Martin Luther called justification by faith the “chief article” of the Christian faith, the doctrine upon which “the church stands or falls.” That the holy, righteous God of all justifies freely according to his grace those who trust him in faith is sublimely good news.

Yet, because of sin, we are always leaning away from justification by faith and toward some form of self-justification. Our hearts are so corrupt that we drift away from the justification offered in the gospel and toward many expressions of justification by works. How?

In general, our self-justification efforts express themselves in two ways: self-righteousness and persistent guilt. While these attitudes seem at odds with one another, they are actually two sides of the same (self-justifying) coin. Both operate under the assumption that God’s love for us is contingent upon our moral and spiritual performance. The self-righteous person looks to his own efforts and rejoices, thinking, “God must love me so much because of everything that I’ve done!” The person struggling with persistent guilt looks to her own efforts and despairs, thinking, “God must be so disappointed in me because of everything I’ve done!” Both are guilty of drifting away from justification by faith and looking to their own works to secure their standing before God.

The self-righteous person looks to his own efforts and rejoices, thinking, “God must love me so much because of everything I’ve done!”

The person struggling with persistent guilt looks to her own efforts and despairs, thinking, “God must be so disappointed in me because of everything I’ve done!”

In his short, excellent book, The Bookends of the Christian Life, Jerry Bridges offers a set of diagnostic questions aimed to help us understand how we might be drifting toward one or both sides of this coin.

Here are the questions Bridges offers to diagnose self-righteousness. If you answer yes to one or more of these, it is possible that you are leaning away from justification by faith and toward self-righteousness.

  1. Do you tend to live by a list of dos and don’ts?
  2. Is it difficult for you to respect those whose standards aren’t as high as yours?
  3. Do you assume that practicing spiritual disciplines should result in God’s blessing?
  4. Do you feel you’re better than most other people?
  5. Has it been a long time since you identified a sin and repented of it?
  6. Do you resent it when others point out your “spiritual blind spots”?
  7. Do you readily recognize the sins of others but not your own?
  8. Do you have the sense that God owes you a good life?
  9. Do you get angry when difficulties and suffering come into your life?
  10. Do you seldom think of the cross?

These, then, are the questions Bridges offers to diagnose persistent guilt. If you answer yes to one or more of these, it is possible that you are leaning away from justification by faith and toward persistent guilt.

  1. Are you painfully preoccupied with a particular habitual sin?
  2. Are you discouraged or depressed by your failure to measure up?
  3. Do you frequently experience anxiety that something’s about to go wrong?
  4. Does it appear God can use others but not you?
  5. Is there something in your past you just can’t seem to get over?
  6. Do you fear that your past will come back to haunt you?
  7. Do your difficult circumstances seem like God’s judgment for your sin?
  8. Do you steer clear of intimate relationships or small-group discussions?
  9. When you sin, do you get a vague sense that somehow there’ll be a price to pay?
  10. Do you seldom think of the cross?

Self-righteous people don’t like the cross because it proves the futility of their self-justifying ways. The cross proves that there was no way for sinners to be made right before God by their own efforts. Instead, the King of Heaven had to take on human form, live perfectly, die unjustly and rise victoriously…there was no other way for us to be justified. We were so bad that Jesus had to die to save us.

Persistently guilty people don’t like the cross because they can’t believe that Christ’s love for them is so complete and perfect that Jesus would choose to die for them. Because their focus is on their failings and works, they can’t imagine that the cross is true for them. But in Christ we are so loved that Jesus chose to die to save us.

This Holy Week, remember that it is at the cross where our self-justification efforts can be laid to rest. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21). We can rest from our futile, self-righteous ways at the cross, because here Christ’s righteousness is credited to his children. We can be freed from our crushing, persistent guilt at the cross, because here all of our shame and condemnation are laid upon Christ in our stead.


This article is adapted from the message The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, preached at Capitol City Christian Church on 4/14/2019. To hear the entire message, click here.

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