Then Who Am I Better Than?

In his book The Seven Deadly Virtues, Gerald Mann tells the story preaching on the subject of racism at a time when that was not generally done in white, southern churches by white southern preachers... at least not by those interested in remaining employed. Following the sermon, he was cornered by one of his deacons and taken to task daring to preach such a lesson. The man demanded to know, “Well, if I ain't better than a [racist word for a black], then who am I better than?” “Who am I better than?” At some point we are all interested in the doctrine of “justification.” I’m not talking here about the great Biblical doctrine of justification by grace through faith.  No, I'm talking about the decidedly unbiblical desire justify ourselves. We know we are sinners, and that makes us uncomfortable. So we want to find ways to justify ourselves, and often the easiest way to feel justified is to point to our good points in comparison to the bad points of someone else. We have the right worship, the right doctrine, the right date on our cornerstone… the right church. And all of that makes us right… right?

Wrong! All of that may make us FEEL right. Generally, when we say someone is just trying to “justify themselves,” what we mean is that they are making excuses for their bad behavior so they won’t look or feel so bad. I forgot my anniversary because I was so busy at work. I lost my temper because I didn't get enough sleep. I didn't really gossip-- I was just sharing a prayer concern. All of that may "justify myself" in the sense of making myself feel better. But I'm not justified.

Sometimes our religion is too much about justifying ourselves. Maybe that why a guy I know who hadn't been to church in years argued so strongly (obnoxiously) with a co-worker over the doctrine of baptism. It made him feel justified. Maybe that's why a guy I heard about put some extra bucks in the collection on Sunday ever time he had a rather rowdy Saturday night. It made him feel better. Maybe that's why some of us point so strongly to our right worship/doctrine/church and point out how others are doing it so wrong. Hey, if I ain’t better than a Baptist or Pentecostal or Catholic, then who am I better than?

But we can’t justify ourselves. No amount of good works can make up for the rebellion against God that the Bible calls sin. No matter how hard I try to do good, be good or worship good, I’m just not going to be able to justify myself. Paul says at the end of our reading today, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” (Rom 3:20). No amount of doing good, following the rules, and doing the right rites rightly will ever justify us. Only Jesus can do that.

21 But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26)

Maybe we need to stop trying to justify ourselves and live as those who justified by faith.