Legalism and "righteousness by faith"
by Roy Gane

[This article was published in the '08 issue of ministrymagazine]


Righteousness by faith” is foundational to the biblical concept of salvation. In Romans 3:21–26, Paul states that God reveals His righteous and just character not only through His law, but also when He extends mercy by justifying and forgiving those who have broken the law, if they accept His righteousness through faith that is of and in Christ and receive His atoning sacrifice. The apostle stresses the importance of righteousness by faith by repeating, explaining, and illustrating it through much of his Epistle to the Romans (4:5, 9, 11, 13; 9:30; 10:6) and elsewhere (Gal. 5:5; Phil. 3:9). For Paul, righteousness by faith is the heart of the gospel (Rom. 1:16, 17).

According to Paul, all who believe in Jesus “are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24).1 To the Ephesians he wrote, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8, 9). Essential to saving grace is a “legal” declaration of acquittal from condemnation (e.g., Matt. 9:2; John 8:11; cf. Rom. 8:1). In addition, because the justifying gift of grace brings the transforming presence of Christ, it naturally provides power to bear the gift of “fruit” in one’s life, namely, sanctification (Rom. 6:22; 1 Cor. 1:4–8, 30).

Because “all have sinned” (Rom. 3:23) and no amount of good works can ever redeem anyone from past failure, law-keeping is completely ruled out as a means of salvation, for salvation is possible only by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8, 9). Does this mean that there is something wrong with God’s law? Not at all. The law is holy, just, good, and spiritual (Rom. 7:12, 14). It serves the crucial purpose of protecting us by revealing what is right and what is wrong (Rom. 3:20; 7:7–13).2 The law is holy because it is based on love (Matt. 22:37–40), the basic principle of God’s character (1 John 4:8). However, while keeping the law results in life in the sense that its principles of cause and effect are for our benefit and preservation (Lev. 18:5; cf. Exod. 20:12), the law is powerless to help anyone who has already broken it (Gal. 3:10–12).

God’s law is not legalistic, nor is true obedience to that law. Rather, obedience is “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). By freeing us from condemnation, Christ has set us free from the law of sin and death (Rom. 8:1–3), “so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (v. 4). Because “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5), we receive the basis of harmony with God’s law and character (namely, love) as a gift.

What is legalism?

Legalism is misuse of the law. That is, it is using the law for a purpose other than that for which it is intended. Legalism includes futile attempts to earn salvation by one’s own performance (e.g., Luke 18:9–14) and to gain assurance by achieving a minimum standard (Matt. 19:16–22). Legalistic abuse of God’s law also includes using it with human traditions added to it, to gain power over others (Matt. 23:1–28). Rather than trying to protect people—a purpose for which the law is designed—legalists hypocritically make a show of protecting the law itself, including their own version of the law, for which they claim divine authority (Matt. 15:1–9). By laying down the standards to which others must adhere, legalists enhance their status, political clout, and even wealth. Such legalists end up violating God’s law by obscuring and ignoring the principles on which it is based (Matt. 23:23–35). By taking the place of God, it could also be said, they commit a form of blasphemy.

Satan is antinomian, against God’s law (John 8:44; 1 John 3:8, 10). But do we know that he is also the biggest legalist in the universe? This is not because he is divided against himself (Matt. 12:26), but because he misuses God’s law and deceives people regarding it. He perverts it and blasphemously uses his perverted version to gain power and to discourage people from victory over sin and salvation through Jesus Christ. Then he turns around and hypocritically accuses God’s loyal people of being legalists because they are seeking to obey God! Because Satan tries to use God’s law against God’s loyal people to slander and destroy them (Zech. 3:1–5; Rev. 12:10), he is a malicious false witness (Deut. 19:16–19).

Legalism is alive and well in the Christian community today. For one thing, our society is so driven by performance that people have trouble switching gears when it comes to salvation. Because the Bible teaches that we are all judged by what we do and think (Eccles. 12:14; Rom. 2:16), many suppose that in order to be saved they must, by their own efforts, keep from sinning. However, the Bible also teaches that true good works come from faith (Gal. 5:6; cf. James 2:17–26), which means that not sinning is possible only as a gift from God (Jude 24). Our salvation is based not upon our performance, but upon Christ (1 John 5:11–13). Any good works that we do are only involved in receiving, not earning, His gift of salvation.3

Another kind of legalism among us is the imbalance with which some Christians latch on to things that are really nonessential and force them on others as essential. Whatever the chosen issue may be, the effects are elitism, criticism, or condemnation of others, and polarization of the church community. Those who try to restore harmony through sound biblical evidence and reasoning are often baffled by their lack of success, which is due to the fact that the main problem resides outside the bounds of rationality in the realm of personalities and their drives for influence and power.

