Confused About the Reformation

As Bible students and historians recount the events of half a millennium ago, when the hammer blows of a German monk on a church door sparked the movement that would split Christendom in two, it is imperative that we understand correctly what the issues were, and were not, in that rending conflict whose implications would prove so dramatic for Western civilization and for the world.

But for the better part of five decades now, a certain element within and on the edge of the Seventh-day Adventist Church has been somewhat confused about the issues in the Protestant Reformation. These persons have alleged that the great issue which divided Protestants from the papacy was whether the Christian’s salvation is based entirely on what Christ does for the believer, or whether it is also based on what Christ does in and through the believer

This claim regarding the distinction between Catholic and Protestant theology became especially prominent during the 1970s in the writings of Robert Brinsmead (1) and Desmond Ford (2). Anglican scholar Geoffrey Paxton, in his 1977 book The Shaking of Adventism, made similar claims (3). as did another prominent voice during those years:

While it is true that the Catholic Church has elevated to official status the notions of grace and justification, it has used these categories in a sense often vastly different from their Biblical connotations. Thus, justification has come to describe God’s work within us instead of a declaration of acquittal (4).

More recently, others have made the same allegation regarding the distinction between Catholic and Protestant salvation theology (5). One such author writes:

Papal Rome supplants justification by faith alone, which accounts or reckons the sinner as righteous for Christ’s sake, with a justification that makes a sinner righteous through an inner, sanctifying, or transforming grace (6).

But is this distinction between the work of Christ for us and His work in us the true dividing line between Roman Catholicism and authentic Protestantism?

Two Quizzes

One contemporary Adventist author who defines the Catholic/Protestant rift in the manner described above, included a quiz in an article he published some years ago in a prominent denominational magazine. In twelve statements, each to be labeled true or false, the author sought to test his readers as to whether their beliefs reflected either Protestant or Catholic views of the gospel:

1.      Our right standing with God is based solely on what Christ has done for us. True or false?

2.      Our right standing with God is based on what Christ has done for us and in us. True or false?

3.      Even by the grace of God and our own diligent effort, our obedience to the law can never make us righteous before God. True or false?

4.      Our obedience to the law, though not enough to save us, can give us merit before God. True or false?

5.      We are justified through the merits of Jesus Christ alone. True or false?

6.      We are justified by God through the merits of Christ, and through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. True or false?

7.      God gives us right standing with Him by accounting us righteous in His sight. True or false?

8.      God gives us right standing with Him by actually making us righteous in His sight. True or false?

9.      Justification leads to good works done through faith and love. True or false?

10.  Good works done through faith and love lead to justification. True or false?

11.  After accepting Christ’s righteousness, a believer experiences the new birth, which results in a transformed life and character. True or false?

12.  After having a new birth experience, in which a person’s life and character is transformed, that person is then justified before God. True or false? (7).

After listing these statements, the author then declares:

If you answered “true” to all of the odd-numbered questions and “false” to all the even-numbered ones, then you line up with what has classically been the Protestant point of view. On the other hand, if you had placed “true” after any or all of the even-numbered ones then, to some degree at least, you are inclined toward the teaching that Roman Catholicism has embraced since the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century (8).

Interestingly, the above quiz—or at least the idea behind it—didn’t start with the above author. Robert Brinsmead, in one of the earliest issues of his magazine Present Truth (later called Verdict), included a questionnaire with very similar language, stating from the outset: “In surveys to date, this questionnaire has demonstrated the startling fact that a very large proportion of our people (Adventists) are more Catholic than Protestant in their concept of justification” (9). The questionnaire then reads as follows:

1.     a. God gives a man right standing with Himself by mercifully accounting him innocent and virtuous.                                                                  

b. God gives a man right standing with Himself by actually making him into an innocent and virtuous person.

2.      a. God gives a man right standing with Himself by putting Christ’s goodness and virtue to his credit.

b. God gives a man right standing with Himself by putting Christ’s goodness and virtue into his heart.

3.      a. God accepts the believer because of the moral excellence found in Jesus Christ.

b. God makes the believer acceptable by infusing Christ’s moral excellence into his life.

