Following the recent passing of Dr. Desmond Ford—for which, to his family, all Seventh-day Adventists regardless of theology extend their heartfelt condolences—the Adventist Review published a memoir to him by a prominent denominational scholar (1). The memoir included salient details of Dr. Ford’s life, his family, and his career as an Adventist theologian, concluding with the doctrinal beliefs and events which brought about his removal from the Adventist ministry (2).
But a key statement from this memoir, regarding Ford’s views on the scope of Biblical righteousness by faith, is perhaps more significant than the references to Ford’s views on the sanctuary doctrine which precipitated his departure from church employment. This is because, according to Ford’s wife Gillian:
It was Ford’s emphasis on righteousness by faith that led him to see the necessity for reinterpretation of the SDA scheme of prophecy (3).
More recently, one of Ford’s ardent supporters likewise affirmed the connection between Ford’s denial of the classic Adventist sanctuary doctrine and his belief in the impossibility of character perfection this side of heaven:
He argued that the doctrine of the Investigative Judgment was an offense to the cross of Christ because it presupposed the necessity for human perfection in order to justify God’s own character. . . .
Desmond Ford’s message declared both the Investigative Judgment doctrine and the doctrine of 1844 heretical and offensive to the Gospel of Christ, since both denied the complete atonement achieved in Christ on the cross, and made [the] eternal salvation of the human race dependent on human performance (4).
It would lead too far afield to address at length the logical imperative of Ford’s gospel views so far as the classic Adventist sanctuary doctrine is concerned. The purpose of the present article is to consider the statement from the Adventist Review memoir regarding Ford’s views on the scope and limits of Biblical righteousness by faith:
He (Ford) declared that righteousness by faith is the same as justification by faith. Justification, he explained, is Christ’s work for us—on the cross. It happens outside of us; it is a change of status. Through justification we become children of God. Sanctification, on the other hand, is Christ’s work in us through the Holy Spirit. Sanctification changes us into the likeness of Christ. This ran counter to the general Adventist understanding at that time, that righteousness by faith includes justification and sanctification. . .
After the family’s return from England in 1973, opposition to Ford’s teaching from some Australian evangelists and pastors led to a gathering called the Palmdale Conference in California, April 23-30, 1976. At this conference, nineteen scholars and administrators from Australia and the United States discussed the definition of righteousness by faith. The official report of the Palmdale Conference, published in Adventist Review, contained a clear biblical statement on righteousness by faith, but also some ambiguous statements. Both sides, therefore, could claim that the statement supported their position. However, most Adventist scholars and pastors today have accepted Ford’s definition of righteousness by faith (5).
Far from being a dead issue in contemporary Adventism, recent statements by several prominent scholars in the church indicate a continued acceptance—at least by some—of Ford’s definition of righteousness by faith:
The three dimensions of salvation are also indicated when Paul writes in another letter that we “wait for the hope (glorification) of righteousness (justification) by faith” “working through love” (sanctification)” (Galatians 5:5,6) (6).
The different dimensions of sin and salvation are implicit in Paul’s testimony about “the righteousness (justification) which is from God by faith” through which “I may attain to the resurrection from the dead (glorification)” (Philippians 3:9,11) (7).
One area where Ford and Heppenstall found common ground was soteriology. Here Ford has often been misunderstood. But he did the denomination a service by highlighting the fact that righteousness by faith in the New Testament is restricted to what Paul calls justification by faith and did not include sanctification (8).
We will not take the time here to assess each point made in the Review memoir, but we will attempt to address the major points. (Our assessment of the relevant Biblical arguments will follow shortly.) First of all, one is constrained to ask on what basis the author of the Review memoir can claim that “most Adventist scholars and pastors today have accepted Ford’s definition of righteousness by faith” (9).
Does he have survey data to back this up? From the present writer’s perspective, it seems quite incredible to assert that a majority of Adventist scholars and pastors the world over would accept Ford’s extremely narrow definition of righteousness by faith. I frankly don’t believe a case could be made that even a majority of pastors and scholars in First World countries—let alone globally—would accept Ford’s view on this point. In the absence of hard evidence, such a claim must be viewed at best as highly questionable.
We will consider in a moment the issue of whether, according to Scripture, righteousness by faith can truly be confined to the righteousness of justification. But what exactly is meant by the statement that justification “is Christ’s work for us—on the cross” (10)? Does this mean Christ justified the whole world when He died, whether they like it or not? The author of this memoir is quite correct in asserting that this was Ford’s belief, as such statements as the following bear witness:
We were ruined by our first representative (Adam) and we had nothing to do with that. The good news of the gospel is that we have been redeemed by our second Representative (Jesus) and we had nothing to do with that either (11).
One of Ford’s acolytes during the 1970s made a similar statement:
God forgave us 2,000 years ago, through the blood of His Son. And there is nothing we can do to earn it or add to it (12).