A so-called righteousness by faith based on a legalistic assumption

There is still another kind of widespread legalism that is not generally recognized as such. This approach claims to be gospel “righteousness by faith” because it emphasizes God’s free and gracious justification of sinners who believe in Christ and His once-for-all sacrifice as the only basis of their salvation. However, this true concept gets skewed by being mixed up with other ideas, such as:

1. Not only is our human nature tainted by sin so that we constantly need the covering atonement of Christ (which is true; cf. Num. 28:1–8: daily sacrifice for all); beyond this, human depravity is so extreme that we commit sins all the time, including involuntarily.4

2. While the converted life should manifest victory over sin in the process of sanctification as moral growth that accompanies justification, full obedience to God’s law is impossible.5 This view has several corollaries:

a. Because moral transformation is limited, Christ’s work in believers and role as our example must be limited. All that matters is Christ’s substitutionary legal work for believers, which accounts them righteous at all times, no matter what level of moral or spiritual failure or victory they may be experiencing.6

b. God’s Old Testament moral law is an unreasonable and obsolete standard of righteousness. This law is superseded by the higher New Testament and “new covenant” standard of love.

c. A judgment of the works of Christian believers according to the standards of God’s law is irrelevant because works have nothing to do with their salvation, and they are already judged as saved in Christ. They certainly could not be judged according to standards presented in the Old Testament, which are not binding on New Testament Christians.

We now proceed to examine these notions through five questions arising from issues of human depravity, obedience, justification, Old Testament law, and judgment.

1. Depravity

Is human depravity so domineering that even after experiencing conversion, one cannot help but continue to sin?

The widely held assumption of extreme human depravity has deep historical roots in the teachings of some Protestant Reformers who challenged the Roman Catholic doctrine that because people are partly unaffected by sin, they are capable of contributing to their salvation through their own meritorious works.7 According to the Bible, all human beings are affected by sin (Rom. 3:10–18, 23; cf. Pss. 5; 14; 36; 53; Isa. 59). This moral weakness inclines toward further sins (James 1:14, 15). The fallen sinful body and its evil propensities remain until Christ’s second coming, when God’s faithful people will be changed and receive immortality (1 Cor. 15:52, 53).8 Any moral good that we have is from God, from outside of ourselves (Rom. 7:18).

In the Bible, words for “sin” can refer either to fallen nature as a dynamic state of being or to specific infractions of divine law. Examples of sin as nature and state are Psalm 51:5, “in sin my mother conceived me” (NASB); Romans 7:17, “sin which dwells in me” (NASB); and 1 John 1:8, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves” (NASB). This concept explains why some Israelite animal sacrifices, prefiguring Christ’s sacrifice, were offered as expressions of joy when expiation or atonement (Piel of kpr) and forgiveness for specific sins was not needed (Lev. 7:11–17: thanksgiving, votive, and freewill subcategories of well-being and peace offerings; cf. chap. 3):9 Even human praise is tainted by sin and needs the mediation of Christ’s sacrifice in order to be acceptable to God.10

Other biblical passages speak of “sin” as specific violations of God’s law: “sin (hamartía) is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4); “All wrongdoing [literally, “unrighteousness”] is sin” (1 John 5:17); “Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin” (James 4:17, NASB); “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). Sin in this sense can be a verb: “If anyone of the ordinary people among you sins unintentionally in doing any one of the things that by the Lord’s commandments ought not to be done” (Lev. 4:27); “No one who abides in him sins” (present tense of hamartáno, 1 John 3:6). Sinning involves breach of one’s relationship with God because it is out of harmony with His character of love (1 John 4:8) and His law, which is based on love (Matt. 22:37–40).

Sins, as violations of God’s law, can be actions or thoughts (Matt. 5:21–30). They can be deliberate (Lev. 6:2, 3) or inadvertent and unintentional (Lev. 4). But they are never simply automatic. In the ancient Israelite ritual system, which dealt with many aspects of human faultiness, the only automatic human conditions that required ritual remedies were some kinds of physical ritual impurities (e.g., menstruation, nocturnal emission) that excluded persons from contact with God’s inner sphere of holiness and life centered at the sanctuary (e.g., Lev. 12–15; Num. 5:1–4; Deut. 23:10, 11). Physical ritual impurities, such as corpse contamination (voluntary), scaly skin disease (so-called leprosy; involuntary), and healthy or abnormal genital flows (voluntary or involuntary) belonged to a conceptual category associated with “the birth-death cycle that comprises mortality,”11 that is, the fallen human state that has resulted from sinful action (Gen. 3; Rom. 5:12; 6:23).

