Trusting in Our Own Righteousness is a Thing Fatal to the Soul

It is time for Tuesdays with Edwards!

In my last few posts on grace I have made some strong assertions that grace is the only thing that works. If we are ever going to be accepted, loved, and enjoyed by God the only way it can happen is by a supernatural self-initiated and self-sustained act of grace on His part. Jonathan Edwards believed this too. For today’s selection I have chosen one of his “miscellanies” in which he addresses this subject at length.

The Miscellanies are a collection of notebooks that Edwards kept in which he wrote down thoughts and insights and ideas on a wide variety of subjects. You might think of them as his idea books. Some of them are just a sentence or two, others are as long as a short book. In all there are over 1400 entries in these notebooks. While Edwards used this collection of thoughts in his sermons and published works, they were really for his eyes only.

Below is a picture of one of these notebooks. Paper was had however he could get it, even from the leftover clippings of fans that his daughters made to sell in Boston, and then hand stitched into notebooks. Hence the odd shaped pages.

In miscellany 637, he lays out a detailed argument for why we can’t be saved or made right with God by our own efforts. It is all grace.

You can read this and other miscellanies at the Jonathan Edwards Center website at This selection is from The “Miscellanies,” 501-832, ed. Ava Chamberlain, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 18 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000) pages 163-170.


637. TRUSTING IN OUR OWN RIGHTEOUSNESS for justification or acceptance with God, or the having the ground of our expectation of God’s favor in a high and false apprehension of our own excellency, as related to God’s favor, is a thing fatal to the soul, and what will prevent salvation. This is evident,

I. By Romans 9:31–32. “But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. Wherefore? because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law.” Here ’tis evident,

1. That this that Israel did that is here spoken of is fatal, because ’tis said they attained not to the law of righteousness for this reason; this is given as the main reason of their missing of it. And then it’s evident by the context, for that is what the Apostle is speaking of, viz. how the greater part of that nation miss of salvation and shall be vessels of wrath; and indeed, this is what he is upon throughout the whole chapter.

2. That by seeking or following after the law of righteousness by the works of the law, is meant seeking justification by the works of the law. For what is here expressed by following after the law of righteousness, is in the preceding verse, where the Apostle is evidently speaking of the same thing, called following after righteousness, by which is doubtless intended a becoming righteous in the sight of God, or to his acceptance. When it is said, Israel sought or followed after the law of righteousness by the works of the law, ’tis as much as to say, Israel sought and expected to be found in God’s appointed way of justification by performing the works of the law.

3. ‘Tis evident that by the works of the law here is meant not only a conformity to Jewish ordinances of worship, but our own moral righteousness or excellency, consisting in our obedience to the laws of God in general, whether moral, ceremonial or whatever; because what is called here the works of the law, is called in the Romans 10:3 their own righteousness, where the same thing is evidently intended by the reference the Apostle has there to what is said here. And doubtless by the works of the law is meant the same as the Apostle means by the righteousness of the law in the Romans 10:5, where that expression is evidently used as synonymous with our own righteousness (Romans 10:3), and so they are used as synonymous (Philippians 3:6, Philippians 3:9). But doubtless by their own righteousness is meant the same as their own goodness or moral excellency, and not only that part of it that consisted in their obedience to the ceremonial law. And again, we often find the works of the law set by this Apostle in opposition to the free grace of God, and therefore thereby must be intended our own excellency. For wherein does grace appear, but in being bestowed on them that are no more excellent, that are so unworthy, so far from deserving anything? Romans 3:20, Romans 3:24, Romans 3:27, Romans 3:28; and Titus 3:5, where, instead of works of law, the Apostle says works of righteousness; Romans 11:6 and Romans 4:4; Galatians 5:4; Ephesians 2:8, Ephesians 2:9.

And then where the Apostle speaks of the works of the law, when speaking of this matter of justification, he evidently means not only works of the ceremonial, but also moral law, as Romans 3:20 with the context; and in other places where this matter is treated of, which it is needless to mention.

4. Seeking or following after justification by the works of the law or by our own righteousness, is fatal, as it is a self-exaltation, and upon the account of that high opinion there is of, and dependence upon, our own excellency in it. For doubtless ’tis fatal to our salvation upon the account of that in it, wherein it is especially opposite to God’s design in the way of our salvation. This way of man’s seeking his own salvation is fatal to man, doubtless because of that in it by which it is contrary to God’s way, or to his aim in the way that he has contrived; which is that salvation should be wholly for Christ’s sake, and that free grace alone should be exalted, and boasting be excluded, and all glory should belong to God and none to us (Romans 3:27, Ephesians 2:19, Romans 4:2, 1 Corinthians 1:29–31). Doubtless, therefore, seeking justification by the works of the law is fatal upon the account of the boasting that is included in it. The end of the law is that men may be sensible they have nothing of their own to plead. Romans 3:19, “That every mouth may be stopped.”

