It is rare to gain direct insight into the motives of a Bible character. It’s usually left up to us to draw conclusions from their words or actions. But in his Gospel, Luke reveals the heart of a man who questioned Jesus: he was “desiring to justify himself” (Lk. 10:29).
Word games. Conflict. Criticism. Fault-finding. Gossip. If we could see through these sins to the underlying motive, I believe that self-justification would be exposed.
I think this is a reasonable suggestion, since justification by God through faith in Jesus (we might say, “God-justification”) is at the heart of the gospel. In other words, self-justification is the antithesis of the gospel. God looks at those who are in Christ and declares, “you are in the right.” But the sinful heart looks at self in the mirror, apart from Christ, and insists, “I’m in the right. It’s everyone else who is in the wrong.”
Romans 3:4 says, “Let God be true and every man a liar.” But the attitude of the self-justifier is, “Let me be true, and everyone else a liar.” Sometimes that “everyone else” includes God himself. Self-justifiers often ignore or put a spin on God’s word to excuse their actions. They are more concerned with being right than finding out what God really has to say, so they tend to manipulate the Scriptures to suit their agenda. When we claim to be right where God’s word says we are wrong, we are calling God a liar. Self-justification sacrifices truth on the altar of ego.
Self-justification sacrifices truth on the altar of ego.
A self-justifying person excuses his faults by:
- Casting the blame onto others (Gen. 3:12-13);
- Fixating on the faults of others (Matt. 7:3-5);
- Flattering himself (Luke 18:9-14);
- Comparing himself to a standard other than God’s righteousness (2 Cor. 10:12); and,
- Seeking approval from others through gossip.
The Blame Game (It’s That Woman You Gave Me!)
First, the self-justifying person excuses his faults by casting the blame onto others.
When Adam ate the forbidden fruit, Adam’s soul collapsed. His heart was corrupted. We call this original sin. Because of the fall, Jeremiah 17:9 says that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” If we look at Adam after the fall, it will help us to understand how the sinful heart manifests itself.
In Genesis 3:12-13, God asked Adam if he ate of the tree; “The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.’” In one breath, Adam blamed the only two persons that he knew: “It’s that woman…you gave me!” The first ugly display of Adam’s new, sinful heart was self-justification.
The first ugly display of Adam’s new, sinful heart was self-justification.
Adam implies that God was somehow responsible for or complicit in his sin. He calls into question the wisdom of God in giving him the woman. Can you imagine the conversation between Adam and Eve later that night? He was definitely sleeping on the proverbial couch. But there’s a serious principle here: Eve was one of the greatest gifts that God gave to Adam. Adam was willing to take something beautiful and good and ruin it just to avoid confronting his own actions. Self-justification is relational suicide.
Adam does admit to God, “I ate,” but it is a kind of half-confession: “I ate, but…” It’s like the half-apologies that we hear so often on the media: “I’m sorry, but….” If we can divert some of the attention away from our actions or attitudes, it is easier to manage our guilt and shame. The main concern of our sinful nature is self-preservation, even if it happens at the expense of others. We would rather drag others down with us than drown alone. So, we play the blame game.
But God’s not impressed by half-apologies. God doesn’t work with people who shift the blame to others. God gives grace to the humble. The apology that God accepts is the one that comes from the heart. We must be deeply convinced of our own sinfulness and take full responsibility for our actions. If we are just trying to save face, or patch things up, or manage our guilt, we will get nowhere with God. Those who are blessed by God are those who are poor in spirit and mourn for their sins (Mt. 5:3-4).
A Critical Spirit
Second, the self-justifying person ignores his faults by focusing on the faults of others.
This was the problem of the Pharisees. Jesus asked,
3 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:3-5, ESV)
Jesus begins with a question: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” Why indeed? One reason is self-justification.
Guilty people make great critics. Those who are hiding secret sins or have a troubled consciense tend to alleviate their shame by putting others down. It’s easier than removing the log. They zero in on the faults of others to make themselves feel better. The extreme version of this is bullying or verbally abusing others to keep the attention off of oneself and onto others.
