Justification and Works Based Righteousness

Jana and I were walking to the Dairy Queen near our house the other evening and we had a talk about works based righteousness and our efforts as self-justification.

Jana started by talking about the propensity we have to name drop. I'm sure you've been around this sort of behavior. People sharing, in a seemingly casual but transparently calculated way, how they know so-and-so or how they spent time with so-and-so. And these so-and-sos aren't bums on the street. Doesn't work that way. These so-and-sos are luminaries, celebrities, and big shots. Names. Big names. And the bigger the name the better. 

Commenting on this, I noted how this sort of behavior functions as a form of self-justification, a form of works based righteousness. That is, by attaching my name to a bigger name some of the glow of celebrity rubs off on me leading to a heightened sense of self-esteem, the feeling that I somehow matter more compared to others. My existence is somehow justified by establishing this connection with a bigger name. If I know someone the culture deems significant then I must be a bit more significant if I know such people. So we name drop.

There's a biblical term for this sort of behavior. Idolatry. Idolatry is grasping at significance by attaching your life's meaning to another created thing--something that, despite its luster, is as subject to death as you are. Saint Paul would describe name dropping as "worshiping the creature instead of the Creator."

Jana and I went on to talk about an acquaintance of ours who had recently lost a high-status position (though not their job). We were talking about the existential vertigo and vacuum this person was experiencing. Who are we in the eyes of others if they cannot see us through this high-status role/title/position? Such roles, positions and titles give our life meaning and significance. These things seem to justify our existence.

It's the same thing, Jana and I noted, with the name dropping. Attaching your life's significance to a created thing--a position, a title. Again, it's a form of self-justification and works based righteousness. I matter because of the stuff that I do, the stuff that I accomplish, or the people who I know.

I think this is the deep issue the Apostle Paul was speaking to in his letters. We tend to think of works based righteousness in moral terms. That we could be "good enough" to earn our way into heaven. No doubt moral performance can be a part of this. But few of us feel that we are saints enough to make such a claim. Despite what the "faith alone" preachers say, moral forms of works based righteousness aren't all that common, if they exist at all. I've never encountered a soul who felt they were good enough to merit heaven.

But we do name drop. We do attach ourselves to titles and positions. And in each of these cases we are trying to justify our existence, to prove that we matter, to give evidence that we are significant. This is the sickness I think Paul was really after.
Philippians 3.4b-8
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ...
We tend to read Paul's list through a moral lens. But I think that is missing the point. True, Paul was proud of being moral. But his morality wasn't really about morality. It was about feeling superior to fellow Jews who weren't as righteous and zealous as he was. Let alone how he morally compared to debauched Gentiles. Being a Jew and a Pharisee was a status symbol, a way to feel significant, a way to matter, a way to feel good about oneself in relation to others. Paul could name drop with the best of us.

But he came to consider it all garbage. Paul exited the self-justification game. He gave up giving reasons as to why his life mattered. It became okay for Paul for you to think him a loser. Paul no longer had to name drop. Or feel ashamed in the face of a job demotion.

Where did this freedom come from? How did Paul leave the neurotic rat race behind?

Paul gave up trying to justify himself. Paul only claimed Christ.

That is justification enough.

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25 thoughts on “Justification and Works Based Righteousness”

  1. A question (or perhaps a wrench): Do we have to assume, because Paul SAID he considered it all garbage, that he actually did? I get curious about that, sometimes... I mean, isn't it possible that he was saying that - at least in part - because he really, really wanted it to be true? And couldn't he have said all the stuff about his former credentials partially because he knew, deep down, that the readers of his letter WOULD be impressed by it, and would therefore give more credence to his teachings than they might otherwise?

    I know what you wrote about saints; but I just wonder, sometimes, if in our naming someone a saint, we tend to turn THEM into an idol, and set ourselves on the path of idolizing their words.

    Isn't it possible that someone like Paul is as human as I? Isn't it possible that I don't have to see him as having attained some level of elevated spirituality in order to see the wisdom in his words?

  2. I think you're right. I can't imagine that Paul didn't struggle with this sort of thing. Reading his letters he does seem like he struggled with ego. And, in fact, there are times in his letters where he does seem to give self-justifications based on his own behaviors to show his ministry in a more positive light relative to others.

  3. "Being a Jew and a Pharisee was a status symbol, a way to feel significant, a way to matter, a way to feel good about oneself in relation to others. Paul could name drop with the best of us."

    It hit me not long ago that the things that Paul counted loss I count as gain. I think, especially in the south, that we can say, "Being a Christian was a status symbol, a way to feel significant................................." I battle daily against flesh and blood and principalities. We have set up a system where even though I know I'll never be righteous enough to make it to heaven, I do believe that I just have to be better than most to get there. With the idea that so few are actually going to make it, I desperately need to be in the top 20 or so percent of those I know. You can imagine how my thought process is changing as I begin to consider that Christ is big enough to include everyone. I seek to drop no one's name but Jesus' but like I said I'm still in a battle.

  4. This is the direction my mind went, upon first reading of today's post.  Paul was as much a product of his cultural experience as we are, I suspect.  I have heard the theory that the "thorn" in Paul's side was his ego.  Given his "elite" background, it seems totally believable to me that he would always struggle with a sense of superiority over others.  The beauty that I see in Paul's writing is that he *does* seem to wrestle fiercely with his weaknesses.  And, he is so passionate about the Gospel of Jesus Christ *for* others.  Gotta love that about the Apostle Paul.  :-)

  5. I wonder--is there "ego" in thinking that we can ever be "humble enough"? Can't Paul just make his statements about relying only on Jesus, without worrying about whether he's humble enough? I'd just hate for humility to get to be one more thing where we critique one another (or even poor Paul) for not being good enough.

