IWhen Jesus declared that “the laborer is worthy of his hire” (Luke 10:7), He articulated a fundamental principle of Biblical social justice. Of course, Jesus didn’t originate this principle, at least not during His earthly ministry. The Old Testament repeatedly admonishes employers to treat their workers with equity and fairness. Indeed, God pronounces a terrible curse on employers who fail to do this. Speaking through the prophet Malachi, God declares:
And I will come near to you to judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, and against the adulterers, and against the false swearers, and against those that oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow, and the fatherless, and that turn aside the stranger from his right, and fear not Me, saith the Lord of hosts (Mal. 3:5).
One finds it interesting that the above verse places those who oppress the hireling in his wages in the same category as sorcerers and adulterers. Reading the above passage, I can’t help thinking of all the times I’ve browsed in Christian bookstores, finding a host of books warning against such evils as sexual immorality and New Age sorcery, yet very few on the imperative of dispensing justice to society’s unfortunates, paying workers fairly, and not turning strangers—today we call them immigrants—from their right.
Too often, in the history of the church, the lot of professed Christians has been cast with the oppressive and powerful, rather than with the oppressed and powerless. We think of those professed Christians in the United States prior to the Civil War who fabricated Biblical support for the institution of slavery, and who would falsify similar support for racial segregation during the century to follow. Others taught, with equal absurdity, the unscriptural notion that God had ordained the supremacy of the rich over the poor in society, and had thus given the privileged classes the right to do as they please in their treatment of the materially disadvantaged.
We could expound at length regarding these concepts and how they got started in various Christian circles. But that isn’t the principal purpose of this article.
Of Gifts and Wages
When Christians talk of stewardship, too often they refer only to finances. But Biblical stewardship involves much more. And what many fail to consider is how the doctrine of Christian stewardship enables us to solve some of the persistent misunderstandings in certain minds regarding the doctrine of salvation.
While the Bible says, as we have seen, that “a laborer is worthy of his hire” (Luke 10:7), it is equally clear that salvation is not a matter of wages, but is instead a free gift. In the apostle Paul’s words:
Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt.
But to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness (Rom. 4:4-5).
What does the apostle mean when he says salvation is a matter of grace, not of debt? When he says our “faith is counted for righteousness,” does this therefore mean God does all the work of saving us, without any human assistance?
Obviously not, as such passages as the eleventh chapter of Hebrews—often called the Faith Chapter—bear witness. In this well-known Biblical laboratory of righteousness by faith, men and women of God are depicted as performing godly deeds “by faith.” “By faith” Abel offered a better sacrifice than Cain (Heb. 11:4), “by faith” Enoch was translated without seeing death (verse 5), “by faith” Noah built an ark, condemned the world, and saved his household from the Flood, thus becoming “heir of the righteousness which is by faith” (verse 7).
“By faith” Abraham left Ur of the Chaldees, “now knowing whither he went” (verse 8), “by faith” Sara received strength to conceive seed (verse 11)—obviously not something done without human effort, as Isaac wasn’t virgin-born. “By faith” Moses refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter (verse 4), “by faith” the children of Israel crossed the Red Sea (verse 29), “by faith” Barak, Gideon, Samson, Jephthah, David, and others overthrew kingdoms, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, and put to flight the armies of God’s enemies (verses 32-34).
In these verses the phrase “by faith” doesn’t mean God performs righteous deeds as humanity’s replacement, but rather, that human beings perform these deeds by claiming divine power to do so. Jesus Himself is clear that such faith-empowered obedience is the condition of salvation (Matt. 7:21; 19:16-26; Luke 10:25-28). The apostle Paul likewise maintains that salvation is conditional on practical obedience made possible through imparted divine grace (Rom. 2:6-10; 8:13; Phil. 2:12-13; Heb. 5:9)—thus distinguishing this obedience from the self-generated “works of the law” which can save no one (Rom. 3:20,28; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:5).
Both Jesus and Paul make it plain that only through this imparted power can the obedience required for salvation be rendered. When the rich young ruler went away sorrowfully, and 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 declared, using the illustration of the vine and its branches, “Without Me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5). The apostle Paul similarly maintains that only those who “through the Spirit” mortify the deeds of the body “shall live” (Rom. 8:13).
So how do these Biblical affirmations that obedience is the condition of salvation differ from the idea that salvation is earned as wages, a theory which—as we have seen—the apostle Paul plainly condemns (Rom. 4:4)? The answer lies in understanding that everything humanity possesses—both before and after conversion—is a gift of God. King David underscored this truth in his final prayer for Israel, when he declared, “For all things come of Thee, and of Thine own have we given Thee” (I Chron. 29:14).
