Why another study on righteousness by faith? Aren't there many other subjects we could profitably study? Why do we need yet another study on the gospel?
First, because the gospel is the heart of everything we are as Christians. Even if we've got everything else right, but are not clear about how we are saved, our correctness on doctrine won't matter much. There will be many, many people in heaven who will get their wrong doctrines straightened out in heaven. God will have lots of kindergarten classes in heaven, teaching people about all the simple things in the Bible that they didn't understand very well, but no one will be there whose heart is not surrendered to God. Everyone who is in heaven will first have learned to yield his life to God here on earth--everyone. We must be sure that we are absolutely certain about how salvation works.
Second, the errors on righteousness by faith keep coming at us from all angles. Challenges to the gospel of the Bible keep coming. It seems like a new error is developed every year or two, which demands our thoughtful response. It is very clear that Satan has made it his priority to confuse the gospel of the Bible, the only gospel which can save us from destruction. It has become very hard to stay away from the ditches on both sides of the road of salvation. Either we are trapped in legalism, trying to earn our right to heaven, or in cheap grace, claiming salvation while doing nothing to meet the most basic conditions of salvation. These ditches are very easy to fall into and hard to escape. Because of this confusion we must continue to study the basic truths of how salvation works.
Clifford Goldstein is directly challenging the gospel that some are teaching. Before we analyze this challenge, it might be well to notice some letters that came in to the Review after this column was printed.
Another response was printed in the Review shortly thereafter.
An unpublished letter to Clifford Goldstein made these comments.
Now, statements and counter-statements are not enough. All they illustrate is that there is much confusion about the gospel. What we desperately need to know is what the Bible says about the gospel, not just what human beings think about the gospel. So we are going to go back over this column by Clifford Goldstein (hereafter listed as CG) and do some analysis. We will also be referring to a response by Larry Kirkpatrick (hereafter listed as LK) on December 8, 2001 on his website (greatcontroversy.org). He begins his response in the following way.
CG challenges the view that "every man, woman and child must die daily. We must surrender our will moment by moment to God." His challenge is strong and direct: "Here we are in the twenty-first century...and this is how some still define the everlasting gospel. Isn't the everlasting gospel the good news that Jesus, the God-man, lived a life of perfect obedience to the law and then died as my substitute in order that I, by faith, can claim His perfect righteousness as my own, a righteousness that comes only by faith in His righteousness."
No one will oppose his belief that Jesus' perfect life and His substitutionary death is the foundation upon which our salvation is built. This is the incredible good news of the gospel. But right in CG's challenge is the statement that faith is necessary for salvation. Then the gospel is more than the life and death of Christ. Many people believe that Christ lived and died, but they have no faith in His saving power, and they will not be saved. The only way in which the gospel becomes good news for us personally is when we, by faith, accept His life and death in place of our sinful lives. Does this not make faith an essential condition of our salvation? Faith has no merit, and it cannot be the basis or cause of our salvation, but we will not be saved without faith.
Ellen White put it this way: "He is pardoned on condition that he receive Christ, confessing and repenting of his sins and becoming renewed." (Loma Linda Messages, pp. 103-4) "He has laid down conditions in His Word, and we should diligently, interestedly, with heart and mind, set about the task of learning these conditions, lest we make some mistake and fail to secure our title to the mansions above." (5 T 543) "We should know what we must do to be saved....We must meet the conditions laid down in the Word of God or die in our sins. We must know what moral changes are essential to be made in our characters, through the grace of Christ, in order to be fitted for the mansions above." (5 T 535)
As we look at some Bible verses, we are looking for conditions specified by God to take advantage of Christ's substitutionary life and death. "The kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel." (Mark 1:15) Here repentance is a condition of salvation. While we fully understand that faith and repentance are gifts of God and come directly from the Holy Spirit, we must make personal choices to appropriate these gifts and use them to access the plan of salvation. There is a human aspect to the good news of the gospel.
Hebrews 11 is known as the great faith chapter. "By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous....Through faith also Sarah herself received strength to conceive seed....By faith Moses,...refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter; Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God." (Hebrews 11:4,11,24,25) It was through faith that Abel was counted righteous. Sarah didnt produce a son any more than we can produce salvation, but because of her faith, God performed the miracle. Moses refused and chose, by faith. Faith was a condition of the mighty works of God through all these heroes of faith.