Because physical impurities were not violations of divine commands, they were not moral faults requiring forgiveness, as shown by the fact that persons who offered purification offerings (so-called sin offerings) for severe physical impurities received “atonement” (“purgation”) that only resulted in physical ritual purity. This cleansing was not prerequisite to forgiveness, which such individuals did not need (e.g., Lev. 12:6–8; 14:19, 20; 15:15; contrast forgiveness in 4:20, 26, 31, 35 in cases of sinful actions).12 Although Christians can learn from these physical impurities and their remedies, which show us that Christ’s sacrifice ultimately redeems us from our sinful state of mortality (1 Cor. 15:52, 53; cf. Ps. 103:3: “who heals all your diseases”; John 3:16 “eternal life” [emphasis supplied]), the ritual remedies for them no longer apply because Christ’s ministry is in God’s heavenly temple (Heb. 7–10), which cannot be affected by human physical states as the earthly sanctuary and temple could.

Some well-meaning and otherwise well-informed Christian interpreters have mistakenly interpreted some Israelite sacrifices that removed physical ritual impurities, such as the red heifer remedy for corpse contamination, as rituals that atoned for people when they had committed sins. For example, while the NRSV correctly understands the end of Numbers 19:9 to label the burning of the red heifer as “a purification offering” (cf. NJPS “for cleansing”), the KJV, the RSV, the NKJV, the NASB, and the NIV incorrectly render it “purification/purifying from/for sin.”13 Because physical impurities can be automatic, reading “sin” in a case of physical impurity can lead to the wrong conclusion that committing sins can be automatic. Thus the great preacher Charles Spurgeon interpreted the red heifer ritual: “Who has lived for a single day in this base world, without discovering that in all his actions he commits sin, in everything to which he puts his hand, he receives, as well as imparts, some degree of defilement?”14

Not all human imperfection, even in the sphere of conscious activity, can be regarded as sin. Human life is fraught with all kinds of nonsinful imperfections due to our limitations of skill, knowledge, memory, physical coordination, and so on. For example, while a worker should do his best (cf. Eccles. 9:10; 2 Tim. 2:15), there is no indication that he needs forgiveness from God if something goes wrong or is not absolutely perfect (cf. Jer. 18:4).

The bottom line is that human depravity, as pervasive as it is, is not a valid argument to justify sinning. Righteousness by faith does not mean freedom from sin in order to continue to sin. Rather, it is freedom from sin to live a life of obedience to God.

2. Obedience

Is obedience to God possible? Is it legalism to emphasize obedience?

In Romans 3:10–18, Paul describes the pre-conversion spiritual state, showing that all human beings need God’s gift of justification through Christ. An indispensable part of the Christian life is progressive acceptance of God’s precious gift of victory over our fallen natures by partaking of the transforming power of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:1–4). By God’s grace, Christians can and should keep their sinful natures under control (1 Cor. 9:27).

According to Paul, “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). This is not false assurance; rather, it is reconciliation with God that results in true hope “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (v. 5). So when God converts people by His grace, He brings them into harmony with His character and law of love (cf. 1 John 4:8; Matt. 22:37–40) by progressively pouring love into their hearts through His Holy Spirit.

The role of the Spirit is essential for conversion. The Spirit provides spiritual reorientation that can metaphorically be termed “new birth” (John 3:5–8; Titus 3:4–7; cf. Rom. 8). This change of disposition is an integral, essential part of conversion along with forgiveness for past sins (cf. Rom. 3:25).

Jesus came to save His people not in their sins, but from their sins (Matt. 1:21). For Christians, committing sins is not inevitable. According to Jude 24, God “is able to keep you from falling.” John writes, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin” (1 John 2:1). He recognizes that God’s children may occasionally fall in their progressive journey toward harmony with God’s character, so he adds in the same verse: “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” Nevertheless, John recognizes the possibility of not committing sins, or it would make no sense for him to encourage people to abstain from this. Keep in mind that we are talking here about development and maturation of character, not sinless perfection of nature, which nobody receives until glorification.

In the New Testament, disobedience to God’s law is sin (1 John 3:4), and this includes the Old Testament moral law. Even in Old Testament times, God intended His law to be kept. Thus Moses encouraged the Israelites to be loyal to God because obedience to His law is accessible (Deut. 30:11–14). Of course they could not obey God in their own strength. But if they truly loved the Lord with all their heart, soul, and might (Deut. 6:5), their internalized heart relationship with Him would have been like the “new covenant” experience, in which God puts His law within people and writes it on their hearts (Jer. 31:33).15

Those who think they must go on continually sinning until Jesus comes tend to brand as legalistic “perfectionism” the biblical teaching of overcoming sin through God’s Holy Spirit and “Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).16 But obedience to God’s law by grace through faith is not legalism, and God empowers the level of obedience that He requires (1 Cor. 10:13). Without this divine empowerment, obedience is impossible. Thus, commenting on 1 John, Hans La Rondelle has observed, “To John the life of holiness is to be lived on the level of miracle. The impossibility of sinning therefore to John does not spring forth from any inherent metaphysical quality but from the reality of the victorious and cleansing union of faith with the Crucified and Risen One who is essentially holy and righteous.”17

It is true that Christ wants “to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:27), but it is Christ who takes responsibility for purifying the church (vv. 25, 26). His “bride” is able to make herself ready for “the marriage of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:7) because

“to her it has been granted to be clothed

with fine linen, bright and pure”—

for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints (v. 8, emphasis supplied).

