Thursday, 23 July 2009

Are you in default mode?

We all need justification, we all need to be accepted by God. We don’t think about it much. At best we may think we’re trying to justify ourselves before other people or before our own conscience but deep down, our real need driving all we do is to be accepted by God. Taking his cue from Luther and Calvin Tim Keller says that the default mode of the human heart is “works-righteousness”, that is, trying to justify ourselves before God by our own moral efforts and/or our religious affiliation.

What is odd is that most Christians don’t seem to realise this. I can understand how atheists would reject this idea. After all, if they claim not to believe in God, they’re not going to admit that deep down their in-built need to be right with God motivates everything they do. Besides, the bible quite shockingly describes non-believers variously as blind, deaf and even dead. But why don’t Christians understand this?

Richard Lovelace wrote that most Christians have “so light an apprehension of God’s holiness and of the extent and guilt of their sin that consciously they see little need for justification, although below the surface of their lives they are deeply guilt-ridden and insecure. Many others have a theoretical commitment to this doctrine, but in their day-to-day existence they rely on their sanctification for justification ... drawing their assurance of acceptance with God from their sincerity, their past experience of conversion, their recent religious performance, or the relative infrequency of their conscious, wilful disobedience.” (Dynamics of Spiritual Life, IVP, 1979, p101)

I think many flip-flop between these two categories. I know I have done for years. Even now I can only say that as I am beginning to grasp how deep this goes so I am only beginning to experience some periodic joy-filled moments of not falling into either of these two traps.

It’s easy to illustrate how this works. For example, watch someone who is falsely accused of some horrible sin. Immediately they will rise to defend themselves, indignant at the slur on their reputation – as though their reputation actually makes a difference to whether God justifies them.

The basic problem, according to Lovelace, is that even Christians do not ordinarily live as if the gospel is true. We don't really believe the gospel deep down and so we live as if we have to save ourselves. We can even be crammed full of knowledge about the theological nuances of all that is entailed in justification by faith alone in Christ alone, yet its impact on our lives is more theoretical than practical. With our lips we say “we cannot save ourselves by our own efforts, therefore I obey because Jesus has already accepted me” but our hearts operate as if we have to live a good life for Jesus to accept us. This leads to defensiveness, judgementalism, intolerance, and bigotry and to pride, when we think we’re doing a good job, and to self-deprecation when we don’t. No wonder the world generally doesn’t think that Christians are worth listening to!

What we need first is an awareness of how our hearts constantly try to default to self-justification and thus a greater awareness of the true extent of our sin and second, in light of that, a renewed (and repeated) revelation of the wonders of the riches of God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ. The more we grow in both repentance and worship, the less we go back to default mode and the more we enjoy the freedom, joy and hope of the Christian life. The only kind of life capable of rejoicing in hardships and the only way of seeing real change in our increasingly messed-up world.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Mark,
    I removed your comment as I want to keep any discussion related to the original post. If you want to discuss this further feel free to email me.