The Third Angel's Message in Verity

Eric C. Webster uses Ellen White's statement that the third angel's message in verity is righteousness by faith as a springboard to examine various aspects of the message in light of the current emphasis on Christ and His righteousness.

Eric C. Webster is director of the Voice of Prophecy Bible Correspondence School, Cape Town, South Africa.


Some ninety years ago Ellen White wrote: "Several have written to me, inquiring if the message of justification by faith is the third angel's message, and I have answered, 'It is the third angel's message in verity.' " —Review and Herald, April 1, 1890. Apparently, justification by faith is not a preamble to the third angel's message; it is not introductory or preparatory; it is the very heart and core of the message.

The initial reaction might be that Ellen White's words would have been easier to understand if she had spoken of sanctification, or character development, or perfection in connection with the third angel's message. Would it not be more logical to confine justification by faith to the first angel's message? Would it not fit in well with the "everlasting gospel" of the first angel? Could it not be regarded as an important, necessary initial step in Christian life? But by the time we reach the third angel's message, the capstone of God's final message to mankind, should we not have eclipsed justification by faith and passed on to something higher?

Furthermore, the very nature of the third angel's message seems to demand something different. It deals with the beast power, its image, and mark. This message emphasizes the importance of obedience to God; the Sabbath becomes a burning issue. Does not the Sabbath fit in well with sanctification, as the very sign of the God who sanctifies? In view of the third angel's call to loyalty to God's Sabbath, how can justification by faith be the third angel's message in verity?

Many scholars believe that the heart of Paul's epistle to the Romans lies in chapter 3:24-28. Briefly summarized, these verses proclaim that man has sinned and comes short of God's glory. Jesus Christ comes and through His death takes all the penalty and punishment for sin upon Himself. Now God is just when He declares that the repentant sinner is righteous, not on the basis of his own record, but on the basis of his faith in the perfect record of Another. This experience is grace and mercy at its highest. Justification by faith provides that at any stage in the life the entire past is covered by Another's perfect life and God looks at the sinner as if he has never sinned. How wonderful and marvelous is the grace of God!

If substitution is indeed the central truth of justification, Ellen White's statement can mean that those who accept the third angel's message will always need the substitution of Christ's righteous life to make them acceptable to God. No matter how glorious our obedience and our commandment keeping, as saved sinners we will never reach a point in this life where we can stand before God without the merits of a Saviour.

Running like a scarlet thread through both the Old and New Testaments is the glorious truth of salvation by substitution. We see it in the lamb offered by Abel, versus the product of Cain's own hands. It is pictured in the ram, caught in the thicket, that took the place of Isaac upon the sacrificial altar. Dramatically this truth was splashed on the doorposts of Israel, providing salvation at midnight for those homes that displayed the blood. Graphically, substitutionary salvation was etched in the sands of the desert as serpent-stung sinners turned their eyes in simple faith to the brazen serpent on the pole. Climaxing the Old Testament, Isaiah 53 stands out like a snow-capped Alpine range, shedding its gospel radiance across all time.

A classic example of salvation by substitution is found in the example of the repentant thief on the cross. In spite of any allowances that we might try to make for the man in his experience prior to the cross, or any compensation we might try to give for his few minutes of belief on the cross, we must realize that this man in his own character stood naked and unworthy of heaven. He will be allowed into heaven not on his own record, but because he relied implicitly on Another's perfect record.

If justification by faith is the third angel's message in verity, it must mean that those who are teaching and living the truths of the third angel must still rely on the merit of Jesus Christ in order to stand uncondemned before the throne of God.

The Sabbath a sign of justification by faith

The Sabbath truth is an integral part of the third angel's message. As a sign of loyalty to the Creator of heaven and earth, it is to be restored to its rightful place in Heaven's final message to men.

We often look upon the Sabbath as a sign of sanctification, and it assuredly is this. (See Eze. 20:12, 20.) But the Sabbath is also a sign that we have entered into God's rest, and have ceased to rely upon our own works for salvation. (See Heb. 4:1-10.) While it is possible to make the Sabbath a badge of legalism, it can also become a beautiful sign that we are resting with Christ in His finished work. Having accomplished our salvation on the cross, Christ ascended to the right hand of the Father, where "He reverently presents at the mercy-seat His finished redemption for His people." Ellen G. White, —Review and Herald, Oct. 17, 1893.

Could such a Sabbath experience be involved in the prediction that the Sabbath will be preached "more fully" (Early Writings, p. 33)? To preach Christ and His righteousness in the Sabbath would certainly draw men and women to Him. To show that the Sabbath points to the merits of Christ and His righteousness instead of to our own would be uplifting the Saviour before men. If justification by faith is the third angel's message in verity, then the glorious Sabbath truth must have a vital link with its heart and essence.

