Damnation or deliverance?

How does righteousness by faith relate to the messages of the three angels of Revelation 14-God's last warning to the world, the special commission of the Adventist Church?

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

The three angels' messages of Revelation 14:6-12 have formed a vital part of the lifeblood of the Advent movement. Their messages have been central to its struggles and its triumphs. In the light of the historic Minneapolis conference of 1888, how should we understand and relate to this threefold message now?

The pulsating throb of that Minneapolis conference was the question of the law in Galatians and its relationship to justification by faith in Christ alone. This becomes evident when one listens to the strident voice of the youthful Wag goner in his manifesto, The Gospel in the Book of Galatians.1

In the aftermath of Minneapolis some of the brethren became fearful that Ellen White, E. J. Waggoner, and A. T. Jones were placing too much emphasis on justification by faith. They felt that this could detract from the proclamation of the third angel's message. Ellen White reports her response to their reaction as follows: "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.' "2

How, then, does justification relate to the messages of the three angels?

The everlasting gospel

The first angel's message is very clearly built upon the foundation of the everlasting or eternal gospel (Rev. 14:6). This good news is the same in all ages. The gospel offered to the world in the first angel's message is the same one that Paul offered to the Galatians in the first century. "But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed" (Gal. 1:8).

Waggoner sensed the similarity be tween Paul's gospel and the three angels' messages: "Now the question arises, Was this preaching of Paul's anything like the third angel's message, or the threefold message which is committed to us? Did his preaching differ from the preaching which we preach? If it differs, are we preaching what we ought to preach? In other words, should our preaching embrace anything more than what the apostle Paul did? If it does, then whatever it may be, we had better get rid of it as soon as we can."3

Many scholars believe that the heart of Paul's gospel lies in Romans 3:24-28. Briefly summarized, these verses tell this story: Humanity has sinned and falls short of God's glory. Jesus Christ came and through His death took all the penalty for sin upon Himself. Now God is just when He declares that the repentant, believing sinner is righteous, not on the basis of the sinner's own record, but on the basis of the perfect record of Another.

Justification by faith provides that at any stage the believer's entire life is covered by Another's perfect life and that God looks at the sinner as if he has never sinned. It reveals God's grace at its high est and best!

The glorious truth of salvation by substitution runs like a scarlet thread through both the Old and New Testaments. It is highlighted in the contrast between Cain's offering of the product of his own labor and Abel's offering of the lamb. It is pictured in the ram that took Isaac's place upon the sacrificial altar. This truth was splashed on the doorposts of Israel as, at midnight, the homes that displayed the blood found salvation. Graphically, substitutionary salvation was traced 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 peak, reflecting its gospel radiance across all time.

The repentant thief on the cross provides a classic example of salvation by substitution. Despite whatever good might have been in the man's experience before the cross, and taking into account his few minutes of belief on the cross, we must realize that spiritually he stood naked and unworthy of heaven. He will be allowed into heaven not on the merits of his own record, but because he relied implicitly on Another's perfect record.

This same scarlet thread of salvation by substitution runs through the eternal gospel of Revelation 14:6.4 There it is interwoven with the judgment, and the call to worship and honor the Creator.

The Babylonian principle

The second angel of Revelation 14 warns against the Babylonian principle. What is this principle? To discover it, we must go back to ancient Babel, where we hear the sentiment expressed, "Let us make us a name" (Gen. 11:4). Later we hear Nebuchadnezzar say, "Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for the house of the kingdom by the might of my power, and for the honor of my majesty? " (Dan. 4:30).

