This article is part of Sister Michelle Watson’s deep dive into the concept of “deny yourself” (Mt. 16:24, Mk. 8:34, Lu. 9:23, 3 Ne. 12:30). Today’s sub-theme is self-justification.
After studying up on self-justification, I realized that a huge portion of scripture is devoted to reinforcing the fact that it’s impossible. I can’t justify my sinful self to a holy God. Scripture says over and over again that I can’t possibly save myself by my good works, no matter how necessary those good works are to my discipleship. My sins require an infinite atonement, which can only be paid by Jesus Christ.
Back in Bible times, Paul had quite a time convincing the Jewish believers that Jesus fulfilled the law. The purpose of the Old Testament law wasn’t to test humans and grant eternal life to those who “passed;” it was to show humans that they can never measure up to what it demands. They need a Savior. Here’s some proof:
“By the law no flesh is justified; or, by the law men are cut off.” – 2 Ne. 2:5-9
“By the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” – Ro. 3:19-30
I think — and please tell me if I’m wrong — that previous generations struggled with this type of self-justification much more than we kooky millenials. In the past, when people got off track, it often had to do with trying too hard: trying to earn God’s love, trying to prove one’s goodness to God, trying to use human strength to fight spiritual battles, trying to never make a mistake (and covering it up when an oops happened). People tried hard to justify their righteousness instead of just admitting that they were sinners.
My generation is much more willing to admit this. Instead of raising our fists to defend our goodness, many will readily confess that we’re bad. That admission, in itself, is fine, but here’s what isn’t — we refuse to take the next step and do something to rectify our moral poverty.
I smile charmingly and say, “Boy, I’m such a screw-up. Thank God for His grace!” But then I never try to align myself more fully to God’s straight and narrow. I blunder through life, admitting my errors, but I won’t muster up the courage to change, to really grab hold of the rod of iron. I repent, but then I make a mockery of it by continuing in sin.
If previous generations tried too hard, then I’m trying too little.
I say glibly, “Uh-oh, gonna have to ask forgiveness for that one,” like all I have to do is chant the magic words. Or I throw up my hands in exasperation and say, “Ugh, I’m ONLY human,” as if I ONLY have access to my own strength and not the whole of heaven’s might. I insist that the church cut me some slack — I’m trying my best, after all. Or am I?
If my grandparents made the mistake of justifying their own righteousness, then I’m making the mistake of using my sinful nature as a cop-out and justifying why my sins just aren’t that bad. As for me and my peers, let’s wake up and walk the talk.
What about you? Which do you struggle with most, trying too hard or trying too little?
Here’s the view from the pew in Colombus, OH, and Pinetop, AZ (after VBS decorating).
This article has undergone ministry review and approval.