Since then, a number of Adventists have embraced a theory known as “universal legal justification,” which in substance is the same as Ford’s teaching as articulated in the Review memoir. I would direct our readers to an article by the present writer published on this site sometime ago, which addresses this very concept (13).
But one is led to ask, Why is justification associated by so many, so directly, with the work of Christ on the cross, while sanctification is not? The fact is that the Bible speaks of both justifying and sanctifying righteousness as made possible by the blood of Jesus shed on the cross. Neither is presented in the Bible as accomplished apart from an act of the human will; any notion of “universal legal justification” is exploded by a number of verses from both Old and New Testaments, which identify both confession and the forsaking of sin—along with a willingness to forgive others—as prerequisites for God’s forgiveness (e.g. II Chron. 7:14; Prov. 28:13; Isa. 55:7; Matt. 6:14-15; I John 1:9). But the Bible is also clear that not only is forgiveness (justification) made available because of Jesus’ blood (Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14), so is sanctification. Consider the following passage from the book of Hebrews:
Wherefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered without the gate. . . .
Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant,
Make you perfect in every good work to do His will, working in you that which is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen (Heb. 13:12,20-21; see also Heb. 10:29).
So to be saved entirely by the blood of Jesus is not the same as being saved entirely by justification. Sanctification is also the result of Jesus’ shed blood on Calvary. And the Bible is clear that not only is forgiveness (justification) part of the means of human salvation (Rom. 3:24; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14); regeneration and sanctification are as well (II Thess. 2:13; Titus 3:5).
The Biblical Scope of Righteousness by Faith
But does the Bible agree with Desmond Ford’s insistence that “righteousness by faith is justification alone” (14)—a position with which the author of the Adventist Review memoir appears to agree?
First of all, the word “righteousness” appears at least 200 times in the Old Testament, and at least 89 times in the New. This doesn’t include, of course, such derivatives of this word as “righteous” and “righteously,” which also appear throughout the Bible. Many times this word refers to God’s righteousness simply as a divine attribute, while at other times it refers to God’s righteousness lived out in the lives of human beings. All genuine righteousness is a gift of God, as reflected in King David’s final prayer before Israel, in which he stated, “All Things come of Thee, and of Thine own have we given Thee” (I Chron. 29:14). As Jesus was clear that “without Me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5), we are constrained to realize that only through faith in Jesus can the righteousness of God be manifested in the human experience.
The Bible also speaks of humanly fabricated “righteousness,” which the prophet Isaiah identifies as “filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6). But this is hardly a reference to the divinely-imparted righteousness of sanctification, despite what some believe. When describing the works of sanctifying righteousness, the book of Revelation speaks of something quite the opposite of the filthy rags of self-righteousness:
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).
As any bride can attest, readiness for a wedding is accomplished before, not at, the wedding ceremony. And the above passage is clear that the bride of Christ making herself ready involves the wearing of “fine linen, bright and clean,” which “stands for the righteous acts of the saints.” Obviously these are not righteous acts taking place in heaven, as the wedding of Christ and His bride has already occurred by then. Rather, these are righteous acts performed through faith here on earth, by which the bride of Christ prepares herself for her heavenly Husband.
The apostle Paul draws a clear distinction between the pharisaic self-righteousness in which he once boasted, and the righteousness he received through faith as a follower of Christ:
Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more.
Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee.
Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.
But what things were gain for me, those I counted loss for Christ.
Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ,
And be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith (Phil. 3:4-9).
Clearly, in this passage, the “righteousness which is of the law” does not refer to sanctification, though in other passages it does (e.g. Rom. 8:4). Context and content tell the difference. What Paul is disavowing, and counting as “dung,” is not the righteousness of sanctification, but rather, the surface piety and self-righteousness of his pharisaic past. The “righteousness which is of God by faith” in which Paul now rejoices clearly includes sanctification, as the following verse declares:
That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable unto His death (Phil. 3:10).
Without question, to know Jesus and experience “the fellowship of His sufferings” is part of the experience of sanctification.
While the word “faith” is found only twice in the Old Testament (Deut. 32:20; Hab. 2:4), the word “faithful” is found 28 times, “faithfully” 7 times, and “faithfulness” nineteen times in the Old Testament Scriptures. The reality of righteous acts performed “by faith” during Old Testament times is noted throughout Hebrews chapter 11, often called the “faith chapter” (verses 4,5,7,8,9,11,13,17,20,21,22,23,24,27,28,18.104.22.168,33,34,39). The word “faith,” of course, is found numerous other times throughout the New Testament Scriptures.
Hebrews 11 contains perhaps the strongest evidence that righteousness by faith includes sanctification when it speaks of the faith-experience of Noah:
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).
Noah, in other words, became an heir of righteousness by faith by building an ark, warning the world of coming judgment, and saving His family from the Flood. Obviously this is practical righteousness in focus here. not a merely declarative act by which one is pronounced righteous.
