Text: Luke 16:14-18 | Listen to Message
A Primer on Self-Justification
“You justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts.” —Luke 16:14
What does it mean to justify ourselves – and how and why do we all do it?
“To justify” literally means “to declare righteous.” Thus, self-justification refers to our attempts to acquit ourselves of wrongdoing, to vindicate our reputation, or to make ourselves appear more acceptable in the eyes of others.
It’s one thing to defend your honor against false accusations, but that’s clearly not what Jesus is referring to here. He’s talking about all those times we seek to appear righteous before our peers when, in fact, our hearts tell a very different story.
So in biblical terms, self-justification means trying to make ourselves seem more righteous than we actually are.
Why do we instinctively try to adjust the record to make it seem as if we’re better (holier, more obedient, more loving) than we actually are?
- We know we’ve fallen short of what God requires and we’re terrified of that gap.
Every human on earth knows there’s a God whose standards we have broken. There is a gap between what His law requires and our performance. Our instinct is to try to minimize our culpability by pretending like that gap is much smaller than it actually is.
- We’re more concerned with what others think of us than what God knows to be true.
Obviously self-justification doesn’t fool God, but it isn’t really meant to. We do it to fool ourselves and to hide our shame. And we do it to fool others, because we are desperate for their ill-informed affirmation and praise.
There are two basic ways we instinctively seek to justify ourselves:
- By lowering God’s standard to something achievable.
- “That’s in the Old Testament, so that doesn’t apply to me.”
- “That can’t possibly mean that; I’m going to take that to mean this.”
- “That just means don’t do that all the time.”
- “That makes me unhappy and I’m sure God just wants me to be happy.”
- By elevating our performance to something adequate.
- “Of course X is wrong, but I’m not doing X.”
- “If I don’t get caught, it’s basically like I’m not doing it.”
- “It’s not as bad as what so-and-so is doing.”
- “So-and-so did it to me first.”
- “I flat out deny that I’m doing what I’m doing.”
- “I did it halfway for the wrong reasons; that counts, right?”
- “On the whole I’m doing more good than bad.”
A better way forward:
The Law is bad news for good people because it says, “You’re not nearly as good as you think you are, and you’re definitely not fooling God.”
But the Gospel is good news for bad people. In it, God says, “Because of my justice, I cannot lower my standard for anyone; but because of my mercy, I sent Jesus to fulfill the standard for you.”
Religion and humanism both invite us to adjust the record and boast in our own cleverness to narrow the gap. But the Gospel invites us to acknowledge the record and boast in Jesus Christ. Since it is the grace of his life and death that bridges the gap, we’d do well to admit that the gap is huge and that his grace is always more than enough!