The theory that Biblical salvation involves no proactive human effort beyond passive belief and a surrender process best defined as “letting go and letting God” remains enormously popular in certain circles of contemporary Adventism. Even among theologically conservative church members this notion persists, often to an alarming rate. It is time we again examined what is taught regarding this subject by the written counsel of God—both Scripture and the writings of Ellen White.
Confusion About Faith and Works
One of the biggest problems with this misunderstanding is a fundamental error regarding what Scripture teaches when it says we are not saved by works (Rom. 3:20,28; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8-9). The assumption is that this Biblical teaching excludes from the saving process any and all human activity, whether pre- or post-conversion. But this is not what the Bible teaches at all.
The context of the apostle Paul’s statements that “by the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified in His sight” (Rom. 3:20), that “a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (verse 28), does not concern obedience arising from a sanctified heart. Far from it. Rather, the immediate context of these statements is a discussion of superficial, hypocritical piety on the part of the Jews (Rom. 2:17-23), the apostle’s earlier affirmation of Gentile depravity (Rom. 1:18-32), and thus his conclusion that the entire world—both Jews and Gentiles—stand in need of our Lord’s saving righteousness (Rom. 3:9-19).
In other words, the “works of the law” in this context are not the works of a heart transformed by grace. They are the surface, self-generated deeds of a heart in need of transformation by God’s grace—the kind of false religiosity Jesus condemned in His denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 23).
In Ephesians chapter 2, Paul likewise identifies the counterfeit, self-produced practices which can play no part in the saving process:
For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.
Not of works, lest any man should boast (Eph. 2:8-9).
The phrases “not of yourselves” is paralleled in this passage with the succeeding phrase, “not of works.” We know these phrases are parallel because of Paul’s warning in verse 9: “lest any man should boast.” This reference to boasting calls to mind the apostle’s rebuke to his fellow Jews in Romans 2, where he writes, “Behold, thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God. . . . Thou that makest thy boast of the law, through breaking the law dishonorest thou God?” (verses 17,23). Paul is stating quite plainly here that no self-fabricated conduct can play a role in Biblical salvation.
Sanctified obedience is most assuredly not the focus of these verses. Self-motivated, surface religion is what the apostle is excluding from the saving righteousness Jesus offers. In contrast with the self-generated piety condemned by the apostle in the above passages, the fruits of the Spirit—brought about by the experience of sanctification—include meekness (Gal. 5:23), the opposite of boasting.
The Testimony of Jesus
One of the clearest teachings of our Lord was His clarity regarding the conditions for receiving eternal life. As He closed His Sermon on the Mount, He stated:
Not every one that saith unto Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of My Father which is in heaven (Matt. 7:21).
When the rich young ruler, and the lawyer to whom He told the Good Samaritan story, inquired of Him as to the conditions of salvation, He gave the same answer:
And behold, one came and said unto Him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?
And He said unto him, Why callest thou Me good there is none good but one, that is God; but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments (Matt. 19:16-17).
And behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted Him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? He said unto Him, What is written in the law? how readest thou? And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor as thyself. And He said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live (Luke 10:25-28).
But Jesus was clear that the obedience here described could only be accomplished through the impartation of supernatural strength. When the young ruler walked away sorrowfully, unwilling to submit to the conditions spelled out by the Savior, the disciples asked, “Who then can be saved?” (Matt. 19:25). Jesus replied, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (verse 26). Elsewhere He repeated the same truth when He declared, “Without Me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5).
Paul and James
Though, as we have seen, the apostle Paul plainly excluded self-generated, surface piety from the righteousness which saves the believer (Rom. 3:20,28; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8-9), his writings are equally clear that the divinely-imparted righteousness of regeneration and sanctification form very much a part of saving righteousness. In addition to the forgiveness of our sins, accomplished through the experience of justification (Rom. 3:24; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14), Paul is clear that the sanctifying, regenerating work of the Holy Spirit is part of the means—not the result—of our salvation:
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 clear contrast drawn in the above verse between “works of righteousness which we have done” (the ritual, surface piety of one religious but not converted) and “the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost.” The former can save no one. The latter, by contrast, are encompassed in the means of our salvation.
