Self-Justification … or Justified by God?

What is the difference between self-justification and the justification that comes through Jesus Christ? The answer has eternal significance for you!

We all want to be right. How do we become right with God? How do we become justified? The apostle Paul wrote: “It [faith] shall be imputed to us who believe in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification” (Romans 4:24-25).

What does it mean, He “was raised because of our justification”? What does this phrase mean in the original language in which it was written? According to the Greek Dictionary of the New Testament of Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, the Greek word translated “because of” is dia (G1223). It is a word that can mean “by reason of” or “for the sake of.” The meaning can include “because of,” but in the context here, it might be better understood as “Jesus was raised so that we can be justified.”

Godly justification comes through Jesus Christ.

Making excuses

On the other hand, explains that “self-justification” is simply “the act of making excuses for one’s self.”

When we hear the phrase “self-justification,” it is usually in the context of someone trying to get out of something. A person may claim his or her innocence to avoid a penalty. People often justify themselves simply to avoid embarrassment.

Children often do this when asked the question, “What happened?” Some children will quickly state (even if guilty), “It wasn’t me—I didn’t do it!” or, “It’s not my fault!” We may find those phrases almost humorous simply because they bring to mind the many times we have heard similar attempts at self-justification.

Do we as adults ever find ourselves doing something similar? Do we ever find ourselves trying to justify what we have done? Do we lean on the age-old excuse that “the devil made me do it”?

On the job, when something doesn’t go right, we may hear self-justification like, “That’s not my responsibility” or, “That’s not my job!” In the midst of marriage conflicts, many problems go unsolved because both spouses claim, “It wasn’t my fault” or, “It isn’t me who is the problem!” The blame in these situations seems to find its way to someone else—just like in the Garden of Eden.

In the Garden of Eden

After Adam and Eve had eaten of the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God addressed them in the garden.

“Then the LORD God called to Adam and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ So he said, ‘I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.’

“And He said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you that you should not eat?’ Then the man said, ‘The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate.’

“And the LORD God said to the woman, ‘What is this you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent deceived me, and I ate’” (Genesis 3:9-13).

Adam passed the blame to Eve, who passed the blame to the serpent. They both tried to justify themselves, instead of humbling themselves by admitting their mistakes.

Examples of self-justification

Consider some examples Jesus gave us of self-justification.

“A certain lawyer stood up and tested Him [Jesus], saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?’

“So he [the lawyer] answered and said, ‘“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,” and “your neighbor as yourself.”’

“And He said to him, ‘You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.’ But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” (Luke 10:25-29).

This man tried to justify himself by seeking to limit who would be considered his neighbor. Jesus Christ then told him the story of the Good Samaritan and made it apparent that this man needed to show love to all his neighbors—no matter who they might be.

In another example, Jesus said, “‘No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.’

“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 16:13-15).

We all have a tendency to justify ourselves to other people. We do this to “look good” and claim innocence, despite the fact we all make mistakes. At times we are guilty of wrong thoughts and attitudes, and we cannot hide this from God.

Example of Job

“There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was blameless and upright, and one who feared God and shunned evil” (Job 1:1).

Job was a righteous man; and though he was righteous, God allowed him to suffer and used that suffering to teach him a valuable lesson about self-justification. Toward the end of his ordeal, “the wrath of Elihu, the son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, was aroused against Job; his wrath was aroused because he justified himself rather than God” (Job 32:2).

Job justified himself rather than God. “Literally, he justified his soul, נפשו naphhso, before God. He defended, not only the whole of his conduct, but also his motives, thoughts, etc.” (Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible, note on Job 32:2).

At the end of the story, Job had learned a valuable lesson. Notice what he says in the last chapter: “Then Job answered the LORD and said: ‘I know that You can do everything, and that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You. You asked, “Who is this who hides counsel without knowledge?” Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. Listen, please, and let me speak; You said, “I will question you, and you shall answer Me.” I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You. Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes’” (Job 42:1-6).

The Jewish Publication Society translates this last sentence as, “Wherefore I abhor my words, and repent, seeing I am dust and ashes.” Job realized how he had justified himself, and he humbled himself before God.

The Pharisee and the tax collector

Luke records another story of self-justification: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’

Godly justification doesn’t come by giving a quick answer or proving one’s innocence, but rather through repentance and remaining free from sin.“And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:10-14).

This story is explained further in the article “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector.”

The only true way to justification is through humbling ourselves in heartfelt repentance before the living God. We have to confess our sins (1 John 1:9; Proverbs 28:13). We have to humble ourselves and admit our mistakes, asking God for true justification.

Godly justification doesn’t come by giving a quick answer or proving one’s innocence, but rather through repentance and remaining free from sin. “For not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified” (Romans 2:13).

True justification comes from one place

The apostle Paul wrote, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). All have sinned! But thankfully all can, at some point, receive justification. Where does true justification come from?

“And the gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned. For the judgment which came from one offense resulted in condemnation, but the free gift which came from many offenses resulted in justification” (Romans 5:16).

One way of life leads to condemnation, but the other leads to justification! But what does justification mean? As pointed out in other articles here at Life, Hope & Truth, it means the declaration that a person or thing is righteous. Are we able to do this ourselves? Absolutely not! “As it is written: ‘There is none righteous, no, not one’” (Romans 3:10). We cannot make ourselves righteous.

True justification can only come from one place—Jesus Christ! “Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life” (Romans 5:18).

Where to go from here

“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him” (Romans 5:8-9). Justification comes from the blood of Christ!

True justification begins with us recognizing our need for it. We need the help of Jesus Christ and the help of God’s Holy Spirit to come to the point of seeing ourselves as we really are, and being willing to admit our mistakes and sins.

Justification involves the acceptance of Christ’s blood; it involves having a commitment to living God’s way of life. This commitment is demonstrated through faith, repentance and baptism.

Self-justification is futile! “It is God who justifies” (Romans 8:33).

Learn more about what God wants you to do in our sections on “Repentance” and “Baptism.”

About the Author

Paul Carter

Paul Carter is pastor of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, congregations in Los Angeles and Bakersfield, California. He is a contributing writer for Life, Hope & Truth, as well as the director of two summer camps for teens and preteens in the Southwest. He is married with three wonderful children, and enjoys the outdoors including hunting, fishing, hiking and volleyball.

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