  6.  Oh, I'm not critiquing him for it... I'm allowing him to be human. I find him much more interesting (and easier to love, rather than worship) as a living, breathing human. I find it incredibly freeing to set aside what I consider to be the impossible ideal of existential moral and spiritual perfection (even in the writers of the Bible) - to leave that whole shebang up to God and focus, myself, on the tiny, imperfect little ways I can react to that perfect love by reflecting it to the people in my life.

  7. In general, I think that we, as Christians, tend to define righteousness in moral and behavioral terms. In my opinion, this has limited our understanding of the spiritual life. When righteousness carries more emphasis on relational terms, it has the capacity to impact identity issues, freedom from the false self or ego, and connectedness to the divine as the source of life.  

  8. I think that is exactly right. That's where my mind has been going for awhile now, this focus on identity.

    (BTW, I'm clueless about when to use "awhile" versus "a while." I think most regular readers know I'm grammatically challenged in this way...)

  9. a while     is a noun, awhile is an adverb.  I keep it straight by thinking "a while" could be replaced by "a year". 

    Mother was a grammar major......

    ** On a side note, I wonder how much of the name dropping is also related to an attachment with the powers.  We have bought into what the culture and/or society tells us is important, so we try to elevate ourselves by name dropping.

  10. You dropped the last sentence before you posted, didn't you:  "Then we got Famous Amos chocolate-chip cookie Blizzards."

  11. Amen!  Just one thought question, how does one tell the difference between extreme narcissism and the freedom in Christ? 

  12. Here's a pretty accurate list of what narcissism looks like ... 

  13. Richard and Jana,

    This idea you have about name-dropping being a kind of idolatry hits home for me. Personally, I have a tendency to identify myself in public by where, or the person for whom, I work. It's satisfying to brag about people my brother knows, or what my dad did before he retired.  Maybe their illustriousness will rub off on me. You're right. Touche.

    But, I wonder about something.  I'm sure you know that a generation ago Robert Kegan wrote a book called the Evolving Self (Harvard, 1982). He had the insight that people at a certain stage of life (20s - 40s, typically) tend to affiliate with institutions and form their identities around their institutions. According to Kegan's understanding, that's not a bad thing all by itself. It's failure to learn from and move on from that stage that can be a sign of pathology.

    I think it may be possible to read St. Paul (in the light of Kegan's developmental psychology) as one who identified with his institutions and, dramatically, grew out of that stage of life. 

    Most of us don't have the privilege of being struck by divine lightning to help us grow up.   Most of us (with Paul) need loving help to get past our fixation on institutions as we learn that they aren't the greatest thing to build our identity around.  

    It's a process, I think, and a good spiritual community can hold us in love through the tough parts.

  14. Hi Patricia,

    From the SYSTEM I came from, it seems like both - the system attracts and perpetuates if not produces.  The strife to belong in the pastor's inner circle, the strife to become the music ministry leader's right-hand musician, etc  (especially a mega-system that enjoys national acclaim) creates an environment of obsessive name-dropping,  pathetic @$$ kissing, backstabbing, all which continually feed selfish ambitions.  Of couse, being on the INs with "such-in-such" must mean "God opened the doors".  This kind of system simply enables one to transfer their selfish approach to life (sin), into what now becomes a validated/endorsed/annointed work of God.  This then is used to prove one's "walk with God".
    But the selfishness and lust for power of the individual could go on for years, yet never be truly addressed. 
    Gary Y.

  15. That makes a lot of sense. It's easy to let go of name dropping (or things like it such as institutional affiliations) when you've been down the road and feel like you've established yourself.

    But I wonder, as I write that, if I'm trading off one sort of self-justification for another. That is, by being "established" I'm mainly thinking of a person who can point to a record of accomplishment. For example, I don't need to affiliate so strongly with the institution that employs me because I might see myself as a big enough fish that I've "outgrown" it. So where I used to point to the institution that hired me as an Assistant Professor I now point to my publication accomplishments as a tenured full Professor. Basically, instead of name dropping I now just talk about myself. I drop my own name.

    But I see your point as I do think that maturity can help us step away from early insecurities and the ways we sought affirmation when younger. But like I've noted here, there are versions of this sort of thing across the lifespan. Though I'd hope wisdom would start kicking in at some point.

  16. Hi Gary,
    It's good to see you."But the selfishness and lust for power of the individual could go on for years, yet never be truly addressed."  You're exactly right. N's always seem to A. be in power B. have no accountability for their abuses of power C. have people fawning all over them, convinced of how wonderful they are. Whether it's politicians, prominent persons (i.e. Sandusky), or churches.And in Christian circles and Christian families, it's especially vicious, all dressed up in piety. 

  17. When I was learning to be a Teaching Assistant, we had paedagogy workshops. In one of them, the speaker (a professor) said that discussions run better when you concede authority to the students. Let them know you can be wrong and they can be right, that their opinions count, that they can correct you. The organiser, another professor, interjected and said, "That's easy to say when you know you have authority. It's not so easy to say when you're just starting to TA and are maybe only three years older than the average student." What you've been saying here reminds me of that.
    Which means I wonder how much authority is involved in this, too. Name dropping not just as identity, status, security, but the right to speak, the right to expect people to listen to your opinions. This is how I imagine authority because I'm in academia. It might work differently elsewhere. It might not. But I imagine there's an element of authority-by-contact involved in any kind of name-dropping, whether in the studio or the high school cafeteria or the pub. Casting out demons in another's name, if you will.

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