Salvation is all of grace

The great truth of justification by faith is constantly to remind us that our salvation will ever be all of grace. "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast" (Eph. 2:8, 9). Ellen White agrees: "How inappropriate it is to condemn others, when every soul is to be saved, not on his own merits, but by the merits of a crucified and risen Saviour! We are all erring, finite creatures, accountable to God for our words, works, and influence." —Review and Herald, Oct. 24, 1893.

The Biblical parable of the laborers in the vineyard (see Matt. 20:1-16) helps us to realize that the reward is based not on man's works, but on the kindness of the landlord. "By the use of this parable He [Christ] teaches them that the reward is not of works, lest any man should boast, but it is all of grace."—Ibid., July 10, 1894.

Even the judgment according to works is to be understood in the setting of the marvelous grace of God and the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ. "Although we have no merit in ourselves, in the great goodness and love of God we are rewarded as if the merit were our own. When we have done all the good we can possibly do, we are still unprofitable servants. We have done only what was our duty. What we have accomplished has been wrought solely through the grace of Christ, and no reward is due to us from God on the ground of our merit. But through the merit of our Saviour, every promise that God has made will be fulfilled, and every man will be rewarded according to his deeds." Ibid., June 27, 1893.

Justification by faith is the great truth that is constantly to remind every Christian that his salvation will ever be on the basis of grace alone.

Justification by faith an abiding experience

"Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 5:1). This blessed state of justification does not simply last for a short time at the moment of con version. The one justified is accepted in the Beloved on the merits of Christ, and the process of sanctification parallels justification rather than supersedes it. Christ is our justification and our sanctification; we need Him constantly. When as sinful, erring human beings we fail and make mistakes, we do not automatically lose our state of justification. If we had no sin and were perfect we would not require justification by faith. As long as we have a trusting faith in Christ a faith that accepts Christ's pardon for sin while refusing to use it as an excuse or cloak for sin our justification remains. Even when we fail miserably we can come to the cross in deep repentance and find anew the wonders of the merits of Christ and the glories of justification. At every moment we have a past and at every moment of our lives we will need the imputed righteousness of Christ.

The abiding experience of justification by faith will be needed by God's people even in the judgment when their names come up for review. After describing the experience of Joshua and the high priest, Ellen White discusses Christ's work for His people in the heavenly sanctuary: "Through His imputed righteousness, they are accepted of God, as those who are manifesting to the world that they acknowledge allegiance to God, keeping all His commandments." —Ibid., Aug. 22, 1893. (Italics supplied.)

Here are God's people keeping His commandments in a rebellious world, bravely upholding the covenant of God, and yet finding their eternal security and salvation in the imputed righteousness of Christ through the merits of His precious blood. What a beautiful illustration of the truth that justification by faith is the third angel's message in verity!

Pursuing the illustration of Joshua and the high priest and applying it to the judgment, Ellen White wrote: "In his sin-stained garments, confessing his guilt, he [Joshua] stands before God. But Jesus our Advocate presents an effectual plea in behalf of all who by repentance and faith have committed the keeping of their souls to Him. He pleads their cause and vanquishes their accuser by the mighty arguments of Calvary. . . . We cannot answer the charges of Satan against us. Christ alone can make an effectual plea in our behalf. He is able to silence the accuser with arguments founded not upon our merits, but on His own." —Testimonies, vol. 5, pp. 471, 472.

Why does Christ not silence the accuser in the judgment by the beautiful exhibition of the lives of God's commandment-keeping people? Why does He not say to Satan, "Look at My people. Behold their faultless lives"? No, Christ uses a more mighty argument the argument of Calvary, the argument of a righteousness outside of man, the merits of His own spotless life.

Justification by faith produces the fruit of obedience

It has been aptly stated that man is justified by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone. As the third angel's message in verity, justification by faith clearly produces the fruit of sanctification and obedience evidenced by the attitude of God's people toward the beast, his image, and mark (see Rev. 14:9-12).

True faith works by love, and faith without corresponding works is dead. (See Gal. 5:6; James 2:20.) Where there is no fruitage of love and obedience in the life one must question the reality of justification by faith. When the sinner understands and accepts the marvelous gift of God's righteousness there will be a corresponding experience of regeneration and growth in sanctification. In the new covenant relationship God's law is written in the heart, and the fruitage of a life in harmony with God will be seen.

Of course, an outward display of works does not always testify to a genuine experience of justification by faith. There will be those who have done great things of whom Christ will say, "I never knew you" (Matt. 7:23). How much we need to be anchored to the cross of Cal vary and to trust in the blood of the everlasting covenant so that our growth in obedience will be genuine and Chris tian!

