The Pervasive Problem of Self-Justification

Oswald Bayer in his book Living By Faith: Justification and Sanctification says something strikingly true about the human race.

“The world of the court is not a special world of its own, but just a particular instance—a very striking one— of what is being done always and everywhere…to be recognized and justified; to cause ourselves to be justified or to justify ourselves in attitude, thought, word, and action; to need to justify our being; or simply to be allowed to exist without needing to justify our being—all this makes for our happiness or unhappiness and is an essential part of our humanity.”

In other words, the entire human race is busy with the task of justifying themselves before God and before their fellow men. We are constantly seeking to justify our existence, our motives, our actions, our speech, our decisions, our relationships, our choices, and everything else about us—it is an incessant impulse within us.  Bayer gives us a window into his soul, which is in reality a window into every heart.

“I constantly vacillate, even to the very end of life, between the judgment others make about me and of my own judgment of myself. I am constantly trying to ascertain others’ judgment about me and my own judgment of myself; I arrive at some point of calm, and them become unsure of myself again. My identity is a floating one.”

The only solution to our unending quest for justification is a received verdict of righteousness from the Sovereign God. We must relinquish–no die– to every attempt at self-justification and receive it passively as an undeserved gift from outside of us. As we receive the gift of faith and our old man’s attempts at self-justification are murdered we are able to rest quietly and unconcerned with ourselves in Christ. For Bayer God’s justification of us issues in the gift of self-forgetfulness.

“The passive righteousness of faith tells us: You do not concern yourself at all! In that God does what is decisive in us, we may live outside ourselves and solely in him. Thus, we are hidden from ourselves and removed from the judgment of others or the judgment of ourselves about ourselves as a final judgment.”

Until we embrace the death of the old and the birth of the new our existence will be one continual attempt at self-justification. We will exploit every existing thing in this universe in order to justify ourselves. This is true—it is one of the supreme deeds of the flesh to establish our own righteousness by any means possible.

In Christ our old Adam is crushed that our new man might breathe and live. And as we rest in Christ for the affirmation of our existence and salvation we are liberated from the tiresome task of justification—one we would work for our whole lives and never attain. In Jesus it is settled—we are justified and therefore we are free to funnel our regenerate energies into kingdom living.

Justification and the Future

What does justification have to do with the day of judgment? Mark Seifrid answers the question well. “The day of judgment has been brought into the present in Jesus Christ crucified and risen.” It is a piece of the future brought into our present. The cross and resurrection is the courtroom where God condemns and vindicates us in Christ Jesus. Romans 8:31-34 captures this truth best.

“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be  against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.”

On the final day no charge will be stand against us according to this text. Why? Because it is God who justifies. Our justification now (Rom 8:1–there is now no condemnation) assures us of our right standing in the future. On that final day who will there be to condemn us? The answer to that is who cares. The one who ultimately can condemn us will absolutely not condemn us. The one who stands to judge is the one who died, rose, and is interceding for us right now. The one who can condemn us has promised us now that he will never do so. Every accusation of the evil one, of other people, of our consciences, of our sinful deeds will fall impotent before the justifying word of God that has been spoken to us now but keeps us forever.

Sanctification by Justification by Faith Alone

Gerhard Forde defines sanctification as the “art of getting used to justification.”  He goes further to describe what growth in godliness looks like when justification stands at the center of how you think about transformation. “There is a kind of growth and progress, it is to be hoped, but it is growth in ‘grace’ a growth in coming to be captivated more and more, if we can so speak, by the totality, the unconditionality of the grace of God. It is a matter of getting used to the fact that if we are to be saved it will have to be by grace alone. We should make no mistake about it: sin is to be conquered and expelled. But if we see that sin is the total state of standing against the unconditional grace and goodness of God, if sin is our very incredulity, unbelief, mistrust, our insistence on falling back on our self and maintaining control, then it is only through the total grace of God that sin comes under attack, and only through faith in that total grace that sin is defeated. To repeat: sin is not defeated by a repair job, but by dying and being raised new.”

A Daily Dose of Justification

I’m working through Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians and it has been very encouraging. I posted this entire commentary in PDF form under the category “Articles for Equipping” (help yourself). Commenting on justification by faith Luther says, “The article of justification must be sounded in our ears incessantly because the frailty of our flesh will not permit us to take hold of it perfectly and to believe it with all our heart.” Isn’t that the truth. The news that God has declared us righteous in Christ, has removed the guilt and condemnation of our sin, and considers us innocent is quite difficult to go on believing day after day. Our experience contradicts our position many times. We the guiltless know the guilt of sin. We the righteous know we do unrighteousness. We the pure are often impure. The fact that our experience militates against the truth of our position before God points to the fact that we need to hear the promise of justification again and again. Faith looks not at what is seen but beyond that to what is certain and that is God’s promise. His promise is a promise of liberation. The cross is about justification and justification is about freedom. It was for freedom that Christ set us free. We need to hear that God has justified us in Christ day after day—indeed incessantly. This incessant reminder has the effect of breaking our shackles of guilt and shame and compelling us in our freedom to love God and neighbor.