In the ninth chapter of Romans we find the following reference to righteousness by faith:
What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith?
But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness.
Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law (Rom. 9:30-32).
No one can fairly claim that this reference to “the righteousness which is of faith” is limited to justification. The only “righteousness” excluded from the faith-righteousness here noted is the humanly-contrived righteousness Paul describes elsewhere as the “works of the law” (Rom. 3:20,28; Gal. 2:16). This, of course, is the pseudo-righteousness identified by Paul with surface piety and boastfulness (Rom. 2:17-23; Phil. 3:4-8), and has nothing whatsoever to do with the imparted righteousness of Christ, otherwise called sanctification. As we saw in Hebrews 11, the practical righteousness of sanctification—no less than justification—is received into the Christian life “by faith” (verses 4,5,7,8,9,11,13,17,20,21,22,23,24,27,28,22.214.171.124,33,34,39).
In Romans chapter 10, the transformative nature of righteousness by faith becomes clearer still, as Paul cites a passage from Deuteronomy 30 in defining this expression:
But the righteousness which is of faith speaketh on this wise: Say not in thine heart, Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from above);
Or, who shall descend into the deep? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead).
But what saith it? The word is nigh unto thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach (Rom. 10:6-8).
The passage Paul is quoting from Deuteronomy reads, “The word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it” (Deut. 30:14). Righteousness by faith, in other words, is the writing of the law in the human heart—a transforming act, in other words, in no way limited to justification.
Desmond Ford, in the Palmdale documents, quotes the above passages from Romans 9:30-32 and Romans 10:3-6 (15), then declares:
Here also Righteousness by Faith is not sanctification. Rather, it is opposed to “the righteousness which is based on law,” i.e. on the sinner’s endeavors to keep the law, whether saved or unsaved sinners. Compare Phil. 3:9 (16).
Unfortunately for his case, Ford fails to go on and quote the remainder of Romans 10, verse 6, as well as verses 7 and 8, which recite Moses’ statement in Deuteronomy regarding the law being divinely placed in the believer’s heart (Deut. 30:14), so that acceptable obedience can occur. Ford also fails to consider the content of Philippians 3:9, to which he makes reference in the above statement. We have already seen how the “righteousness which is based on law” described by Paul in Philippians 3 is not the righteousness of sanctification, but rather, the superficial righteousness of pharisaism in which the pre-conversion Paul (or Saul) once trusted (Phil. 3:4-8). Once again, when Paul’s statement in Philippians 3:4-9 is compared with the passage in Romans 9:30-32, it is clear that pre-conversion self-righteousness is in focus, not the divinely-empowered righteousness of sanctification, which through the Spirit fulfills the law in the life of the believer (Rom. 8:1-13).
The transformative, sanctifying nature of righteousness by faith is equally clear in the one Biblical reference where the exact phrase “righteousness by faith” is found, in these three words only. This reference is in the book of Galatians, where Paul writes, “For we through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith” (Gal. 5:5).
Notice how this is an experience that Paul is waiting for “through the Spirit.” Certainly we can assume that Paul at this point in his Christian walk had already experienced justification. But the above verse speaks of righteousness by faith as an experience and hope for which the apostle is waiting. The practical nature of the righteousness by faith being described here becomes further evident in the next verse:
For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but faith which worketh by love (verse 6).
Faith working by love involves practical, visible righteousness. This point is further underscored by the apostle in the following chapter, in which he writes:
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature (Gal. 6:15).
In still another verse Paul writes:
Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God (I Cor. 7:19).
Putting all these verses together, we can see that in Paul’s theology, “faith which worketh by love” (Gal. 5:6), becoming “a new creature” (Gal. 6:15), and “the keeping of the commandments of God” (I Cor. 7:19) are all part of the same process, accomplished by the Holy Spirit through faith. Righteousness by faith, as Paul understands it, embraces all of the above.
“Righteousness,” “Justification,” and Their Root Words in Scripture
Some will point us to the fact that the original language of the New Testament gives the same word for “justification” as for “righteousness.” Desmond Ford used this fact to bolster his argument that righteousness by faith and justification by faith are synonymous. In his words:
Translators (of the New Testament) both in English and other languages use the words “justification” and “righteousness” as synonyms (17).
But Ford failed to consider that throughout Scripture, the words “just” and “righteous” both refer primarily to practical holiness, not merely to the declarative divine act that forgives the believer. Many Old Testament verses bear out the practical, demonstrative nature of the righteousness described by the word “just,” whether it refers to God or humanity (e.g. Gen. 6:9; II Sam. 23:3; Job 4:17; 12:4; Prov. 10:31; 18:17; 20:7; Eze. 18:4-5; Hosea 14:9; Zeph. 3:5; Zech. 9:9).
