Note: Over the next few weeks I will be posting the manuscripts from a series I am preaching titled “Uncovering Idols.”


“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” – Galatians 1:6-7

You can imagine the listeners as being just as astonished at Paul’s charge against them. “Turning to a different gospel? Seriously Paul? Were a Christian church Paul! That’s a serious charge your making.”

Yet idolatry works this way. Idolatry is very elusive. Idolatry is a different gospel. In the last post I made the distinction between overt idolatry and covert idolatry. Most of the time when we think about idolatry they think in terms of overt idols. We picture the statues in Hindu temples that people bow down to. We picture the Catholic relics that people pray to. We picture the Golden Calf that the people of Israel worship in Exodus. These are all examples of overt idols.

Yet, I am writing to deal with covert idolatry, which is never easy to uncover because covert idolatry is lodged deep in the heart. It’s not as obvious as the overt idolatry in the statues of other religions. It’s better to say that “an Idol is anything you seek to give you what only God can give.” An idol is anything you place your hope in, find security in, find self worth in, other than God.

This series is about perceiving and uncovering the idols around us. On the surface this seems to be an easy task. But idols of the heart are not easily perceived because they are not only shaped from within us, but they are also formed from what’s around us. Aristotle the great philosopher of the ancient Greek world defined human perception with an analogy called the “conundrum of the fish.” He said, “if you ask a fish what it is to be wet he cant give you an honest answer, because he has always been wet.” Among other things, he was saying that human beings are immersed within the culture they live. In other words, it is hard to perceive how the culture has influenced how you think, what things you on.

Grandfather’s Work Ethic

We live in a culture where hard work is valued and rewarded. Hard work ethic is as American as apple pie. It’s engrained in our culture. So much so that people in our society are defined by what they do, ‘their work.’ Have you ever noticed when you first meet someone, you exchange names, and the second question that if often asked is, “so, what do you do?” In our culture “what one does”[1] has become how we understood someone’s significance or importance.

In my opinion, my grandfather personifies of “the hard working American citizen.” Hard worker is one of the best words that I would use to describe my grandfather. My grandfather is now in his late 80’s. If you were to travel down to Charlotte and talk with him you would quickly learn that He began working as a small child as a soda jerk (someone who operated a soda fountain) in a local drug store and from that point on he worked his whole life. One of the last times Laura and I stopped by his house for a visit he was sitting in his favorite chair, and I began to ask him some questions about his work, and he began recounting a story that became a pivotal and defining point of his career. When my grandparents were early in their marriage he worked for a flooring company doing installations. “Paw Paw” (that’s what I call him) had a family to feed, so he sat down with his boss and made him a proposition. He said “if you make me a salesman I will bring you $100,000 dollars of business in the first month.” This had never been done.

He did it. He delivered on his promise. From that point on he worked as a salesman in the flooring industry until the day he retired. I am proud of him for that; I revere his work ethic, and his dedication to his company. That’s what I mean by “Grandfather’s work ethic.” It’s proving your worth through hard work and dedication. This is the American way.

Americans have always been, and still are a “can-do people.” America was built on the backs of hardworking citizens like my grandfather. This is the rugged individualism that still keeps America going, hardworking citizens pulling themselves up by the boot straps.[2] This is the American spirit. “Hard work” is a good thing; God created us with a desire to work- to cultivate, to earn provision. It was something humans were designed to do.

Think about it;

  • In America our work helps defines our significance.
  • As Americans we prove our worth by working hard, by being dedicated.
  • Generally speaking, working hard gives us some sense of security.
  • Ultimately speaking work is a means to an end- we work to provide.

This is part of our social fabric. The message of America is that you can “save yourself” through hard work. You can have a secure life if you are dedicated to your job and you perform well. Yet here lies the problem, as fallen humans we have this uncanny ability to take anything that gives us significance, security, comfort, safety, and fulfillment, and use “that thing” to create our identity.

Many times we try to import our cultural values into our faith practices.

It is very possible to live the Christian life in the framework of the American work ethic. To “work hard” at being very moral, doing good things, volunteering, helping others, and being dedicated to lots of “Christian activities” as a way to convince ourselves and others (and God) that we are “valuable. We approach God the same way my grandfather approached his boss and convinced him that he was an asset to the company by working hard, and being dedicated.

