The expression “everlasting gospel,” which occurs only in this passage in the New Testament, has important implications. First of all, it implies that the gospel was in the purpose of God from eternity. This eternal divine purpose is rooted in God’s everlasting love as stated in Jeremiah 31:3 and John 3:16. Second, it implies that there is only one gospel by which fallen human beings can be saved, and that is the gospel of Jesus Christ, as Paul often refers to it (Rom. 15:9; 1 Cor. 9:12). In other words, from the days of Adam and Eve until the end of the world, there has been and there ever will be only one gospel, one way of salvation.
In the words of the apostle, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8, 9).1 Speaking of salvation through Jesus Christ before the religious rulers of Israel, Peter was very emphatic: “‘Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved’” (Acts 4:12).
Adventists have always perceived themselves as heirs of the great truths recovered and proclaimed by the Protestant Reformers. As stated in the concluding report of another bilateral dialogue: “Adventists have a high appreciation for the Reformation. They see themselves as heirs of Luther and other Reformers, especially in their adherence to the great principles of sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, solo Christo.”2 This places Adventists in harmony with the traditional evangelical understanding of justification by faith and also with the tradition of the early Christian writers, for, according to Thomas Oden, “The major Reformers’ appeals to sola scriptura, sola gratia, and sola fide are found abundantly in the patristic interpreters of scripture.”3
The Foundational Teaching of Justification by Faith in the Old Testament
The unity of Scripture does not mean uniformity. To expect very explicit theological statements in the Old Testament such as are found in the Pauline writings shows a lack of appreciation of the diversity in God’s revelations to and dealings with His inspired messengers. Yet Paul himself appeals to the Old Testament to show the unity between his teaching on justification by faith or righteousness by faith with that of Moses and the prophets: “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify” (Rom. 3:21). It is therefore essential to study what the Old Testament teaches about righteousness and justification.
Three times Moses told the Israelites not to think that the Lord was giving them the land of Canaan because of their righteousness; to the contrary he asserted, “‘you are a stiff-necked people’” (Deut. 9:6). The paradox is that the same writers and the entire Old Testament make a distinction between two classes of human beings: “the righteous” and “the wicked” or similar contrasting distinctions. This raises the crucial question: “How can any human beings be called righteous in the face of the assertion that no one is righteous and that all have sinned?” The significance of this question is intensified when people are designated as righteous or blameless or “friend of God” or “highly esteemed,” such as Noah, Job, Abraham, and Daniel (Gen. 7:1; Job 1:1; Isa. 41:8; Dan. 9:23), yet described as having committed sin or confessing sin. It is evident that their righteousness is not identical with sinlessness. How, then, can they be called righteous or blameless? Edmund Clowney highlights how important this question is: “How can a man be just with God? The whole history of the Old Testament hinges on God’s answer to that question.”4
The clear-cut answer is that Yahweh, the covenant God, justifies all who believe in Him, who trust His promises, who acknowledge their sin, who cast themselves on the mercy of God and turn away from their unrighteousness. We read that Abram “believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). Job, of whom the Lord testified that he was “‘blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil’” (Job 1:8), was asked by the same Lord, “‘Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself?’” (40:8). Before the holy and righteous God, Job recognized his sinfulness and replied, “‘My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes’” (42:5, 6).
David, the anointed of the Lord, when convicted of his sin against God through adultery and murder, confessed his sin and found forgiveness (2 Sam. 12:13). According to Psalms 32 and 51, he was justified before God and could sing, “Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous; sing, all you who are upright in heart!” (Ps. 32:11). This is justification by faith through grace alone. The righteousness of the righteous in the Old Testament is a gift from the righteous Lord. This is why David, throughout the Psalms, exalts the righteousness of God. Paul stated the truth when he asserted that the Law and the Prophets testify that “apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known” (Rom. 3:21).
Edmund Clowney shows that the Hebrew verb hasdiq “always means ‘to declare to be in the right,’ and therefore to acquit or vindicate.” With an appeal to Deuteronomy 25:1, where the judges of Israel are commanded to “justify the righteous and condemn the wicked,” he states that it “is clear that ‘condemn’ must mean ‘to declare to be wicked,’ not ‘to make wicked’ [italics his], and that ‘justify’ must mean ‘to declare to be righteous,’ and not ‘to make righteous.’ This meaning is consistent in the Old Testament.”5
The Lord admonishes judges to give just verdicts because God is the supreme Judge, who testifies of Himself: “I will not acquit [or justify] the guilty” (Ex. 23:7). Though God is speaking here in the context of earthly courts of justice, it becomes apparent when we progress through the Scriptures that this statement has a deep significance concerning salvation. It is necessary to stress that “to justify” is a legal term, declaring that someone is not guilty; this basic meaning of justification as a judicial verdict is retained even when it takes on a broader meaning in God’s progressive revelation and in theological reflection on that revelation.