John makes the conditions even more explicit. "Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous." (1 John 3:7) Notice that the text does not say that the one who does righteousness has already been declared righteous, and that this is just a fruit of his being righteous. Doing and righteousness are one and the same thing.
Paul describes the steps to salvation very clearly. "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life." (Titus 3:5-7) How are we saved? By washing, by regeneration, by renewing, by the Holy Spirit. All of these are steps in the salvation process, not results of the salvation experience. This is a crucial defining point in our study of the gospel. The evangelical Christian gospel teaches that all of these things are the inevitable result of accepting Christ and being saved. In other words, once we stand justified and saved, we will experience all these resuslts (which they call sancti fication) in due time, just as we will experience glorification in due time. This means that salvation does not depend on our experiencing regeneration and renewal, but on "being justified by his grace" apart from the new birth experience. But this text places regeneration and renewal as necessary steps in justification and salvation. Without these steps, we are not saved.
Ellen White says it clearly. "Our only ground of hope is in the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and in that wrought by His Spirit working in and through us." (SC 63) The work of the Holy Spirit in us is part of the ground of our salvation. "There must be an entire, unreserved surrender to God, a forsaking and turning away from the love of the world and earthly things, or we cannot be His disciples." (RH August 31, 1886) Surrender and forsaking seem to be definite conditions of being Christians. "God requires the entire surrender of the heart, before justification can take place; and in order for man to retain justification, there must be continual obedience, through active, living faith that works by love and purifies the soul." (1 SM 366) "Salvation means to us complete surrender of soul, body, and spirit." (ST Nov. 15, 1899) It is crystal clear that surrender precedes justification. There is simply no salvation without surrender. Is surrender a condition of salvation then? It is not an option, it is not a result, it is a necessary step before we can be justified and saved. Incidentally, faith and surrender are one and the same thing. There is no genuine faith without heart surrender. Any faith without surrender is the kind the devils have, who believe and tremble. Surrender is the only way we can receive Christ's righteousness. Then perhaps surrendering the will and dying daily are vital parts of the everlasting gospel!
CG says, "But the moment these internal actions become conditions for justification, the moment they become the means by which a person is saved, the good news gets blunted--like with a sledgehammer." Let's look into inspiration again. "Implicit obedience is the condition of salvation.(ST Nov. 15, 1899) "The great gift of salvation is freely offered to us, through Jesus Christ, on condition that we obey the law of God." (ST Dec. 15, 1887) "Self-denial is the condition of salvation." (Bible Echo, Dec. 9, 1895) Do these conditions really blunt the good news like a sledgehammer?
Let us take one more look at the conditions named in the Bible and Spirit of Prophecy. Faith, repentance, surrender, obedience, self-denial. Do we begin to hear some peole shout, "Legalism"? The problem comes when we confuse the conditions of salvation with the means of salvation, which is exactly what CG did. The means of our salvation is Christ's life and His death on the cross. That's the only means of salvation we will ever have. God's grace sent His Holy Spirit searching for us before we even knew anything about God. Alll of these things are the means of salvation. The conditions of salvation are simply the things that we do in response to God, showing that we like God's means. We yield to His way of salvation rather than to our selfish wills. Conditions are not meritorious; means are meritorious. Conditions do not earn anything; they simply say, "I want to be part of the family. I want to be adopted. You have done everything you can do to save me, and now I choose to be part of Your plan."
When you are taking a trip by car, the engine and the fuel are the means of getting to your destination. But is something else necessary if you are going to get there? Do you have to get into the car, get behind the steering wheel, work some pedals on the floor and some levers to get there? Those are the conditions of your travel. But if there is no gas in the tank, you could sit behind the steering wheel for a month and you would never get anywhere. Fuel in the tank and an engine under the hood are the means, the cause, of your trip. The conditions of your trip involve getting into the car.
