1. Everyone seeks justification, i.e. a rightness in God’s sight which translates into an identity before the world.
2. There are ultimately two sources to which we may look: God or idols.
3. We can tell which we are looking to by what we boast in, i.e., by what we look to for identity and fulfillment before God and people.
Why do I add premise 3? Because I am seeing that at crucial junctures in Paul’s epistles, after explicating the gospel of free grace, he immediately goes to boasting.
After the infamous Romans 3:21-26, for example, Paul doesn’t caveat with the necessity of works. He doesn’t go to Old Testament proof. He doesn’t go to Christian living. All of that will come. Immediately he goes to boasting: “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith” (Romans 3:27).
Here are some further examples, each drawn from an important part of the epistle containing them:
I Corinthians 1:31: “as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.'”
II Corinthians 10:17-18: “‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’ For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.”
II Corinthians 12:9: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
Galatians 6:13-14: “For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”
Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Philippians 3:3: “For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory [boast] in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.”
This is all a bit fuzzy in my mind still, but what I am seeing (and what others such as my brother Dane have helped me to see) is that justification by faith alone in Christ alone necessarily results in an inversion of human boasting. Everyone boasts in something – an identity, a talent, a relationship, a passion, a cause. Whatever gives us our deepest identity and fulfillment is our boast. And we can know that justification by faith alone in Christ alone is really taking root in our hearts when we stop boasting in our accomplishments. As Tim Keller would say, there are a lots of different kinds of works out there that we can seek to be justified by – it doesn’t always look “religious.” Justification by works can look very secular – literally anything can be the object of our boast other than Christ.
The gospel therefore intersects with our lives at the very point where we think we are most strong, and says we are most weak. Its always, for all of us, justification by faith in Christ vs. my greatest strength and identity apart from Christ. We therefore know that we are making progress in justification when we begin to learn to boast in our weakness (II Corinthians 12:9-10). Boasting in weaknesses is the same as boasting in Christ because only when we freely acknowledge our weakness can we receive Christ – one cannot boast in Christ without freely boasting in one’s weakness. And this new object of boasting is the necessary fruit of a true understanding and application of justification. When Jesus comes onto the throne of our hearts, he displaces all rivals.
Everyday I am tempted to find my identity in something other than Christ. The idol of study has especially been my struggle over the past few years. By the grace of God, I am seeking to learn more what it means to boast in Jesus alone. Jesus is helping me to let go of my need to constantly accomplish, and to look instead to the living God, who unlike idols forgives you when you fail him, and has the power to deliver what he promises. I am responding to his leading because I want my life to be a statement not about who I am or what I have done, but what Jesus has done for me. I want to learn, like Paul, to boast only in the cross. I want my life to make Jesus look good, not me.
“Whoever thinks that he has anything at all of his own rises up against God and casts a shadow on his glory.” -Calvin, Institutes, 3.13.1