Justification by Faith in Christ Alone
Seventh-day Adventists firmly and wholeheartedly believe that salvation is purely a gift from God in Jesus Christ. Sinful as we are, we can add nothing to the perfect righteousness of Christ, which He wrought out in His incarnation by His perfect obedience to the law of God and by His death on the cross for our sins. In the words of one of the Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists:
“In Christ’s life of perfect obedience to God’s will, His suffering, death, and resurrection, God provided the only means of atonement for human sin, so that those who by faith accept this atonement may have eternal life, and the whole creation may better understand the infinite and holy love of the Creator. This perfect atonement vindicates the righteousness of God’s law and the graciousness of His character; for it both condemns our sin and provides for our forgiveness.”6
In the writings of Ellen White Christ is consistently presented as the only hope and the only way of salvation for sinful human beings. She wrote in 1891, “Of all professed Christians, Seventh-day Adventists should be foremost in uplifting Christ before the world.”7 She herself did just that as her writings bear witness.
Concerning justification by faith, she was very explicit. Notice her strong emphasis: “There is not a point that needs to be dwelt upon more earnestly, repeated more frequently, or established more firmly in the minds of all than the impossibility of fallen man meriting anything by his own best good works. Salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ alone.8
“The blood of Christ was shed to atone for sin and to cleanse the sinner; and we must take hold of the merits of Christ's blood, and believe that we have life through his name. Let not the fallacies of Satan deceive you; you are justified by faith alone,”9
It is not surprising that Ellen G. White held in high regard Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. “With great clearness and power the apostle presented the doctrine of justification by faith in Christ.”10 She commented on the fact that Paul could but dimly foresee the far-reaching influence his words would have. “Through all the ages the great truth of justification by faith has stood as a mighty beacon to guide repentant sinners into the way of life.”11 She mentioned Martin Luther’s experience and then concluded that for “the epistle to the church at Rome, every Christian has reason to thank God.”12 The importance of the Epistle to the Romans and other epistles of Paul for Adventist understanding of the gospel is manifested in scholarly publications as well as general biblical and devotional reading materials.
As stated earlier, Adventists believe that there is only one way of salvation, and that way is faith in Christ and His righteousness. This central belief can be and has been expressed in different words, just as the Scriptures are not monotonous but present the truth of the everlasting gospel in diverse ways. Though Adventist scholars may differ over emphasis on certain aspects of the gospel, just as differences can be found among scholars of other denominations, there is significant unity concerning the doctrine of justification through grace alone by faith alone. In the words of Adventist theologian Hans LaRondelle:
“Basic to Adventism is the gospel principle that human salvation is not through the law or by human works but solely through the saving grace of God. . . . Adventist belief accepts Christ as man’s substitute and example, in this irreversible order. Faith in Christ as our substitute before God provides our justification as God’s act of declaring the repentant believer righteous. Justification is seen as the opposite of condemnation (see Rom. 5:16; 8:1, 33, 34). The basis for the believers’ justification is not their law observance, but Christ’s sinless obedience (verses 18, 19).”13
Undoubtedly, justification is primarily a judicial declaration by God that the sinner who believes in Christ is righteous. It is the opposite of condemnation. But the faith by which we are justified is not merely a mental assent to a certain doctrine. It is a living faith that takes hold of Christ and His atoning sacrifice. Luther distinguished between “acquired faith” and “true faith.” He wrote: “Acquired faith has as the end or use of Christ’s passion mere speculation. True faith has as the end and use of Christ’s passion life and salvation. . . . True faith with arms outstretched joyfully embraces the Son of God given for it and says, ‘He is my beloved, and I am His.’”14
In a similar vein, Ellen G. White wrote that there “are thousands who believe in the gospel and in Jesus Christ as the world's Redeemer, but they are not saved by that faith. This is only an assent of their judgment to that which is a fact.”15 She calls this a general faith and contrasts it with a faith that lays hold upon Christ as one’s sin-pardoning Savior, a faith that leads to repentance, “a faith that accomplishes its work for the receiver, a faith in the atoning sacrifice, a faith that works by love and purifies the soul.”16 She further clarified this faith with these words: “The moment true faith in the merits of the costly atoning sacrifice is exercised, claiming Christ as a personal Saviour, that moment the sinner is justified before God, because he is pardoned.”17
