Christmas kills self-justification
“For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?'” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?'” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:5-9, ESV)
The impulse of self-justification is an impulse that resides deeply within the fallen human heart. There is a little pharisee dwelling within the souls of each of us, an inner pharisee who tells us that “Surely, you can do something to get yourself right with God, to contribute toward your salvation, to “help” God save you.” It is the impulse that boldly asserts, even in the face of all contrary evidence, that “I can fix this!” The fierce pride of our inner pharisee is fed by this deeply-embedded delusion of self-salvation, even as it has to constantly adjust the bar of attainment lower and lower in order to maintain the delusion. This inherent self-righteousness, this impulse toward self-justification, so fierce and deluded that it imagines it must ascend into heaven to bring the Savior down to earth, or descend into the abyss to bring Christ up from the dead, is utterly slain by the “good tidings of great joy” (Luke 2:10) announcing the birth of the Christ-child.
The good news of the Incarnation and virgin birth of the eternal Son of God for the salvation of a sinful humanity witnesses to the truth that we sinners do not – indeed, cannot! – ascend to God by our own free will or by our own works. Instead God, by the initiative of His sovereign grace, descends to us in mercy and humility in the Person of his Incarnate Son. We don’t “climb Jacob’s ladder” by our own efforts or actions or decisions to attain unto salvation. Instead, the eternal Son of God left his throne of glory in order to climb down Jacob’s ladder and be born as a human child into circumstances of more than ordinary abasement and humiliation, in order that he might save sinners through pure grace alone. (By the way, let us resist the common tendency during this season to sentimentalize the Christmas story. It is actually an ugly story of human callousness: the story of a temporarily homeless pregnant woman on the verge of giving birth being refused lodging and thus forced to give birth in a smelly, unsanitary setting amongst the animals, and having to use a feeding trough for cattle as a makeshift crib for her newborn Son. Not a very warm welcome by humanity for its Savior! But a very powerful testimony nonetheless to the amazing grace and undeserved love of God toward an ungrateful, hard-hearted humanity.)
The biblical truths and events we remember and celebrate during this traditional Christmas season bear witness to the fact that God came down to us; we did not go up to him. God sought us. We did not seek him. God loved us. We did not love him. (And if we do love him, it is because he first loved us; First John 4:19.) The Christmas story teaches us that God in Christ came down to us in order to raise us back up to himself. Ultimately the events of the Christmas story remind us that God justifies us through Christ, by his grace alone; we do not justify ourselves by our decisions or by our works. In this way Christmas drives a stake through the heart of the inner pharisee who resides within the dark recesses of our hearts, and by doing so it drives us back to Christ as our only hope of justification.
This Christmas season, may the “good tidings of great joy” kill your own attempts at self-justification. And may it lead you to find the source of your justification in Jesus Christ alone, the One who came to us in grace as the Baby lying in the manger, but who is now enthroned at the right hand of God the Father, reigning as the risen Lord of glory, interceding for us believers as our great High Priest and Mediator, and who will one day come again for us believers to bring us with him to our eternal home.