Ask the Editor

Why don't the editors of "Ministry" have more to say on the current discussions regarding the nature of Christ and righteousness by faith? Where do you stand on these issues?

J.R. Spangler is editor of Ministry.


My second installment of the answer to the above question (see MINISTRY, June, 1978) concluded with an appeal to keep in balance the great themes of salvation, and to stop pitting one phase of salvation against another. Admittedly, the church has not emphasized as it should have the great truth of justification. However, it would be disastrous should we now emphasize justification to the near exclusion of sanctification.

A recent camp-meeting tour has made even more evident to me the need for balance. Confusion reigns in the minds of some. Church leaders are often misquoted, and extreme positions taken. It seems that some hear what they want to hear, having ears equipped with special hearing aids, sensitive only to certain words and phrases. For this reason we ministers should be extremely careful to weed immoderate and exaggerated assertions from all our presentations. Let me urge you to read or reread our June editorial, especially the section relating Ellen White's council to A. T. Jones. This sound advice is desperately needed by all of us!

I believe the definition of justification given in the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Dictionary, published eighteen years ago in 1960, is unsurpassed. It states clearly and concisely: "As used theologically, the divine act by which God declares a penitent sinner righteous, or regards him as righteous. Justification is the opposite of condemnation (Rom. 5:16). Neither term specifies character, but only standing before God. Justification is not a transformation of inherent character; it does not impart righteousness any more than condemnation imparts sinfulness. A man comes under condemnation be cause of his transgressions, but, as a sinner, he can experience justification only through an act of God.

Condemnation is earned, or deserved, but justification cannot be earned it is a 'free [unmerited] gift' (verse 16). In justifying the sinner God acquits him, declares him to be righteous, regards him as righteous, and proceeds to treat him as a righteous man. . . . Charges of wrongdoing are canceled, and the sinner, now justified, is brought into a right relationship with God that Paul describes as being at 'peace with God' (Rom. 5:1). The state of righteousness to which a sinner attains through justification is imputed (chap. 4:22), that is, counted (verse 3), or reckoned (verse 4). When God imputes righteousness to a repentant sinner He figuratively places the atonement provided by Christ and the righteousness of Christ to his credit on the books of heaven, and the sinner stands before God as if he had never sinned."—Pages 616, 617.

I confess it is difficult for me to believe that I, a repentant sinner, am justified through no merit of my own—that is God's action entirely, totally apart from my actions.

Through Ezekiel God describes the condition of His people in more powerful speech than I could ever command. The language is shocking, but mightily true! The Lord first lays as a foundation the utterly lost spiritual condition of His people from their very birth. He says," 'Make known to Jerusalem her abominations, and say, Thus says the Lord God to Jerusalem: Your origin and your birth are of the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite, and your mother a Hittite'" (Eze. 16:2, 3, R.S.V.).

This cutting language is followed by the illustration of a newborn baby girl that, in harmony with frequent heathen practice, has been cast out into the field to die of exposure. No one shows mercy or pity on this helpless infant until the Lord passes by. Then something wonderful hap pens! "And when I passed by thee, and saw thee polluted in thine own blood, I said unto thee, when thou wast in thy blood, Live; yea, I said unto thee . . . Live" (verse 6). What an amazing picture of God's love in granting life to one helplessly facing inevitable death! The continued reading of this story reveals statements such as " T . . . covered your nakedness ... I plighted my troth to you. ... I bathed . . . washed . . . anointed you. ... I clothed . . . shod . . . swathed . . . and covered you. . . . And I decked you with ornaments' " (verses 8-11, R.S.V.). These phrases pierce the mind in rapid succession with the thought that God takes the initiative. It is God who is acting and doing!

No creature on earth is more helpless than a newborn baby. Could a baby dare claim even an infinitesimal amount of credit for its spared life? The New Testament counter part of this illustration is found in the words of Paul: "But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God" (Rom. 5:8, 9, R.S.V.).

God not only takes the initiative in justifying man, but, note carefully, what He does is a free gift. Justification is totally of grace and cannot be secured by any works that we can do. In fact, we are just as helpless to perform any meritorious works as Ezekiel's cast-out baby was helpless to maintain life.

Justification as a totally free gift to undeserving sinners is a vital point that we find so easy to talk about but so difficult to grasp, believe, and accept. Unfortunately, we often describe and explain this magnificent truth in the same manner as a math teacher might explain an algebraic equation. Oh, preacher, pray for the Holy Spirit to be poured out as you lift up Christ—God's Lamb who "was wounded for our transgressions, . . . bruised for our iniquities," and who healed us "with his stripes" (Isa. 53:5).

We "esteem Him not" when we get into verbal skirmishes over this subject. We "esteem Him not" when we draw up battle lines and begin to castigate those who see not every point as we see it. Surely all of us agree that we poor sinners can take no credit for what Christ has done for us in His act of justification. Surely all of us as shepherds of the flock agree that we have not set this truth before our sheep in the appealing language and with the emphasis that we should have used.