The same is true in the New Testament. The words “just” and “righteous” in the original language, obviously the root words for “justification” and “righteousness,” are likewise the same throughout the New Testament writings. Any number of New Testament verses bear witness to the fact that the word “just” as used by their authors refers primarily to practical holiness (e.g. Matt. 1:19; 27:19,24; Mark 6:20; Luke 2:25; 15:7; 23:50; Acts 10:22).
The words “just,” “justify,” “righteous,” and “righteousness” as used in Scripture most assuredly encompass the forgiveness God offers to the penitent (e.g. Luke 18:14; Rom. 3:24; II Cor. 5:21). But the collective testimony of Scripture is clear that these words embrace not only forgiveness, but the practical godliness divinely imparted to the submissive, surrendered heart.
But the linchpin of Desmond Ford’s claim that “righteousness by faith is justification alone” (18) is his understanding of a single passage in Paul’s writings, taken from the book of Romans. In the paper he presented at the aforementioned Palmdale Conference on this subject, Ford gave the following rationale for his position:
A multitude of quotations from New Testament commentators such as Sunday and Headlam, Cranfield, Alford, Murray, Nygren, Bruce, Manson, Dodd, Haldane, Barclay, Barrett, Barth, Meyer, Moule, etc. could be given to support the main emphasis of Buchanan's statements--namely that Righteousness by Faith is identical with Justification by Faith. But, instead we ask--"What is the testimony of Scripture regarding this matter?"
l. Paul is the theologian of the New Testament. Only he sets forth an analysis of the plan of salvation, and the phrase under discussion is found solely in those books of Scripture which bear the name of Paul.
2. The only book by Paul which systematically explains righteousness by faith is Romans.
3. The part in Romans which contains this systematic presentation is Rom. 3:2l-5:2l, though obviously the preceding and following chapters are related to this central discussion. What we wish to emphasize is that it is here that we must find the basic nature of righteousness by faith. If what we believe is not here, we need to think again.
4. All exegetes we know of, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant (including Seventh-day Adventist) are agreed that the theme of this section of Romans is Justification. It is not discussing that gradual growth in holiness which theologians call sanctification (19).
Ford is not only emphatic in his belief that righteousness by faith equals justification only; he is equally emphatic that justification involves a declaration of righteousness only, and does not—from his perspective—include the transformation and empowering of believers through the Holy Spirit. In the Palmdale documents he insists that “Righteousness by Faith has to do not with holy works prompted by the regenerating Holy Spirit but with a new standing before God” (20). Elsewhere he claims: “Never in Scripture is ‘the righteousness of God’ represented as something wrought within the sinner by the Spirit” (21).
Our study of Paul’s writings has already shown Ford to be wrong on both counts, as we have noted already Paul’s equation of “the righteousness which is of God by faith” (Phil. 3:9) with “the fellowship of [Christ’s] sufferings” (verse 10)—clearly an aspect of sanctification—along with Paul’s speaking of how “we through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith” (Gal. 5:5), how the righteousness here described is faith working by love (Gal. 5:6), becoming “a new creature” (Gal. 6:16), and keeping God’s commandments (I Cor. 7:19). We also noted Paul’s statement in Romans 10:8 as to how righteousness by faith involves the writing of the law on the hearts of believers—not to mention the numerous references in Hebrews 11 to righteous acts performed by faith. This is especially clear, as we have seen, in Hebrews 11:7, which speaks of how Noah “became heir of the righteousness which is by faith” by building an ark, saving his household, and warning the world of coming judgment.
Quite clearly, all of these verses involve the empowering and regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, and it is all encompassed by the phrase “righteousness of or by faith.”
One marvels at the breathtakingly narrow strand of Scripture on which Ford relies for his definition of righteousness by faith, especially when one considers how the author of Romans writes elsewhere, addressing Timothy:
From a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness (II Tim. 3:15-16).
Let’s keep in mind that the only Scriptures Timothy was taught from his childhood were those of the Old Testament, as no part of the New Testament had likely been written prior to Timothy’s formative years. Paul is therefore telling his young protégé that the Old Testament Scriptures are able to make him “wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” By his own acknowledgement, Paul’s doctrine of righteousness (or salvation) by faith was not a New Testament invention.
And the word for “righteousness” in Second Timothy 3:16, where Paul speaks of all scripture being profitable for “instruction in righteousness,” is the same word found in Romans 3-5. Thus when Ford insists, regarding Romans 3:21-5:21, that “it is here we must find the basic nature of righteousness by faith,” and that “if what we believe is not here, we need to think again” (22), he is elevating a passage to pre-eminence without any authority from either the passage’s author or the Biblical consensus which Paul declares to be the collective basis of Christian doctrine (II Tim. 3:16).