So “righteous deeds” are a gift from God. What we are responsible for is receiving the gift, which involves cooperating with God.


3. Justification

Is justification by faith only a declaration that by faith a sinner stands just before God, or does it involve something more?

The terms justify and justification, as used in the Bible, are legal metaphors. These and accounting metaphors, such as impute and reckon, describe a real gift from God that is free to all who accept it: Christ’s righteousness in place of our sinfulness (Rom. 3:21–24; 2 Cor. 5:21). Just because salvation transactions are described and illustrated through legal and accounting metaphors does not mean that the transactions themselves are unreal. Christ has really gained righteousness for us by bearing the culpability for our sins as our Mediator and Priest and (unlike Old Testament priests, who only bore “culpability”; Lev. 10:17) dying for those sins as the ultimate sacrificial victim (Heb. 7:25–27; 9:6–10:22; cf. Isa. 53).

Fusion of the priestly and victim roles in Christ provides substitutionary atonement, which is the basis of our salvation. Because He has died in this way for us, the deadly wages of sin (Rom. 6:23) have reached their target in Him. So if by faith we identify with His death by accepting Him as our Substitute, we have died to the claims of sin that have enslaved our lives and condemned us to death, and as He rose again, we are raised to new lives (Rom. 6:1–11; cf. 2 Cor. 5:14, 15). Christ’s substitution for us is not at all unjust because He has a perfect right to grant us a gift, in this case the gift of voluntarily dying in our place.

Christ the sinless was treated as if He was a sinner that sinners may be treated as if they had never sinned. But the substitution is not “as if”: Christ is actually our Substitute on the basis of an accomplished historical event. Therefore, the results of His substitution are not “as if”: those who believe are actually treated as righteous. This is not sterile legal fiction divorced from reality; it is a real, dynamic gift of mercy and grace in real life. When God regards those who have faith as righteous (Hab. 2:4; Rom. 1:17) or, in other words, reckons their faith as righteousness belonging to them (Gen. 15:6), His declaration is so because His creative Word has made it so on the basis of Christ’s substitution for us.

When God justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5), it is not because He is an unjust or deluded judge who declares sinners to be something they are not (Isa. 5:23; Prov. 17:15; contrast Deut. 25:1; 1 Kings. 8:32). Rather, the ungodly who believe (Rom. 4:5) in the sacrifice He has accomplished for all sinners are changed by His justifying, so that they are reconciled to Him and are no longer ungodly (cf. Rom. 5:1–11). Therefore, through Christ’s sacrifice, God is just when He justifies those who have faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:26).

The righteousness that God gives on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice originates with Him alone, apart from any human works, but when the believers receive this gift, its benefits belong to them. This justification does not mean that the believers are instantly perfected and matured in character, but that they are forgiven, have turned around to journey with Christ, and possess assurance of salvation through having Christ (1 John 5:11–13).

Receiving Christ’s justification and forgiveness, with its spiritual death to sin and resurrection to new life in harmony with God (Rom. 6:1–11; cf. 2 Kings 5:14), has a transforming effect on the human heart. The ruling power of sin is broken and the Christian serves another, divine Master. The transforming effect is partly due to overwhelming gratitude when we, who are so unworthy, are pardoned and accepted by God (see Ps. 32:1; Luke 19:5–10). But the transforming effect also fl ows from a new, dynamic connection to the spiritually healing presence of Christ (Gal. 2:20), who brings “the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4).1 Justification is received by faith, apart from works. But it inevitably affects works because the holy divine nature is love (1 John 4:8), and therefore, faith works through love (Gal. 5:6).2

Having spiritually died to sin and risen to newness of life in Christ, justified Christians, who keep on receiving justification as they need it day by day, become sanctified servants of righteousness because they are under grace rather than the condemnation of the law (verses 12–23). Sanctification is the experience of holiness that begins with belonging to God at conversion (1 Cor. 6:11), and this holiness grows in love as the character is transformed throughout one’s lifetime (1 Thess. 3:12, 13), always powered by God through His Spirit (Rom. 5:5; cf. 8:4–27).3

While justification and sanctification are theologically distinct, they are experientially interlinked from the time of conversion. Both have ongoing aspects, are essential aspects of salvation, and are gifts of God’s grace.4 Like justification, sanctification is always, at every stage, dependent upon God. This growth in holiness and love does not mean that Christians need Christ less and less as they become better persons in and of themselves.5

Scholars are recognizing that while Martin Luther emphasized the depth of human depravity and denied that human beings can do anything to merit salvation,6 making “sin great is inseparably connected with exalting and praising grace.”7 Thus Luther taught that depravity is remedied by the powerful reality of the justification transaction: “When a human being is united with God, he or she becomes a participant not only in the human but also in the divine nature of Christ. . . .