Challenges to Adventist Interpretation of Justification by Faith
Not everyone agrees with Hoekema’s assessment. In his work The Kingdom of the Cults, evangelical scholar Walter Martin showed some serious inconsistencies in Hoekema’s reasoning. Although Martin himself did not agree with certain Adventist beliefs, he accepted as genuine their emphatic affirmation “that salvation comes only by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ’s sacrifice upon the cross.”19
It is true that Adventists believe that the law of the Ten Commandments, including the seventh-day Sabbath, is still binding upon the human race. But this does not mean that they believe in any sense that sinners can be justified by obedience to God’s commandments. As stated before, they emphatically reject the idea that sinners are justified through their obedience to God’s law. In this respect, Adventist belief agrees with the position of the Protestant Reformers as stated, for instance, in the Second Helvetic Confession of 1566, which says in Chapter 12, entitled, “Of the Law of God”:
The same article, however, begins by affirming “that the will of God is explained for us in the law of God, what he wills or does not will us to do, what is good and just, or what is evil and unjust. Therefore, we confess that the law is good and holy.”21 Adventists, accepting such affirmation as congruent with the teaching of Scripture, believe that the new covenant promise of the Lord, as given through Jeremiah and repeated in Hebrews 8:10, (“‘I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people’”) is to be fulfilled in the life of all who accept Jesus Christ as their Savior and High Priest.
Though Paul emphatically maintains “that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Rom. 3:28), which is true for Jews and Gentiles; in the same context he affirms that through this faith we do not nullify the law, “Rather, we uphold the law” (vs. 31). Elsewhere, he states the same truth in different words, “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts” (1 Cor. 7:19). This obedience results from the faith and love of Christ, implanted by the Holy Spirit, “for in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6).
Jesus, in the final words to His disciples before His crucifixion, spoke several times about this obedience born of love: “‘If you love me, keep my commands” (John 14:15); “‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commands and remain in his love’” (15:9, 10); “‘You are my friends if you do what I command’” (vs. 14). Adventists believe that it is this obedience of love to which Paul refers when he writes that “love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom. 13:10).
Another anathema condemned anyone saying “that the good works of the one justified are in such manner the gifts of God that they are not also the good merits of him justified.”23 In other words, justification is increased by obedience and good works, the good works not just being the gifts of God’s grace but also the merits of the justified Christian. This belief was reconfirmed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, published with the papal blessing of John Paul II. The Catechism also reconfirmed the Council of Trent’s position that “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.”24 This view of justification was and still is emphatically rejected by consistent Protestants, including Seventh-day Adventists.
This highlights the paramount importance and centrality of the doctrine of justification for all who accept the sola Scriptura principle. According to the Christianity Today editorial, the Reformers “rightly taught that only Jesus’ merit counted before God and that only through faith could this merit be ours.”27 Adventists wholeheartedly concur.
From the preceding discussion, it should be clear that Seventh-day Adventists believe that keeping the Ten Commandments, including observing the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week, is seen as part of the obedience of faith. It is the fruit of justification, never the root. Christ refers to Himself as Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:28), obviously not to abolish the Sabbath, but that all who are justified by faith would follow their Lord in keeping the Sabbath as a memorial of creation as well as a seal of their redemption from the slavery of sin through Christ (Ex. 20:8-11; 31:12-17). There is not a trace of legalism in such Sabbath observance.
Scripture has much to say about that judgment, not least in the teachings of our Lord as recorded in the Gospels. Said Jesus: “‘I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted [RSV/NKJV: “justified”], and by your words you will be condemned’” (Matt. 12:36, 37). Here our Lord talks about justification and condemnation (the judicial declarations of innocence and guilt) in the context of the day of judgment. Obviously, there is an eschatological aspect to justification. Adventists believe on the basis of Scripture that the day of judgment is a very comprehensive concept, and much Adventist literature has been published on the subject. Suffice it to say here that they hold that the judgment is to be distinguished in an investigative and an executive judgment. It is their belief in an investigative judgment that has led to the accusation that they do not really believe in the Reformation principles of sola fide, sola gratia.
