But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” (Luke 10:29-37)
After already getting the answer from Jesus and told to do it, this lawyer wants to “justify” himself. Which tells us he wasn’t already doing what Jesus said to do, even though he had answered correctly. This lawyer knew what he should be doing, what the Scriptures said to do, but wasn’t doing it currently; and instead of letting that conviction change him, he sought to justify himself and his own sin of missing the mark of perfection as laid out in the Law.
With this in mind, the foundation of the issue this lawyer is having isn’t with the neighbor at all, the foundation of the issue is with loving God. If he was indeed following the first commandment of loving God with all his heart and soul and strength and mind, like he quoted, he wouldn’t be trying to justify himself in asking who his neighbor was, since he’d be busy already loving his neighbor.
I love that Jesus then replied with the parable of the good Samaritan. Jesus didn’t engage this man in conversation about his attempt to justify himself, Jesus didn’t scold him like a child, Jesus simply took the teachable opportunity and shared a parable that would help align this lawyer’s perspective with His – with God’s perspective.
How often do we see a truth from the Bible and when pricked with conviction, we don’t meditate on the Word which God spoke to our hearts but instead immediately jump to self-justification? If that’s you, you’re not alone, because that’s unfortunately part of our sin nature. That doesn’t excuse it though. Yes, we are sinful, and we have a nature that chooses sin and to justify that sin and to push the blame onto someone else, anyone else – But that doesn’t make it right. We shouldn’t simply acknowledge our failings and flaws as sinful people and justify it with “well that’s just me, I’m a sinful person” simply because we know that God gives grace.
The fact that our righteousness is likened in the Bible to filthy rags, or used menstrual pads as we can better understand today, means that our very best, in and of ourselves, is not even close to the standard of holiness God requires. The thing is, as Christians, we don’t need to justify ourselves because we are already justified in Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit. So then, any attempt to justify ourselves is worthless and at best only serves to deceive ourselves, just as James described hearers only who hear the Word and don’t do it. The key then is to not let that justification standing with God be an excuse for sin in place of growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus and being refined in the sanctification process of becoming more like Jesus.
I can guarantee you that if you seek to love God and in turn love others, that in that process of sanctification, your growth will make you more like Jesus who was sinless and you will in turn sin less. When you attempt to justify yourself and your sin, your thoughts are solely on yourself. When you’re seeking to love God and others, you’re denying yourself and following in the footsteps of Jesus, the One who truly has justified you.
The first response from Jesus when the lawyer answered correctly was, “do this, and you will live.” Notice that now after trying to justify himself and being taught through a parable, the answer from Jesus remains the same – “You go, and do likewise.” You can fruitlessly try to justify yourself to Jesus all day long when you sin, but the answer will stay the same from the One who is the same yesterday, today, and forever – DO what He says.
I’ll leave you with this admonishment and encouragement from Paul in several verses in Romans 6, and I pray that you respond well to the Spirit’s convictions, walking in the newness of life in Christ you were born into as a child of God, and that you would walk free from sin:
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:1-4)
What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?… But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. (Romans 6:15-16, 22)