The following are notes and reflections on a Tim Keller sermon I listened to recently about the meaning of "justification."
"I don't care what other people think about me."
We have all said that or, probably more accurately, wanted to say that.
Becoming enslaved to what other people think about you is painful and maddening, and it's a vicious cycle. The more you want people to approve of you, the more you keep your "radar" on for any hint of disapproval--along with great rejoicing when you are a smash-hit with the world--but each cycle, good or bad, makes you want it even more.
You become obsessed with other people's thoughts and opinions and actions as they pertain to you. (This can also make you extremely self-absorbed.)
Of course, there's the opposite extreme. You might become so anti-other-people's-opinions and so detached from humanity that you turn into a sociopath. That's not so good either.
In truth, we seek a healthy balance--a malleable but firm, secure state of confidence and freedom from people-pleasing. We want to be good listeners and attentive and mindful of other's preferences and needs--not self-absorbed and self-serving--but we want to be free from always needing to be needed, liked and accepted. We don't look to others to define our foundations or our identity in Christ, and we want to freely speak our mind and our true feelings, thoughts, beliefs without fear when we need to.
The Gospel is extremely relevant here--unbelievably relevant--and that might sound odd to some. But it's true. The Gospel--yes, the simple message in the little "four laws" booklet that college kids pass out at the beach during summer outreaches or the Roman Road or the "sinner's prayer," as some call it--is not just Christianity 101. The Gospel is the Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced Course of everything that healthy, fruitful Christianity is all about. There is no doctrine that is more advanced, complex, or bottomless than the Gospel. You can never spend too much time on the Gospel from the platform or the pulpit.
And it's not just for "saving" people. The Gospel--i.e. what Jesus did on the cross for us--is the giant suitcase that can hold everything you need theologically for your Christian journey from beginning to end. And it can truly--and I'm not using hyperbole here--be applied to just about any problem or situation.
The Gospel Applied to the Problem of People-Pleasing
The people-pleasing problem is a serious thing.
When we have this problem, our identities, our lives, and even our security in Christ can become utterly controlled by the opinions, wants, whims, and moods of other fallen, imperfect, manipulative human beings (even other Christians) who, as Isaiah says, are as frail and impermanent on this earth as dead grass caught in a gust of wind.
The Gospel can help with this, but only if we clear up a common misconception: we read the Bible and we think the words "forgiven" and "justified" are synonymous, referring to the same thing.
Most Christians understand the forgiveness part of the Gospel. Our debt has been paid by God's grace. We've been given a "get out of jail free" card, etc. even though we've broken God's perfect law and done things we shouldn't have done in our lives.
But that's not what "justified" is referring to here. We are both forgiven and justified by Christ. In the Gospel, "justified" does not mean "forgiven." The difference reveals a vital clue.
God's Gift of a Perfect Record: A Part of the Roman Road We've Overlooked
In Romans 3:24 it says that we have been "justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus."*
This verse, admittedly, is stacked with Christianeze and insider jargon that might sound alien to the non-religious reader. But it is relevant for everyone because, truly, everyone is trying to be "justified" in some way or another, whether he or she is religious or not.
Before we go any further, let's clear away all the religious clap-trap for a moment and take a look at the profound meaning behind an Oscar-winning movie.
In the film "Chariots of Fire," we find an astonishing subtext below the action and plot. It tells the stories of two runners in the Olympics, and one of them, Harold Abrams, runs the 100-yard dash and says that, in every race, he "has 10 seconds to justify his existence." In the film, Abrams strives and strives for the gold medal, yet even a gold medal is not enough to satisfy his need for that justification. The work never ends for him. His good deeds are never enough. (In contrast, his fellow runner Eric Liddell is presented as a symbol of God's grace. You'll have to watch the movie to see what I mean.)
We have all been Harold Abrams at one point. We have all pinned our hopes on some person or thing or outcome--even on seemingly good things like our ministries or the impressiveness of our spiritual fruit--to "justify" our existence and give us the validating performance record that wins the admiration, warm approval and good opinions from people around us.
That's exactly what this Greek word translated as "justified" means in the New Testament: our validating performance record--the thing that shows others that we're worth something and worth their attention and admiration.
Our society is crazy about getting the many kinds of validating performance records that "justify" us in whatever context we're in at the time--i.e. they show us worthy to get the job we want or the college admission we crave or the significant other we wish we could marry. (It's true, even in the courtship rituals, we strut our stuff and act on our best behavior in hopes that the beloved will accept us.) I'm referring to resumes, diplomas, referrals, letters of endorsement, good reviews, attendance records in school, grade reports, good social skills that earn us friends, second dates, and popularity. All of those things are spoken and unspoken records of validation, and we desperately need them to get anywhere in this society.
But Christ freely gives us the ultimate validating performance record--the one that will outlast any of the records listed above.
As Dr. Keller says: "Justification is far more than forgiveness and pardon but distinctly different than moral goodness. Forgiveness is 'you may go, I'm not going to punish you,' but justification is 'you may come.' It's not just getting a pardon, it's getting the Congressional medal of honor bestowed upon you."
And God gives us this medal of honor that Christ earned. He gives it "freely" as Romans says, and it has nothing to do with our moral goodness. We cannot earn this justification any more than we can earn God's forgiveness.
The Gospel is not just an act of negation, of removing sin, in other words. The cross of Christ is an act of addition, of putting something on us that changes how God views us. It does not, of course, magically change how everyone else views us, but it changes how the Creator sees us from that moment on--the very moment we put our faith in Christ and open our hearts to Him.
It really is a miracle worth contemplating for the rest of our lives: God gives us Christ's "perfect record of validation"--His perfect resume--as a gift. He "justifies" us. He doesn't just pay our sin debt and remove the stains; He goes and pins the medals that Christ earned on us as if we had earned them.
He gives us the Lord Jesus Christ's perfect record.
So what is our motivation for doing good? Once God removes the scampering, selfish panic we feel to do good for the sole sake of earning a good record, we can finally start doing good works for God's sake and for the sake of others. We can finally stop doing good works for ourselves. If we think our goodness is what earns us God's love and approval, then every good thing we do will always be tinged with a selfish agenda. But if God has begins by justifying us and settling the whole question from the outset by giving us His perfect record, there our motivation for loving others changes to unselfishness. And if we meditate deeply on what Christ has done for us, the gratitude and wonder will become so intense and overflow so that it spills out into good works. We're doing good things out of genuine love and gratitude, not out of fear, pride or self-preservation.
The Gospel is utterly scandalous and unique because it does something that no other philosophy, religion, or societal system does: it gives us a perfect validation record as a gift. It clothes imperfect humans in the shining virtue of God--at least, it does so in God's view of us, maybe not always (or ever) in people's view of us.
But, thankfully, His view of us is the only view that will matter in the end.