"When we exercise faith we obey and when we obey we exercise faith, but neither earns us salvation. Jesus' death counted to us and the work of His Spirit in us is salvation." (LK) If we separate faith from obedience, then we must answer the question, "How much later does obedience come?" Does it happen a minute later than faith, or an hour later, or a month later? If obedience is only a fruit of faith, then we can just sit back and wait for the fruit to appear. If God will just take away the temptations that I am bombarded with, then obedience will come as an inevitable fruit of my faith. Do you begin to see how much allowance this kind of thinking makes for continued sinning in my life--until God sees fit to remove the temptations? No, faith and surrender and obedience are synonymous. They happen together, and they are conditions of salvation.
CG continues, "Notice how humanistic, how sinner-centered, this understanding of the gospel is. We must die daily, we must surrender our will, we must do this, we must do that. The argument that it's God doing the works in us, and thus not our own, doesn't let them off the hook....It's still the people, themselves, doing these works, and if these works justify them, then they're saved by faith and works, period." These are very strong, even sarcastic comments. Let us see how they square with Scripture.
"I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me." (Gal. 2:20) Being crucified with Christ sounds very much like dying daily, because the verse is about daily living in the flesh. Notice also who is living this daily Christian life. It is Christ living in me Who produces any good works that are ever going to happen in my life. Perhaps it is important here to differentiate between two kinds of "good works." A person who is not crucified with Christ can do good works in the eyes of fellow human beings. Being a good moral person is a noble thing, but it is a work of the flesh, produced by human motivations for human ends. A "good work" which is approved by God as part of His salvation plan is only a work which Christ does in us. The only "good work" the Bible knows of is the work of Christ living in us. It is never Christians themselves doing good works.
"Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure." (Phil. 2:12-13) How are we to "work out" our salvation? God both wills and does in us. My working will produce absolutely nothing apart from God. As far as we allow, God will work in us to obey Him.
"To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory:...Whereunto I also labor, striving according to his working, which worketh in me mightily." (Col. 1:27-29) Our striving is of value only as Christ is living in us and working in us. Any work which has relevance for eternal life will be a work produced by Christ in our lives.
"But when they shall lead you, and deliver you up, take no thought beforehand what ye shall speak, neither do ye premeditate: but whatsoever shall be given you in that hour, that speak ye: for it is not ye that speak, but the Holy Ghost." (Mark 13:11) Who are we to depend on for "good words" to be spoken? We are to serve as mouthpieces for the Holy Spirit.
While we can choose to serve and obey God, we simply cannot carry out our choices. Romans 7 is very true for us in our own abilities. The good that we want to do, we do not carry out. Those things we do not want to do are the very things we end up doing. While we may want to obey God, it is simply not in our power to carry out our desires. True good works are possible only by God's grace and power. We ourselves can never do the kind of good works which are relevant to the salvation process. On the basis of Scripture, we must reject CG's contention that "it's still the people, themselves, doing these works." If they are truly good works, they are God's works which we are allowing Him to carry out in our lives.
CG continues, "But no matter how righteous we become by what God does in us, our salvation still comes only from what God has done outside us, in the life and death of Jesus. Our hope of salvation must never remain centered upon ourselves, or what happens within; instead, the righteousness that saves us--the obedience that redeems us and the holiness that justifies us--always remains external to us, a righteousness that exists in heaven itself."
LK responds, "But our hope of salvation has never been centered upon ourselves or on what Christ does in us. Can we be fair at this point too? All we hold is that those inspired statements that say that God works in us, that salvation includes an inward experience of regeneration, that 'Our only ground of hope is in the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and in that wrought by His Spirit working in and through us,' must be honored for what they tell us--no more, and no less. Al l we say is that a critical part of our salvation, besides what has happened outside of us, is also, according to inspiration, what happens inside of us."
In a recent Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide, (March 18, 2003) CG's perspective found a practical application. In discussing the faith of Abraham, the author concluded, "However much Abram's life was a life of faith and obedience, it was not a life of perfect faith and perfect obedience....The righteousness that saves us is a righteousness that is credited to us, a righteousness that is...imputed to us. This means that we are declared righteous in the sight of God, despite our faults; it means that the God of heaven views us as righteous even if we are not." Here we have come face to face with the extreme danger of this understanding of the gospel. lt teaches that since we are saved by external righteousness alone, ongoing faults and unrighteousness in our lives are not relevant to our salvation. It says that we remain justified and saved while these faults and sins remain unconfessed and unsurrendered. If Abram remained justified while he was lying about his wife, then I can remain justified while lying to or about my wife. This gospel allows some unconfessed sin to remain in the life of a justified Christian, since the righteousness that saves us "always remains external to us." This is the heart and soul of the evangelical gospel which promises salvation apart from surrender and obedience, and which has led to so many unfortunate excesses in the popular churches today.