It should be noted that Ford’s argument about righteousness by faith in Romans 3:21-5:21 is not that justification forms a part of the righteousness here described. Rather, Ford’s argument is that justification is the sole aspect of divine righteousness here described. But the problem for Ford’s case is not only the absence of any language in this passage that explicitly excludes sanctifying righteousness. A much bigger problem for Ford’s argument is both the immediate context of this passage and the inclusion therein of verses which very much encompass the transformative righteousness of regeneration and sanctification.
Neither the book of Romans nor any other Pauline epistle—nor any passage anywhere in Scripture, for that matter—exalts the purity of justification over that of sanctification. Paul’s pervasive theme in Romans, beginning with its first three chapters, is that the entire world—both Jews and Gentiles—stand guilty before God and in need of the saving righteousness of Christ. When Paul writes that “now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested” (Rom. 3:21), he is not speaking of the righteousness of God without sanctification, but rather, the righteousness of God apart from the boastful, hypocritical possession of the law described in the previous chapter (Rom. 2:17-23). Paul’s point in these chapters is that neither the idolatrous, immoral perversity of the Gentiles nor the surface piety of the Jews can fulfill the requirements of God, “who will render to every man according to his deeds” (Rom. 2:6). Only the righteousness of Christ, both justifying and sanctifying (Rom. 3:24; 8:4), is capable of fulfilling the law’s demands.
Paul’s stress on the inclusion of both Jews and Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation is underscored in the following verses from Romans 3:
Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference. . . .
Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. . . .
Is He the God of the Jews only? is He not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also (verses 22,24,29).
Here, without question, “the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ” does indeed focus on justification. But no language in these verses or their context excludes sanctification from this righteousness. Only the boastful “deeds of the law” (Rom. 2:17-23; 3:20,28), unrelated as we have seen to either the justifying or sanctifying righteousness of Christ, are excluded here.
Romans chapter 4, directly in the heart of the passage cited by Ford as evidence for his “justification alone” definition of righteousness by faith, is especially clear regarding the distinction between the “works” Paul excludes from the saving process, and the Spirit-empowered obedience that forms a key part of that process. Quoting from the psalmist, Paul writes:
Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works,
Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin (Rom. 4:6-8).
The passage Paul is quoting here is from Psalm 32:1-2. Verse 2 of this reference reads, “Blessed is the man to whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile.” The last part of this verse is not quoted by Paul, but we can be sure Paul regarded it as just as inspired and authoritative as the rest of the verse, on account of his affirmation that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correct, for instruction in righteousness” (II Tim. 3:16).
The latter part of Psalm 32:2, which speaks of the man to whom God doesn’t impute iniquity as the one “in whose spirit there is no guile,” is especially significant for the present discussion. Remember that according to Paul, David is speaking of those “unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works” (Rom. 4:6). Yet David describes this person as without guile. No one becomes guileless without the regenerating Holy Spirit. Thus when Paul speaks here of the imputation of righteousness “without works,” it’s obvious that the “works” he’s talking about don’t include the transforming power experienced at conversion.
Again it is clear that transformative righteousness is very much a part of the righteousness being discussed in Romans 3-5, despite what Dr. Ford says. This becomes even clearer when Paul describes how Abraham’s faith was imputed to him for righteousness in the circumstances of Isaac’s birth. Speaking of the miracle God worked in order for Isaac to be born, Paul writes of “God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were” (Rom. 4:17). When at the creation God said, “Let there be light,” it didn’t stay dark. The Bible says, “And there was light” (Gen. 1:3). When Jesus said to the leper in Matthew 8, “Be thou clean,” the Bible says that “immediately his leprosy was cleansed” (verse 3).
The same is true with justifying righteousness. Yes, it is a declaration that we are righteous. But that declaration makes us righteous as well, just as surely as Abraham and Sarah—despite the deadness of their bodies (Rom. 4:19)—claimed the power God had promised, and were thus able to come to life and produce the promised heir (Gen. 15:4; Heb. 11:11). Quickening the dead (Rom. 4:17) is very much a transformative act. Thus Abraham’s faith “was imputed to him for righteousness” (verse 22).
The two specific references in Romans 4 to righteousness by faith merit consideration here as well, as neither—on the surface or in context—can rightly be limited to justification:
And he (Abraham) received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had, yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also:
And the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised.
For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith (verses 11-13).
The law in this context clearly doesn’t refer to the Ten Commandments, but rather, to the law requiring circumcision. Paul is simply saying in this passage that Abraham partook of God’s righteousness through faith before he was circumcised, thus clarifying that uncircumcised Gentiles could also receive the righteousness of God through faith. But one can hardly limit this righteousness to justification, as “the faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised” (verse 12) was demonstrated in practical form by his earlier departure from Ur of the Chaldees, “not knowing whither he went” (Heb. 11:8). This same practical faith, as we noted above, was made evident in the faith of Abraham and Sarah when they claimed God’s promise of creative power in their old age, thus bringing about the birth of Isaac (Gen. 15:4; Heb. 11:11).