“Faith, in turn, justifies precisely because it ‘takes hold of and possesses’ the present Christ.”8

“According to the Reformer, justifying faith does not merely signify a reception of the forgiveness imputed to a human being for the sake of the merit of Christ, which is the aspect emphasized by the Formula of Concord. Faith as real participation in Christ means participation in the institution of ‘blessing, righteousness, and life’ which has taken place in Christ. Christ Himself is life, righteousness, and blessing, because God is all this ‘by nature and in substance.’ ”9

Ellen G. White agreed with Luther when she wrote: “A soul that depends on Christ with the simplicity that a child depends upon its mother is justified, for it becomes one with the Substitute, who was Justification and Redemption. Herein is love, that the heart and will are knit together in Christ Jesus.”10

On the dynamic and inseparable experiential relationship between justifying faith and resultant works (which are never part of the basis for justification), Luther wrote in his “Preface to the Epistle to the Romans”: “Faith . . . is a divine work in us which changes us and makes us to be born anew of God, John 1 [:12, 13]. It kills the old Adam and makes us altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers; and it brings with it the Holy Spirit.

“Oh, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly.. . .

“And this is the work which the Holy Spirit performs in faith. Because of it, without compulsion, a person is ready and glad to do good to everyone, to suffer everything, out of love and praise to God, who has shown him this grace.

“Thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire.”11

However, from the Formula of Concord on, subsequent revisionists lost Luther’s crucial cluster of interlinked concepts and settled for a weaker “gospel” in which justification does not lay an adequate foundation for a life of sanctification. John MacArthur reacts to the result that flourishes today:

“Biblical justification must be earnestly defended on two fronts. Many today misuse the doctrine to support the view that obedience to God’s moral law is optional. This teaching attempts to reduce the whole of God’s saving work to the declarative act of justification. It downplays the spiritual rebirth of regeneration (2 Cor. 5:17); it discounts the moral effects of the believer’s new heart (Eze. 36:26-27); and it makes sanctification hinge on the believer’s own efforts. It tends to treat the forensic element of justification—God’s act of declaring the believing sinner righteous—as if this were the only essential aspect of salvation. The inevitable effect of this approach is to turn the grace of God into licentiousness (Jude 4). Such a view is called antinomianism.”12

4. Old Testament law

Does justification by faith nullify the Ten Commandment law of the Old Testament and establish a new law of love?

Mistakenly viewing God’s Old Testament moral law (including, but not limited to, the Ten Commandments) as legalistic, many Christians have thrown off their need for accountability to this law because they think that adequately keeping it is impossible anyway.13 Such an approach is attractive because it brings an exhilarating feeling of liberation.

However, such a position results in cheap grace and practical antinomianism masquerading as “righteousness by faith” and winds up undermining a genuine life of faith. The consequences in real lives can be devastating, as many can testify.

While Paul clearly separates salvation by grace through faith from the invalid attempt to gain salvation by one’s own works (see Rom. 3:20–28; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8, 9), he by no means establishes a parallel dichotomy between faith working through love (Gal. 5:6) and an invalidated body of Old Testament moral and ethical law. Rather than voiding the OT law through faith, Paul establishes the law (Rom. 3:31) and finds it indispensable as a holy, just, and good standard of righteousness and revealer of unrighteousness (Rom. 7:7–13; with v. 7 citing the OT law of Exod. 20:17). Echoing Christ’s affirmation that all of God’s Old Testament revelation is based on the principles of love for God and other human beings (Matt. 22:37–40), Paul expresses the essential unity between OT moral law (as exemplified by some of the Ten Commandments, which he quotes) and love (Rom. 13:8–10).14

Many Christians today nurture the notion that God’s Old Testament commandments are opposed to our assurance of salvation. But although these laws can never provide assurance for those who have broken them, they are an essential part of the process that leads to assurance of salvation because they reveal God’s will and thereby point out the sinner’s need for forgiveness through Christ’s sacrifice. Lack of knowledge regarding God’s will does not enhance solid assurance. Imagine how you would feel if you did not have the divine law to show what God expects of you. Would your ignorance give you greater confidence? Hardly!