The essence of the Babylonian principle is bound up in self-glorification and reliance on human merit. The sin of pride originated in Lucifer's heart (see Isa. 14:12-14) and became the dominant trait of apostate religion. "The principle that man can save himself by his own works lay at the foundation of every heathen religion." 5

Justification by faith is God's answer to the Babylonian principle. It is the very antithesis of salvation by achievement, by human merit and works. "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." 6

Whenever we are tempted to look to our own works for salvation, to depend on the merits of our health-reform pro gram, to take pride in our maintaining the standards, or to trust partly in our selves and partly in Christ for eternal life, we must beware of the Babylonian principle. At such times we need the Minneapolis thrust: "No works that the sinner can do will be efficacious in saving his soul. Obedience was always due to the Creator; for he endowed man with at tributes for his service. God requires good works from man always; but good works cannot avail to earn salvation. It is impossible for man to save himself. He may deceive himself in regard to this matter; but he cannot save himself. Christ's righteousness alone can avail for his salvation, and this is the gift of God." 7

The law of God certainly has a place in the three angels' messages, for it is connected to the judgment and is featured in the description of the characteristics of those who respond to the message: "Here are they that keep the commandments of God" (Rev. 14:12).

At the time of the Minneapolis session, controversy raged around the law and its role in salvation. Some were emphasizing the Ten Commandments to such an extent that Ellen White wrote: "As a people, we have preached the law until we are as dry as the hills of Gilboa that had neither dew nor rain." 8

Many feared that the idea that the moral law was part of the Galatian problem would undermine the whole Adventist message. For years after the conference they resisted this interpretation. 9

They believed that Christians attained righteousness as they cooperated with God by keeping the moral law. 10

One hundred years this side of Minneapolis we should give the trumpet a certain sound regarding the law and salvation. The moral law must be upheld as the standard of righteousness, not as the means to righteousness. Perfect obedience to the law remains the condition of eternal life but because sinful man can not meet this condition, God provided one Man who could. Through this Man's obedience many are made righteous; in justification by faith the believer is declared righteous and is enabled to live a life of obedience. This obedience is made perfect by the merit of Christ's righteousness.

Ellen White has beautifully summarized the process: "Righteousness is obedience to the law. The law demands righteousness, and this the sinner owes to the law; but he is incapable of rendering it. ... By faith he can bring to God the merits of Christ, and the Lord places the obedience of His Son to the sinner's ac count. Christ's righteousness is accepted in place of man's failure, and God receives, pardons, justifies, the repentant, believing soul, treats him as though he were righteous, and loves him as He loves His Son. This is how faith is accounted righteousness." 11

Justification by faith

If we accept Ellen White's famous statement that justification by faith is the third angel's message in verity, then we need to look a little more closely at the ramifications of justification by faith in the light of the third angel's message. Let us consider the following aspects of justification by faith: (1) its importance, (2) its fruitage, (3) its relationship to sanctification, and (4) its relationship to the judgment.

1. Importance. What about the mes sage of the third angel? Would it not be more logical to confine justification by faith to the "everlasting gospel" of the first angel and to speak of sanctification or character development or perfection in connection with the third angel's mes sage? Could we not regard justification as an important, necessary initial step in the Christian life, but believe that by the time we reach the third angel's message, the capstone of God's final message to mankind, we should have eclipsed justification by faith and passed on to some thing higher?

Does not the very nature of the third angel's message seem to demand some thing other than justification? That mes sage deals with the beast power, its image, and mark. It emphasizes the importance of obedience to God; the Sabbath becomes a burning issue. Does not the Sabbath fit in well with sanctification, the very sign of the God who sanctifies? In view of the contents of this message, how can justification by faith be equated with it?

Ellen White's statement must 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, we will never in this life be able to stand before God without the merits of a Saviour.

2. Fruitage. It has been aptly stated that man is justified by faith alone, but that the faith that justifies is never alone. As the third angel's message in verity, that justification by faith clearly produces the fruits of sanctification and obedience is evidenced by the response of God's people toward the beast, his image, and his 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 sinners understand and accept the marvelous gift of God's righteousness, they will experience re generation and growth in sanctification. God's law will be written in the hearts of those who enter the new-covenant relationship, and the fruitage of harmony with God will be seen in their lives.

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."12 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."13

3. Relationship to sanctification. "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 conversion. The one justified is accepted in the beloved on the merits of Christ, and the process of sanctification parallels justification rather than superseding it.14 Christ is our justification and our sanctification; He provides both our title and our fitness for heaven.

