Becoming OK with God: thoughts on the meaning of justification

Justification by faith in Christ

Christ the Redeemer

Justification by faith is too important to let it become just religious talk. If we are justified by faith, what does justify mean in ordinary language? Here are some sentences I found with an online search “justify in a sentence”

  • Refusal of a request to work beyond 65 must be objectively justified by the employer.
  • These pluses, we feel, amply justify a rate increase.
  • These features justify the expense of the software.

All of these sentences imply two questions, really.

Is it right, or OK, to refuse the request, increase the rates, buy the software, or go to war?


It seems that every time we attempt to justify something, a real or hypothetical skeptic has reasons why what what we want is not justified.

“Justify” means the same thing as a religious term. A person who is justified is right with God, or OK with God. God does the justifying. He does not hide his reasoning or his criteria. Several passages in Paul’s epistles in effect explain and justify God’s basic standard.

Justification by works of the law

Moses went up the mountain to talk to God. He came back with the law. Actually, he came back with the Ten Commandments, but the Mosaic law came to include all kinds of regulations that explain how to live day by day. It also set up a system of sacrifices. Why? Because people would inevitably fail to keep the law, both individually and corporately.

On the surface, it certainly looks like a blueprint for how to live a life that God will declare OK. I heard a rabbi on the radio several years ago explaining that to be a good Jew, all you had to do was follow the law. It’s all nicely laid out in the Torah, so, he said, following the law is easy.

I’m not sure how many people have ever agreed with him that keeping the law is easy. It forbids all kinds of things that people would really like to do and commands all kinds of things that people would prefer not to do. In particular, is is so easy to get caught up in ritual observance to the neglect of the law of love so plainly set forward.

By Jesus’ time, some Jews tried very hard to keep the law. Others didn’t try at all. Gentiles, of course, had no training or education in the law. It stands to reason that those who kept the law must somehow be closer to God than those who don’t. “Sinner” meant those who didn’t keep the law.

But let’s not forget the sacrifices. Those who tried hardest to keep the law still had to perform regular sacrifices to atone for their sin. The sacrifice system constantly reminded of their sin.

So a religious Jew desperately wanted God to pronounce him OK. Having to sacrifice encouraged doubt about that. So if the law says to tithe on your cattle and wheat crops, a very religious Jew would also tithe on his herb garden. The law encourages fasting, so a very religious Jew would fast more often than anyone else. And so it went.

Doing the works of the law easily became some kind of arms race. The most dedicated Jews each tried to be more religious than others. Of course they resented it when Jesus came along and called them nasty names for comparing themselves with each other and pronouncing themselves better than most other people. So much for the law of love

If someone claims to be justified by works of the law, he in effect tells God, “You must accept me as OK because of all the law keeping I have done.” Anyone with that attitude essentially puts himself in the driver’s seat and reduces God to an accounting clerk. An all-powerful accounting clerk to be sure, because only God would count the beans in the jar knowing how many are enough.

Justification by faith

Paul introduced a novel concept–so novel that some of the early followers of Jesus had trouble accepting. One of his earliest written explanations of it come in Galatians 2:15-21. Jewish Christians from Jerusalem had come to a church he had founded and taught that Christ died only for people who kept the law.

Paul countered that no one could be justified by works of the law, and that if they could, Christ died for no reason. Justification by faith says that Christ died to defeat sin. The only way live free of sin is to believe that Jesus paid it all.

If I’m OK because of how well I have performed works of the law, then I must have defeated sin myself. What do I need with the death of Jesus? Of course, all those required sacrifices keep me conscious of sin, so I can never be fully persuaded in my own heart that I’m OK.

But if trying to work my way to favor with God makes him seem like my servant, a servant of my good works, what does this new idea of justification by faith do? Doesn’t turning away from law keeping, acknowledging that I a sinner, and counting on God to declare me OK anyway reduce God to a servant of sin?

Here’s what Paul’s opponents didn’t get: If I give up on an approach that reduced God to a bean counter and admit that I can never accumulate enough beans to be good enough, I free God from the servanthood I had imagined. Instead, I can tell him, “I can’t defeat sin, but you did. So I’ll trust you not only to defeat sin in general, but my own sin in particular by the blood of Jesus.”

That way, God is not conceptually my servant any more, and certainly not a servant of my sin. I acknowledge God as sin’s master. Further, by giving up my own losing struggle with sin, sin is no longer my master. If I accept Jesus’ death as the key to leaving my sin behind me and eventually destroying it altogether, somehow the old me, the one who struggled against sin and always lost, has died. I have been born again as a new me with a new master–Jesus himself. My focus no longer conflicts with the law of love.

Once God has declared me OK because of my faith that Jesus will deal with my sin, I cannot go back to trying to justify myself with law keeping. No one else would justify me for my own efforts. Other people will eventually discover someplace where I fall short–if not of my standards, then certainly theirs. God will not justify me for my own efforts. After all, I knew all along that it wasn’t working when I was trying to justify myself in the first place.

faith, hope, love

The real problem with justification by works

Where is my focus when I’m trying to get God to call me OK based on my own works? It has to be on my works. When I see other people, what can I do but compare them to myself?

I may see someone who seems to be working harder at it than I am. That’s likely to put me to shame and redouble my efforts so that I will look as holy and successful to him as he looks to me.

On the other hand, when I see someone who does things that I have given up or doesn’t accept the kinds of self-discipline that I have, I can only feel superior. I might enjoy that superiority in smug silence. I might give voice to it in a rebuke.

And when I think of God while I’m trying to be good enough by my own efforts, what more can I have in mind besides how much he approves of me?

Works righteousness is not limited to Jews, ancient or otherwise. It has long infected the church. My mother had an uncle, a life-long Methodist. Late in his life, a Baptist friend told him, “I’m really worried about your baptism. You need to get that taken care of, because you’re too good a man to go to hell.” That person turned the “proper” kind of baptism into a religious work.

That rebuke was meant in kindness. The rebuke of someone betting his life on working toward salvation more often rudely proclaims the person who does not acknowledge the same standard deserves hell.

Even for people who understand and strive after justification by faith can fall into the trap of condemning others on the basis of works done or not done. What else can it mean when, in the name of holiness, church people condemn others who

  • shop or do much of anything else on Sundays
  • dance
  • play cards
  • drink an occasional beer
  • watch the wrong kinds of movies or TV–or any at all
  • don’t dress for church the right way (whether not dressing up enough, or in more informal churches, dressing up too much)
  • and so on

I said earlier that a person engaged in justification by works necessarily focuses his attention on himself. In particular, that means that he can’t have God at the center of his attention. He can’t have what’s best for others at the center of his attention. No one can focus on himself and on the law of love at the same time. The Baptist I mentioned probably thought he had Uncle John’s best interests at heart, but he was being more judgmental than loving.

God is love. A well-known song says, “they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” But will they? Unchurched people see Christianity the same way works-righteousness “holiness” people see it: as a list of “thou shalt nots.” Compelling observance of a list of prohibition absolutely crowds out observance of the law of love.

As long as even a sizable minority of church people pay lip service to justification by faith in church and then practice justification by works once they leave the building, the world will not notice the love.

Photo credits:
Christ the Redeemer–Some rights reserved by Sailor Coruscant
Faith, hope,love–Some rights reserved by a God’s Child

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