From self-justification to mercy

Like many other evangelicals in my generation, I’ve got a kind of rage inside of me that keeps me awake at night. It comes from looking around and feeling convicted that we Christians have become exactly what Jesus came to Earth to stop us from being. We have become the same as the Pharisees who made it necessary for Jesus to come to Earth in the first place. We have taken the Word that was given to us as a gift and turned it into a means of one-upping each other and winning political power for ourselves. We want it to be a hard Word that nobody else can accept so we can win the competition and have the white sandy beaches of heaven all to ourselves.

Matthew 23 pretty much captures the state of modern-day evangelicalism. We tie up heavy burdens for others to carry when we ourselves are unwilling to lift a finger. We travel land and sea to win a single convert and when he becomes one, we make him twice the son of hell that we are. I often feel like pouring ashes on my head and sitting in sackcloth when I think of how many people have been legitimately turned away by a Christianity that would turn me away too if God didn’t have such a tight grip on my heart.

When Jesus tells the Pharisees in Matthew 9:13 to “go and find out what it means” that God “desire[s] mercy and not sacrifice,” he’s talking to us with our Protestant work ethic, our demonization of welfare mamas and illegal aliens, the prudishness by which we define ourselves and justify looking down on others. The paradigmatic distinction Jesus makes, “mercy not sacrifice,” has become the cornerstone for my theology. Sacrifice describes a perspective in which I feel the need to prove my worth to God whether it’s through doing good deeds, going without worldly comforts, sacramental observances, or having the right doctrine. Mercy describes a perspective in which I view all my possessions and achievements as gifts I don’t deserve from an infinitely generous God who only wants me to become a means by which His mercy is spread and comes to reign over every human heart.

I’ve become convinced that the purpose of Christ’s atonement is to establish the reign of God’s mercy. That is how God brings His name glory, not through some shock and awe display of power or thin-skinned intolerance for our dishonor which was all the pagan gods could muster. Jesus illustrates this principle in the parable of the unmerciful servant. The purpose of forgiving our debt is to create a chain reaction of debt-forgiveness. The hero of Jesus’ parable on how to love your neighbor is the religious syncretist Samaritan who isn’t so stuck on his own rightness that his heart can’t be “moved by pity.” A Samaritan was anything but orthodox in his doctrine but the hero of Jesus’ parable was His exemplar for the orthopraxis of mercy.

The enemy of mercy is self-justification. It is seeing life as a struggle to prove that I’m right and have always been right. The problem is that this is our default state. Once we eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil (which we’ve all done with the man whose name אדם means simply “humanity”), we have to grapple with the trauma of not always doing what makes sense to us as rational creatures. We cannot maintain the cognitive dissonance of facing our sins openly, so we rationalize our actions as a reflex of the mind. The more that we justify the unjustifiable, the more we are corrupted in our appetites, will, and reason, and become the species of homo curvatus en se that Augustine famously described.

We have to be rescued from the original sin of self-justification. That is the need that atonement addresses. It is at least a misleading oversimplification and at most a horrible blasphemy to say that Jesus’ death on the cross rescues us from His Father’s wrath as though their wills and actions are not in perfect coordination and unity. Here’s my best crack at capturing the difficult mystery of atonement. The Father whose love is wrath to those who want to be their own gods sent his Son to melt down the prison walls of our self-justification so that we could freely and gratefully know His love. As the concluding line of his discourse on election in Romans, Paul writes that “God has bound all in disobedience so that He might have mercy on all” (Rom 11:32). (Notice the word all. It’s πάντα in both places in the original Greek, not all Jews, not all who believe, not all who were predestined, just all, and the Calvinists can’t do anything about it, though this doesn’t mean that all accept the offer of mercy.)

I really believe the goal is the reign of mercy, which can only be accomplished if we all know that we’re all wrong and God alone is right. If we’ve ever been right, it’s no credit to us but actually a manifestation of God’s mercy that He blessed us with the knowledge and willpower to be part of His rightness. It is not that we do no good; God does plenty of good through each of us but it can’t benefit us as long as we look at our achievements as sacrifices which merit compensation.