And then ’tis evident that this was the error of the Jews, that are those that are here spoken of, by the accounts we have of them, viz. that they had a high conceit of their own righteousness, and looked upon themselves as very acceptable, and highly valued in the sight of God upon that account. This kind of pride and self-dependence, is what the Pharisees are so often found fault with for, who were the leading sect among the Jews, and were heads and leaders in the Jews’ opposition to the gospel (Matthew 6:2, Matthew 6:5, Matthew 6:16; Matthew 7:3–5; Luke 16:15; Luke 18:9–12). And this is mentioned as the fault of the Jews in general (Romans 2:17–23). And this is prophesied of as that for which the Jews should be rejected, when the gentiles should be called (Isaiah 65:6, with the context).

II. Again, it is evident that trusting in our own righteousness is fatal to the soul by Romans 10:3, “For they, being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.” This is evidently spoken as a thing fatal to them, by the manner of the Apostle’s introducing it, having said that it was his heart’s desire and prayer for them that they might be saved, then shows how they fail of it. ‘Tis evident also by the last verses of the preceding chapter, where the Apostle is speaking of the same thing in those forementioned words, which occasion these. ‘Tis evident also by the Romans 10:16–21. And here, by their going about to establish their own righteousness, is not merely intended going about to establish a way of justification of their own devising, but going about to establish something as the matter of their justification that was their own or that was of themselves. And so by their being ignorant of and not submitting themselves to God’s righteousness, is meant that they were ignorant how they were entirely dependent on God, and on his imputation, in this affair of justification; did not understand nor believe this doctrine of imputed righteousness, or righteousness from God; did not yield to be justified by righteousness merely from God, as imputed by him. I look upon it that ’tis here called God’s righteousness, not chiefly because ’tis the righteousness of Christ, a divine person, but rather as ’tis wholly and immediately received from God, or as ’tis righteousness of, or from, God (Philippians 3:9); what is not at all from ourselves, but merely by God’s imputation. See Romans 4:3–6 ff. But that by going about to establish their own righteousness, is meant going about to establish something of their own as the matter of their justification, is evident by the connection with the Romans 9:32, compared with the Romans 10:5. ‘Tis evident that here, by their own righteousness, is meant the same as works of the law there. Again, ’tis evident by the meaning of this phrase, of [their] own righteousness, when used elsewhere by this Apostle, as Philippians 3:9.

III. Again, it is evident by Galatians 5:2–4, “Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever is justified by the law, is fallen from grace”; together [with] Galatians 4:10–11, “Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labor in vain.” Now the Apostle could not mean that merely the being circumcised would render Christ of no profit or effect to a person, for we read that Paul himself took Timothy and circumcised him because of the Jews (Acts 16:3). Therefore, ’tis a being circumcised under some particular apprehension, or notion, or with some certain view, that must be the thing that is fatal; and the Apostle must mean that Christ shall profit them nothing if they are circumcised under that notion or with that view that those Jews were, that were zealous for it and urged the necessity of it to them. But they were zealous of it as a thing that gave them great dignity, and on the account of which they were highly esteemed of God as something to be boasted of or gloried in, as Galatians 6:12–14 and Galatians 5:26 and Galatians 6:3; that which they sought praise by (Romans 2:29). They looked upon themselves as holier and more acceptable to God upon that account than other men. They trusted in it. They held it absolutely necessary to salvation, “And certain men which came down from Judea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). They looked upon it necessary, not merely as obedience to any plain command of God is necessary to salvation, but in the same manner as it was necessary to any person’s admission into the Jewish nation, or his being of Israel according to the flesh. It was the very qualification that admitted them; the principal thing by which they were made Israelites, and by which they challenged a right to the privileges of an Israelite. Circumcision was a type of regeneration and admitted men into the outward Israel, in the same manner as regeneration does to the kingdom of heaven. Therefore the Apostle says in the Galatians 6 of this epistle, “Neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature.” The Jews put circumcision instead of regeneration, instead of that faith that is wrought in regeneration, or instead of that righteousness of Christ that faith has or that is virtually in faith, supposing that they were justified by works and not by faith. And therefore it is said in the Galatians 5:6 of the context of the place we are upon [Galatians 5:6], “For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.” It was a greater manifestation of self-ignorance and a self-exalting disposition, to make so much of so little a matter, such a trifle in themselves, than if it were some considerable matter.

Again, ’tis evident that this is spoken of as fatal, not merely as a piece of superstition, as it was a part of the ceremonial law which was abolished, but as they trusted in it as a part of righteousness or moral excellency; which is evident by the whole epistle and by the words immediately following, where the Apostle explains himself, “Christ is become of no effect to you, whosoever of you are justified by the law, are fallen from grace” [Galatians 5:4]; where ’tis evident that the thing that the Apostle testifies is seeking justification by the works of the law, as opposite to justification by mere grace, which can be no other than seeking justification by the righteousness of the law, as containing some excellency or dignity in it.