While we have assurance of salvation through having Christ (1 John 5:12), it is also true that Jesus said: “ ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments’ ” (John 14:15, NRSV). It is impossible to separate our relationship to Christ from obedience to Him because the only saving relationship with Him is to have Him as our Lord and Master. As our Lord, Jesus commands us to “ ‘love one another’ ” (John 13:34, NRSV). While He renewed this command for New Testament Christians and (in the same verse) amplified its significance by His incomparable example of self-sacrificing love (“just as I have loved you”), this principle was at the heart of His Old Testament law (Lev. 19:18) and summarized many of the more specific laws (see Matt. 22:39, 40).15

Love as a summary by no means invalidates what was being summarized, namely, instructions that show how the principle of love is worked out in various life circumstances. It is true that many examples and applications of love in Old Testament laws are culturally conditioned to meet the needs of an ancient agricultural people, but through these examples we can see moral subprinciples of love that can help us too.16 To disregard these subprinciples by considering them as obsolete is to willfully compromise Christ’s overall principle of love and to arrogantly assume that we know how to fulfill divine love in various situations of life without further divine guidance. Can love provide an adequate moral compass if it is defined by modern or postmodern subjectivity rather than divinely revealed subprinciples?17

5. Judgment

Finally, does a pre-Advent judgment negate salvation by grace through faith?

God’s judgment by no means neutralizes salvation by grace through faith. The pre-Advent, demonstrative phase of the judgment process is not about who has sinned, for all have sinned (Rom. 3:23). Rather, it is about those who have been and remain forgiven, “securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard” (Col. 1:23, NRSV). The judgment is investigative, but not in the sense that it is for God’s own information, for He already knows everything (Isa. 46:9, 10; Luke 16:15). Rather, records of works (e.g., Dan. 7:10) serve as evidence of human faith (or lack thereof) that can be investigated and witnessed by God’s created beings, who cannot read thoughts of faith.18 For God’s faithful people, the judgment is for their benefit (v. 22) as an essential and concluding part of their salvation. It vindicates them as the ones who are truly loyal to God and the rightful heirs of His kingdom, against the claims of rebels who oppress them (see the larger context of Daniel 7). The judgment demonstrates that God is just when He justifies the right people: those who have faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:26).

A faithful Christian who has made a covenant with God by Christ’s sacrifice (cf. Ps. 50:3–6) and has a balanced, biblical view of sin, justification, and obedience will not have an unhealthy fear of the demonstrative phase of God’s judgment before Christ’s second advent, which involves consideration of works (Eccles. 12:14) as evidence for living faith that is “working through love” (Gal. 5:6, NRSV; cf. James 2:26).19

For those who think they must or can go on continually sinning until the second coming of Christ, salvation and accountability to God for victory over committing sins are mutually exclusive. So to retain assurance of salvation, they must deny the judgment and the time prophecies of Daniel 7–9 that support its pre-Advent context.20 Because Ellen G. White strongly believed in the pre- Advent judgment as a pillar of distinctive Seventh-day Adventist teaching,21 they must also deny the special nature of her ministry.22

The true gospel and the pre-Advent judgment are inextricably linked (cf. Rev. 14:6, 7, NRSV: “an eternal gospel . . . ‘the hour of his judgment has come’ ”).23 Throwing out the judgment and accountability to God’s law is not a sign of a higher level of faith and gospel assurance; it is symptomatic of a perversion of the gospel. Paul spoke of “the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all” (Rom. 2:16, NRSV). Lest anyone think this doesn’t apply to born-again Christians, he affirmed that “we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Rom. 14:10, NRSV).24


Salvation by grace through faith in Christ and His once-for-all sacrifice is the greatest gift we can ever receive. However, we have found that an unbalanced, unbiblical approach to “righteousness by faith” is based on a legalistic approach to God’s law and has a theological domino effect with far-reaching implications. By accepting all of the biblical evidence, we can enjoy a balanced understanding and solid assurance based on Christ, our Lord.

Part 1

1 Except as otherwise stated, all Scripture references are from the New Revised Standard Version.

2 On legalism and the purpose of God’s law, see Roy Gane, Leviticus, Numbers, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 310–312.

3 Roy Gane, Who’s Afraid of the Judgment? (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2006), 106, 109; Erwin Gane, Jesus Only: Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Roseville, CA: Amazing Facts, 2005), 48.

4 See, for example, “We must understand this fact of being born with dead spirits in order to realize that we need a Savior. It is this unavoidable, intractable sin which makes it utterly impossible for any person to be able to please God.” Colleen Tinker, “If What You Believe is Not Biblical Would You Want to Know?” Proclamation! 7/6 (2006): 18.

5 See Dale Ratzlaff, Sabbath in Crisis, rev. ed. (Glendale, AZ: Life Assurance Ministries, 1995), 201; Ratzlaff, “Christ Follower, You are RIGHTEOUS,” Proclamation! 7/4 (2006): 16; David Dykes, “Leave the Shadows [The Reality is Christ],” Proclamation! 7/6 (2006): 10, 11.

6 “Because we as humans naturally have dead spirits which are in bondage to ‘the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient’ (Ephesians 2:2), we can never emulate Jesus. He could never be our ‘example’ of how to become perfect. He can only be our substitute.” Tinker, “What You Believe,” 18.

7 See Fernando Canale, The Cognitive Principle of Christian Theology: A Hermeneutical Study of the Revelation and Inspiration of the Bible (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Lithotech, 2005), 189.