4.      a. If a Christian becomes “born again” (regenerate, transformed in character), he will achieve right standing with God.

b. If a Christian accepts right standing with God by faith, he will then experience transformation in character.

5.      a. We receive right standing with God by faith alone.

b. We receive right standing with God by faith which has become active by love.

6.      a. We achieve right standing with God by having Christ live out His life of obedience in us.

b. We achieve right standing with God by accepting the fact that He obeyed the law perfectly for us.

7.      a. We achieve right standing with God by following Christ’s example by the help of His enabling grace.

b. We follow Christ’s example because His life has given us right standing with God.

8.      a. God first pronounces that we are good in His sight, then gives us His Spirit to make us good.

b. God sends His Spirit to make us good, and then He will pronounce that we are good.

9.      a. Christ’s intercession at God’s right hand gives us favor in the sight of God.

b. It is the indwelling Christ that gives us favor in God’s sight.

10.  a. Only by faith in the doing and dying of Christ can we fully satisfy the claims of the Ten Commandments.

b. By the power of the Holy Spirit living in us, we can fully satisfy the claims of the Ten Commandments (10).

Many will wonder, to be sure, at the either/or dilemma posed by some of these statements, especially in light of so much that we find in both Scripture and the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy. Laying aside for the moment what may or may not have been issues before, during, or after the Protestant Reformation, the Bible itself is clear that Christians are saved both by the declarative (forgiving) righteousness of justification, and by the transformative, empowering righteousness of regeneration and sanctification. Such verses as the following make this clear beyond misunderstanding:

Being justified freely by 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 that the last two of these verses do not say we are first saved through justification alone, then regenerated and sanctified afterward by the Holy Spirit. Rather, these verses say regeneration and sanctification through the Spirit are part of the means whereby we are saved. Nowhere, in either the Old or New Testaments, is the transforming, empowering work of the Spirit ever excluded from the ground of our salvation, with justifying righteousness supposedly comprising the sole ground thereof.

Ellen White affirms the role of both declarative and transformative righteousness as the ground of the Christian’s hope of salvation 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 found in the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and in that wrought by His Spirit working in and through us (11).                           

It can’t be stated often enough that nowhere do either Scripture or the writings of Ellen White exclude regeneration or sanctification from the ground or means of salvation. Nor is the distinction made by the above quizzes between “faith alone” and “faith which has become active by love” found in the inspired writings. Such a distinction is especially unwarranted when one reads such passages as Hebrews chapter 11, in which righteousness by faith is depicted as a thoroughly practical experience. Notice how this chapter explains the way the patriarch Noah became an heir of righteousness by faith:

By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house, by the which he condemned the world, and became heir of the righteousness which is by faith (Heb. 11:7).

The authors of the above questionnaires would have us believe good works, the new birth, and a transformed character are not prerequisites for receiving God’s forgiveness. Certainly it is true that nothing we do in our own strength, no humanly-contrived conditions, can qualify us for justifying righteousness. The protest of Martin Luther and his Reformer-colleagues against such practices as the indulgence traffic and humanly-prescribed penances (like ascending Pilate’s staircase on one’s knees) was fully in accord with Biblical teachings, in particular those Biblical warnings against ritual piety and trusting in one’s own works—as distinct from the work of the Holy Spirit—for salvation (see I Sam. 15:22; Prov. 21:3; Isa. 1:11-18; Rom. 3:20,28; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8-9). Yet one is led to wonder how the authors of the above quizzes understand such Bible verses as the following, which clearly identify the forsaking of sin as among the conditions necessary to receive 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).

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).

Jesus made it clear that we have to be willing to forgive those we believe have trespassed against us if we expect God to forgive our trespasses against Him:

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).

This is the Biblical basis on which the apostle Paul declares: “For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified” (Rom. 2:13). These verses can hardly be written off as echoes of the Council of Trent! They represent the consistent teaching of God’s Word from Genesis to Revelation.