And when the Apostle says in the Galatians 5:3, “For I testify to every man that is circumcised, he is debtor to do the whole law,” the argument is this: if ye seek to be justified by this or any other work of the law, you are obliged to perfect obedience to the law of God in order to your having your aim, i.e. justification, because the law appoints that as the condition of justification. For that is the language of the law, “he that doth them shall live in them” (Galatians 3:12). The Apostle don’t mean only that he is a debtor to do the whole ceremonial law: and this is evident by the same argument used by this Apostle to the same persons against the same error in this very epistle, as Galatians 3:10, “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them”; and Galatians 3:11–12, “But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, the just shall live by faith. But the law is not of faith: but the man that doth them shall live in them.” ‘Tis against seeking justification by the works of the law in this sense that the Apostle writes in this epistle, as is evident by Galatians 2:16–19. It appears by the objection the Apostle there proposes and answers, viz. that seeking to be justified without the works of the law, would be an encouragement to sin. Now what is the opposite of sin but a moral righteousness or goodness? Seeking justification by the works of the law in this sense, was the error that the Galatians ran into; that was the occasion of the Apostle’s writing this epistle, as is evident there by the context, especially the beginning of the next chapter. That it was the whole law of God that the Apostle meant when speaking of justification by the works of the law, is evident also by Galatians 3:10, Galatians 3:12–13, Galatians 3:19, Galatians 3:21–22.

So it was upon the same account that the Apostle was afraid of the Galatians, lest he had bestowed upon them labor in vain, because they observed “days, and months, and times, and years” (as Galatians 4:10–11), viz. because he feared they did it, as trusting in those performances as a righteousness, or in the moral excellency of them to commend them to God. This is evident by the context and by the forementioned passages of the epistle. The observing these things in itself was no sign that they trusted in them as a righteousness, because God once required them; but they were a sign of it under their circumstances. For it was now revealed with sufficient evidence that they were abolished; and those that were not over fond of them, and did not make much of them as placing the essence of religion much in them, and did not think them to be acceptable to God upon their own account, generally were easily persuaded that they were abolished. It was only those who were very zealous of them, or chiefly they that yet observed them. And observation will show that those that set much by ceremonies and outward forms and trifles in religion, and spend their zeal much about them, do ordinarily make a righteousness of them, are proud of them and depend upon them to commend them to God. The looking on such outward rites and forms as highly acceptable to God in themselves, they betray a mean thought of God and a high thought of man. They that are truly convinced of sin, they see so much of the evil of those things that are in themselves sinful and do more immediately flow from the wickedness of the heart, and of their obligation to moral and spiritual duties, that they see these to be of immensely greater importance, than mere external ceremonies. The beggarly elements of the world, they see that the flesh is not worthy to be gloried in. Thus David, when convinced of sin, was sensible of the worthlessness of ceremonies in comparison of heart holiness. Psalms 51:16–17, “Thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.”

And then probably the Apostle feared that the Galatians made a righteousness of these observances, because he knew the character of those false teachers that endeavored to lead them into it, that they were a proud, pharisaical, self-righteous sort of persons. There were some that observed days and times that the Apostle had charity for. Romans 14:5–6, “One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regardeth the day, regardeth it to the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it.”

IV. It appears to be fatal because ’tis the direct contrary of that humiliation and self-abasement for sin that we are so often taught to be necessary in the word of God. See many texts enumerated in the papers of Scripture Signs of Godliness.

V. ‘Tis opposite to and inconsistent with that in faith, which is one ground of its being made the condition of our justification, viz. that it gives the glory of our acceptance with God to Christ. See No. 632 [that is, to remind himself that he wrote about this in miscellany 632].

VI. It is a confirmation of this, that God took so much care that the children of Israel should not entertain any such conceit, that it was for their righteousness that God bestowed such and such favors upon them (Deuteronomy 9:4–6, Ezekiel 36:22–32).

VII. It appears also by the parable of the Pharisee and publican. Luke 18:9–14, “And he spake this parable unto certain that trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up into the temple to pray,” etc. “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other,” i.e. this and not the other. Here ’tis evident, first, that the trusting in themselves that they were righteous, is intended the same as trusting in their own righteousness or moral goodness for justification and acceptance with God. For ’tis his moral goodness is what the Pharisee rehearses over before God in his prayer. And he depended upon it for justification, as is evident by the expression, trusted in themselves that they were righteous, or had matter for justification; and ’tis evident that this is the thing that was sought by both Pharisee and publican, by Christ’s conclusion at the end of the parable: “I tell you this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.” And [that] it was trusting to their righteousness for acceptance with God that Christ has respect to, is evident by the Pharisee’s aim in his prayer in representing his goodness before God, which is evidently to commend himself to God’s liking. Secondly, ’tis evident that the trusting in their own righteousness is that trusting that carries pride, or a high conceit of their own excellency in it, in that ’tis said they “trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.”

VIII. Self-sufficiency in religion is fatal to the soul, as is evident by Revelation 3:16–17, “So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth. Because thou sayst, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.” This here mentioned is doubtless the direct contrary of that poverty of spirit that renders blessed.


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