The only way that the good we do can do us any good is if we see it as a gift from God that He chose to include us in His goodness. That’s what a life of mercy means: to be grateful for the opportunity to love others in the hope that they will discover the same reason to love gratefully and then find others with whom they themselves can share mercy so that all might become branches on the vine of Jesus Christ. That’s what I think it’s all supposed to be about anyway. Let God’s mercy reign. מלך חסד יהוה


6 thoughts on “From self-justification to mercy

  1. Love This!!! I have said for a long time that sin should be defined as trying to create worth or value for ourselves (self-justification) instead of accepting (or even while actively rejecting) the worth that God says we (and others) have simply because he created us and says we have it (mercy). Some may use drugs, violence, escapism to reject the worth God says we and others have, some use money, accomplishments, status symbols (house, car, stereo, attractive spouse/partner),sex or power to try to build up worth for ourselves, words are used to both make us feel better about ourselves and to tear down other people’s worth (all too often). Of course Self justification vs. Mercy is a much cleaner and clearer explanation I think.

    • I’ve been reading Tim Keller’s book Prodigal God and he uses different terminology to say pretty much the same thing.

  2. I just read your article on Campolo’s site : Isaiah 2. Two sides of God’s judgment. I agree with your writing.

    I am especially bothered at why many people are so facinated with eternal torment. I think people assume their own desire for vengence on God sometimes. Example… I read on facebook where high profile criminal trials don’t turn out like the masses expect, and Christians are the first to cry foul and say all sorts of un-Christian like things about punishment that should have been given…some of that punishment would dwarf the crucifixion itself.

    I heard Fred Craddock preach on The Restraint of Power a few years ago and that sermon affected me as much as any ever has. It seems to me that a view (and a following) of this power restraining God would help facilitate God’s kingdom to come “…on earth as it is in heaven” a lot more quickly.
    Thanks for listening…

    • Definitely Jim. Thanks for sharing. Yeah it’s amazing how much Christians love talking about hell, Armageddon, etc. I think it’s a response to the oblivion of modern life in which nobody seems to be responsible for anything and nobody (at least who has money) ever faces any consequences for the evil that they do. It would be nicer if the world was a lot less complex and blame was easier to assign and people were accountable for their actions. It’s because life is messy and impossible to untangle that Jesus just died on the cross for all the things that hurt us and all the hurt that we have caused.

  3. As I sipped my second cup of coffee, I stumbled across your blog and…I want to say thanks for the “epiphany” with respect to “mercy versus self-justification.” I’ve wrestled more than I care to admit with self-justification, and your thoughts help put my own thoughts into some good order.

    One comment (as the coffee kicks in). It baffles me that we talk about mercy (which I suspect is deeply connected to grace in a theological construct) yet our praxis (at least in the UMC) works against mercy on a regular basis. Big churches give big salaries. Small churches give small salaries. The result is a qualitative difference (perceived or actual) in overall leadership, particularly pastoral leadership. What bigger temptation toward a life of self justification is there than to see big salary, big benefits, and a listing of various credentials? Should we follow a secular model of leadership which says we must reward tenure and merit? We talk endlessly these days about “call to action” and accompanying qualitative changes in our “system” yet ignore the white elephant in the room that is our structure of leadership. Our system of leadership must reflect the values we claim. If mercy is in fact a primary value, then we must commit to it in every facet of our life together. That includes how we appoint folks to serve and how we compensate them…which really hasn’t changed in a very long time. Until we commit to radical change, I’m left with the unsettling feeling that the biggest obstacle to a life of mercy is in the very church I love so dearly. Promoting our credentials, posturing for ever “bigger and better” appointments, engaging in unhealthy habits of finding self-worth, and making no meaningful adjustments to the way we live (so as to become dependent on the salaries we claim we need to “survive”) contributes to the way we’ve been doing things. All I know is that I have committed myself to something different. Your post reminded me that we are indeed called to a higher…and better…standard.

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