While both forgiving and transformative righteousness are the focus of verses earlier in this chapter (Rom. 4:6-8; compare Psalm 32:1-2), transformative righteousness is the chapter’s later focus—the quickening of the dead that was necessary to fulfill God’s promise to Abraham and Saran (Rom. 4:17). Justification is surely involved here, as justifying righteousness in Scripture is about more than just forgiveness (Titus 3:5-7). But the righteousness of sanctification is present as well, as Abraham’s faith prior to his being circumcised (Rom. 4:12) most assuredly involved practical obedience, which is what sanctification is all about. The following verses from Hebrews 11 make this clear:
By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed: and he went out, not knowing whither he went.
By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise.
For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God (verses 8-10).
The Spirit’s regenerating power is again mentioned in the passage from Romans that Dr. Ford claims as the anchor of his “justification alone” definition of righteousness by faith. After declaring, “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1), Paul further describes what this experience means:
And not only so, but we glory in tribulation also; knowing that tribulation worketh patience;
And patience, experience; and experience, hope;
And hope maketh not ashamed, because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us (verses 3-5).
When tribulation works patience, and patience works experience, and experience works hope, we are talking about both the regenerating act that forms a part of justification (along with the forgiveness of past sins) as well as the process of sanctification that begins with justification. Paul obviously has no burden in these verses to draw rigid distinctions between justification and sanctification, or between the work of Christ for us and His work in us. And all of this is found in that section of Romans (3:21-5:21) which Ford insists “is not discussing that gradual growth in holiness which theologians call sanctification” (23).
Perhaps the passage isn’t discussing what “theologians” call sanctification, but in discussing the endurance of tribulation and the resulting development of patience, experience, and hope, the apostle is most assuredly discussing what the Bible calls sanctification (Heb. 13:12,20-21).
Again we note that the recent Desmond Ford memoir in the Adventist Review offered no proof for the astounding claim that “most Adventist scholars and pastors today have accepted Ford’s definition of righteousness by faith” (24). The author would have faced a much steeper challenge offering proof that Ford’s narrow definition of righteousness by faith is Biblically accurate.
In our consideration of the relevant Biblical evidence in this article, it should be clear what a herculean, even impossible task it truly is to prove that justifying and/or forensic righteousness is the exclusive focus of those Bible passages where the words “righteousness” and “faith” are connected. Justification and the forgiveness of sins are certainly one among several themes in some of these passages (e.g. Rom. 3:20,24,28; 4:25; 5:1). But as our study has demonstrated, regeneration and sanctification are also present in these passages. Noah’s work in building the ark, warning the world, and saving his family from the Flood (Heb. 11:7), fellowship with Christ in His sufferings (Phil. 3:9-10), the writing of God’s law on the human heart (Rom. 10:6-8), faith working by love (Gal. 5:5-6), becoming a new creature (Gal. 6:15), and keeping God’s commandments (I Cor. 7:19)—all are listed in those passages where Paul either mentions righteousness by faith or where related themes are found when Scripture is compared with Scripture. In particular, Paul’s statement that “we through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith” (Gal. 5:5) refers to a future, hoped-for attainment made possible by the Holy Spirit’s power (i.e. sanctification), as Paul had certainly experienced justification by the time he wrote this passage.
The insistence by Ford and others of like mind on a rigid, narrow definition of righteousness by faith is not based on objective Bible study. That much is evident from Ford’s and his wife’s own writings. In their book The Human Nature of Christ in Salvation (25), two columns are produced under the heading, “The True and False Gospels” (26). “The True Gospel” (Ford’s own theology, often called the “new theology” or “evangelical Adventism”) is listed on the left (27), while “That Other Gospel” (the Bible/Spirit of Prophecy position usually associated with classic Adventism) is listed on the right (28).
Understandably from the Fords’ perspective, it is under the “True Gospel” heading that the statement, “Righteousness by faith is justification alone,” is found (29). Later, under the same heading, the rationale for this conclusion is given, though not from the Bible:
This view leads to assurance and gives the believer security in Christ, that his guilt has been removed (30).
This is the driving force behind the Fords’ theology and that of their acolytes in the decades since. Righteousness by faith is restricted to justifying, forensic righteousness not because of a compelling Biblical case in that direction, but because of an experience-driven desire for assurance and peace of mind. Because his gospel theology embraces the doctrine of original sin, allegedly received through birth by all of Adam’s descendants, Ford insists that “we need this justification at every step of our Christian walk, for our own works (even those prompted by the Spirit) are ever defective, deserving only the wrath of God” (31). It is for this reason that righteousness by faith, identified—correctly, in my view—with the gospel and saving righteousness, is restricted by Ford to forensic (declarative) righteousness only, as in his view even the righteousness of sanctification is inevitably polluted by our sinful natures.
