In the movie Chariots of Fire, Olympic athlete Harold Abrahams says the following when reflecting on his upcoming race:
“And now in one hour’s time, I will be out there again. I will raise my eyes and look down that corridor; 4 feet wide, with 10 lonely seconds to justify my existence. But will I?”
Ten seconds to justify my existence. Ten seconds to prove my worth. Ten seconds to know that I’m valuable.
How very, very sad. And yet how very, very familiar.
True enough, if you’re a Christian you might have once believed that it’s by grace alone that you are saved, apart from anything you can do. But self-justification is a slippery slope. Most of us have, at one point or another, drifted into believing that though we might have been initially made right with God only by His grace, we are kept in good standing with God based on our works. It’s easy to get there. It certainly was for the churches in Galatia:
You were running well. Who prevented you from being persuaded regarding the truth? This persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole batch of dough (Galatians 5:7-9).
The Galatians began by believing in a pure, simple gospel message: salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. They were running well. But then a group of false teaches cut in on them and persuaded them that faith was simply not enough. It was a fine starting point, but their faith had to be combined with a very specific set of actions in order for them to truly be justified before God. They drifted from grace. And so might we.
And if we do, then it’s likely that at least one of these two underlying beliefs is lurking in our hearts:
1. My sin is not that bad.
It’s easy to drift into a mindset of self-justification if in your heart you don’t really believe your sin is that bad. Oh, you would never deny that you are a sinner, but come on. You’re not that bad. Not really.
I suspect that many of us, especially if we were good, southern church kids, actually harbor such a belief. When push comes to shove, we don’t really think we are that bad. Because we don’t many of us struggle to do things like emotionally connect in worship, have a deep and abiding sense of gratitude, and stop the near constant judgment of other people. We do not have an accurate picture of ourselves.
We should know this about ourselves. We would do well not to pray that we would think less of ourselves, but that God would open our eyes wider and wider to His holiness. When we see Him more clearly, no doubt we will begin to see the true gravity of our sin. Until then, though, we will be tempted to move on from grace because we actually, truly, don’t think we need it all that much.
2. Christ’s sacrifice is not that good.
Conversely, maybe we do know that our sin is that bad. We know our past, and we know the darkness that still lurks within us. In that case, the underlying belief that might push us toward self-justification is that Christ’s sacrifice is not that good.
We appreciate it and all, but we still have trouble accepting that the pronouncement of Jesus that “it is finished” actually applies to our own hearts in a sufficient way. But consider for a moment the audacity of our attempts at self-justification communicates:
“Nice work Jesus. And I’m sure it’s good enough for most people. But not me. I’m a special case. There needs to be just a little extra to get me over the hump.”
In either case, whether we think our sin is not that bad or Christ’s sacrifice is not that good, our focus is still on ourselves. And in either case, the remedy lies there, too. If and when we find ourselves departing from the purity of the gospel, the simplest action point we could have is to simply fix our eyes on Jesus. And when we do, we will find again and again the greatness of His sacrifice is the only thing that could atone for the greatness of our sin.