Paul describes the cooperative nature of the saving process in such verses as the following:
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).
Some have suggested that this passage doesn’t teach that we are to work for our salvation, but rather, that we work out a reality that is already completed. But when we compare this passage with another, from the succeeding epistle, Paul’s use of this language makes it clear that the process being described is one which works toward a goal, not the working out of something already finished:
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;
Whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus:
Whereunto I also labor, striving according to His working, which worketh in me mightily (Col. 1:27-29).
Notice how Paul describes his striving for a perfect character as something in addition to His work of presenting every man perfect in Christ. He says, “Whereunto”—that is, unto this goal—“I also labor, striving according to His working, which worketh in me mightily” (verse 29). In other words, this is a goal toward which the apostle strove, empowered by the work of Christ within him (see also Gal. 2:20).
Salvation, according to the apostle Paul, is a cooperative work. Ellen White reflects this teaching when she writes, “Man is work out that which God works in” (1). Elsewhere she states:
The work of gaining salvation is one of coparternship, a joint operation. . . . Human effort of itself is not sufficient. Without the aid of divine power it avails nothing. God works and man works (2).
Like Jesus, Paul is clear that obedience to God’s commandments through heaven’s imparted power is the condition of salvation:
And thinkest thou this, O man, that judgest them which do such things, and doest the same, that thou shalt escape the judgment of God? . . .
Who will render to every man according to his deeds;
To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life:
But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath,
Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of them that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile;
But glory, honor, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile (Rom. 2:3,6-10).
For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die; but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live (Rom. 8:13).
And being made perfect He (Christ) became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey Him (Heb. 5:9).
Romans 8:13 is especially clear in underscoring the fact that the obedience described in these verses is only possible when human beings utilize divine strength for its accomplishment. Without this divine strength, without the conversion and total surrender required to receive this strength, such obedience is impossible.
Far from contradicting Paul, as Martin Luther wrongly assumed (3), the apostle James echoes Paul’s understanding of the gospel when he speaks of Abraham being justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on Mount Moriah (James 2:21). In contrast with what Abraham had done when he married Hagar and brought about the birth of Ishmael—an event used by Paul to illustrate old-covenant legalism (Gal. 4:22-24)—Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac was done in obedience to a divine command, as was his relationship with Sarah which brought about the birth of Isaac. Divine strength combined with human effort—Isaac, remember, was not virgin-born (Gen. 15:4; Heb. 11:11)—was what made possible both the birth of Isaac and Abraham’s sacrifice on Moriah.
The Faith Chapter
The most extensive, practical illustration of righteousness by faith in action is probably found in Hebrews, chapter 11, often called the “faith chapter.” Repeatedly, in this listing of faithful worthies, faith is depicted as the means by which human beings actively and visibly obey God’s commands.
“By faith” Abel offered a more excellent sacrifice than Cain (verse 4). “By faith” Noah built an ark, (verse 7). “By faith” Abraham went out from Ur of the Chaldees, not knowing whither he went (verse 8). “By faith” Sarah received strength to conceive seed (verse 11). “By faith” Moses refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter (verse 24). “By faith” Gideon, Samson, Jephthah, David and others subdued kingdoms, stopped the mouths of lions, and quenched the violence of fire (verses 32-34). Indeed, Noah’s building of the ark is declared the means whereby he “became heir of the righteousness which is by faith” (verse 7). By faith Noah claimed God’s promise of strength and wisdom to build the ark, but this didn’t mean God built the ark Himself. As noted above, faith is declared to be the means whereby Sarah “received strength to conceive seed” (verse 11), though obviously she and Abraham played an active role in this process.
