Why the three are inseparable
A recent and well-publicized Adventist author, who of late has joined ex-Adventist minister Dale Ratzlaff on the lecture circuit (1), articulated some years ago what many observers have known for some time regarding the driving force behind the reduction in doctrinal clarity, worshipful reverence, and lifestyle standards in modern and postmodern Adventism. Concluding the second chapter of his book on the standards debate, in which he seeks to prove the impossibility—even through God’s power—of character perfection in this life, the author declares:
I bring this up (the perfection issue) because before we contemplate the standards of holy living, we first need to recognize our total dependence upon Jesus. Otherwise we might fall into the trap of thinking that our salvation ultimately depends upon our performance as we live out the divinely inspired standards. . . .
Christ’s substitution of His righteous character provides us an incubator, filled with divine grace, wherein we can grow up into Christ. It affords us room to fail and still not get discouraged. This umbrella of eternal grace sweetens our dispositions as we seek to straighten out our defective characters. And it makes us more tolerant with others over lifestyle issues, because we realize how patient God is being with us (2).
Like all deceptions, the one stated above is mingled with truth. All of us are indebted to the patience God exhibits toward us. All of us believe in “total dependence upon Jesus.” The problem arises when such dependence is equated with total trust in forgiveness (justification) as the sole ground of salvation, as distinct from an equal trust in regeneration and sanctification. According to Scripture, both justification and sanctification—both the work of Christ for us and His work in us—are included in the process the Bible calls salvation:
Being justified freely through His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:24).
In whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace (Eph. 1:7).
God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth (II Thess. 2:13).
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 (Titus 3:5).
Notice the contrast drawn in the above verse between “works of righteousness which we have done” and the “washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost.” This helps us understand that when the Bible says we are not saved by works (Rom. 3:20,28; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8-9), it is not speaking of the transforming, sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. Ellen White affirms this Biblical distinction in such statements as the following:
So we have nothing in ourselves of which to boast. We have no ground for self-exaltation. 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 (3).
The proud heart strives to earn salvation, but both our title to heaven and our fitness for it are found in the righteousness of Christ (4).
In the following statement she clarifies the meaning of title and fitness:
The righteousness by which we are justified is imputed; the righteousness by which we are sanctified is imparted. The first is our title to heaven, the second is our fitness for heaven (5).
Putting the above statements together, along with the Bible verses quoted earlier, it becomes clear that both justifying and sanctifying righteousness constitute the divine answer to boastful, self-generated, legalistic religion. The author quoted at the beginning, along with others we will cite, believes differently. In his own words:
Through idealistic standards the Lord convinces us of our inability to meet perfectly the high claims of the law of God in our fallen, carnal state. Only as we realize this will we begin to look outside ourselves to Christ, whose substitutionary merits offer our only hope of fully satisfying what the law requires of us (6).
It is this belief in “Christ’s substitionary character” (7) as the exclusive ground of salvation which drives both the above author’s understanding of the gospel and his approach to worship and lifestyle standards. Just to make sure his readers don’t get confused, he denounces as “a traditional teaching that has plagued Adventism for years” the belief “that God expects us to unite with the power of the Holy Spirit and develop in this life a character that is as absolutely perfect as Christ’s” (8). For this author and others of like mind, the believer’s salvation is based entirely on “substitute righteousness” (9), which in his view “will never be seen as a tangible reality in our experience” (10). This author maintains that “because of our carnal state (even after conversion) ‘all our righteousnesses (right doings) are as filthy rags’ (Isa. 64:6)” (11).
But this author’s attempt to equate the filthy rags of our own righteousness with sanctified obedience, falls apart when one examines both Scripture and the writings of Ellen White. Describing the preparation required to meet our Lord in peace when He comes at last, the book of Revelation declares:
Let us rejoice and be glad and give Him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and His bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear. Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints (Rev. 19:7-8, NIV).
Notice how, according to this passage, the fine linen in which God’s people are arrayed is identified as “the righteous acts of the saints,” by which the Lamb’s bride “has made herself ready.” Obviously this is practical, tangible righteousness being depicted here, not “substitutionary” righteousness. No wonder Ellen White, in sharp contrast with the author noted above, equates the wedding garment in Jesus’ parable with imparted, sanctifying righteousness:
By the wedding garment in the parable is represented the pure, spotless character which Christ's true followers will possess. . . . It is the righteousness of Christ, His own unblemished character, that through faith is imparted to all who receive Him as their personal Saviour. . . . Christ in His humanity wrought out a perfect character, and this character He offers to impart to us. “All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.” (Isa. 64:6. Everything that we of ourselves can do is defiled by sin. But the Son of God “was manifested to take away our sins, and in Him is no sin.” Sin is defined to be “the transgression of the law.” 1 John 3:5, 4. But Christ was obedient to every requirement of the law. . . . By His perfect obedience He has made it possible for every human being to obey God's commandments. When we submit ourselves to Christ, the heart is united with His heart, the will is merged in His will, the mind becomes one with His mind, the thoughts are brought into captivity to Him; we live His life. This is what it means to be clothed with the garments of His righteousness (12).
The True Witness counsels us to buy of Him gold tried in the fire, white raiment, and eyesalve. The gold here recommended as having been tried in the fire, is faith and love. It makes the heart rich, for it has been purged until it is pure, and the more it is tested the more brilliant is its luster. The white raiment is purity of character, the righteousness of Christ imparted to the sinner (13).