We must beware lest we view our salvation through justification as a gift and through sanctification as partly earned. Our salvation is 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).

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 God. "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." 15

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.

The Sabbath can be a beautiful symbol of both justification by faith and of sanctification through Christ. As a sign of justification, the Sabbath reminds us that we have entered into God's rest and have ceased to rely upon our own works for salvation (see Heb. 4:1-10), that we are resting with Christ in His finished work. 16

The Sabbath is likewise a sign of sanctification and indicates that our righteousness comes from the Lord (see Eze. 20:12, 20). Every week the true Sabbath-keeper is reminded that Christ is his righteousness. "Apart from Christ we have no merit, no righteousness." 17

4. Relationship to the judgment. Even when their names come up for review in the judgment, God's people will need justification by faith. After describing the experience of the high priest Joshua, 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." 18

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

Applying the illustration of Joshua and the high priest to the judgment, Ellen White wrote: "In his sin-stained garments, confessing his guilt, he [man] 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."19

In the judgment does Christ silence the accuser by pointing to the beautiful exhibition of the lives of God's commandment-keeping people? No, He uses a mightier argument the argument of Calvary, the argument of a righteousness outside of man, the merits of His own spotless life.

When we gather around the great white throne we will see that our patience and our obedience to the law of God has been entirely the fruitage of Cal vary. 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."20

The centrality of Christ One of the dominant themes of the presentations made to Adventist ministers and churches after the Minneapolis conference was Christ our righteousness. In fact, the book Waggoner published at this time (in 1890) carried a similar phrase as its title.

Ellen White joined in this emphasis on Christ's centrality to the Advent mes sage. In 1889 she spoke of members seeing "new beauty in the third angel's mes sage." 21 She also linked the message of justification by faith with the new emphasis on Christ. After stating that "the doctrine of justification by faith has been lost sight of by many who have professed to believe the third angel's message" she spoke of the task of ministers: "Their work is ... to preach the truth for this time—the Lord our righteousness." 22

The third angel calls out a people who have "the faith of Jesus" (Rev. 14:12). Should Adventists therefore not be fore most in uplifting Christ before the world in 1988? If justification by faith is "the third angel's message in verity," will not a correct proclamation of this message depend on a Christocentric emphasis?

The doctrine of 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 triumph, it must be bathed in the grace of God poured out through Jesus. Christ must be the very heart of the message.

Christ must be seen and experienced in the Sabbath. When Christ and His righteousness are made the great center of attraction, those who accept the message will be loyal to God's moral law and to God's special sign, the true Sabbath.

"If we would have the spirit and power of the third angel's message, we must present the law and the gospel together, for they go hand in hand." 23

Let us beware of preaching Christless sermons and thus imitating Cain's sacrifice. "Lift up Jesus before the people. Strike the doorposts with the blood of Calvary's Lamb, and you are safe." 24

E. J. Waggoner stated that the ever lasting gospel was the sum and total of the three angels' messages. "The first an gel proclaims the everlasting gospel; the second proclaims the fall of every one who does not obey that gospel; and the third proclaims the punishment that will follow that fall. ... So the third is all in the first the everlasting gospel." 25

Ellen White emphasized the role the proclamation of Christ's righteousness will have in finishing the work: "Light is to shine forth from God's people in clear, distinct rays, bringing Jesus before the churches and before the world. . . . One interest will prevail, one subject will swallow up every other Christ our righteousness." 26

"The law of God is to be magnified....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." 27

The convocation in Minneapolis sounded forth the message of justification by faith in Christ alone. Ellen White took up the refrain, combining the melody of justification by faith with that of the third angel's message. She was convinced that their harmony made good theology.

Let us sing the song of hope and glory! It is a song whose dominant theme is Christ. "When we realize that our hope of glory is Christ, that we are complete in Him, we shall rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory." 28

Let the message heard in Minneapolis ring forth! Let the sweet melodies of justification by faith and righteousness in Christ sound! Let the merits of Christ and the cross of Calvary be lifted high! Let Christ be set forth as the sinner's only hope, as the One who is "made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption" (1 Cor. 1:30). And then we will have a people prepared for the coming of the Lord.