The main problem with the Catholic doctrine of justification by grace is that the institutional church is believed to be responsible for dispensing this grace. They are the ones creating the conditions whereby sinners receive or do not receive pardon. Conversion and repentance can hardly be seen as necessary when a human mediator—who obviously can’t know the heart (I Kings 8:39)—is the one granting absolution. It is compliance with the church’s man-made rituals which, according to Catholic theology, makes justifying grace available to believers.                                                                   

Recent statements by Catholic leaders have reaffirmed this medieval doctrine. The Los Angeles Times of December 12, 1984 ran a headline titled, “No Forgiveness ‘Directly From God,’ Pope Says.” The article reported:

Rebutting a belief widely shared by Protestants and a growing number of Roman Catholics, Pope John Paul II on Tuesday dismissed the “widespread idea that one can obtain forgiveness directly from God,” and exhorted Catholics to confess more often to their priests (12).

Even the sale of indulgences, against which Martin Luther protested so strongly, is being revived in contemporary Catholicism, according to the following very recent reports:

In recent months dioceses around the world have been offering Catholics a spiritual benefit that fell out of favor decades ago—the indulgence, a sort of amnesty from punishment in the afterlife—and reminding them of the church’s clout in mitigating the wages of sin.

The fact that many Catholics under 50 have never sought one, and never heard of indulgences except in high school European history (Martin Luther denounced the selling of them in 1517 while igniting the Protestant Reformation), simply makes their reintroduction more urgent among church leaders bent on restoring fading traditions of penance in what they see as a self-satisfied world (13).

Tech-savvy Catholics will spend less time in purgatory—or so says Pope Francis. The Pontiff has decreed that people who follow the events of World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro via the Vatican’s Twitter feed can get indulgences, which Catholics believe reduce time spent atoning for sins in the afterlife (14).

Note carefully the reference in the first of the above statements to “the church’s clout in mitigating the wages of sin” (15). This is the fundamental problem with the Catholic doctrine of justification. Reliance on internal change through the Holy Spirit as a prerequisite and component part of divine forgiveness is not the issue. It is man-made conditions that are the issue. Catholicism has no problem with salvation through God’s grace, provided the church remains the instrument through which this grace is received. Indeed, the Vatican only recently declared—in a statement reported in front-page headlines—that it still considers itself the “sole path to salvation” (16).

One is amazed at how one of the Adventist authors noted earlier, who equates salvation through transformative righteousness with Catholic theology, sabotages his own argument when he explains exactly how Catholics believe such righteousness is transmitted to the believer:

Persons are certainly justified through the grace of God (according to Catholicism). But it is the sanctifying grace of God, infused into the believer through the sacraments of the church, which produces an inner (or subjective) manifestation of the righteousness of Christ (17).

Notice how this grace is infused into the believer. Not through repentance and sanctified obedience as defined in Scripture, but rather, through the church’s man-made requirements.               

At the bottom line, it is not necessary for Seventh-day Adventists to entangle themselves in arguments between Protestant and Catholic scholars regarding the issues of the Reformation. Only one inspired commentator on Reformation history exists, and her name is Ellen G. White. And here is how she writes regarding the dispute between Martin Luther and the teachings of the papacy:

Many of his (Luther’s) own congregation had purchased certificates of pardon, and they soon began to come to their pastor, confessing their various sins, and expecting absolution, not because they were penitent and wished to reform, but on the ground of the indulgence. Luther refused them absolution, and warned them that unless they should repent and reform their lives, they must perish in their sins. . . .

Luther now entered boldly upon his work as a champion of the truth. His voice was heard from the pulpit in earnest, solemn warning. He set before the people the offensive character of sin, and taught them that it is impossible for man, by his own works, to lessen its guilt or evade its punishment. Nothing but repentance toward God and faith in Christ can save the sinner (18).

Let us remember that according to the same author, “Repentance includes sorrow for sin, and a turning away from it” (19). Notice how the problem with Catholic teachings is not that repentance and reformation of life are necessary in order to receive God’s forgiveness, but rather, that compliance with human rituals and stipulations (e.g. the purchase of indulgences) makes one eligible for forgiveness.                                                        

According to Ellen White’s inspired commentary, this was the issue that divided Christendom in the sixteenth century. No tug-of-war between forensic righteousness and the work of the Holy Spirit is cited by the inspired pen as the cause of this pivotal event in Christian history.

