Re-run: Justification and Daily Life

I have decided that, in order to keep things moving here, I will occasionally post a re-run of a previous post that I think is worth reading again.  This one was originally posted in May of 2006. 

“Justification by faith” is a phrase, derived largely from the Apostle Paul, that has played an enormous role in church history. It has formed the center of debate between Roman Catholics and Protestants for centuries. Its importance to one’s understanding of the gospel is massive.

Growing up at First Baptist Church of Atlanta, Texas, I formed a basic understanding of justification, although I don’t recall ever hearing the word “justification” used all that much. I understood it to mean, simply, “being made right with God.” Of course, that is a correct understanding, but there is so much more depth to the term. My pastor correctly taught that we are made right with God by faith alone, and not by our own efforts. We are righteous before God because of the cross, not because we can in any way merit righteousness.

All that made sense to me, as far as matters of salvation and eternity were concerned. But not until recent years did I begin to understand how justification impacts not only our vision of eternity, but also our day-to-day lives. If you think about it, our lives are dominated by the question of justification. This is because human life is always lived before others. We constantly strive to justify ourselves–our existence and our accomplishments–in the eyes of men. Oswald Bayer puts it this way:

Our whole life histories are placed before a permanent tribunal in which we act as accused, prosecutor, and judge. Throughout our lives we continually seek to find excuses for the fact that we live as we do, that we are existent rather than nonexistent, and that we are as we are and not something different.

This is the search for justification. We want other people to like us. The politician’s television advertisements are aimed at justifying him before voters. The teenager who dresses like all of her friends longs for their approval, for justification before the court of her peers. The entertainer craves the attention and approval of the masses, which fills his life with meaning and justifies his existence. The man returning to his hometown for the 10-year high school reunion can’t wait to show all of his friends how well he is doing; he longs for justification of himself, his life, and the paths he has chosen.

Everyday of our lives, we are asked to account for the fact that we exist and that we are who we are. Everyday of our lives, we comply and struggle for endless justifications. As social beings, we live in the company of others and constantly desire their approval.

There is something healthy in this. The fact that it often makes us strive to do better, even to be better, keeps society functioning. Virtually every motivational speaker I heard growing up in the Texas public school system had the same message: you have potential; work hard and achieve success. Certainly, that is a good and necessary message. But it is not the whole truth.

What happens when we fail? What if we work hard, but circumstances beyond our control nullify our hard work and leave our potential for success in shambles? Or what if we work hard and stumble at one point, at just the point that destroys it all? In my calling, that of the ministry, one moral lapse may compromise everything. On the other hand, what if obedience to God requires that we relinquish justification before others? If Scripture is any guide (and it is!), then this is sure to happen frequently. The world stands in antithesis to the holy will of God. Therefore, to do God’s will often puts us at odds with the expectations of the world and merits the world’s disapproval. Many Christians have been condemned before courts (both literally and metaphorically speaking) because they stood for the truth of the gospel. They relinquished justification before others and sought only to please God.

And then, of course, there is the raw truth that as fallen people, we may simply make a mess of things. I believe Jesus’ interaction with the self-righteous Pharisees often pressed home the truth that in order to find life, joy, peace, and abundance, we must first bump up against the hard fact that we are all royally messed up. Read Luke 7:36-50 and see if there can be any other explanation.

What happens when, in our endless search for justifications, we fail to justify ourselves before others for any of the above reasons? This is where the motivational speakers can’t help us. Everything they tell us about success, about happiness, about making this life count, hangs on our achievements. If our achievements do not materialize, the success gurus leave us with nothing. But justification by faith holds us up in a sea of despair.

The doctrine of justification by faith is, essentially, this: we are declared righteous before God because of something that has happened completely outside of us. Jesus Christ the righteous died in the place of the guilty and was vindicated through his resurrection from the dead. Faith connects us to him. Because he is righteous before God, we are counted righteous in him and for his sake alone, even though we are not, in ourselves, righteous. We are sinful rebels against God who stand forgiven and accepted into his family because God counts the righteousness of Christ as ours and wipes away our sin in his cross. Nothing we do affects this reality. It is completely outside of us, outside our accomplishments and failures, outside all of our efforts to justify ourselves in the endless ways that we do. If God justifies us for Christ’s sake alone, then nothing we do or fail to do can impact this, the ultimate justification.

Who decides what really “counts” in this universe? God does. This is his universe. And God has declared that all who are in Christ “count”. He has justified all who receive righteousness by faith. Paul speaks of it as the justification of the ungodly (Romans 4:5). How can a righteous Judge justify the ungodly, acquit the guilty? Only through the cross of Christ, for it is in the cross that God condemned sin while still receiving sinners. Only through the substitutionary death of Christ do we stand justified before God.

I constantly evaluate myself on a number of levels: am I a good husband, a good father, a good student, a good pastor? I certainly hope that I am, by the grace of God. But what happens if I stumble at any of these points (and I have stumbled at all of them, though some more than others)? What happens if my struggling church eventually goes under, and I am left wondering if I have failed as a leader? Do I consider my call invalidated and my life’s work wasted? Or do I rest in the justifying verdict that has already been pronounced over me in the court of Heaven? God has already given me value for the sake of Christ alone. Therefore, whether I have all the world or none of it, I have more wealth than all the success gurus could ever promise. I have been justified–justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone–and nothing will ever change that. My success story was written in blood 2,000 years ago on a hill called Golgotha and chiseled on the stone rolled back from an empty tomb. And though I may seem a fool by standards of worldly success, I will glorify the God who magnifies his grace by passing over human distinctions and imputing the righteousness of his Son to ungodly fools like me:

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

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