1. E. J. Waggoner, The Gospel in the Book of Galatians (Oakland, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1888). The booklet is written in the form of a letter addressed to General Conference president G. I. Butler, who had published a booklet entitled The Law in the Book of Galatians: Is It the Moral Law, or Does It Refer to That System of Laws Peculiarly Jewish? (Battle Creek, Mich.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1886). Waggoner's letter is dated February 10, 1887, but was sent out "nearly two years" later. This would be in proximity to Minneapolis and no doubt reflected his thinking of that time. See also E. G. White, Testimonies to Ministers (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1923), pp. 91, 92, for emphasis on the Minneapolis message as "justification through faith in the Surety."

2. E. G. White, in Review and Herald, Apr. 1, 1890. p. 193.

3. E. J. Waggoner, in Review and Herald Extra: Daily Bulletin of the General Conference, Mar. 25, 1891. p. 239.

4. For a sampling of this truth see John E. Ford, in Ministry, May 1935, pp. 6-8; and Carlyle B. Haynes, in Ministry, May 1986, pp. 4-7, 10.

5. E. G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), p. 35.

6. ____, Testimonies to Ministers, p. 456.

7. ____, in Review and Heraid, Dec. 20, 1892, p. 786. For further amplification of this concept see E. G. White manuscript 36, 1890.

8. ____, in Review and Herald, Mar. 11, 1890, p. 146. See also E. G. White manuscript 10, 1890.

9. For material evidence of Uriah Smith's role in this resistance, see Eugene F. Durand, Yours in the Blessed Hope (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1980), pp. 247-270.

10. As evidence, see Uriah Smith, in Review and Herald, June 11, 1889. He writes: "Perfect obedience to it [the law] will develop perfect righteousness, and that is the only way any one can attain to righteousness" (p. 376).

11. E. G. White, in Review and Herald, Nov. 4, 1890, p. 673. See also the sermon A. T. Jones preached at Ottawa, Kansas, May 11, 1889. Among other things, he said: "Now Isaiah 61:10, that is the song we are to sing, therefore righteousness is a gift of God as surely as is life, and if we try to get it in any other way we shall fail.... It is Christ's obedience that avails and not ours that brings righteousness to us." Ellen White says that it is "because Christ has satisfied the demands of the law" that we may find the approval of God (Review and Herald, Mar. 10, 1891, p. 145).

12. ____, in Review and Herald, Jan. 29, 1895, p. 65.

13. ____, Steps to Christ (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1956), p. 61.

14. For amplification of this thought see Norman H. Young's paper, "Righteousness by Faith and Sanctification: A Personal Point of View."

15. E. G. White, in Review and Herald, July 10, 1894, p. 433.

16. Ellen White speaks of Christ reverently presenting "at the mercy seat His finished redemption for His people" (Review and Herald, Oct. 17, 1893, p. 645). For another example of her use of the term "the finished work" of Christ, see Review and Herald. May 17, 1892, p. 305.

17. E. G. White, in Review and Herald, Dec. 20, 1892, p. 785.

18. Ibid., Aug. 22, 1893, p. 531. (Italics supplied.)

19. ____, Testimonies (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 5, pp. 471,472.

20. ____ in Review and Herald, Nov. 1, 1881, Aug. 13, 1889, p. 513. p. 273.

21. Ibid., Aug. 13, 1889, p. 513.

22. Ibid., p. 514.

23. Ibid., Sept. 3, 1889, p. 546.

24. Ibid.

25. Waggoner, in Review and Herald Extra, Mar. 25, 1891, p. 240.

26. E. G. White, in Review and Herald Extra, Dec. 23,1890, p. 2.

27. ____, Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 19.

28. ____, in Review and Herald, Apr. 4, 1893, p. 210.


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

February 1988

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1888--issues, outcomes, lessons

Did the 1888 session yield good for the church or bad? How can we benefit from Ellen White's reaction and counsel?

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