“Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge. ”
— Psalm 51:4
NOTE: This post is an excerpt from our new course, Repentance and Renewal: How Moral Honesty Unlocks the Door to Spiritual Vitality.Check out the course here
Have you ever tried to justify your actions, even when your conduct was obviously wrong?
Of course. We all have.
Not once have I been pulled over by the police for transgressing a traffic law when I haven't created some excuse to defend my offense. Several years ago, a baby in our church was admitted to the hospital with RSV. After a visit to check on the little guy and his parents, I drove home over a bridge that spanned two sides of a large lake in our area. The descent is pretty steep.
I did not pay attention to my increased speed until I saw the patrol car in the median. Knowing that I could be in trouble, I kept an eye on my rear-view mirror. Sure enough, after just a few seconds he began to pull out. About a hundred yards down the road blue lights began to flash and I pulled over.
I was going 62 MPH in a 40. Oops.
But I was a pastor. I’d been visiting a sick baby. Certainly, that was excuse enough to warrant leniency. Right? Nope. As I pulled away, I threw the yellow citation on the dash in frustration.
More than frustrated, I was angry. How fair is it to sit at the bottom of a steep bridge, knowing that the gravitational pull and weight of a vehicle are going to cause speed to increase? It is just a trap!
But I was speeding, going over 50% faster than the posted limit. Facts are facts. At some point, I need to call a spade a spade. I was speeding. I deserve to pay the fine. No more excuses.
This is where David arrives in Psalm 51:4. He is tired of making excuses and finally cries uncle, falling into the arms of the one whose hands would be scarred with the wounds of nails.
I think what broke him was understanding his crimes not as moral mistakes, but as spiritual evils. If sinning is a form of siding with the devil, then the manifestations of sin are not just accidental blunders. They are acts of unrighteousness that the Bible calls a form of wickedness.
David gave up holding on to excuses and denials, his hands were empty enough to receive mercy. Through David’s experience, we learn that when we stop justifying ourselves that God justifies us instead. This is the amazing grace of the gospel.
Paul writes about this In Romans 3. In verse 4, he actually quotes David in Psalm 51:4 as the foundation for the accuracy of God’s judgment on sin in view of the moral law, which was given to show sinners their need for righteousness—a righteousness which can only come from outside of themselves.
In verses 19-20, Paul writes,
19 We know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.
According to the apostle, when I hear “guilty” in the court of heaven, it is a fair and righteous verdict. I may try to change the standards of the law, updating it according to new cultural assumptions and personal preferences. But only the Law-Giver is able to make amendments.
No excuses or attempts at self-justification will get me out of the ticket. My only hope is for an advocate to defend me and pay my massive fine. But who will come to my rescue in such a case? I’m a lost cause, deserving of condemnation.
Thankfully, there is hope. Let’s keep reading in Romans 3.
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.
That “but” is one of the greatest words in all the Bible, providing the transition from bad news to good news.
In trying to justify myself, I can’t truly be justified. But if I stop justifying myself and look to the gift-righteousness God offers, I discover that I can be justified after all.
Justification is an act of God’s free grace, where he forgives all our sins and accepts us as righteous in his sight because of the righteousness of Christ imputed to us when we received it as a gift by faith alone. If you noticed in the definition, to be justified is not just to be forgiven, but to be seen as if you have always done what is right. You are declared righteous in the sight of God—as righteous as Jesus! Why? Because the righteousness you possess is nothing less than the very moral record that Jesus secured through his obedience to the Father in his earthy life.
Justification says that in the courtroom of God, when Jesus said, “It is finished,” upon the cross, the verdict of “forgiven and accepted” was rendered for all who will come to exchange their attempts at self-righteousness for his gift-righteousness.
Jesus now stands to defend you against all accusations. With his blood, he has paid the fine the law demanded. When he looks upon you to judge, instead of condemned, the verdict is justified!
So, the next time you get busted for your sin (it shouldn’t take long), don’t get mad. Don’t rationalize it, minimize it, deny it, or justify it. In humility, take the ticket and place it in the nail-scarred hands of Jesus.Check out the Repentance and Renewal Course