“Your identity as a Christian is not based on your hard work and dedication to Christ. You identity as a Christian is a gift of God based on Christ’s work, and it is only through the Spirit that you are empowered to live the Christian life.”

On to Galatians

This is why I point you to Galatians. Paul dealt with the same problem we face today “in first century Galatia …there were those [leaders in the church] who had changed the gospel of Jesus Christ into a message of human effort.”[3] The letter to the Galatian Christians is understood as Paul’s charge against the Galatian teachers who have been called the “Judaizers.”

  1. The Judaizers taught a form of legalism, namely that the Galatian Christians had to earn their salvation through good deeds and works.
  2. Paul, on the other hand, argued that no one can be saved by through obedient works of the law. Rather, we are pardoned and justified by faith in Christ alone, not by our good works.

Note: I am taking the term “works of the law” in Galatians to be defined as good deeds and moral effort in general.

The book of Galatians as Paul’s proclamation of the gospel of grace, against the message of winning God’s favor by human accomplishment!

Paul says, “I am astonished”

  1. Later on In 3:1 Paul calls them fools, and argues that they have been bewitched.
  2. In 4:20 Paul reveals his anguish, “I am perplexed”

…that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel– not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.

(9) If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” (A wish that God’s judgment would fall upon them)

This is why the idol of self-righteousness is so dangerous. It subtly undermines the gospel of Christ, and can do so from within the Christian church and community. It’s important to know that the Judaizers were not flatly rejecting the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In fact, it is highly unlikely the Galatian Christians would have been duped by such a blatant contradiction of the gospel message. Instead, the Judaizers were saying, Jesus was critical and crucial to getting you saved, of course. But here’s the problem, by their cultural values they were communicating that faith in him alone was not enough to gain full acceptance with God. “You will now have to adopt the full range of Mosaic ceremonial and cultural customs.” (Keller on Galatians)

Let me propose to you that when a “hard work ethic” is engrained in a culture like ours, it’s easy to begin trusting in our own ability and accomplishments for security. After some research (asking thousands of people questions), George Barna concluded that many Christians in our culture “are [in fact] relying…on their own good deeds, their good character”[4]

Let’s ask just one question that might reveal the roots of self-righteousness in us Christians;

Are you more sure of your Christian identity when you are “working hard” to adhere to good behaviors?

In the framework of “self righteousness”, if you feel that you are living up to your religious standards, than you feel superior and disdainful to towards those who are not doing as good as you. Now, on the other hand, if you are not living up to your religious standards you will be filled with self loathing. You will be overcome with so much guilt that you will doubt that you are even God’s child. This is the problem with the idol of self-righteousness. When your Christian identity is based on your performance, and not on Christ you have no assurance. When you have no assurance you most likely obey out of fear. ‘If I don’t meet this standard, God won’t bless me, or others won’t except me.”

2:16- Paul has to remind these Christians that, “we know that a person is not justified by works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ…because by works of the law no one will be justified.”

In other words, you are not justified before God because you have “worked hard” at living a good Christian life. The idol of self righteousness tells you that you need to justify yourself by external religious works. But this is deadly! Essentially you are proclaiming with your life that you can earn and deserve salvation. That your “hard work” is a means of being justified by God through morality (self-willed righteousness). The idol of self-righteousness destroys the gospel because it tells you that you have to be good enough, work hard enough to be a Christian.

  1. Self-Righteousness tells us that we must obey God in order for God to love us.
  2. The Gospel tells us that God will love us un-conditionally and in response to that love we obey.
  1. When Self-Righteousness is concerned with external appearances.
  2. The Gospel is a message concerning our own deceitful hearts.

The reason that the idol of self righteousness is so dangerous to us, and the gospel itself is because it can sneak in to our lives unnoticed. “Self-salvation is our default setting as fallen creatures. If we are not explicitly and regularly taught out of it, we will always turn the [Gospel of Jesus Christ] …into a message of self-help.”[5] Again;

“Your identity as a Christian is not based on your hard work and dedication to Christ. You identity as a Christian is a gift of God based on Christ’s work, and it is only through the Spirit that you are empowered to live the Christian life.”

