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How Self Justification Subverts Grace!

A few minutes ago I was listening to Dane Ortlund on “How Self-Justification Subverts Grace.”  Below this, I also share a re-post of an article I wrote on this subject in early 2015.  These lines were especially penetrating:

“Self justification creates an outlook of aloofness and superiority and negative scrutiny and ‘gottcha’…..Trusting in ourselves that we are righteous and viewing others with contempt always go together! When we see the negative dynamics of dismissive contempt, there’s a reason. The reason is a gospel deficit in the heart however sincere the gospel profession in the head.” (Dane Ortlund)

I was reminded afresh of how subtle it is to believe in the doctrines of grace yet be seeking to self-justify in the attitudes of the heart.   We tend to lean towards this not so much in theory but in practice.  Let me explain.  As I’ve mentioned before: one can be theologically astute and still be dramatically immature. The real danger, of course, comes when we think biblical maturity is mainly about precision of theological knowledge and biblical literacy, although they are extremely important.  Spiritual maturity is not primarily something we do with our minds (though we’re commanded to love God with our minds).  Maturity is about how you live your life in light of the Gospel.

“Justification By Faith Alone” is Not A Basic Christian Doctrine.

“Justification by faith alone” is not merely a way to become a Christian. It is a way to grow as a Christian.  It is possible to get an A in a written test on “justification by faith alone” but fail to apply it thoroughly in the heart in ordinary everyday life.  Ask yourself these questions:

How does my heart respond when confronted?

Am I always defensive about my mistakes and sins?

Am I being overly critical of others while overly defensive of myself?

Justification by faith alone, in Christ alone, also means that: I no longer need to call up my inner defense lawyer, and seek to justify myself even when my most noble motives come under close inspection.  It means I no longer need to justify myself through my words or actions.  It means I can now repent from comparing my efforts with others–and rest my case– and focus my heart on Christ who justifies and accepts me forever on the basis of His finished work on the cross.

“What is so often missing in the lives of many Christians is being “consciously clothed” in the righteousness of Christ. The result is that we “go into the manufacturing business” weaving a robe of our own righteousness that we trust will please God (not for justification but for an sense of our ongoing acceptance), and for which we expect the praise of others. Our hearts are deeply suspicious of free grace and our natural tendency is (even unconsciously) to supplement it with works of our own” (Serge- Grace at The Fray- 2nd edition; J.W.Long Nov.2011)

When most Christians think of sin, they tend to think only in terms of moralism.  So most Christians tend to think they are fine, and can feel good about themselves if they can stay away from external “gross” sins that are done outside of the body.  However, we need grace to help us look at what the Bible says about our self-righteousness.  In the Old Testament, Isaiah said that our self-righteousness are like a polluted garment in God’s eyes: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isaiah 64: 6).   We might think it ironic that the religious Pharisee in the parable of Jesus considered himself a better (cleaner person) in comparison to the tax collector, simply because his religious outward cloak and profession produced in him a false sense of self- worth. This resulted in a superiority complex over tax collection (which was considered an unclean occupation in those times).  He sincerely believed he was “not like other men” or like the tax collector (Luke 18: 9-14).

Similarly, when we forget the Gospel of grace, we may look down our noses momentarily on things that are related to people’s profession, clothing, occupation, race, culture–or even theological differences–and especially if their performances are not measuring up to our moral codes or standards.   Like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal, it’s easy to treat others harshly rather than graciously as a result of forgetting the Gospel of grace.   It’s easy to become spiritually prideful, especially if you’ve been a Christian for a long time, and live and talk like a drudging slave rather than like a son/daughter –accepted and loved unconditionally by the Father.  

