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?
When considering the parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8), we infer quickly that God is not like the unrighteous judge. Jesus intends for us to come to this conclusion: And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night?” (Luke 18:7). In other words, if even this unrighteous judge who neither fears God nor respects man gives people justice, how much more will God – who is holy and righteous and perfectly just – grant justice to his chosen people?
God is not like the unrighteous judge.
But often when this parable is explained, it seems that Christians are left with the impression that we should be like the persistent widow.
Adoniram Judson was the first overseas missionary from the United States. In 1812, when he was 23-years-old, he sailed to Burma to take the gospel to people who had never heard it. With him sailed his wife, Ann – to whom he had been married for twelve days on the day they departed. Ann would never return home. They both gave their lives – their talents – to see Christ treasured in Burma, serving there until they died.
Christian history is littered with people who thought they knew exactly when and exactly how Christ would return. All of them have been wrong. Furthermore, those who continue to prognosticate about these things will always be wrong. After all, Jesus himself said: Concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only (Matt 24:36). Idle speculation about the time of Christ’s return is foolish, and we should avoid it.
But my concern here is not only for those who are drawn toward idle speculation about the timing of Christ’s return. My concern is for all of us, and for the deeper, universal impulse such idle speculation reflects.
Greed is subtle. It knows how to hide in our hearts, lurking in the shadows where it can destroy us, undetected. We should realize this, yet we don’t. Consider: Virtually everyone agrees that greed and materialism are real problems in the world. On top of that, Christians recognize that Jesus talked openly and often about greed, saying things like this to warn us against it: “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness” (Luke 12:15a). Yet virtually no one considers himself to be a greedy person. That doesn’t add up!
We should assume that greed is, or easily can be, a problem for us. And we should fight greed in our own lives. But how?
If, like a computer or smartphone, the human heart had an operating system, that operating system would run on self-justification. Self-justification is the default wiring of the human heart. We innately believe that we are, more or less, pretty good, and that our faults are, more or less, not that bad. While we are quick to point to the sins of others, we are slow to recognize our own. All of this is a reflection of our self-justifying ways.
One helpful way to diagnose this in your own life is to answer the question: why do I think God will answer my prayers? Any answer you give to that question reveals what you are looking to for justification. And every answer – save one – ultimately reveals self-justification.
Do not let your adorning be external – the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear – but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious (1 Peter 3:3-4).
Our culture tells us that if you want to win influence, external adornment is the key. This is why I don’t have to teach my six-year-old daughter to play “dress up.” She knows, instinctively, that there is value in external beauty. Our culture follows suit. In 2007, Americans spent $39 billion on cosmetic products. When we add cosmetic procedures to the mix, the math gets even crazier. While Americans account for only about 4% of the world’s population, we account for roughly 20% of the world’s cosmetic procedures. Clearly we’re eager, as a culture, to go under the knife or needle in our pursuit of external beauty. (more…)