Some years ago the Adventist Review (August 12, 1982) reported a similar experience outside the Adventist Church. "Father Zacharia, pastor of the...Coptic Orthodox church,...experienced what can only be described as an evangelical conversion....Zacharia has been teaching that justification is 'a mere verdict of righteousness' without any inward renewal, or righteousness of character. That is, when God justifies sinners He declares them righteous without making them righteous." The Review article concluded that this view of justification "separates what the Reformers refused to separate, namely, the new status and the new life, justification and regeneration, the work of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit....Justification is not a legal fiction that leaves the justified sinner unchanged. For God justifies the sinner only if he is in Christ....New status, new life, new creation--we must not separate these blessings. They belong together and are given to all who are in Christ."
In his concluding thoughts about the magazine CG is criticizing, he says, "When some Adventists are trying to meld evolution with our faith, these people aren't; when some Adventists are questioning our prophetic message, these people aren't; when some Adventists are buying into the subjective and secularist-premised notions of historical criticism, these people aren't; when some Adventists are doubting the prophetic ministry of El len White, these people aren't. All of which is commendable, except for one technicality: there's no Christ on their cross, which means that whatever good they offer comes burdened with the unbearable weight of salvation by works, which is no gospel and, certainly, not the 'everlasting' one."
Two points are important here. First, he admits that "these people" strongly oppose the many attacks on the Adventist message during recent years, most of which have come from within Adventism. They have remained faithful to the foundations of the Adventist message. But since "these people" do not accept his version of the gospel, CG says that they have "no Christ," salvation by works, and "no gospel."
LK comments, "But the author of the article thinks that their gospel is a works-gospel, and rejects all their consistency on all their other points with the suggestion that they are presenting the issue of salvation in a misstated manner. This is his giant conundrum, the inexplicable corner he has painted himself into, his riddle and dilemma. Namely, if these folk to whom he refers are consistent in all these other points, isn't it possible that they are being consistent here too? Isn't it possible that they are rightly interpreting the Bible and Ellen G. White in their understanding of what the everlasting gospel is?"
Second, CG rightly points us to the importance of the gospel--the way of salvation. It is supremely important that we explain and defend the true gospel as our first priority. No matter how correct we may be on other issues, if our understanding of the gospel is faulty, our salvation may be in jeopardy. If CG is right that we have a gospel of salvation by works, does it really matter that we are right on all those other issues? If we truly believe in salvation by works, we are lost. CG has done us a real service by pointing us to the heart and soul of Christianity--the gospel message. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is more important than understanding the gospel correctly. If we don't know the gospel, our knowledge of creation and evolution means nothing.
Adventism believes very strongly in soul-winning and evangelism. But if our evangelism and Bible studies are based on a false gospel, evangelism may be the most dangerous thing we can do, because it will bring tares into the church and make people a little more comfortable on their way to hell. If we assure people that their salvation is entirely external to themselves, that they are declared righteous prior to an internal making righteous, that God will take care of major internal changes down the line somewhere, in due time, then their baptism into the church may be the most dangerous thing they have ever done in their lives. The only hope they have is that God will be able to overrule the false gospel by which they were brought to Christ, and point their sincere hearts to the real cross of Calvary.
In a later Adventist Review column (Jan. 23, 2003) CG pressed his position even more strongly.
In another Adventist Review article (Sept. 25, 2003) J. David Newman expressed this same understanding of the gospel in these words.
In other words, transformation, while it always follows our reception of grace, is not part of the saving process. Transformation is a result of salvation rather than the method of salvation. In this understanding of the gospel, grace remains essentially separate from transformation. No matter what protestations to the contrary, transformation in the new birth experience is removed from the saving act.
