The Other Justification by Faith

Robert Russell Drake

Jesus says in Luke 16:15, "You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. For what is highly exalted among men is detestable in God's sight."

In this article, I want to tell you:

  • what justification is,
  • what justification by faith is, and
  • what the other justification by faith is.

Primarily, I want to warn you about the other justification by faith. You have been rescued from it, but even today it is haunting you and trying to work its way back into your life.

What Is Justification?

Justification is the act of declaring someone just. To be just is to be righteous—that is, to have right standing. This is what happened in an Old Testament court. If a man was found to be guilty of a crime, then the judge condemned him. If a man was found to be innocent, then the judge declared him to be such. The judge didn't make him guilty or innocent, wicked or righteous. He just declared him to be what he was.

What Is Justification by Faith?

Against that background, hear what justification by faith is. Justification by faith is the scandal of the New Testament, because God, sitting as the absolutely pure and righteous judge, does what he forbade Israel ever to do in an Old Testament court of law. He pronounces someone righteous who is not righteous. He justifies the ungodly.

We have a great summary of this divine act of justification in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q/A 33: "What is justification? Justification is an act of God's free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone."

We are accepted as righteous by God not because of any personal righteousness of our own, but because we have received the righteousness of Christ by believing and trusting in him. That the wicked can attain right standing with God through faith is the shock of the New Testament.

What Is the Other Justification by Faith?

Are you ready now to hear what the other justification by faith is—the one that we must always be on guard against? People usually call it justification by works, but it is really another version of justification by faith. In the real justification by faith, you have faith in what Christ has done for you. In the false version, you have faith in what you do for yourself. You can't get away from it being an act of faith, an act of trust.

Luke's gospel is loaded with instances where Jesus rebukes people who justify themselves. In Luke 10:29, a lawyer who wants to justify himself asks, "Who is my neighbor?" In Luke 16:15, Jesus tells the Pharisees, "You are the ones who seek to justify yourselves in the sight of men." In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector to people trust in themselves that they are righteous, and view others with contempt.

Which Justification by Faith?

You cannot get away from a doctrine of justification by faith. The only issue is, in whom do you put your faith? You cannot get away from the need to be justified, the need to be pronounced righteous by someone else or by your own heart. We have this need because we are made in the image of God. People were created to be in right standing before God and to receive his approval. There is nothing wrong with that approval, with being found well-pleasing to the God who loves righteousness. We are made to enjoy the Father's approval.

But here is the sad news: we are not righteous, and since we are not righteous, we can only get that desired verdict of approval by faith. Our faith is either going to be a faith in Christ, where he gives this verdict to us as a free gift, or it is going to be something that we try to put together ourselves.

You cannot get rid of your need to be in right standing, to be pronounced righteous. That's how we were created. Consider all the talk we hear these days about self-esteem. "Don't damage them. You have to give them approval." What is that? Their hearts are crying out for justification, for approval.

Here is the problem if you trust in yourself. You have to be selective. You cannot parade everything out there, or you are not going to be approved. You'll have to keep various corners of your life secret. You'll have to be deceptive. But Jesus says that that does not work. He says in Luke 16:15, "You are the ones who justify yourselves, but God knows your heart."

Signs of the Other Justification

Here are some signs that the other justification by faith is creeping into our lives. Suppose you make a mistake, and someone points it out to you: "You turned left. I told you that you were supposed to turn right." You reply, "You didn't tell me to turn left. You said to turn right." Then a third person says, "No, she did say that you were supposed to turn left." Why is it that something inside of you rises up and does not want to say, "I was wrong. Thank you for that." Why is that? We hold to a justification by faith in ourselves because to admit our mistakes would threaten our right standing. It would threaten our approval rating.

Do you know that justification by faith in Jesus Christ is intended to set you free? It sets you free in the presence of God, sets you free before others, and sets you free in your heart. One of the signs of freedom is that you can afford to be wrong because your approval is ultimately coming from God.

If you get into an argument, do you have to have the last word? If you can't get the last word in, do you go off muttering to yourself, so that others will know how unhappy you are? Do you find people whom you can tell your version of what happened—people that you know will sympathize with you? When you do this, is it because you cannot allow your approval rating to decline?

Do you realize that justification by faith in Jesus Christ sets you free to lose an argument once in a while? One of the signs of freedom is that you can afford to allow the other person to have the last word because your approval ultimately comes from God.

Someone might say, "The trouble that I have with you is that you don't listen to what I say." If you respond, "I do too listen to what you say," you will probably not be convincing. Rather than justifying your actions, there is another way of responding, one where you help the other person out. When he says, "You don't listen," you respond, "Like last week when I did this—is that what you mean?" Help the other person with the evidence against you. Usually what happens is that the other person starts being merciful to you as you heap up the evidence against yourself, and in that way you get esteem. When you struggle for esteem, you will never get it.

What about signs of the other justification when the issue is sin? In our society we often hear pleas to tolerate such sins as abortion, homosexuality, illegitimacy, and promiscuity. Why do others need our approval? It is because they are made in the image of God, and they need to be declared righteous. Those who are justified by faith in Jesus Christ are free to say, "Go ahead and take the group's approval away."

Justifying Ourselves

We who are justified by faith in Jesus Christ often slip back into the habit of trying to be justified by faith in ourselves. Let me give you some examples. Why are we afraid to confess Christ before men? Could it be the embarrassment of losing our right standing and approval before men? Why do we refuse to repent, or why is it that halfway through our repentance we start shifting the blame to somebody else? Could it be to protect something? "Well, I know that I stole, but my dad is a thief, and his dad was a horse thief—it runs in the family." We have shifted the blame from ourself to others.

Why do we avoid using Matthew 18? When your brother sins, go to him and work it out between the two of you. Instead, we go off and tell our version of the story to one person or the other. Why is that? It is because if we go and actually talk to him, we put our right standing and approval rating at risk. Why are we sometimes so critical of others? It is because we want to look better by making the other person look worse. Justification by faith in ourselves keeps creeping in.

The other justification by faith is a threat that is always hovering over us to steal away the joy of the grace that is in Christ Jesus. There is no escaping the need for justification. We are made to be in right standing and to receive approval, but we are not righteous! And since we are not righteous, we can only become righteous by faith. The options are faith in ourselves and faith in Christ. Jesus says that God finds it disgusting when a sinner tries to justify himself in the sight of God. The only justification that works, the only justification that makes you fit to live with, is justification by faith in Christ.

What is justification? Justification is an act of God's free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins and accepteth us as righteous in his sight only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us and received by faith alone.

The author is pastor of Covenant Reformed PCA in Asheville, N.C. He provides his own Bible translations. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 2005.

New Horizons: February 2005

James and Justification by Faith

Also in this issue

James and Justification by Faith

Justification: Its Necessity and Grounds

A Fresh Perspective on Jesus Christ

Turning Points in American Presbyterian History
Part 2: Origins and Identity, 1706-1729

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