they get on the spiritual “treadmill” of self-effort and failure and wonder why it is that way. Or, they give up and resign themselves to being sort of “second-class” Christians.

But if preachers would be continually aware that they stand by grace alone and not by any sort of spiritual “achievement” it would transform their ministry. So many are afraid that if people were to see their humanity that they would lose respect.

I’m certainly not talking about a preacher deliberately living a life of sin but rather a degree of honesty in conveying the truth that he fights the same battles as his hearers, that he is in need of the same grace that they are. They need to know that the answer is not in any sort of human effort but in a greater reliance upon the abundant grace of God.

Paul was certainly not shy about this. He did not lift himself as one who had “attained” a high place in God through his own efforts! Quite the opposite. There is a wonderful honesty in his words in Phil. 3:12-14.

“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

And so it was in that spirit that he encouraged his readers to follow his example.

Listen to his words in 2 Cor. 11:29-30: “Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”

How many preachers talk like that? Again it was not that Paul gave in to a life of sin but rather that he needed the same grace of God that his hearers and readers needed. They could genuinely identify with him and find hope in the gospel he preached.

Self-righteousness in the pulpit magnifies only self and puts people into terrible bondage. It does not glorify Christ but the preacher. It may even make him a celebrity among men but it does not serve Christ nor his kingdom.

Self-Righteousness in the Pew

But self-righteousness also affects the people “in the pews” — in many ways. They begin to think of godliness as a standard of behavior: godly people do certain things and don’t do others. It is simply a form of legalism.

Even if there is some truth in the standard adopted, that kind of thinking far too easily produces the feeling that “I am good and you are not.” Why not? You don’t conform to my standard!

The Christian life is a process of being conformed to an IMAGE, not a standard. That image is Christ. A standard is nothing but a bunch of rules. When we are conformed to the image of Christ rules are not necessary. We become more and more like him. Godliness happens!

One fruit of standards-based thinking is a judgmentalism. When we see someone who doesn’t “follow our rules” we look down on them critically and negatively.

Can you not see the fountain from which this flows? It certainly doesn’t come from Christ. It is nothing but the same sort of self-righteousness we see in the world and it flows from our fallen human nature.

Every believer is a “work-in-process.” We have different weaknesses and needs. God’s design is that we love one another and be a source of strength, help, and encouragement in the process of being made like Christ.

Often the one doing the judging has a degree of self-control in certain areas and the one being judged is weak in those same areas. Instinctively we look down on them and feel proud that we are not like them. How is that different from the Pharisee of whom Jesus spoke, the one who bragged to God that he was not like other men?


One closely related manifestation of a judgmental spirit is gossip. A gossip loves to spread negative stuff about others and their faults (real or merely perceived!). This is often done under the guise of “concern” or “we need to pray for them” but regardless of how it is dressed up gossip is gossip and it is nothing less than stinking self-righteouness and pride. God hates it.

It is a fruit of one who has lost sight of his own basic evil heart and need. You who gossip are no better than the one you gossip about — and maybe worse! Self-righteousness is one of the worst forms of sin simply because it masquerades as righteousness when it is not.

Repent, and ask God for an honest heart of compassion for others, one that never forgets that you are as needy as they are. The devil will provoke a self-righteous judgmental gossiping spirit in you if you let him but it greatly hinders the work of God, particularly in YOU.

Sometimes the wisest and most loving thing God can do for one of His children is to let them really fail in some humiliating way. It may not necessarily be something that is public but it can still be a way of getting our attention. If we humble ourselves when that happens it becomes a reminder of what we really are and why we need a Savior. It better enables us to be the kind of brother and sister in the Body of Christ that God wants us to be.

Healthy Relationships Among Believers

Consider the wisdom of Paul’s words in Gal. 6:1-3: “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.”

Note what real spirituality looks like: gentleness in the face of need, an awareness of one’s own weakness, helping others with their burdens, avoiding self-deception about what we are.

Compassion Toward Sinners

But this same honesty about our true condition and need should also be reflected in how we see those still in sin who don’t know Christ. The Pharisees despised sinners; Jesus had compassion on them. In Jesus’ presence they became aware of their sinfulness, yet they felt, not condemnation and rejection, but love and hope. What do we project?

What do sinners we encounter or those who may come in among us feel? Do they feel unwelcome? Do they sense a “holier-than-thou” attitude, one that looks down on them because “they are not like us”? Are we more concerned that they conform to our outward standards than in bringing them as they are to the foot of the cross and letting God change them from the inside out? Are we more like the Pharisees, or Jesus?

Many are afraid that an appearance of accepting sinners “as they are” is the same as condoning their sin. But somehow Jesus, filled as he was with the Spirit of God, managed to cause people to become aware of their sin without feeling hopeless and condemned. He was enabled to love them and open a door of hope without approving their sin. It is self-righteous religion that doesn’t know how to do that. May God help us!

Humbling ourselves to “the truth about ourselves,” far from being a negative, unpleasant thing, is actually the gateway to eternal joy! It opens a door of hope, not in ourselves, but in God’s grace. It magnifies that grace and truly makes it “amazing”! It delivers us from a life of self-effort to be acceptable to God. It gives us a message of hope for others and a foundation for encouraging fellow believers as we stand beside — and not above — them.

A beautiful diamond is best displayed on a black background. The amazing grace of God is best seen against the blackness of the evil of human nature. And if you are still alive in this world that nature is still there trying to have its way. Let that knowledge always drive us to a life of thankful, humble, dependence upon the grace of God. That “airplane” is the only hope we have of “flying” and overcoming the “gravity” of human nature. One day we will be fully free — forever!

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