I keep going back to the amazing parable of the pharisee and the tax-gatherer who go up to the temple to pray. last time I talked about this, I said,
Notice some things here. This does not imply that tax man ever says, I suppose God likes my sin. Nor does he say, God justifies me, so he must not be a God of justice. He does not think, God cares about me more than the people I’ve harmed. It does not mean that the tax man prays, “I thank You God, that I know the secret, that the 10 commandments are of no consequence.” None of these things are a part of his prayer. When he says he is a sinner, and asks for mercy, he acknowledges the rightness of God’s justice, and the truth of his own lawlessness. He never says that his sin is right, this is not part of his confession. When you ask for mercy, you acknowledge that you have offended justice and that you have transgressed the good law. Grace does not say you are right when you are wrong. It says you are justified at great cost.
In a way, you could let this idea become a back door to legalism. It all boils down again to commands and guilt and one-off forgiveness. The thing I want to emphasize is this: the main difference between the two is that the tax-gatherer brings the whole ugly truth to the table, while the pharisee brings only his mask to the table. I heard a preacher on the radio going on about how important it is for us to have integrity. He meant pharisee-style integrity really, but the one who actually brought integrity to the table was the tax-gatherer. He had the transparency and honesty to bring the truth into the prayer room. In secret, before God, he wasn’t lying to himself and praying to the walls instead of to God.
Now, when people try to self-justify, they try to remove the factor of their own desire and free choice from the equation. They are an alcoholic because their parent was; they are adulterous because their needs aren’t being met; they are angry because of their childhood or other circumstances. This is an attempt to eradicate the notion of sin from their lives, and to paint themselves as good, but in effect it removes their personhood. If we cannot choose to do one thing or another, we are just puppets, mere automatons, victims of genetics and environment. Grace invites us beyond this fakery, into the place where we are real boys and girls making real choices, and able to acknowledge that some if not most of our choices were based on flawed unexamined desires.
This is the singular difference between faith and self-justification. If you are trying to say that you do not need justification, you are in the pharisee’s shoes. If you try to paint a picture of godliness in which justification is not required, you are telling the pharisee’s speech. However your conscience defines it, if you bring your honestly perceived guilt, your choice to harm in exchange for selfish short-sighted pleasures, without an attempt to cover over your own true part in the crime, you bring truth to the table. The more hopeless you let it lie, the better it is, because it truthfully lays out your case in the light of God’s grace instead of the light of being your own very limited little idol.