8 While these propensities remain in our underlying bodily nature, God can give us the victory over them in our character (cf. 1 Cor. 9:27). Thus Ellen G. White wrote that through faith in Christ, “it is our privilege to be partakers of the divine nature, and so escape the corruption that is in the world through lust. Then we are cleansed from all sin, all defects of character. We need not retain one sinful propensity. . . .

“As we partake of the divine nature, hereditary and cultivated tendencies to wrong are cut away from the character, and we are made a living power for good. Ever learning of the divine Teacher, daily partaking of his nature, we co-operate with God in overcoming Satan’s temptations.” Review and Herald, April 24, 1900.

9 Cf. Lev. 17:11, where all sacrificial blood, including that of the well-being offering (verses 5, 6, 10, 12) provides some kind of expiation or ransom (Piel of kpr).

10 “The religious services, the prayers, the praise, the penitent confession of sin ascend from true believers as incense to the heavenly sanctuary, but passing through the corrupt channels of humanity, they are so defiled that unless purified by blood, they can never be of value with God. They ascend not in spotless purity, and unless the Intercessor, who is at God’s right hand, presents and purifies all by His righteousness, it is not acceptable to God.” Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, bk. 1 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958), 344.

11 Hyam Maccoby, Ritual and Morality: The Ritual Purity System and Its Place in Judaism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 49.

12 On physical ritual impurities and their relationship to sins, see Roy Gane, Altar Call (Berrien Springs, MI: Diadem, 1999), 115–121; Gane, Leviticus, Numbers, 221, 222, 224–230; Roy Gane, Cult and Character: Purification Offerings, Day of Atonement, and Theodicy (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2005), 198–202.

13 On the name of the sacrifice as “purification” rather than “sin” offering, see Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, Anchor Bible 3 (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 253, 254.

14 Charles H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of the Old Testament, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1951), 359. It is true that in an extended sense the salient aspects of this sacrifice teach us about Christ’s redemption from all sin pollution, including that which results from committing sins (see Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 4 [Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948], 120–123). Recognizing that this is an extended sense helps to avoid confusion of categories by which the “automatic” aspect of physical ritual impurity is incorrectly carried over to committing sins.

15 See Skip MacCarty, “New Covenant DNA in the Old Covenant,” In Granite or Ingrained?: What the Old and New Covenants Reveal about the Gospel, the Law, and the Sabbath (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2007), 37–56.

16See Dale Ratzlaff, The Cultic Doctrine of Seventh-Day Adventists (Glendale, AZ: Life Assurance Ministries, 1996), 212–216.

17 Hans K. La Rondelle, Andrews University Monographs Studies in Religion, vol. 3, Perfection and Perfectionism: A Dogmatic-Ethical Study of Biblical Perfection and Phenomenal Perfectionism, (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press), 233.

Part 2

1 See Carl Braaten, Justification: The Article by Which the Church Stands or Falls (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990). “The forgiveness of sins is the actualization of the divine presence in the living Christ in the midst of human beings who cannot on their own cross the bridge that leads to fellowship with God,” 83. “Regeneration and new obedience result from the justifying work of God,” 98. Cf. Ellen G. White, Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1955), 114. “God’s forgiveness is not merely a judicial act by which He sets us free from condemnation. It is not only forgiveness for sin, but reclaiming from sin. It is the outflow of redeeming love that transforms the heart.”

2 “Christ’s character stands in place of your character, and you are accepted before God just as if you had not sinned. More than this, Christ changes the heart. He abides in your heart by faith. You are to maintain this connection with Christ by faith and the continual surrender of your will to Him; and so long as you do this, He will work in you to will and to do according to His good pleasure. . . . Then with Christ working in you, you will manifest the same spirit and do the same good works—works of righteousness, obedience.” Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1908), 62, 63.

3 On sanctification as both (1) a new relationship and status and (2) as moral growth in goodness, see Ivan Blazen, “Salvation,” in Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology, Commentary Reference Series 12, ed. Raoul Dederen (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2000), 295–298. On sanctification as growth in love, see George Knight, I Used to be Perfect: An Ex-Legalist Looks at Law, Sin, and Grace (Boise, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1994), 46, 92.

4 Knight, Perfect, 37–51.

5 As some Seventh-day Adventists have mistakenly taught, with damaging consequences, as pointed out by Colleen Tinker, “In Adam or in Christ: Where are you?” Proclamation! 7/4 (2006): 11.

6 Robin Leaver, Luther on Justification (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1975), 44–52; Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, trans. Robert C. Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966), 142–153.