It is sometimes argued that such texts show that for those who are in Christ, there is no need to be judged and that the concept of an investigative judgment is unbiblical and takes away the assurance of salvation for believers. This kind of reasoning, however, totally ignores the very clear teaching of Scripture that all will be judged. The Apostle Paul is very emphatic about this fact. “We will all stand before God's judgment seat. . . . Each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Rom. 14:10, 12); “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10).
Other passages of Scripture can be added. Solomon wrote toward the end of his checkered life: “Here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole [duty] of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (Eccl. 12:13, 14). The Apostle Peter informs us that judgment will begin with the family of God. All who in some way have professed faith in God and Christ will be judged before “those who do not obey the gospel of God” (1Peter 4:17). Do these assertions take away the assurance of our justification?
The clear-cut answer to that question is: “Not if we remain in Christ!” In the parable of the vine and the branches, Jesus stressed the crucial importance of remaining in Him. “‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing’” (John 15:5). He adds that if anyone who does not remain in Him will be like a withered branch that is thrown into the fire and burned (vs. 6).
The final judgment will bring to light who remained in Christ and who did not. It will be manifested in whether our faith in Christ bore fruit in the obedience of faith or whether it was a sterile faith (James 2:17, 26). It will bring to light in the presence of the entire universe who kept the faith of Christ and who lost hold of the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Paul’s assurance of eternal life is rooted in the fact that he had “kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7), his faith in Christ as his Savior and Lord, the righteous Judge from whom he would receive the crown of righteousness. LaRondelle stresses the relation between the present justification of believers and their justification in the final judgment:
“Paul based our certainty of future salvation on the reality of our present salvation, the certainty of our future justification on the reality of our present justification: ‘Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!’ (Rom. 5:9, italics added; see also verse 17). In other words, when Jesus justifies us, we have full assurance that He will justify us in the final judgment if we remain in him.”28
Peter M. Van Bemmelen, Th.D., is Emeritus Professor of Systematic Theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. Unless otherwise, indicated, all Scripture quotations in this article are quoted from the New International Version.
2. Lutherans and Adventists in Conversation: Report and Papers Presented 1994-1998 (Silver Spring, Md.: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists; Geneva, Switzerland: The Lutheran World Federation, 2000), p. 8.
3. Thomas C. Oden, The Justification Reader (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), p. 162.
4. Edmund P. Clowney, “The Biblical Doctrine of Justification by Faith,” in Right With God: Justification in the Bible and the World, D.A. Carson, ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1992), p. 24.
5. Ibid., p. 23.
6. “Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists, 9. ‘Life, Death, and Resurrection of Christ,’” in The Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook, 2006 (Silver Spring, Md.: The General Conference Corporation of Seventh-day Adventists, 2006), p. 5.
7. Manuscript Releases, vol. 9, p. 294.
8. Faith and Works, p. 19.
9. Signs of the Times (March 24, 1890).
10. The Acts of the Apostles, p. 373.
12. Ibid., p. 374.
13. Hans K. LaRondelle, “The Seventh-day Adventist View of the Relationship of Justification—Sanctification—the Final Judgment,” in Lutherans and Adventists in Conversation, op cit., p. 123, italics in the original.
14, Quoted in Robin A. Leaver, Luther on Justification (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1975), p. 30.
15. Manuscript Releases, vol. 8, p. 356.
17. Ibid., p. 357.
18. Anthony A. Hoekema, The Four Major Cults (Exeter, U.K.: Paternoster Press, 1969), p. 126.
19. Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1985), p. 435.
20. Arthur C. Cochrane, ed., Reformed Confessions of the 16th Century (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966), p. 248.
21. Ibid., p. 247.
22. H. J. Schroeder, trans., Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (Rockford, Ill.: Tan Books and Publishers, 1978), p. 36.
23. Ibid., pp. 45 (Canon 24) and 46 (Canon 32).
24. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 482, paragraph 1989.
25. “Virtue That Counts: Why Justification by Faith Alone Is Still Our Defining Doctrine,” Christianity Today (July 2007), p. 20.
26. Collin Hansen, “Leaving for Rome,” ibid.:14.
27. “Virtue That Counts,” op cit., p. 20.
28. Hans K. LaRondelle, Assurance of Salvation (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1999), p. 99.
29. P. T. O’Brien, “Justification in Paul and Some Crucial Issues of the Last Two Decades,” in Right With God: Justification in the Bible and the World, D. A. Carson, ed. (Paternoster Press; Baker Book House, 1992), p. 94. The quotation within the quotation is taken from Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, p. 180.