I believe that the columns by CG constitute an open declaration of war on the true gospel of Jesus Christ. He is saying exactly the same thing that Desmond Ford was saying some 25 years ago: Let's get our gospel straightened out so we can accomplish our mission. CG's understanding of the gospel is exactly what Dr. Ford was trying to convince Adventism of during those years. This evangelical understanding of the gospel will destroy Adventism just as surely as if we were to accept evolution in place of creation.
Now it is always true that fruit does not grow out of nothing. Fruits always come from seeds planted, and seeds usually appear innocuous and harmless. But we know that some seeds produce flowers while other seeds produce weeds. What were the theological seeds that have produced the evangelical-gospel fruits in the Adventist Church?
In 1979 there was a furor of discussion over justification, sanctification and the new birth. One hundred forty-five leaders in Adventism were called to headquarters to study these subjects and produce a document reflecting our position on righteousness by faith. The document was titled "The Dynamics of Salvation,'" and appeared in the Adventist Review July 31, 1980. Most of the conclusions in this paper were sound, but there were some seeds in it which have produced fruit.
In a section entitled "The New Status in Christ," we find five points--Justification, Reconciliation, Forgiveness, Adoption, and Sanctification (in the sense of consecration). Strangely enough, there was nothing about the new birth or transformation in this section. Then these sentences appeared, "But even if we slip and fall, our sins are not entirely like those of the unredeemed....As long as we stand in the faith relationship with God, we retain our new status as His sons and daughters." Now it is true that if we slip and fall and repent we retain our status in Christ. But what if we slip and fall and don't repent? What if we rationalize or defend or cherish our sin? Then do we retain our status in Christ? There was no discussion of this important distinction in this document. A seed was planted.
The next section was entitled "The New Life in Christ." Here we find New Birth and Restoration. This should not be in a separate section from "The New Status in Christ." This implies that once we are saved we will discuss the new birth and new life. The new birth was separated from justification and forgiveness. A very important seed was planted, separating salvation from the new birth.
In the discussion of growth (the usual meaning of sanctification), sanctification is equated with the works we do and the fruit we bear. Now sanctification is a result or fruit of salvation which comes along after our salvation has been accomplished. In this section there is nothing about sanctification being as much a gift of grace as is justification. Another important seed was planted.
Inspiration tells us, "Through faith in My name He (the Father) will impart to you the sanctification and holiness which will fit you for His work in a world of sin, and qualify you for an immortal inheritance in His kingdom." (ST June 18, 1896) Notice carefully that we do not produce sanctification or holiness. These are God's gifts of grace through faith, and they are necessary to qualify us for heaven. In other words, they are part of the salvation process, not just fruits of an accomplished salvation. "If the character which we develop during our probation is according to the divine Pattern, it qualifies us to receive the welcome, 'Well done.'" (1 MR 201) We are not qualified for heaven by justification alone. Both justification and sanctification are gifts of God and are necessary to salvation. One is not a condition and the other a result.
There is so much confusion on this subject right now that one sentence bears repeating. Sanctification is a gift of grace; it is not totally or partially a work of man.
In the document we have been considering, when obedience is discussed there is no mention of obedience being a condition of salvation, which is so clearly outlined by Ellen White. Seeds were planted in this statement (largely of omission and misplacement) which have made the evangelical gospel seem to be mainstream in Adventism. Deadly seeds always bear deadly fruits.
Philip Yancey is perhaps the most popular writer in Christian circles today. His book, What's So Amazing About Grace? has been hailed by some as the top Christian bestseller. Among non-Adventist authors, he is likely the most popular in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. As evidence of this, in 2001 the Avondale College Church (Australia), with the approval of the South Pacific Division, invited him to speak on grace. These presentations were then broadcast over satellite to 180 locations throughout the division.
In 2002 Kevin Paulson reviewed this book (available on www.greatcontroversy.org). Following are some of his most important comments.
I submit these statements to you as the true gospel of Jesus Christ. What we have been analyzing is a half-gospel, and it may be the most dangerous thing that Satan has ever devised to destroy our hope of salvation. Our salvation, bought for us by the blood of Jesus, awaits our complete and total surrender to God, so that He can transform our life by His grace. May His grace and His gospel be real for each one of us.