God alone makes people right (Romans 8:33; Luke 18:9-14). Because it is God who justifies, we do not have to! We do not need to defend ourselves, make ourselves look good, or fool ourselves into believing that we are what we want others to think of us. Insisting that we are always okay and right only creates division, separates people into bad and good, fosters disharmony, and is an affront to God. To pursue what is already provided by God’s grace is sin.
I realize I am using strong language here about self-justification. But consider its origins. It goes all the way back to the original sin of Adam and Eve. They were told by God that they could eat from any tree in the garden; but they were given strict instructions not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Have you ever wondered why God deemed it so important not to eat of that specific tree? The knowledge of good and evil actually seems like it might be useful, even necessary. So, why completely avoid that tree? When Adam and Eve ate from it their eyes were opened to a different perspective, a new reality that changed the way humanity deals with one another. From that point forward people began drawing lines down the middle and placing themselves on the good side while vilifying those on the other side, the bad side.
Adam and Even started justifying their actions, their attitudes, and their behavior on the day they fell by drawing lines between good and evil. Adam drew a line between him and Eve. Eve gave him the fruit; she is on the other side. Eve drew a line between her and the serpent. Adam drew a line between himself and God! Ever since our original ancestors started drawing lines and taking sides, it has never stopped. We draw political lines and place ourselves on the good side while demonizing the other side. We draw religious lines and place ourselves on the good side while distancing ourselves from our fellow humanity and calling them evil. We draw lines between classes, races, gender, and ethnicities. We are constantly drawing lines and taking sides. Violence, war, and every other sin in the world come from the original sin of self-justification: I am okay, you are not.
In the movie, What About Bob? Bill Murray was asked by his therapist why he was divorced. His answer: “There are two kinds of people in the world; those who like Neil Diamond, and those who don’t; my wife loved him.” Bob drew a line, placing himself on the good side of it while implying that his ex-wife was on the other side, the bad side. Ever since the fall of humanity we keep drawing lines and justifying our attitudes and our actions.
Self-justification always compares itself with others. People who think that it is their job to always be right are constantly concerned about other people; they need to know what is going on with them. They keep their ear to the ground because they must be vigilant to keep the lines drawn and distinguish themselves from those on the other side, the bad side.
But when we are justified by God and he makes us right by his own grace, the curse upon humanity is reversed. Everything changes and reverts to its original design. Our souls are rebuilt and become robust and vigorous not through effort and work, but through relaxation and rest in Christ’s finished work. There is now no fear because there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. There is no comparisons needed anymore because God is enough, Christ is sufficient. There is no more worry about how we look to others; instead, there is contentment and satisfaction in the love of God in Christ.
Only God can justify! Righteousness is a gift. Until we know this, receive the gift, and live in it, we will continue in vain to make ourselves look good and be on the right side of everything while making others look bad. It is not the job of church ministries to group people into who is in and who is out, who is bad and who is good; rather, church ministry is to proclaim the righteousness of Christ as the only means of making people right. If there are no sides to take, then we are all in life together. Until we get to that point, there is no progress. But when we do, there is peace, love, and abundant joy that God would save such as sinner as I.