How can I be justified before God?

Have you ever participated in a Myers Briggs personality test? On completion of the test you are assigned four letters that describe your personality and my four letters are E, N, F, and P. Without getting bogged down in what the letters represent, when I read the description of those that are defined as being ENFPs, one line stood out to me:

“They will always find justification for their own inappropriate behaviour.”

Not very flattering! I like to think of myself as someone who can justify my own actions, however, the description does point to something we all do, and that is to make excuses for things we should not have done, or for not doing the things we should have done!

Ask any teenager why their homework was not in on time, why the dishes were not put away, or why there are muddy footprints on the carpet, and I promise that you will be astounded at the breadth of creativity in the answers given — a skill we all carry into adulthood.

To get his message across — about what God’s Kingdom is like and how we can be part of it — Jesus told stories or parables. On one occasion he told a story about two men who went to the temple in Jerusalem to pray.

One was a Pharisee, a beloved and holy teacher of religious law, and the other was a tax collector, someone working for the corrupt Jewish and Roman governments and considered to be a degenerate lowlife.

The Pharisee prayed along the lines of, “Thank God I’m not like other guys, and not a thief, villain, lech, or even like this tax collector standing next to me! I go to worship twice a week and give a tenth of all I earn to charity and good causes.”

However, the tax collector kept his eyes firmly on the ground, wrung his hands, and prayed, “God, have mercy on me cos I’m a sinner!” Jesus said that it was the tax collector, and not the Pharisee that went home justified before God.

So what justified the tax collector before God? Surely, the Pharisee, who had kept himself pure and who did good works should be the one justified?

Through this very simple story we learn something about the nature of justification and how it works. So ingrained is the psychology of positive reinforcement — where good behaviour is rewarded and bad behaviour punished — that we automatically apply this to God, however, God is perfectly holy and therefore, for God, the bar is set very high indeed. In other words, how many good works and how much good behaviour would be enough to satisfy a God that demands perfection?

The answer is, of course, an unobtainable amount!

It doesn’t mean we don’t do good works, just that we recognise there is a different dynamic going on when it comes to our justification before God, that no matter how hard we try, we will never get there on our own.

I used to be a high jumper, and it is one of the only sports where the winner fails! The bar gets higher and higher until even the winner, trying to beat her own personal best, eventually knocks it off. It’s exactly the same with us and our Godly lives. We become justified before God by admitting that very thing — that the bar is way higher than we can achieve, that we cannot achieve God’s standards, and that we all fall short. 

Recognising that, to be justified before God we need a saviour, is called faith, and this is why Jesus invites us to have faith in him. It is Jesus that justifies us before God.

The tax collector in the story beat his breast and admitted his failings and this is why, when us Christians gather for worship we, as part of our gatherings, and usually at the beginning, say a confession. It is our admission that we have fallen short of God’s standard and that we need the saving grace of Jesus. Heartfelt confession is in itself a statement of faith, and is a vitally important aspect of our individual and corporate journey with God.

There is a wonderful line in the 1662 Prayer Book confession (yes, they got some things right back then) that reads: “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.” Was there ever a truer statement?

I remember once a friend coming to our church worship and afterwards he said he would never come again because he wasn’t “a sinner” and was a “good person.”

A wise scholar once told me that apathy and indifference is also a sin. Given that as I type this on my expensive laptop and know that right now children are dying of malnutrition in Haiti, and that by selling it I could probably save a child’s life, my apathy is indeed sinful. Therefore, in a very real sense, no matter how “good” I think I am, I am very much in a constant state of sinfulness and in need of saving.

The apostle John, in his first letter found in the Bible, writes this, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us, however, if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

And the apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans sums it up like this, “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe… for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”

Thank God that my life is not weighed on a set of cosmic scales, in the uncertain hope that my good deeds might outweigh my bad deeds and my lack of action! My hope is in Jesus Christ alone for only he can save me. It is only through Christ that I can stand justified before God and my faith is in him.

For Jesus, this story of the Pharisee and the tax collector was not just a story, for one of the people groups not only answered the invitation to be a follower of Jesus, but also became one of his special twelve disciples (I’ll give you a clue, it wasn’t a Pharisee!)

This week, may you come before God, being honest and open about who you are. May you recognise that, like all of us, you fall short of the glory of God, and may you know the grace, forgiveness, and acceptance of God. May you stand justified before him and become free to be the person God created you to be. Amen!

P.S. Oh, and by the way, that bit at the beginning of my message about being an ENFP and able to justify my own inappropriate behaviour, please don’t tell the bishop!