Note how beautifully Ellen White ex presses the relationship between faith and works: "In His divine arrangement, through His unmerited favor, the Lord has ordained that good works shall be rewarded. We are accepted through Christ's merit alone; and the acts of mercy, the deeds of charity, which we perform, are the fruits of faith; and they become a blessing to us; for men are to be rewarded according to their works. It is the fragrance of the merit of Christ that makes our good works acceptable to God, and it is grace that enables us to do the works for which He rewards us. Our works in and of themselves have no merit." —Review and Herald, Jan. 29, 1895.

How better could this relationship be tween justification by faith alone and its corresponding works of obedience be summed up than by these lines? "We do not earn salvation by our obedience; for salvation is the free gift of God, to be received by faith. But obedience is the fruit of faith." Ellen G. White, —Steps to Christ, p. 61.

Justification by faith humbles man

The third angel's message brings out a people who refuse to worship the beast or his image, or to receive his mark. They are a commandment-keeping people who exhibit the patience of the saints and have the faith of Jesus. They are a people who have chosen allegiance to Jesus Christ instead of to self.

The very essence of sin in the beast power, or Babylon, is self-glorification and human achievement. This original sin of pride began in the heart of Lucifer (see Isa. 14:12-14) and became the dominant trait in earthly Babylon and in apostate religion. It is the principle that permeates all false religion, and also the last-day manifestation of the beast and his image. "The principle that man can save himself by his own works lay at the foundation of every heathen religion." Ellen G. White, —The Desire of Ages, p. 35.

This justification by faith is very intimately involved in the efforts of God's people to resist this beast-power principle. Justification by faith is the very antithesis of salvation by achievement and by human works. It is indeed the third angel's message in verity. "What is justification by faith? It is the work of God in laying the glory of man in the dust, and doing for man that which it is not in his power to do for himself.'' Ellen G. White, —Testimonies to Ministers, p. 456.

As we move into the final triumph of the third angel's message, the light of God will flood the earth. "As the in creasing glory of Christ is revealed, the human agent will see no glory in himself; for the concealed deformity of his soul is laid bare, and self-esteem and self-glorying are extinguished." Ellen G. White, —Review and Herald, Sept. 18, 1894.

When we get around the great white throne we will see that the manifestation of our patience and our obedience to the law of God has been entirely the fruitage of Calvary. Listen to one who in vision has been in heaven: "I have, as it were, been brought before the great white throne, and have seen my life as it will there appear. I can find nothing of which to boast, no merit that I can plead. 'Unworthy, unworthy of the least of Thy favors, O my God,' is my cry. My only hope is in a crucified and risen Saviour. I claim the merits of the blood of Christ. Jesus will save to the uttermost all who put their trust in Him." —Ibid., Nov. 1, 1881.

Emphasis on Christ and not on man

Justification by faith declares that man is righteous on the basis of his faith in the perfect life and sacrificial death of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is the most marvelous exchange in all the world. Christ takes our sins upon Himself and gives us His righteousness. (See 2 Cor. 5:21.) The whole thrust of justification by faith is thus Christocentric rather than anthropocentric. Christ is emphasized over against man. His perfect life, His matchless charms, His atoning death, and His merits are upheld; the accomplishment of man is submerged in His grace. "God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Gal. 6:14).

If the third angel's message concerning the law of God and the true Sabbath is to be successful and triumph it must be bathed in the grace of God through the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ must be the very heart of the message. Christ must be seen and experienced in the Sabbath. Christ and His righteousness must be made the great center of attraction, and this will result in loyalty to the moral law of God and to the true Sabbath as God's special sign. "Light is to shine forth from God's people in clear, distinct rays, bringing Jesus before the churches and before the world. ... If through the grace of Christ His people will become new bottles, He will fill them with the new wine. God will give additional light, and old truths will be recovered, and replaced in the framework of truth; and wherever the laborers go, they will triumph. As Christ's ambassadors, they are to search the Scriptures, to seek for the truths that have been hidden beneath the rubbish of error. And every ray of light received is to be communicated to others. One interest will prevail, one subject will swallow up every other—Christ our righteousness." —Ibid., Dec. 23, 1890.

"The law of God is to be magnified; its claims must be presented in their true, sacred character, that the people may be brought to decide for or against the truth. Yet the work will be cut short in righteousness. The message of Christ's righteousness is to sound from one end of the earth to the other to prepare the way of the Lord. This is the glory of God, which closes the work of the third angel." —Ellen G. White, Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 19.

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Eric C. Webster is director of the Voice of Prophecy Bible Correspondence School, Cape Town, South Africa.

August 1980

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