SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS. Not a Biblical term as such, but a concept derived primarily from a negative picture of the Pharisees found in the gospels (cf. the Fr. pharisaïsme, which is the equivalent of the Eng. self-righteousness and the Ger. Selbstgerechtigkeit). It refers to an attitude whereby a religious person considers himself either morally upright or in right standing with God because of his adherence to the letter of legal requirements without regard to their spirit.
Technically, the term may be applied in a religious sense to the person who tries to make himself right with God by his own “rightness,” or by keeping the divine statutes. Thus Paul speaks of the Jews as “being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own” (Rom 10:3), and further testifies of himself as “not having a righteousness of my own, based on law” (Phil 3:9). In a more distant way this kind of “self-righteousness” is the burden of Elihu’s complaint against Job (cf. Job 32:2; 33:8-12).
Thus the self-righteous person is righteous neither in the religious nor the moral sense. He does not have right standing with God through self-effort or adherence to the law; nor is he morally upright, since only his conduct is affected and not his attitudes.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
self-ri’-chus-nes: A term that has come to designate moral living as a way of salvation; or as a ground for neglecting the redemptive work of Lu 18:9 ). The Pharisees quite generally resented the idea of Jesus that all men needed repentance and they most of all. They regarded themselves as righteous and looked with contempt on "sinners." Paul in all his writings, especially Ro 3; Ga 3; Eph 2; Php 3, contrasts the righteousness that is God’s gift to men of faith in Jesus Christ, with righteousness that is "of the law" and "in the flesh." By this latter he means formal conformity to legal requirements in the strength of unregenerate human nature. He is careful to maintain (compare Ro 7) that the Law is never really kept by one’s own power. On the other hand, in full agreement with Jesus, Paul looks to genuine righteousness in living as the demand and achievement of salvation based on faith. God’s gift here consists in the capacity progressively to realize righteousness in life (compare Ro 8:1 ff).
See also SANCTIFICATION.