7 Althaus, Martin Luther, 142.

8 Tuoma Mannermaa, Christ Present in Faith: Luther’s View of Justification, ed. Kirsi Stjerna (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 8; cf. Leaver, Luther Justification, 62: “Christ dwells in believers through faith. For Luther, justification is not a naked imputation nor a simple declaration that the sinner is accounted righteous. Rather, a man is justified in, through, and because of a union with Christ that comes about by faith. Christ and the believer are united as Bridegroom and bride becoming ‘one flesh,’ or ‘one cake.’ The believer does not live by his own spirit but by the Spirit of Christ, who dwells within him. . . . Luther’s classic statement is to be found in his larger commentary on Galatians: ‘Living in me as He does, Christ abolishes the Law, damns sin, and kills death; for
at His presence all these cannot help disappearing. Christ is eternal Peace, Comfort, Righteousness, and Life. . . . Abiding and living in me, Christ removes and absorbs all the evils that torment and afflict me. This attachment to Him causes me to be liberated from the terror of the Law and of sin, pulled out of my own skin, and transferred into Christ. . . . Since I am in Him, no evil can harm me’ ” (citing Luther’s Works American ed. [Philadelphia: Fortress and Concordia, 1957], XXVI, 167 “Lectures on Galatians,” 1535).

9 Mannermaa, Christ Faith, 16, 17.

10 Ellen G. White, Daughters of God: Messages Especially for Women (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1998), 185.

11 Leaver, Luther Justification, 55, citing Luther’s Works, XXXV, 371 “Preface to the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans,” 1522; cf. Althaus, Martin Luther, 246–250.

12 J. F. MacArthur Jr., “Long before Luther (Jesus and the Doctrine of Justification),” in Justification by Faith Alone: Affirming the Doctrine by Which the Church and the Individual Stands or Falls, ed. Don Kistler; rev. ed. (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 2003), 2, 3 (emphasis added).

13 Dale Ratzlaff writes, “The old or first covenant which included the Ten Commandments was in force only until the death of Christ.” “The Continental Divide of Biblical Interpretation,” Proclamation! 6/3 [2005]: 10. “Christians are released from the law as a guide for Christian service.” Dale Ratzlaff, Sabbath in Crisis, rev. ed. (Glendale, AZ: Life Assurance Ministries, 1995), 201. Ratzlaff argues that the standard of morality called for in the “new covenant” is higher than and supersedes that of the “old covenant” and that “the moral
principles of the new covenant cover all the moral laws of the old,” 231; cf. 232–234. So “The freedom of the Gospel does not give Christians the liberty to sin,” 234. Christians live a moral life for Christ in harmony with the overarching principle of love. But because Christ fulfilled the moral requirements of the “old covenant” law for us, it is no longer binding on Christians, 233, 234. Regarding the fourth commandment of the Decalogue, Ratzlaff concludes that God does not require Christians to observe seventh-day Sabbath
rest, which is too diffi cult anyway because of all the rules involved with it, 307–309.

14 Regarding the ongoing relevance of Old Testament law for Christians and compatibility between the law and grace, see Daniel Block’s clear and penetrating three-part series, “Preaching Old Testament Law to New Testament Christians,” Ministry 78, no. 5 (May 2006): 5–11; Ministry 78, no. 7 (July 2006): 12–16; Ministry 78, no. 9 (September 2006): 15–18.

15 On Leviticus 19:18 at the heart of the Pentateuch, see Roy Gane, Leviticus, Numbers, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 34, 35; cf. 343–348.

16 On modern applicability of biblical laws, see ibid., 305–310.

17 On absolute moral compass versus postmodern subjectivity, see ibid., 312–314.

18 Roy Gane, Altar Call (Berrien Springs, MI: Diadem, 1999), 245; Roy Gane, Who’s Afraid of the Judgment? (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2006), 105.

19 For a balanced, biblical view of justification by faith in relation to the judgment, see Ivan Blazen, “Justification by Faith and Judgment According to Works,” Biblical Research Institute, http://www.adventistbiblicalresearch.org/documents/justification%20by%20faith.htm; cf. Ivan Blazen, “Salvation,” 290–292. “In the judgment God looks for justification with its fruit, not in the sense of ‘faith plus works saves,’ but of justification as the source of sanctified living,” 291.

20 Dale Ratzlaff, The Cultic Doctrine of Seventh-Day Adventists (Glendale, AZ: Life Assurance Ministries, 1996), 167–182, 215, 216, 225, 226, 235–240.

21 See, e.g., Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1950), 409–411, 417–433, 479–491. For this judgment as a basic Seventh-day Adventist teaching, see Fundamental Belief statement 23.

22 Dale Ratzlaff, The Cultic Doctrine, e.g., 355.

23 On the relationship between the gospel and the judgment, including answers to objections raised by Ratzlaff, see Gane, Who’s Afraid of the Judgment?, 103–114.

24 John 3:18 says literally, “ ‘He who believes in Him is not judged’ ” (NASB; cf. NJB). However, several English translations recognize that in this context “judged” refers to the condemnation part of the judgment process: “ ‘He who believes in Him is not condemned’ ” (NKJV; cf. NRSV, NIV).