Quite clearly, in this chapter, faith is not the abdication of duty. Faith is not letting God do all the work, either at Calvary 2,000 years ago or here and now in some “let go and let God” relationship. Rather, faith is the means whereby men and women claim God’s promise of power to do His will, then proceed to execute that will through active, visible obedience.
The Struggle Against Sin and Satan
Perhaps the most widespread misguidance in the contemporary church—even, as noted at the beginning, among many who would otherwise identify as conservative in their theology—has resulted from the notion that God is to do all the work of cleansing our lives from sin, while we simply keep out of His way.
How those with this mindset can misperceive the clarity of such verses as the following, is truly hard to understand:
Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God (II Cor. 7:1).
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, and against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places (Eph. 6:12).
For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds. Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every though to the obedience of Christ (II Cor. 10:4-5).
Cleansing, wrestling, and casting sound very proactive. None are presented as being done on our own, but most assuredly they are presented as things we do, in cooperation with God’s empowering grace.
Ellen White echoes the clarity of these verses in such statements as the following:
The Lord does not propose to perform for us either the willing or the doing. This is our proper work. As soon as we earnestly enter upon the work, God’s grace is given to work in us to will and to do, but never as a substitute for our effort. Our souls are to be aroused to cooperate. The Holy Spirit works the human agent, to work out our own salvation (4).
The fact that Christ has conquered should inspire His followers with courage to fight manfully the battle against sin and Satan (5).
If we are faithful in doing our part, in cooperating with Him, God will work through us to do the good pleasure of His will, but cannot work through us if we make no effort. If we gain eternal life, we must work, and work earnestly. . . .Our part is to put away sin, to seek with determination for perfection of character. As we thus work, God cooperates with us (6).
It is left with us to remedy the defects in our characters, to cleanse the soul temple of every defilement (7).
Each day he [the Christian] must renew his consecration, each day do battle with evil. Old habits, hereditary tendencies to wrong, will strive for the mastery, and against these he is to be ever on guard, striving in Christ's strength for victory (8).
We have a work to do to resist temptation. Those who would not fall a prey to Satan's devices must guard well the avenues to the soul; they most avoid reading, seeing, or hearing that which will suggest impure thoughts (9).
There must be a constant, earnest struggling of the soul against the evil imaginings of the mind. There must be a steadfast resistance of temptation to sin in thought or act. The soul must be kept from every stain, through faith in Him who is able to keep you from falling (10).
Let no one present the idea that man has little or nothing to do in the great work of overcoming; for God does nothing for man without his cooperation. Neither say that after you have done all you can on your part, Jesus will help you. Christ has said, “Without Me, ye can do nothing” (John 15:5). From first to last man is to be a laborer together with God. Unless the Holy Spirit works upon the human heart, at every step we shall stumble and fall. Man’s efforts alone are nothing but worthlessness; but cooperation with Christ means a victory (11).
Let no one imagine that it is an easy thing to overcome the enemy and that he can be borne aloft to an incorruptible inheritance without effort on his part. . . . Few appreciate the importance of striving constantly to overcome. They relax their diligence and, as a result, become selfish and self-indulgent. Spiritual vigilance is not thought to be essential. Earnestness in human effort is not brought into the Christian life (12).
Man must work with his human power aided by the divine power of Christ, to resist and conquer at any cost to himself. In short, man must overcome as Christ overcame. . . . This could not be the case if Christ alone did all the overcoming. Man must do his part; he must be victor on his own account (13).
You are to open the door of the heart. You are to clear away the rubbish from the portals, and throw wide the door, that the heavenly Guest may find a welcome and an entrance. Christ will not enter a heart that is defiled with sin. It is our work to put away all iniquity (14).
It is impossible to reconcile such statements as the above with any notion of God doing all the work of fighting sin and Satan, while—according to the belief of some—the Christian confines proactive effort to remaining “in relationship” with Jesus through what some call the “three tangibles”—prayer, Bible study, and witnessing. All three of these “tangibles” are imperative and indispensable, to be sure, but in no way do they comprise the sum total of the Christian’s duty as defined by the inspired pen. Proactive, cooperative effort on the Christian’s part in the struggle with sin and Satan goes much further.