In short, the salvation controversy of the Protestant Reformation was the same the Sacred Record traces through previous ages—the struggle between ritual piety and heart-based obedience. The issue in Martin Luther’s time was the same as in the days of Samuel and Saul (I Sam. 15:22), Isaiah (Isa. 1:11-17), John the Baptist (Matt. 3:9), Jesus (Matt. 23:23), and the apostle Paul (Rom. 2:17-23). Indeed, this is the same issue that vexed Adventism during the 1888 era, when Ellen White was constrained to observe that we had “preached the law until we are as dry as the hills of Gilboa, that had neither dew nor rain” (49). But in the following sentence she gives the solution to the problem: “We must preach Christ in the law” (50).                                     

At none of these times, nor any other, has the defining issue among God’s people ever been between exclusive trust in the work of Christ for us and additional trust in His work in us. Rather, the defining issue in each of these settings has been between salvation through a self-contrived, surface religion and salvation through a religion based on the total surrender, forgiveness, and complete transformation offered by Jesus through the gospel of Holy Scripture.


  1. Robert D. Brinsmead, “Justification—Catholic Versus Protestant,” Present Truth, Feb. 27, 1971, pp. 9-14; “The Basic Catholic Doctrine of Justification by Faith,” Present Truth, Oct. 23, 1972, pp. 6-8; “A Statement to My SDA Friends” (1974), pp. 1-3; “The Current Righteousness by Faith Dialogue” (1975), pp. 7-8; An Answer to Conflicting Concepts of Righteousness by Faith in the Seventh-day Adventist Church (Sydney: Wittenberg Steam Press Publishing Assn, 1076), pp. 6-11; Judged by the Gospel: A Review of Adventism (Fallbrook, CA: Verdict Publications, 1980), pp. 193,265.
  2. Desmond Ford, “The Truth of Paxton’s Thesis,” Spectrum, vol. 9, no. 3, p. 40.
  3. Geoffrey J. Paxton, The Shaking of Adventism (Wilmington, DE: Zenith Publishing Co, 1977), pp. 39-41,69,77-79,139,140.
  4. Raoul Dederen, “Sanctification and the Final Judgment,“ Ministry, May 1978, p. 11.
  5. See Martin Weber, More Adventist Hot Potatoes (Boise, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 1992), pp. 39-52.
  6. Woodrow W. Whidden II, “The Antichrist: Is the Adventist Interpretation Still Viable?” Adventist Review, May 25, 2000, p. 11.
  7. Clifford Goldstein, “Testing Truths,” Adventist Review, Sept. 23, 1999, p. 23.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Brinsmead, “Questionnaire,” Present Truth, Oct. 23, 1971, p. 5.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ, p. 63.
  12. Don A. Schanche, “No Forgiveness ‘Directly From God,’ Pope Says,” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 12, 1984, p. A11.
  13. Paul Vitello, “For Catholics, a Door to Absolution is Reopened,” New York Times, Feb. 10, 2009.
  14. “Trending@Pontifex,” Time, Aug. 5, 2013, p. 48.
  15. Vitello, “For Catholics, a Door to Absolution is Reopened,” New York Times, Feb. 10, 2009.
  16. “Vatican Declares Catholicism Sole Path to Salvation,” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 6, 2000, p. A1.
  17. Whidden, “The Antichrist: Is the Adventist Interpretation Still Viable?” Adventist Review, May 25, 2000, p. 11 (italics supplied).
  18. White, The Great Controversy, pp. 128-129.
  19. ----Steps to Christ, p. 23.

2009 Photo.jpg

Pastor Kevin Paulson holds a Bachelor’s degree in theology from Pacific Union College, a Master of Arts in systematic theology from Loma Linda University, and a Master of Divinity from the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He served the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists for ten years as a Bible instructor, evangelist, and local pastor. He writes regularly for Liberty magazine and does script writing for various evangelistic ministries within the denomination. He continues to hold evangelistic and revival meetings throughout the North American Division and beyond, and is a sought-after seminar speaker relative to current issues in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He presently resides in Berrien Springs, Michigan.