Notice how Ellen White says that this unblemished purity of character is imparted to the believer, that this imparted righteousness stands in contrast to the filthy rags of our own righteousness, and that the perfect obedience Jesus accomplished in His earthly life makes it possible for Christians to practice this same obedience in their own earthly lives.
The Umbrella of Eternal Grace
The author noted above, as we saw at the beginning, describes God’s forgiveness as the “umbrella of eternal grace” (14). For some time, certain ones among us have disputed the idea that God’s forgiveness applies only to the believer’s past sins. Some years ago, one popular revivalist in the church illustrated his view of justification with a picture of himself wearing a black suit with a white umbrella over his head (15). Other prominent Adventists, both past and present, have used this metaphor to depict the scope of forgiveness when applied to the Christian life (16). The idea thus promoted is that God’s forgiveness—justification—covers not only the believer’s past sins, but his present and future sins as well.
But for starters, nowhere does Scripture teach that God’s forgiveness covers present and future sins as well as past ones. The Bible is clear, in fact, that forgiveness is only provisional in case sin occurs, not a continuous reality made necessary by presumably inevitable, unavoidable transgression. The apostle John writes: “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (I John 2:1). Notice that forgiveness is available if we sin, not when.
The Bible is also clear that a guileless spirit, confession and the forsaking of sin, and a willingness to forgive others are essential prerequisites for receiving God’s forgiveness:
If My people, which are called by My name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sins, and heal their land (II Chron. 7:14).
Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile (Psalm 32:1-2).
He that covereth his sins shall not prosper, but whoso confesseth, and forsaketh them shall have mercy (Prov. 28:13).
Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord, and He will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon (Isa. 55:7).
For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Matt. 6:14-15).
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (I John 1:9).
This quite clearly disallows any notion of being forgiven “in advance” for sins one not only hasn’t committed yet, but obviously hasn’t forsaken yet either. For this reason Ellen White applies God’s forgiveness only to sins of the past:
Christ bears the penalty of man's past transgressions; and by imparting to man his righteousness, makes it possible for man to keep God's holy law (17)
The law requires righteousness—a righteous life, a perfect character, and this man has not to give. He cannot meet the claims of God’s holy law. But Christ, coming to earth as man, lived a holy life, and developed a perfect character. These He offers as a free gift to all who will receive them. His life stands for the life of men. Thus they have remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God. More than this, Christ imbues me with the attributes of God. He builds up the human character after the similitude of the divine character, a goodly fabric of spiritual strength and beauty. Thus the very righteousness of the law is fulfilled in the believer in Christ (18).
There is no way back to innocence and life except through repentance for having transgressed God's law, and faith in the merits of the divine sacrifice, who has suffered for your transgressions of the past; and you are accepted in the Beloved on condition of obedience to the commandments of your Creator (19).
In her commentary on the story of Joshua and the Angel in Zechariah 3, Ellen White is equally clear as to which sins—represented by Joshua’s filthy garments—are being removed:
Israel was clothed in “change of raiment,”--the righteousness of Christ imputed to them. The mitre placed upon Joshua's head was such as was worn by the priests, and bore the inscription, “Holiness to the Lord,” signifying that notwithstanding his former transgressions, he was now qualified to minister before God in His sanctuary (20).
There is, in short, no past-present-and-future “umbrella” of forgiveness available to the Christian. Neither Scripture nor the writings of Ellen White teach such a concept. Divine forgiveness is provisional only, available in the event one falls into sin and the prescribed Biblical conditions for receiving this forgiveness are met (see II Chron. 7:14; Psalm 32:2; Prov. 28:13; Isa. 55:7; Matt. 6:14-15; I John 1:9). The idea that tomorrow’s and next week’s sins are already covered by a continuous canopy of forensic righteousness has rightly been compared to the Catholic doctrine of indulgences—only in this case the indulgences are free!
The next installment of this series will cover "Doctrine does not save us," "The hermeneutic of Grace" and "Righteousness by faith and standards." The third and last installment will cover John Wesley and contemporary Adventism and the confusion in the church over the connection between the gospel, doctrine, worship and lifestyle.
- See “Summer Tour of Encouragement (Remembering),” Proclamation! Fall 2009, p. 25.
- Keavin Hayden, Lifestyles of the Remnant (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Assn, 2001), p. 24.
- Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ, p. 63.
- ----The Desire of Ages, p. 300.
- ----Messages to Young People, p. 36.
- Hayden, Lifestyles of the Remnant, p. 17.
- Ibid, p. 19.
- Ibid, p. 18.
- Ibid, p. 19.
- White, Christ’s Object Lessons, pp. 310-312 (italics supplied).
- ----Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 88.
- Hayden, Lifestyles of the Remnant, p. 24.
- Steve Marshall, What’s the Difference? (Arroyo Grande, CA: Concerned Communications, 1979), on the cover.
- J. Robert Spangler, “Ask the Editor,” Ministry, October 1978, p. 11; J. David Newman, “Can I Know I’m Saved?” Adventist Review, Aug. 24, 2006, p. 26.
- White, SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 6, p. 1092 (italics supplied).
- ----The Desire of Ages, p. 762 (italics supplied).
- ----Signs of the Times, Dec. 15, 1887 (italics supplied).
- ----Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 469 (italics supplied).