Especially powerful is the above statement which speaks of overcoming “as Christ overcame,” then goes on to say: “This could not be the case if Christ alone did all the overcoming. Man must do his part; he must be victor on his own account” (15). Either we actively cooperate with Christ in the work of overcoming, or He does the work all by Himself while we simply strive to keep out of His way. Reading the passages our study has considered, one must defy the simplest rules of grammar and syntax to be unsure where either Scripture or Ellen White come down in this controversy.
It is true there is a difference, as we noted earlier, between behavior that is performed apart from the converting, sanctifying grace of God, and behavior that is performed through the power of this grace. The former is the “righteousness” which the Bible condemns as “filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6). But nowhere do inspired writings use such a term for that obedience which is produced through divine-human cooperation. Indeed, the “righteous acts of the saints” performed through such cooperation are described in Scripture as “fine linen, bright and clean” (Rev. 19:8, NIV).
It isn’t a question, as some have phrased it, as to whether God “needs” our help in the battle against sin. In the strictest sense, God doesn’t “need” our help for anything. But according to the inspired pen, as we have seen, God chooses to give His creatures a proactive role in this struggle, by requiring them to use the gifts and powers He has provided. It is like Ellen White’s description of the resurrection of Lazarus, as found in the following statement:
“Take ye away the stone.” Christ come have commanded the stone to remove, and it would have obeyed His voice. He could have bidden the angels who were close by His side to do this. At His bidding, invisible hands would have removed the stone. But it was to be taken away by human hands. Thus Christ would show that humanity is to co-operate with divinity. What human power can do divine power is not summoned to do. Christ does not dispense with man’s aid. He strengthens him, co-operating with him as he uses the powers and capabilities given him (16).
The subtraction of human effort from the saving process in popular strains of modern Adventist theology has inflicted hurtful, even ruinous consequences on influential segments of the church. The notion has persisted in certain circles that if we would only emphasize Jesus, His love, and the believer’s relationship with Him, without the intimidating clarity of law and doctrine, that this would eventually—even automatically—develop an interest in the law and the doctrines. Sadly, just the opposite has happened.
Attempts to bring revival to the church through this approach have repeatedly fallen flat, since neither revival nor reformation can occur if the theoretical and moral clarity of the inspired pen is pushed to the margins. Instead, the result of this counterfeit righteousness by faith emphasis has been widespread personal and institutional disregard for the written counsel of God.
Genuine revival and reformation can only come to the church through a recovery of the Bible/Spirit of Prophecy consensus on the subject of righteousness by faith. This consensus can perhaps best be summarized in two verses—one from Jesus, the other from Paul:
Without Me ye can do nothing (John 15:5).
I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me (Phil. 4:13).
Notice the apostle doesn’t say, I can do all things through Christ because He does (or did) it for me. Cooperation is the key. True surrender to the Lord Jesus doesn’t mean the abdication of responsibility. It does mean the total relinquishing of our will to the Savior’s guidance and control.
1. Ellen G. White, Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 130.
2. ----Acts of the Apostles, p. 482.
3. Justo L. Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought, vol. 3 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1973), p. 43.
4. White, Testimonies to Ministers, p. 240.
5. ----The Great Controversy, p. 510.
6. ----Review and Herald, June 11, 1901.
7. ----Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 214.
8. ----Acts of the Apostles, p. 477.
9. ----Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 460.
10. ----Sons and Daughters of God, p. 109.
11. ----Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 381.
12. ----Testimonies, vol. 5, pp. 539-540.
13. Ibid, vol. 4, pp. 32-33 (italics original).
14. ----Review and Herald, Oct. 30, 1888.
15. ----Testimonies, vol. 4, pp. 33 (italics original).
16. ----The Desire of Ages, p. 535.
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.