Yesterday, I went to the dentist. I chipped one of my front teeth a few days before the first stay at home order went into place—not exactly a convenient time for all the reasons you already know. While it hasn’t caused me any pain, it has been annoying and isn’t a great look. So, when dental practices reopened this week, I leapt at the chance to have this thing fixed. As can be expected in these strange times, my dental experience was quite unlike previous appointments. I arrived and waited in my car, calling the office number to tell them I was there and they promised to call me back when it was my turn to enter. Upon entry, wearing the required mask, I was first instructed to stand on a particular spot and apply hand sanitizer. The first round of barriers to entry had been successfully overcome.
I then moved forward and they took my temperature. 98.9. After a raised eyebrow from the technician, she asked if I had the heat on in the car for the last 25 minutes. I had, and so I could proceed. I then answered a few background questions without touching anything. Second level of hurdles achieved, but by a slimmer margin.
Next, I was seated in a chair and advised to keep my hands to myself while the dentist and assistant repaired my jagged incisor. After the work was done, my doctor asked if I’d like to see his handiwork. Of course! He held up a mirror and, instinctively, I leaned forward and grabbed hold of it, touching the handle and grazing his glove with my bare hand. Realizing my cleanliness faux pas, I recoiled and apologized immediately. Mirror test: failed, but at least the work was already done. From there, I made it out the door without incident by standing near the front desk and confirming my insurance information. Thank goodness it hadn’t changed because I had forgotten the new card. I was then in the car where I applied one more round of hand sanitizer for good measure. At that moment, I was struck by the physical picture I had just witnessed of a greater spiritual reality.
This is not a post about dental practices or social distancing. It isn’t about ideal or lacking hygiene practices in the age of COVID-19. I’m not opposed to all the hoops I had to jump through, all of which seemed sensible to me for a place where they will touch my open mouth. This post is about something far more important than any of those things that preoccupy our thoughts each day during this season of life. It is about our desperate, seemingly incessant need to justify ourselves, and all the while knowing deep in the back of our minds that we are never up to the task.
In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Rome (one of my favorite books in all of Scripture), he describes God’s redemption of mankind. Having spent chapters 1 and 2 laying bare our utter sinfulness and broken state, in chapter 3 this comes to its climax with the unbearable verdict: “… For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.’ … for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:9-12, 23.
So, what’s our solution? In our culture of secular humanity, our preferred solution is to try what I’ll call the religion of self justification. First, get good grades, then receive the accolades and acceptances. First, impress and charm the other person, then get the relationship status you desire. First nail the interview, then (if you’ve measured up) win the job offer. First, become a witty social media influencer, then come the adoring followers you desire. First, walk through all the cleanliness steps and ace the thermometer reading, then (and only then) will you get a prettier smile. This is our society’s system for everything. It is so ingrained in us that we naturally think God must work in the same way. Here’s the thing: he doesn’t, but for that we should be grateful! You see, if Romans 3 is right that we never do any good, never seek God, and that we all fall woefully short of his holy standard, then we simply cannot perform in a way that requires God to bless us. The great 19th century English preacher Charles Spurgeon in his work, All of Grace, put it this way:
We, according to the natural legality of our hearts, are always talking about our own goodness and our own worthiness, and we stubbornly hold to it that there must be somewhat in us in order to win the notice of God. Now, God, who sees through all deceptions, knows that there is no goodness whatever in us.
In this terrible state of ungodliness, what are we to do? Well, we don’t do anything. It is God alone who is in a position to do the doing. And, he has already done it.
In this terrible state of ungodliness, what are we to do? Well, we don’t do anything. It is God alone who is in a position to do the doing. And, he has already done it. “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” Romans 4:4-5 This, friends, is the most amazing of news! God doesn’t wait for us to earn our way to him, he reaches down to us in Christ. We are ungodly, and by the work of His Son, we are exactly who he justifies!
The implications of this are too many to count, but here are a few:
- Reaching out to Others — If God justifies the ungodly, then no one is too far gone for his reach. No matter what that relative or friend whom you pray for has done or has failed to do, no matter how bad it may seem, Jesus’ work on the cross is greater. Keep praying and keep reaching out with the message of the Gospel. God can justify that person.
- Security — If God justified us when we were ungodly, then our identity—what makes us who we are—is eternally secure. Our value is not based in what we may accomplish but in what God has already accomplished in Jesus. All of our accomplishments can and will be stripped away, but what God has done can never be changed. We are secure in Christ.
- Purpose — If God justified us when we were ungodly, then we have an entirely new purpose in life. We no longer have to live for ourselves. There is no reason to focus on accumulating status, accolades or things. We can live generously in light of how generous God has been to us. We can love other people as Christ does, for their sake, and not because we might earn something out of it. Our purpose has eternal impact.
- Gratitude — If God justified us when we were ungodly, then our sense of gratitude should be limitless. Had we done anything to make ourselves worthy in God’s sight, then he couldn’t expect anything more of us. Why be grateful to God if we’ve done it ourselves? But, if instead the Lord’s justification is something to which we could never contribute, what could he ask in return? Anything and everything.For our salvation we should be infinitely grateful.
This truth should not be a “meh” moment! Whether you are a new Christian or have been one for decades, you should never lose a sense of gratefulness and wonder for what God has done. Again, Spurgeon’s words are helpful. Here is a man regarded as one of the greatest preachers to have ever lived, writing toward the end of his life, and he still wonders in his salvation:
I know that it is to me even to this day the greatest wonder that I ever heard, of, that God should ever justify me … I, who am altogether undeserving, am treated as if I had been deserving. I am loved with as much love as if I had always been godly, whereas aforetime I was ungodly. Who can help being astonished at this? Gratitude for such favor stands dressed in robes of wonder.
Indeed. We may live in a world that is all self justification all the time, but we serve a God who justifies the ungodly. Praise be to God that is who we were. And now, in Christ, the ungodly has become the grateful.
By grace alone,