One among many problems with this theory, as we noted earlier, is that the Bible clearly includes regeneration and sanctification—along with justification (Rom. 3:24; Eph. 1:7)—as part of the righteousness which saves the believer. The two most explicit passages on this point are the following:
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).
The reader will note the complete absence of any Ellen White statements in this article’s discussion of the scope of righteousness by faith. This is by design, as Ford and his supporters have often claimed that opposition to their definition of this phrase arises primarily if not entirely from Ellen White statements rather than the Bible. Though the present writer is an enthusiastic believer in the doctrinal authority of the Ellen G. White writings as defined in those writings themselves (32), it is imperative that we first establish from the relevant Biblical evidence the scope and definition of the Biblical phrase “righteousness by faith.”
In his Palmdale paper on this issue, Ford issued the following warning to those who might be tempted to critique his understanding of righteousness by faith on the basis of Ellen White statements:
To try to exegete the meaning of Paul’s technical expression “Righteousness by Faith: by means of some instances only of E.G. White usage is quite contrary to:
1. Our denominational position that “The Bible and the Bible only is our creed.”
2. The counsel of E.G. White herself.
3. The evidence which exists in abundance that the Spirit of Prophecy sometimes uses Scriptural statements with a latitude similar to Paul’s use of the Old Testament. See the varied uses of Matt. 24:21; John 5:39, and Heb. 6:19 for example (33).
We won’t digress by assessing each of the above points made by Dr. Ford, except to wonder aloud how Ford’s alleged adherence to “the Bible and the Bible only” comports with his copious reliance on uninspired theologians as a means of making his case for defining righteousness by faith as justification alone (34). Like others with similar leanings in the modern Adventist salvation debate, Ford’s “sola scriptura” (the Bible alone) mantra gives evidence of having less to do with thorough Bible study than with the desire to marginalize Ellen White’s prophetic authority. Moreover, Ford’s apparently greater unease with the writings of Ellen White than with the Bible relative to the scope of righteousness by faith would clearly seem, in light of the evidence cited in this article, to indicate a gross lack of attention on his part to a great deal of what Scripture teaches on this subject. Sadly, Ford appears to have led others to indulge a similar neglect of the relevant Biblical evidence on this point. One of his prominent lay supporters in the early 1980s, who went on to withdraw his membership from the church after the Glacier View conference and Ford’s removal from the ministry (35), had this to say to the then-director of the General Conference Biblical Research Institute regarding the debate over the scope of righteousness by faith
Even though Desmond Ford at the Palmdale meetings gave a very lucid and persuasive position paper on the meaning of righteousness by faith, showing that the term means only justification by faith and does not include sanctification, our General Conference Presidents, Pierson and Wilson, and the great majority of authors writing for the Adventist Review continue to emphasize that traditionally Adventists have included both justification and sanctification in the term “righteousness by faith,” and support their position from E.G. White rather than from the Scriptures (36).
Considering what our study in the present article has shown, one wonders if the individual quoted above had bothered to study for himself the Biblical passages in question, and if so, on what basis he could have concluded that these passages truly restrict the righteousness received by the Christian through faith to justification only.
Even a prominent General Conference officer, responding to a letter by the present writer during the latter’s senior year in academy, appeared unfortunately to concede Ford’s point regarding Paul’s usage of the phrase “righteousness by faith,” though the GC officer himself acknowledged a wider understanding of this concept on the basis of the whole of Scripture:
Most of us here in Washington believe that righteousness by faith can include both (justification and sanctification); and when you take the whole concept of the Bible, I believe we can put it together. It is true that where Paul uses the term he is technically using it in the sense of justification, but it has a wider sense than that (37).
Sadly, the official statement released by attendees at the Palmdale conference conceded Ford’s point—at least to a degree—on the scope of righteousness by faith:
We agree that when the words “righteousness” and “faith” are connected (by “of,” ”by,” et cetera) in Scripture, reference is to the experience of justification by faith (38).
It is most unfortunate that more thoughtful Adventist Bible students didn’t search the relevant Biblical evidence and thus discover that the eight (8) incidents in Paul’s writings where the words “righteousness” and “faith” are directly connected (Rom. 3:22; 4:11,13; 9:30-33; 10:6-8; Gal. 5:5-6; Phil. 3:9-10; Heb. 11:7) are in no way restricted to justification, and that most of these verses—on the surface and in context—make very direct reference to the transforming, empowering righteousness of regeneration and sanctification (Rom. 4:11,13; 10:6-8; Gal. 5:5-6; Phil. 3:9-10; Heb. 11:7). Justification is most assuredly a vital part of this righteousness, both in its forensic and its transformative aspects. But the Biblical evidence we have considered is clear that by no means is it the only part of the righteousness which comes to the Christian by faith.
