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In the Steps of the Savior: Self-Justification

Scoffing at Truth, Promoting a Lie

Jesus had much to say in condemnation of the Pharisees’ attitudes and actions. In Luke 16:13, Jesus stated the same truth regarding priorities affirmed in the sermon on the mount: "No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one and love the other: or else he will hold to one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon" (see also Matthew 6:19-34). Rather than making the correction to their own lives shown to be necessary by Jesus’ teaching, the Pharisees "scoffed" at Jesus (Luke 16:14). The word translated "scoffed" is the Greek word ekmukterizo which literally referred to the act of turning one’s nose up in derision. It was inconceivable to the Pharisees that a simple person like Jesus might be right and they might be wrong. Hence, their reaction was one of self-justification. As deity in the flesh, Jesus knew their hearts and reminded them that their efforts to justify themselves before men did not alter the fact of their abomination before God (Luke 16:15).

Pride will lead a guilty sinner to justify his actions, no matter how ungodly. The greater the level of disdain for the one giving godly rebuke, the more intense that effort at self-justification will be. Those who take pride in their intellectual prowess, educational attainments and places of prominence will react with derision towards a simple teacher of truth. Their hatred leads to their self-justification. They will seek to turn the focus away from their sinful conduct or erroneous teaching by casting aspersion and assassinating the character of the simple preacher of the word. They will use flowing words, captivating stories and scintillating wit to endear all to themselves, rather than allowing the Scripture to take the focal point in exposing every heart before God (Hebrews 4:12-13). However popular their tactics at self-justification might be in this world, they will one day face the unvarnished reality before the throne of an omniscient Judge (1 Corinthians 4:5; Ecclesiastes 12:14; 2 Corinthians 5:10).

Self-justification is not a new process, but is as old as humanity. The wise writer of old said, "All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirits" (Proverbs 16:2). This was written about 3000 years ago. The tendency of people then was to claim perfection even though God knew better. The Bible records examples and warnings of the various tactics of self-justification from before and after that time. In examining Bible teaching on the subject, we see that nothing has really changed in human nature. Let us notice a few points made in Scripture regarding self-justification.

"It’s His Fault"

Instead of accepting responsibility for wrongs, some see their own sin as the fault of someone else. Adam and Eve both tried this approach to excuse their own sin in the garden (Genesis 3:12-13). Adam blamed Eve. Eve blamed the serpent. However, their attempts at evasion did not make them faultless. The same is true with us. Our sins are our own responsibility as James explained:

    "Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God;’ for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full grown, brings forth death" (James 1:13-15).

Though others may be involved in our sins and may have their own share of guilt to bear, our guilt cannot be laid on them. In the end, we sin because we choose to do so, not because someone else made us. Before we can repent and seek forgiveness, we must admit our sin is our own fault.

"But It Really Will Cause Good In The End"

Some try to mitigate the problem of sin by claiming that good will come from it. Saul tried this approach when he disobeyed God’s command to destroy the Amalekites, but it did not work (1 Samuel 15). No matter how noble the stated purpose of bringing back the best animals for sacrifice, it was still true that "to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams" (1 Samuel 15:22). Paul showed the error of this idea by saying, "What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?" (Romans 6:1-2).

When we are tempted to rationalize sin by thinking of some imagined "good" that will come from it, let us remember that better things will come if we do not engage in sin. Some think they can "reach" those in sin better if they have engaged in the sin. But what is really gained by participating with others in their sin? True, we share their guilt, but is that "good"? A better end would be possible if we could refrain from that sin and show them how to do the same.

"It’s Just A Matter Of Interpretation"

Some try to escape the divine charge of sin by saying that sin is vaguely defined and just a matter of interpretation. The lawyer tried this tactic with Jesus by implying the definition of "neighbor" was not clear, but he was not successful (Luke 10:25-37). Jesus merely stated the principle in the form of an example about three men seeing a man in need along the road. The lawyer and all present knew who the "neighbor" was in the story.

Sin is simply defined by God as an act violating His law (1 John 3:4). When we know to do good, but fail to do it, we sin (James 4:17). God’s law clearly teaches His will for us to know completely (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

As churches begin to drift in their practice and engage in things not authorized, we hear some brethren talk about all of the "gray areas" or lack of "clarity" on various issues. Whether it be Bible teaching on modesty, social drinking, gambling, fellowship or a myriad of other issues, the current efforts to muddy the water are obvious. According to some folks, we cannot be sure who is a "false teacher." We cannot state with our former certainty that it is wrong to go to the prom or some other dance. We hear that divorce and remarriage is a "knotty problem" that "lacks sufficient clarity" for us to be certain what the Lord really meant. We cannot even be sure what a "day" means in creation. Do you see a pattern here? The doors of tolerance are being opened to sin and error by the old denominational plea: "That’s just your interpretation." The fact remains that we are commanded, "Be not foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is" (Ephesians 5:17).

"You Just Don’t Understand"

This is the opposite of the above ploy. This one seeks to justify sinful actions by claiming the problem is not in their sin, but the ignorance of the accuser. This was the attempt of many who came trying Jesus while He was upon the earth, but their attempts failed (Matthew 22:23-33). Earlier, we alluded to this ploy by noting the Pharisees’ use of it in the following verses:

    "Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, also heard all these things, and they derided Him. And He said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God’" (Luke 16:14-15).

Often, the very people who earlier claimed that we cannot know the truth for sure will affirm with great confidence their superior understanding to that of the simple-minded or ignorant person who holds to the literal truth of Scripture. Those puffed up in mind due to their educational achievements often seek this avenue of escape from the simplicity of truth. Their prideful "put-downs" of those deemed inferior are nothing more than abominable attempts at self-justification.

"But Look At All The Other Good Things"

Some simply overlook their own faults due to the other good qualities they possess. The Pharisee praying at the temple tried this angle, but God was not impressed (Luke 18:10-14). Jesus expressed the futility of this approach:

    "Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’" (Matthew 7:22-23).

Social gospel efforts seek to use the ends to justify the means. Liberal brethren have justified everything from kitchens to gyms with the claim that they do so much good with them. Such efforts are not unique to institutional churches. Wherever food, fun and frolic are the allurement, truth suffers (Romans 1:16).

The End Product — A Lie

No matter what the tactic of self-justification, it almost always ends with lying. Ananias and Sapphira sought to cover their sin with a lie (Acts 5:1-11). When they lied, they died. God hates lying (Proverbs 6:16-19). The fact remains that "ALL LIARS shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death" (Revelation 21:8).

Self-justification is a dangerous approach to dealing with our sins. Instead of trying to rationalize away our guilt, we ought to admit it and seek God’s forgiveness. Instead of trying to excuse ourselves before others and maintain our pride, we ought to humble ourselves and admit our wrong. Confession is good for the soul both now and eternally.