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Deadly Self-Righteousness

John MacArthur explains why Isaiah 53 was, and is, so misunderstood.


After the captivity ended and multitudes returned from exile, the Jewish people never again fell into the kind of widespread, wanton idolatry that characterized the nation during the reigns of Ahaz and Manasseh. The Jews came back from captivity with a new devotion to the law. Perhaps the chief distinctive of postexilic Judaism was an unprecedented stress on strict legal obedience, with particular attention given to the law’s external and ceremonial features—dietary laws, dress, ritual washings, and visible symbols of piety like phylacteries and robe tassels (Matt. 23:5).

But a show of religious zeal is no solution to the sin problem that plagues the human race. Sinners cannot make themselves holy, even by the most exacting attempts at obedience to God’s law. Rules and regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch. . . . These . . . are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col. 2:21–23). Nevertheless, an increasingly ascetic form of Judaism emerged, and it was perpetuated by an appeal to tradition rather than authentic faith. By the time of Christ, sheer legalism was the dominant religion in Israel.

. . .

Yet because the Jewish nation was chosen by God as the line through whom the deliverer would come, many believed that by virtue of their Abrahamic descent, they already had a claim on God’s favor and blessing. After all, “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” were all theirs by birthright (Rom. 9:4). They took the goodness and mercy of God for granted—exactly like multitudes in Christendom today. The notion that they needed a Savior to expiate their guilt or deliver them from God’s condemnation was as thoroughly offensive to the average Jew of Jesus’s time as it is to today’s cultured secularists, moral relativists, and people who think they became Christians by birth or baptism. Those who followed the Pharisees’ doctrines happily acknowledged that Gentiles and other reprobates were sinners, but they thought of themselves as “righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). They were “clean in their own eyes but . . . not washed of their filth” (Prov. 30:12).

That is the deadly danger of works religion. That is the attitude Jesus was condemning when he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. . . . I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9:12–13).

And make no mistake: all false religions cultivate sinful self-confidence. That includes every brand of genteel “faith” and pseudo-Christianity that is stylish today. Self-righteous souls who don’t see themselves as hopeless sinners in need of a savior can never truly appreciate the message of Isaiah 53.

That, I am convinced, remains the major reason (even today) why so many—Jews and Gentiles alike—remain unmoved by the account of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53.

—John MacArthur, The Gospel According to God (Crossway, 2018), 47–49.

Posted 2019·02·21 by David Kjos
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Posted in: Isaiah · John MacArthur · The Gospel According to God

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