It is incumbent upon thoughtful students of Scripture in contemporary Adventism to correct this un-Biblical truncation of the salvation process, and to affirm once and for all before our people and the watching world that Biblical righteousness by faith—the sole righteousness by which any can qualify for citizenship in the eternal world—includes both the forgiving and initially transformative righteousness of justification, as well as the empowering, perfecting righteousness of sanctification.
1. Gerhard Pfandl, “Remembering Desmond Ford,” Adventist Review, March 15, 2019 https://www.adventistreview.org/remembering-desmond-ford
3. Desmond and Gillian Ford, For the Sake of the Gospel: Throw out the bathwater, but keep the Baby (Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, Inc, 2008), p. 153.
4. Tihomir Kukolja, “Desmond Ford Taught Me that the Truth Matters,” March 19, 2019 https://kukolja.com/2019/03/19/desmond-ford-taught-me-that-the-truth-matters/
5. Pfandl, “Remembering Desmond Ford,” Adventist Review, March 15, 2019 https://www.adventistreview.org/remembering-desmond-ford
6. Martin Hanna, “What Shall We Say About Sin?” God’s Character and the Last Generation (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 2018), p. 47.
7. Ibid, p. 51; see also p. 87.
8. George R. Knight, End-Time Events and the Last Generation: The Explosive 1950s (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 2018), p. 84.
9. Pfandl, “Remembering Desmond Ford,” Adventist Review, March 15, 2019 https://www.adventistreview.org/remembering-desmond-ford
11. Desmond Ford, “The Only Two Religions in the World,” Good News for Adventists (Auburn, CA: Good News Unlimited, 1985), p. 14.
12. Steve Marshall, Blessed Assurance (Arroyo Grande, CA: Concerned Communications, 1979), p. 21.
13. Kevin Paulson, “Universal Legal Justification: Do the Inspired Writings Teach It?” ADvindicate, June 7, 2017 http://advindicate.com/articles/2017/6/7/universal-legal-justification-do-the-inspired-writings-teach-i
14. Gillian Ford, The Human Nature of Christ in Salvation, p. 12; see also Desmond Ford, “The Scope and Limits of the Pauline Expression ‘Righteousness by Faith,’” Documents from the Palmdale Conference on Righteousness by Faith (Goodlettsville, TN: Jack D. Walker, Publisher, 1976), pp. 1-11.
15. Desmond Ford, “The Scope and Limits of the Pauline Expression ‘Righteousness by Faith,’” Documents from the Palmdale Conference on Righteousness by Faith, p. 7.
17. Ibid, p. 6.
18. Ibid, pp. 1-11; Gillian Ford, The Human Nature of Christ in Salvation, p. 12.
19. Desmond Ford, “The Scope and Limits of the Pauline Expression ‘Righteousness by Faith,’” Documents from the Palmdale Conference on Righteousness by Faith, p. 4.
20. Ibid, p. 5.
21. Ibid, p. 9.
22. Ibid, p. 4.
24. Pfandl, “Remembering Desmond Ford,” Adventist Review, March 15, 2019 https://www.adventistreview.org/remembering-desmond-ford
25. While this booklet lists only Gillian Ford, wife of Desmond Ford, as its author, Anglican scholar Geoffrey Paxton, in his book The Shaking of Adventism (Wilmington, DE: Zenith Publishing Co, 1977), writes that The Human Nature of Christ in Salvation (originally titled The Soteriological Implications of the Human Nature of Christ) “included an appendix of answers to questions, by Dr. Ford. The link of this manuscript with the theology department at Avondale College was obvious” (The Shaking of Adventism, p. 128). The booklet in question was, in other words, a collaborative work.
26. Gillian Ford, The Human Nature of Christ in Salvation, p. 10.
29. Ibid, p. 12.
30. Ibid, p. 13.
31. Desmond Ford, “The Scope and Limits of the Pauline Expression ‘Righteousness by Faith,’” Documents from the Palmdale Conference on Righteousness by Faith, p. 5.
32. Ellen G. White, Early Writings, p. 78; Testimonies, vol. 5, pp. 655-656,665; Selected Messages, vol. 3, p. 32; Gospel Workers, p. 302; Colporteur Ministry, p. 126; Spiritual Gifts, vol. 2, pp. 98-99; This Day With God, p. 126.
33. Desmond Ford, “The Scope and Limits of the Pauline Expression ‘Righteousness by Faith,’” Documents from the Palmdale Conference on Righteousness by Faith, p. 10.
34. Ibid, pp. 2-4,6,11-13.
35. Letter of Dr. and Mrs. Herschel C. Lamp to “Friends and Relatives,” Sept. 22, 1980, p. 1.
36. Letter of Herschel C. Lamp to W.R. Lesher, Feb. 20, 1980, p. 7.
37. Letter of Willis J. Hackett to Kevin Paulson, Nov. 1, 1977, p. 1.
38. “Christ Our Righteousness,” Review and Herald, May 27, 1976, p. 4.
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