Ellen White, in 1890, wrote words that we need to heed in 1978: "The point which has been urged upon my mind for years is the imputed righteousness of Christ. I have wondered that this matter was not made the subject of discourses in our churches throughout the land, when the matter has been kept so constantly urged upon me, and I have made it the subject of nearly every discourse and talk that I have given to the people. . . . 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 any thing by his own best good works. Salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ alone." —Manuscript 36, 1890.

The second point I must emphasize is that we need the continual covering of justification. Well do I remember a very spiritual discussion on this point some years ago with my former associate, E. E. Cleveland. Seeds were sown in my mind by him at that time that have finally led me to my present understanding. Earl made the statement that justification is a covering umbrella over a per son's entire life. For some years I thought that justification came into action at conversion to care for past sins and then reappeared periodically to forgive those sins committed after a person had accepted Christ. Justification in my mind seemed to be Christ's eraser, which, at the moment one accepted Him, He used to erase the mistakes of the past. Then He lifted it and held it in re serve until another mistake was made that required Him to use the eraser again.

A closer study of the Word revealed that Christ's righteousness is compared to a robe, not an eraser! This robe must cover me constantly. This is by no means to say that my confessed sins are merely hidden under the robe, and not erased. It is to say, rather, that my sinful nature dare not be uncovered or exposed for a single second. I am in constant need of His justifying righteousness.

Justification is not designed merely to cover us intermittently, when needed, as we sin, as the eraser is used only when mistakes are made. To think of it in this way is to live the Christian life in spurts between sins and to destroy much of the beauty of justification as a garment that clothes us with Christ's righteousness. In the Saviour's par able of the marriage feast, the man without the wedding garment was cast out. (See Matt. 22:10, 14.) This is the same garment referred to in Revelation 3:18, where Christ urges Laodiceans "to buy of me . . . white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear."

Note carefully, the robe is to be worn continually, else we will be in the shameful state of nakedness. This robe must become a part of our daily apparel. We don't take it off even when we sleep! There is an intimacy about the illustration of the robe. It cannot be held at arm's length and be effective. It cannot be carried around in a bag. It is not to be hung in a closet, to be used only when needed. It is a garment that is to be ever worn, not because of fear or for diplomatic reasons, but be cause it is a precious gift that one cherishes and prizes even above life itself. The infinite cost that made this robe available is what makes it so precious and desirable.

The actions of the One who made the robe may be considered to be objective and remote, but when one accepts this robe as a gift held out to us by nail-scarred hands, it becomes a deep, overwhelming experience! One may legally define justification as a forensic action on the part of Christ (and this certainly is true), but the moment the heart and mind, under the Holy Spirit's influence, understands what the robe is, who provided it, and how He provided it, justification becomes a prized personal possession. It is no longer a theological idea, but a dynamic force in the life. Some may wish to call this development a new-birth experience and the beginning of sanctification. I have no quarrel with these ideas. But I am convinced that in the normal process of conversion a per son can no more experientially segregate and define each step in the development of salvation than a young man or woman who falls in love can precisely explain the various steps that eventually lead to the marriage altar.

When it comes to diagramming the truths of salvation, may I offer some advice? There is danger in diagrams. If you use one, make sure you pref ace your explanation with a warning that no diagram can fully illustrate the point or points under consideration.

Furthermore, it is possible for diagrams to teach both truth and error at the same time! For instance, a favorite diagram, used for years to illustrate imputed and imparted righteousness, had a diagonal line drawn from the bottom left-hand corner that gradually and erratically rose to the top right-hand corner. The intersection of this diagonal line with a horizontal bottom line represented the point of acceptance of Christ. A similar intersection of the diagonal with another line at the top represented perfection. Everything above the diagonal line symbolized justification, and all below this line symbolized sanctification. I certainly agree that the diagonal line correctly illustrated the advancement of the Christian life in sanctification. But I can no longer agree with the idea that less justification is needed as a person advances in the sanctified life. This is not to say that a person, as he advances in sanctification, continues sinning the same as he did in the beginning of his experience with the Lord. There must be advancement in overcoming sin, but there will never be a time while life shall last that we do not need the merits of justification.

Finally, in all of our preaching and teaching of the glorious truth of justification, let us never present it alone, amputated from the living gospel. Use the most winsome approaches possible to show that nothing reaches so fully the heart of the sinner with a desire for holiness as does a realization of the pardoning love of Jesus Christ. When a man fully understands what God has done for him, truly repents of his sins, and intelligently accepts par don through the merits of Christ alone, he will then walk in the path way of sanctification. Justification and sanctification are inseparable in the Christian experience. We may correctly define them theologically as distinct steps, but never preach justification in such a way as to downgrade sanctification.

Some time ago I heard of a minister who placed an extreme emphasis on justification as the absolute and only factor in one's acceptance with God. The practical result of his preaching was the idea that works had nothing to do with one's salvation. He shocked his congregation with the assertion that since he was a Christian, saved solely by the doing and dying of Jesus Christ, he would still inherit the kingdom even if in a moment of weakness he slipped into the sin of adultery and happened to die during the adulterous act! A strange illustration indeed, coming from the lips of a minister!