In the New Testament, Paul (the former pharisee) regarded all his religious accomplishments and status as “dung” (excrement) “because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ” (Phil 3: 8).   In modern terms, “excrement” or “dung” is a waste product–something that belongs in the toilet—something that no human being in their right minds would touch with their bare hands.  That’s a vivid picture of our self-righteousness in comparison to the holiness and righteousness of Christ.  And this righteousness of Christ is imputed, counted to you and me.  It’s something we can’t earn, undeserved, but freely given.  This gift of righteousness cannot get better, because it is the best there ever is and will be– it is the righteousness of the only One who knew no sin; the righteousness of the only One who obeyed God perfectly (2 Cor. 5: 21).

In the Old Testament, God paints a gross picture of our self-righteousness as  “menstrual garment.”  In simple words, our self-righteousness, our best efforts, are so deeply tainted with sin, that it becomes untouchable, unclean, completely unacceptable before a holy God.  In the New Testament, however, you are washed clean of all your “filthy religious rags” and have been given a new and far better clothing– the robe of righteousness– all because of Jesus who died as your substitute– bearing the just punishment for your sins.  We need not wear our filthy rags now to cover our shame and guilt.  Why would anyone want to pick up that filthy rags again, after having been clothed with a robe of righteousness in Christ?  We’re a new person now, and we’ve been given the status of a son and not a slave (2 Cor. 5: 17).

We see this in the New Testament, that from a self-righteous, hard-nosed religious fundamentalist, the apostle Paul converted to become the “chief of sinners” (I Tim. 1: 15).   After coming to Christ, a former law-keeping religious Pharisee, who went around persecuting the recipients of grace, now sees his religion as “dung,” as “rubbish” or “garbage.”  In the light of God’s holiness and grace, He says, “I am the chief of sinners.”  That’s how you grow in holiness.  Religion and irreligion reject God’s holiness on both sides of the extremes.  Religion says, “I am good enough for God.  He accepts me on the basis of my performance.”  And irreligion says, “I am my own god, ruling at the center of my life, defining my own destiny.”   

But the way up, with God, is down. 

“For whoever humbles Himself will be exalted; and whoever exalts himself will be humbled” (Luke 18: 14).  Religion can never be holy enough for God.  It’s possible to be a strong advocate of God’s holiness in an unholy prideful way.  This was true in my life as well, and to a lesser degree today because of God’s abundant grace working in me.  It took a while for me to truly admit that I had the seed of the religious pharisee in me.  I came to Christ broken and desperate, but accepted and loved, and so I fell deeply in love with Him.   I began to grow loving His word like a new born baby desiring milk.  But it wasn’t too long before I began to behave more like a cold Pharisee.  I thought to myself “I am, at least, Not Like That Drug Addict or THAT prostitute, or those Christians over there.”  So I would avoid “those” sinners, because (honestly) I was afraid that people might think I’m taking drugs too–by identifying with them. I was afraid of people’s disapproval instead of resting in God’s approval of me based on Christ’s righteousness. 

But there was a hole in my personal holiness. 

did not truly recognize God’s holiness– like the Pharisee in the famous parable (Luke 18: 9-14).  While professing to know that I am saved by grace, I began to look down my nose on those that I thought didn’t measure up to God’s standard.  But God is so merciful!  The more I began to recognize His holiness, the more I began to realize how much I don’t measure up.  And all the more I began to realize how great a Savior Jesus truly is!  And the more amazing His grace has become to me every day.  You see:  God’s grace gives us a whole new way of seeing ourselves, others and the world.  Grace gives us a new way to see people as created in His image, deeply loved by Jesus because He died and rose again for them.   

1. God’s grace lifts our head up without puffing our hearts up.

2. God’s grace also humbles our religious spirit without humiliating us.

3.  God’s grace washes us of all your filth and clothes us with the best garment– the righteousness of Jesus, His son.

As you go about your day, remember that your best efforts are never so good enough that you are beyond the need for radical grace.  And your worst efforts are never so really bad that you are beyond the reach of God’s abundant grace.  God’s grace reaches you and meets you where you are– everyday, every moment, every hour and everywhere!  As the line in one song said, “Grace will lead me home.”

By the way, only One is truly “not like other men.”


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