Self-justifiers also tend to be meddlers. Their full time job is speck-removal; that way, there’s no time to deal with their own problems. But if everyone else is the problem, we are the problem. If we are always getting pricked by the splinters in other people’s eyes, it’s probably because the telephone poll in our own eye is bumping into them. It’s like someone driving a big rig through a crowded street and complaining, “Everyone is bumping into me!” No matter where the self-justifier goes, he will have conflict.
The self-justifier must embrace a delusion in order to avoid confronting his sin.
In time, the self-justifier will actually begin to believe that other people or the problem. He must embrace a delusion in order to avoid confronting his sin. Jesus’ words carry a tone of disbelief: “how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye?”
Patting Ourselves on the Back
Third, the self-justifying person downplays his faults by by pointing to the good things he has done.
Luke 18:9-14 records a parable about a self-justifying person:
9 And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:
10 Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.
11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.
12 I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.
13 And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.
14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
Jesus was constantly confronting the Pharisees for being self-righteous, mean-spirited, and unloving. The Pharisees were first-class jerks. But rather than repent, they made a big show of their fasting, tithing, and praying. They gave themselves a pat on the back.
Fasting and tithing and praying are good things. But Jesus explains in Matthew 6 that when we use good deeds as a means of self-justification, we receive our reward. It doesn’t matter what you do for others or for the church; if you use those good deeds to excuse your faults, then God will not reward you. God will not come to your defense. Stephen Charnock said, “Every man is his own flatterer,” and we need to be aware of this tendency to boast, especially when we boast in order to downplay our sins.
The self-justifier focuses on the good things he has done and insists, “I must right. Look at what a good person I am!”
Comparing Ourselves to Commend Ourselves
Fourth, the self-justifying person excuses his faults by comparing himself to a standard other than God’s righteousness.
Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 10:12, “We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise” (NIV).
We see this in Luke 18:9-14, as well. The Pharisee not only excused his faults by pointing to the good things he had done, but also measured himself against the tax collector instead of against God’s law. Paul prayed for Jews like this, “being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness” (Ro. 10:3).
Self-justifiers always have the wrong reference point.
Matthew Henry comments, “of all flattery, self-flattery is the worst. Therefore, instead of praising ourselves, we should strive to approve ourselves to God. … Instead of praising ourselves, or seeking the praise of men, let us desire that honour which cometh from God only.”
Self-justifiers always have the wrong reference point. When we compare ourselves to God’s glorious holiness, we are forced to admit that we are in the wrong. Self-justification ends when we ask the question, “Did I handle this situation in a Christ-like way?” “Do my attitudes and actions line up with God’s standard in Scripture?”
Seeking Approval for Our Sin
Finally, the self-justifying person defends his faults by seeking approval from others through gossip.
In Luke 16:15, Jesus said, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.” Proverbs 16:28 says, “A dishonest man spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends.”
You might wonder what those two verses have to do with each other. But consider this: Why would someone spread strife in the first place? What’s the point in it? I acknowledge that some people are just malicious. But a common reason for gossiping, sowing seeds of discord, or spreading strife, is to publicize conflict in order to gain approval for sin.
Tim Keller writes:
To be gossip a statement does not have to be false. [Proverbs] 11:13 speaks of true information about someone that should have been kept in confidence. Gossip, then, is negative information that may or may not be true, designed to make the speaker and the hearer feel superior to the object of the gossip. … Because the human heart is driven by self-justification, gossip is almost irresistible (18:18).
When we gossip, we feel empowered; whatever is really going on, whatever wrong that we have done, can be easily minimized. The truth can take a back seat. When we spread strife, we control the narrative. We can spin the story in our favor as much as we want to. And for every person who shakes their head in agreement or says, “I’m so sorry,” or jumps to our defense, we feel justified. Emotions get in the mix, and the truth is buried. The more allies we gain, the more sure we feel of ourselves.
When we spread strife, we feel empowered because we control the narrative.
