For my “KSR Voices” contribution this month, I want to briefly interrupt the football excitement and return to KY’s greatest athletic achievement from 2018: Justify’s Triple Crown victory. My wife Abby and I recently had the honor of meeting the champion, and it felt like one of those rare moments in life where I was standing in the presence of transcendent greatness. After all, in the storied history of thoroughbred racing, only 13 horses have been able to achieve Triple Crown status.
Now, losing money at Keeneland is the extent of my horse racing knowledge, so I’m not going to pretend to add anything to the countless articles written about Justify’s performance. Instead, what intrigued me was the origin of his name. As a pastor, when I hear the word “justify,” my ears perk up. Then when I listened to Justify’s owner, Kenny Troutt, as well as jockey, Mike Smith, both speak openly about their Christian faith in interviews, I suspected there had to be some Biblical significance to the name.
But as I searched, I found surprisingly little on the meaning of his name, which is unusual for famous thoroughbreds. For example, American Pharaoh’s Wikipedia page has an entire section on the origins of his name, but on Justify’s page, there is nothing. And so I decided to find out for myself.
Carrying on the rich tradition of Triple Crown winners not speaking with media, Justify was unwilling to talk. So I turned to the next best thing: Elliot Walden, President and CEO of WinStar Farms, which owns Justify. I know Elliot because his daughter attends our church’s school, Trinity Christian Academy (shameless plug that I know Elliot would endorse: If you are interested in an incredible private Christian education for your children, give us a call and schedule a tour). So, I reached out to him to talk less about the horse and more about the name, and my suspicions were confirmed.
WinStar Farms is unapologetically a Christian organization. What does it mean to be a Christian horse farm, one might ask? Walden says, “In everything WinStar does, we are guided by the Christian principles of humility, integrity, and love of neighbor. We seek to treat everyone with dignity, whether Christian or not, whether an employee, a vendor, or a client.” And then occasionally these Christian convictions also come out in the names of their horses.
Walden and his team name approximately 30 horses a year, and the guiding standard is a strong powerful name that they could imagine winning the Kentucky Derby. But they also look for opportunities to use Biblical themes. And so it was with Justify. They saw something special in this thoroughbred and wanted to give him a name that communicated something likewise special, and did they ever.
One could argue that one word encapsulates the central theme of the entire Biblical story. Justify is a verb from the root word of justice. That is to say, it is the action of justice, the administration of what is right and just. And on an ultimate level, this action belongs to God alone as the Judge of all existence. Though it is certainly true that God is love, it is also true that God is just. And therein lies the dilemma.
Suppose I’m a judge and one of my sons has committed a terrible crime. He is guilty, and it is time for me to sentence him. [BTW, Matt. Before you say anything, I know I would need to recuse myself, but just roll with me here and don’t lawyer the illustration to death.] Though I love my child, though my heart is broken for my child, though my sentencing may come with tears in my eyes, I must do what is just, or I am not fit to be a judge. If I were to say, “Although you’re guilty, I love you too much to punish you, so you’re free to go,” then I would rightly be stripped of my judgeship.
This is the divine dilemma of a God who is both loving and just. Friends, forgiveness is not as easy as we tend to assume. For God to be just, then God cannot do what our day and age expects (dare I say demands) of him, which is to simply excuse or ignore our endless list of transgressions. Justice demands more, and every single one of us knows it to be true.
Nothing is more unpopular these days than the concept of judgment, but the problem is that everybody lives their lives not only assuming justice is true, but demanding it be so. I don’t know anyone who has a problem judging when they are the ones being wronged. If I am lied to, stolen from, betrayed, cheated, harmed, heck, if someone cuts me off in traffic, I am unable to suppress this demand I have for justice.
But here’s the problem.
The moment I admit justice, I, at the same time, condemn myself. Because if I admit that lying is wrong, then I must immediately ask, have I lied? You can’t have it both ways. You can’t have an existence where you demand right and wrong, and yet expect exemption from that same existence. And most importantly, you can’t judge and then tell God he can’t judge. Either justice is a thing or it’s not. If it’s not, then quit acting like it is. But if it is, then you have to play by the same rules, and according to the rules of justice, you, like I, fail miserably.
This leaves us all trembling before this one question: What are we to do with justice? I can’t even escape my own standard, not to mention God’s standard. In other words, if my judgment day was simply the right and wrong I have demanded of others, then I would stand condemned by my own justice. So what, in heaven’s name (literally), am I going to do with God’s perfect standard of justice? And what will you do?
You could choose to deny it with the modern secular answer by simply rejecting the idea altogether. In other words, there’s no such thing as a God and ultimate justice, it’s all just religious nonsense the less-enlightened choose to believe.
You could choose to ignore it through the distraction of career, entertainment, hobbies, pleasures, perhaps even an addiction. In other words, the answer to the question is to not let yourself think about the question.
You could choose to do the religious thing and try to beat this thing called justice. In other words, be as moral as you can be, work off your bad deeds with good deeds, and hope in the end you’ve done enough to justify yourself.
You can fear it, you can hate it, you can rage at the heavens against it, you can do whatever you want with it, but eventually you must face it. We all must face the very thing we all demand—this thing called justice. There is no escape.
Or is there?
There is one word Christians use to summarize the central tenant of our faith: gospel. You’ve probably heard it many times before, but what does it even mean? Literally it means “good news.” Christianity is not a religion of good advice, good behavior, good people, or whatever other good you normally associate with religion. Christianity is good news.
And this is the news: God has found a way to do what seems impossible for God to do—justify the unjustifiable without compromising justice.
I’ll let one verse summarize the whole story. Romans 3:24 says, “(We) are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” We don’t justify ourselves; instead God offers justification as a gift of grace. The uniqueness of the gospel is that justification is not something we earn but a gift we receive. How is that even possible? It says, “(We) are justified…through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
Jesus is God’s answer to the dilemma of justice, more specifically the death of Jesus. Have you ever considered it strange that a cross—an instrument of torture and execution—is the most recognized symbol of the Christian faith? Stranger still, the Bible talks about the cross as our “boast,” “hope,” even “glory.” And indeed it is. The good news that Jesus proclaimed was his willingness to die as a justice substitute—to stand before divine justice in my stead, bearing the awfulness of my sin and shame, willingly accepting the condemnation that I deserve, so that I might be given the justification I don’t deserve. Simply put, in the greatest act of sacrificial love the world will ever know, Jesus received for me what justice demands from me, so that now my day of judgment has been moved from a future event I dread to a past event I praise.
When Justify crossed the finish line of the Belmont Stakes to complete the Triple Crown, NBC’s Larry Collmus’s call was as exceptional as the moment, “He’s just perfect, and now he’s just immortal!” Indeed, he is. Justify justified himself and earned his perfection as well as his immortal status.
Is it possible that the same could be said of us when we’ve run this race called life and stand before this thing called justice?
The answer is no. That’s the bad news. We cannot justify ourselves, we cannot earn perfection, we cannot even come close to achieving what justice demands.
But here’s the good news (the gospel): God has found a way to justify those who do not deserve it and cannot earn it. Because of Jesus, justification is no longer a race we run but a gift we receive.