See 3:2-3;

“Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”

In other words, “did you receive the Spirit by doing the religious “things” that these men are requiring of you?” or “by placing your faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”- the answer is obvious. (Spirit through faith)

  1. “Then why are you preaching a different Gospel by your actions?”
  2. “Why do you attempt to justify yourself before God through religious actions?”

Why do you think that “your hard work for God” after conversion gets you in any better position with God? Essentially you are living as if your justification depends on your sanctification. In other words, you are living as if your salvation is secure as long as you are “working hard” at Christianity. The point here is not to stop doing good things, but to ask why you are doing them? What is your heart motivation.

If your motivation is to prove your worth, you are missing the point. Listen, God was the one who was the workman in our salvation; God will be the workman in our Christian formation. God is not looking for people to work for Him, but people who will let Him work through them.

  • 1 Peter 4:11- Whoever serves,[ serve] as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.
  • 1 Corinthians 15:10- Paul proclaims, by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.

I worked harder than anyone- though it was not me working, but grace. The power of God’s grace in the heart of a humble believer who depends utterly on God produces in him an incredible God empowered work ethic.

  • Philippians 2:12-13- Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,  for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Work in absolute dependence on God’s grace, not in your own ability. Absolute dependence on God enables the Spirit empowered work ethic. What motivates your Christian life?

Martin Luther was very wise when he wrote,

“For there is no middle ground between Christian righteousness and works righteousness. There is no other alternative to Christian righteousness but works righteousness; if you do not build your confidence on the work of Christ you must build your confidence on your own work. (Martin Luther, Preface to Galatians)


None of us want to think we are as bad off as we really are. We prefer to think that we just need some tweaking to function as God intended. – “If I just work harder!” It’s hard for us to embrace how weak and vulnerable sin actually makes us. We like to think we are self sufficient. It is uncomfortable to see ourselves as needy and weak. But the reality is, Christians are “cant-do people.” We are helpless to justify ourselves before God, and we are in utter dependence on His grace. Christianity was not built on the hard backs of Christians, it was given birth by the slaughter of God’s only son Jesus Christ. We don’t grow in the Christian life by pulling themselves up by the boot straps. We grow by being utterly convinced that we are saved by grace.

The difference between my grandfather’s boss and Jesus Christ is that my Grandfathers boss won’t bring you on unless you are in good health, a dependable hard worker. Jesus Christ won’t bring you on unless you admit that you are sick, undependable, and unable to produce good work. Jesus came not to call the righteous, but the sinners.

My grandfather boss needs to know that you will work and be able to deliver on your promises. Jesus wants to work through you, and has promised to do so if we submit our lives to him.

I am not telling you tonight that “working hard” for the Kingdom is wrong. I am calling you to realize how deceptive your heart it. Many times we work hard for the wrong reasons. (We work to prove our worth. We work because it gives us a sense of security in Gods love. We work hard to gain a sense of significance)

  • Your worth is in Christ.
  • Your security is found in the completed work of Christ.
  • Your significance is in the fact that you are a child of God.

This should be part of our Christian fabric…

“Your identity as a Christian is not based on your hard work and dedication to Christ. You identity as a Christian is a gift of God based on Christ’s work, and it is only through the Spirit that you are empowered to live the Christian life.”

3 thoughts on “Uncovering Idols (Part 2): Grandfather’s Work Ethic and the Idol of Self Righteousness

  1. “Whew”!!! Long,long but I enjoyed most of your post and how true still today many Christians feel that if they don’t do all the good they can they will not get into heaven,it’s so sad and there is so much foul wrong teaching going on.And so many are set in their ways and will not listen to sound doctrine,Jesus said “It Is Finished” Jesus did it all for us and once you’re saved it is finished “nothing” to add. I had to encourage myself this morning the flesh kept trying to make me compare myself to others and that’s a waste of time when I know Jesus is pleased with me and I am all ready accepted!!!
    Love you brother have a good evening.

  2. Thanks, but just the same I think I am happier as an all embracing tolerant Hindu. The Christian God shows too many symtoms of megalomania for my taste.

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