Running others down is one of the most common and destructive forms of self-justification. But God hates it. “There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers” (Pr. 6:16-19).
In fact, it is a sin to put down other Christians before you have tried to resolve an issue privately. Jesus is clear in Matthew 18:15, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”
If someone comes to you for the purpose of criticizing another Christian, you may be dealing with a self-justifier. If the person has not already tried to confront the matter privately, it’s your responsibility to shut down the gossip session.
It’s Me, O Lord!
Self-justification is a temptation in everyone’s life. If you have caught yourself shifting the blame, criticizing others, patting yourself on the back for the good things you’ve done, or seeking the approval of others, ask God for forgiveness and cleansing.
The path to victory starts by humbling ourselves in the sight of God. David’s prayer in Psalm 51 serves as a model of taking full responsibility for our actions.
You may recall that David’s sin with Bathsheba began after he saw her bathing from his rooftop. He could have blamed Bathsheba for the incident: “She seduced me, and I couldn’t help myself!” Some have suggested that Bathsheba did have ulterior motives; artists such as Bourdichon, painting in the 15th century, have depicted Bathsheba as “the temptress of King David, lingering naked in her bath and gazing unabashedly out at the viewer.” But the Bible says no such thing. The text of Scripture focuses instead on David’s abuse of his position and subsequent covering of his sin. When David comes to grip with what he has done, he does not blame Bathsheba. In fact, she is not even mentioned in his prayer of repentance in Psalm 51.
David prays, “I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest” (Ps. 51:3-4). In essence, David says, “Let God be true and me be called a liar! I’m in the wrong. I take full responsibility for my actions. I cast myself at your feet, O Lord.” This is what healthy biblical confession looks like.
Not my brother, not my sister, but it’s me, O Lord,
Standin’ in the need of prayer; …
Not the preacher, not the deacon, but it’s me, O Lord,
Standin’ in the need of prayer; …
Not my father, not my mother, but it’s me, O Lord,
Standin’ in the need of prayer; …
Not the stranger, not my neighbor, but it’s me, O Lord,
Standin’ in the need of prayer; …
It’s me, it’s me, O Lord,
Standin’ in the need of prayer.
First Be Reconciled
If you’ve humbled yourself in the sight of God, the next step is to humble yourself in the sight of others. Jesus said, “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt. 5:23-24).
Go to those with whom you have conflict and say, “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Will you forgive me?” Maybe the person really does share some of the blame. That doesn’t mean you have to bring it up or prove a point. Proverbs 19:11 says, “it is a glory to overlook an offense.” Colossians 3:13 says to “[bear] with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, [forgive] each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
Many marriages would be saved if one spouse would decide to be the bigger person, stop blaming the other for his or her sins, and simply admit, “I’m the problem. I was wrong. I should be more loving. I should be more respectful. I have room to grow. Will you forgive me?”
Now, there are times when someone else’s sin must be confronted. I understand that. That’s the Matthew 18 principle. But if you are part of the problem, start there. Ultimately, you can only control yourself. You only have power over your own attitudes and actions. As long as you focus on the faults of others, you have no power in the situation. But when you humble yourself, there’s power.
Finally, pursue gospel-centered holiness. The cure for self-justification is a humble appreciation for the gospel and a deep cleansing of the heart from sin.
Self-justification is the antithesis of the gospel.
The gospel says, “I am unjustifiable; therefore, God must justify me on the basis of his perfect Son, Jesus.” When we rest in the justification of the gospel, we will feel the foolishness of trying to justify ourselves any longer, and we will be ready to confront the deep root of self-justification in our hearts.
Since the spirit of self-justification comes from the corruption of our hearts in the fall, we need to be entirely sanctified. Otherwise, we will always be prone to revert self-justification. God resists the proud, self-justifying heart; he gives grace to the humble, self-abasing heart.
In 2 Corinthians 7:1, the Holy Spirit calls us to “cleanse yourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.” If you recognize the need for cleansing from self-justification, go to God, and confess, “It’s me, it’s me, O Lord, Standin’ in the need of prayer.”