Methods of Justifying Oneself
Man needs God's approval to be at peace with himself and with God. The problem is how to regain this approval, how to measure up to God's standard and become acceptable to Him once again?
Throughout history there have been various attempts to meet this fundamental need:
Man's ways to justify man
Man has invented various ways to deal with his inadequacy before God.
1. Primitive sacrificial system
Giving something (produce, animals, children) to satisfy the anger or appetites of the gods.
Let us not confuse this with the Jewish sacrificial system which God used for a limited time to prepare the Jews for Christ's coming and ministry. They understood that their system merely represented their expressions of thanks, repentance, joy and hope.
3But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year by year. 4For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
- Hebrews 10:3-4
The Gentiles, on the other hand, offered sacrifices thinking that their actions actually manipulated the gods for their personal advantage. Primitive religions saw their sacrificial system as a way of making peace with their gods.
2. Law keeping
The most familiar example of this is the Jews. Some, not all, but some Jews believed (and still do) that the way to be acceptable before God is to keep the ceremonial/moral Law. Of course, the version of the Law that they "kept" was very different than what was given to Moses. They watered down the moral Law to suit their purpose and manipulated the ceremonial Law to their liking so that in their minds they were obeying the Law perfectly. Jesus exposed their hypocrisy when He said in Matthew 5:27-28 that adultery began in the heart, not just if someone actually had sex with another man's wife, as they had interpreted it.
They understood correctly that if you obeyed the Law perfectly, you would be acceptable before God, but they did not correctly perceive how demanding God's Law was.
This form of self-justification was also present in the early church as some teachers began to teach a form of ascetic Christianity where people were required to adhere to strict food laws or prohibitions about marriage that God had not required. Paul rebuked these teachers and this false method of making oneself acceptable before God in the epistle to the Colossians.
It is interesting to note that every other major religion that supports the idea of an absolute code of right and wrong (Islam, Judaism, etc.) teaches in one form or another the principle of law keeping as the way to justify or make oneself acceptable to God.
- Islam: pilgrimages, death in war.
- Hinduism: improve your behavior in an ongoing cycle of reincarnated lives.
Even among Christian sects like the Mormons or the Jehovah Witnesses the way to become acceptable is to know and obey the tenets and leaders of the sect itself. (What makes you acceptable is that you belong to the sect.)
True New Testament Christianity is unique in the religious world because it is the only religion that does not use a form of "law keeping" or conduct based philosophy in explaining how believers are made acceptable before God.
3. Human philosophy
For those who felt the destructive force of sin but suppressed the truth of God's existence, the way of dealing with man's imperfection was through godless philosophy. The ancient philosophers sought for higher levels of understanding and wisdom through efforts at meditation and logic that continued through the ages. The thought was that the more that man knew and understood, the better he became.
Magic and occult practitioners try to control the unseen world for the improvement of their lives using physical means such as charms and rituals.
These various efforts have led to the most recent stage of Western Post Modernism where people have given up trying to be better and settled for simply accepting themselves as they actually are. In this way they do not have to justify themselves to anyone, including God. They create their own standard and change it when it does not suit them anymore.
God's way to justify man
Human beings can find many ways to justify and make themselves acceptable, but in order to be acceptable before almighty God, we must do this His way, using His method. In His Word, God not only reveals His absolute standards and His judgment on those that do not meet His standards, He also reveals the time and method that He has set forth for all men and women to become justified and therefore acceptable before Him. This is what the doctrine of justification explains, the time and method for man to become acceptable before God.
1. The time is now!
We do not become acceptable before we are born, after we die, after suffering in purgatory, or after we have completed so many acts in this life or several lifetimes; the time is always now.
for He says, "At the acceptable time I listened to you, And on the day of salvation I helped you." Behold, now is "the acceptable time," behold, now is "the day of salvation". - II Corinthians 6:2
The time to become right with God is not when we know more, or when we feel more perfect or holy, when we feel worthy or spiritual. It is not on our birthday or on some other anniversary. The time to become acceptable to God is when we discover how He wants us to do it. When we discover how, then the moment is now!
2. The method is by imputation
The method is not by sacrifice or law keeping or philosophy. It is by imputation.
The word impute means to consider or to put something onto someone else. For example, an "honorary" college degree is valid and given without the person taking the necessary courses: the title "doctor" is imputed or put upon someone without him actually earning that privilege through his academic efforts.
In God's plan of salvation, He has sent Christ to live up to His perfect standard and actually earn the title of human perfection. Jesus earned acceptability by perfectly obeying God's Law exactly as it was written and meant to be obeyed.
That perfection, that acceptable status is conferred or imputed or put upon us (like an honorary degree) when we are united to Christ by faith. We cannot earn this status; it is imputed to us.
Romans 3:19-24 explains the process.
19Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; 20because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.
God's standard/Law speaks to all. The principle of law (the absolute standard which is God's Law) will be what all men are judged by.
The Jews had a special revelation of God's standard through Moses, but everyone has had some form of exposure to it: through creation which is outward revelation, or through conscience which is inward revelation.
The purpose of giving the Law was not only to establish a standard, it was also to show men their true condition as sinners. Just as a thermometer does not produce heat or cold but only measures it, God's Law did not produce good or bad, it measured the sinfulness of man and exposed it to judgment.
21But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets,
God has demonstrated in a person, not just a written set of rules, what is acceptable and perfect. When this person was compared to the standard, He was found perfect.
22even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus;
This quality of perfection, acceptability, some call it righteousness, is now imputed/conferred/transferred upon all who believe in Him. This action of imputing Christ's perfection upon believers is done by God freely, as a demonstration of His kindness. This is the only way and the only method that a person can be justified or made acceptable before God.
The doctrine of justification explains how God's plan of salvation solves the problem of making men who are helplessly trapped in the imperfection of sin, perfect and acceptable again through Christ. This is what we mean when we say that we are "justified" (made acceptable to God's standard) through faith in Jesus Christ (His perfection is imputed to us when we are united to Him by faith).
Paul combines the moment with the method in Galatians 3:26-27:
26For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
We are united to Christ by faith at the moment of baptism; we are justified or made acceptable when through the method of imputation, God clothes us with Christ's perfection in baptism. This is the heart and soul of the gospel message.
The seven sub-doctrines in 10 words or less: God knew believers would become His acceptable children through Christ.