Did David, with his double sin of murder and adultery, ever intimate that during his flagrant departure from obedience he had the assurance of God's acceptance? Quite the contrary. "When I declared not my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer" (Ps. 32:3, 4, R.S.V.).

These words, written by David, certainly do not ring with the assurance of salvation. In his great penitential psalm David pleads with the Lord, "Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of thy salvation" (Ps. 51:11, 12, R.S.V.). This prayer did not escape the lips of one who had solid assurance of acceptance while commit ting sin in a moment of weakness!

Were King David to enter one of our pulpits today and face the questions "David, did you feel that you were still accepted of God during the time you weakened and committed adultery with Bathsheba, then tried to cover up by ordering the murder of Uriah, her husband? And had you died during this incident, do you believe you would have been saved?" can we imagine him answering "Yes"?

The Bible phrase that David was a man after God's own heart referred to his early years when the Lord, through Samuel, selected him as king in the place of Saul; it does not give blanket approval to David's total life (see 1 Sam. 13:14; Acts 13:22). Furthermore, the record states that what David did "dis pleased the Lord" (2 Sam. 11:27). The prophet Nathan, in leading David into a full confession of his awful crimes, pointedly told the king that he had "despised the commandment of the Lord" and in fact had despised God Himself (chap. 12:9, 10). The record is clear that the relationship between God and David was severed; David was a lost man until he confessed and repented of his sin.

Ellen White relates that when the prophet's finger of accusation was pointed at him, "David trembled, lest, guilty and unforgiven, he should be cut down by the swift judgment of God." —Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 722. In fact, "David's transgression . . . changed his relation to God. The Lord could not in any wise sanction iniquity. He could not exercise His power to protect David from the results of his sin as He had protected him from the enmity of Saul. There was a great change in David himself. He was broken in spirit by the consciousness of his sin and its far-reaching results. He felt humbled in the eyes of his subjects." Ibid., p. 723. When the convicting power of the Spirit came upon David, "he saw himself in an other light, as the Lord saw him, and as long as he lived he repented of his sin." —The SDA Bible Commentary, Ellen G. White Comments, on 2 Sam. 12:1-14, p. 1023.

I wonder how many of us have had the same experience in repenting of our sins. Certainly we know that God has forgiven us, yet we constantly remember our true position before the Lord and with the publican cry out, "God be merciful to me a sinner" (Luke 18:13).

The marvelous thing about David's experience is that through confession and repentance his relationship with God was restored. This can be the experience of every sinner! What a comforting thought! "In the promises of God to repentant sinners he [David] saw the evidence of his pardon and acceptance. . . . Though David had fallen, the Lord lifted him up. He was now more fully in harmony with God and in sympathy with his fellow men than before he fell. . . . Whoever under the reproof of God will humble the soul with confession and repentance, as did David, may be sure that there is hope for him. Whoever will in faith accept God's promises, will find pardon. The Lord will never cast away one truly repentant soul." —Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 725, 726.

Isn't this our message for the lost today? Unless the sinner sees the enormity of sin, he will never cry out for mercy. And the enormity of sin is seen only in the light of what it cost Heaven to redeem us. No one who looks upon the cross of Christ can ever downgrade sanctification or talk lightly of obedience to God's commandments. If we, as ministers, attempt to give the assurance of salvation to a person who has no guilt or sense of the awfulness of his sins, we will only lead him to continue through life unvictorious over sin, and worse yet, to become hardened in sin until his attitude toward God and his fellow man will be one of haughtiness and intolerance. He will presume on God's love, laugh at His law, ridicule church standards, condemn those who mention obedience, all the while he ecstatically marches down the broad way to hell, declaring, "I have the assurance of salvation!" What could be more pitiful?

Again I appeal for balance in our preaching. Lift Jesus Christ higher than ever before. Show the people what God has done, using illustrations and language that will cause people to humble themselves before God.

"We cannot save ourselves. We cannot regenerate ourselves. In the heavenly courts there will be no song sung, To me that loved myself, and washed myself, redeemed my self, unto me be glory and honor, blessing and praise. But this is the keynote of the song that is sung by many here in the world. They do not know what it means to be meek and lowly in heart; and they do not mean to know this, if they can avoid it. The whole gospel is comprised in learning of Christ, His meekness and lowliness." —Testimonies to Ministers, p. 456.

The point we must understand and impart to a lost world is that salvation is of the Lord. Nothing in us or about us recommends us to God. Our state of corruption cries out for mercy every moment of our lives. Hopeless, helpless man doesn't have within himself even the seed of salvation. We can choose, surrender, and commit, but even these actions of themselves will not save us. All glory, all honor go to Him who ''while we were yet sinners . . . died for us" (Rom. 5:8).

—J. R. S.

(To be continued).

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J.R. Spangler is editor of Ministry.

August 1978

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