Often this verse is quoted in connection with the returning of tithes and offerings. Yet it encompasses far more than monetary beneficence. In reality it is one of the clearest verses in all the Bible on the subject of righteousness by faith. More than perhaps any other verse, it helps us understand why we can claim no credit for our salvation, even though we must actively cooperate with divine grace in its pursuit.
No credit is possible in the saving process so far as humanity is concerned for the simple reason that nothing we possess is our own. Not the powers and talents with which we were born, not the power and grace bestowed through regeneration and sanctification. The following passage from the writings of Ellen White explains how this fact makes “creature merit” impossible:
The Lord has lent man His own goods in trust—means which He requires be handed back to Him when His providence signifies and the upbuilding of His cause demands it. The Lord gave the intellect. He gave the health and the ability to gather earthly gain. He created the things of earth. He manifests His divine power to develop all its riches. They are His fruits from His own husbandry. He gave the sun, the clouds, the showers of rain, to cause vegetation to flourish. As God’s employed servants you gathered in His harvest to use what your wants required in an economical way and hold the balance for the call of God. You can say with David, “For all things come of Thee, and of Thine own have we given Thee.” I Chronicles 29:14. So the satisfaction of creature merit cannot be in returning to the Lord His own, for it was always His own property to be used as He in His providence should direct. . . .
The creation belongs to God. The Lord could, by neglecting man, stop his breath at once. All that he is and all that he has pertains to God. The entire world is God’s. Man’s houses, his personal acquirements, whatever is valuable or brilliant, is God’s own endowment. It is all His gift to be returned back to God in helping to cultivate the heart of man. The most splendid offerings may be laid upon the altar of God, and man will praise, exalt, and laud the giver because of his liberality. In what? “All things come of Thee, and of Thine own have we given Thee.” I Chronicles 29:14 
This helps us understand why human salvation cannot involve someone saying, “I did this, so I deserve that.” In the human acquisition of material wages, that’s how it works, and this—as we have seen—is a Biblical principle. “The laborer is worthy of his hire” (Luke 10:7). When we give of our time and effort in pursuit of a material livelihood, we deserve something in return. Something that belongs to us (time and effort) is given in exchange for something belonging to someone else (monetary pay and/or other benefits). But with God and man, this can never be, for everything we possess at any point in our earthly pilgrimage is a divine gift. The talents, gifts, and material comforts possessed by the unconverted are likewise a gift of God. The unconverted just don’t realize it.
Righteousness and Sin Contrasted
But while the book of Romans insists that salvation is not earned as wages (Rom. 4:4), it conversely informs us that the eternal death resulting from sin is very different. We all know the text:
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom. 6:23).
Thus, while Ellen White denies the possibility of “creature merit” relative to salvation , she speaks very differently when speaking of condemnation. She writes:
Although by our disobedience we have merited God’s displeasure and condemnation, yet He has not forsaken us, leaving us to grapple with the power of the enemy in our own finite strength .
Damnation, in other words, unlike salvation, can in fact be merited by human beings, because unlike righteousness (whether justifying or sanctifying), sin does originate with us.
Thus, what we often call legalism—the idea that humanity can earn salvation from God by one means or another—is really (as a college professor of mine once said) a vacuous figment of human imagination. How can creatures earn anything from their Creator when everything they’ve always had is His in the first place? Contrary to what many believe, legalism isn’t defeated by subtracting human effort from the saving process—a notion forbidden by the various Bible passages we’ve considered already, not to mention numerous corroborating statements from Ellen White that we could mention.
Rather, legalism is defeated by recognizing that everything humans possess—both before and after they accept Christ—is a gift of God. Neither justification nor sanctification, neither declarative nor transformative righteousness, brings us credit with God, as it was all His to start with. Obedience is the condition of salvation (Matt. 7:21; 19:16-26; Luke 10:25-28; Rom. 2:6-10; 8:13; Phil. 2:12-13; Heb. 5:9), not for the purpose of acquiring human merit, but because God can’t risk taking anyone to heaven who might start another rebellion . Fitness for the heavenly society, not the earning of Brownie points, is the imperative of the Biblical saving process.
1. Ellen G. White, Faith and Works, pp. 20-23.
2. Ibid, p. 21.
3. ----Sons and Daughters of God, p. 53.
4. ----That I May Know Him, p. 292; The Upward Look, p. 197; Review and Herald, July 21, 1891; Signs of the Times, Dec. 30, 1889; Sermons and Talks, vol. 2, p. 294.
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