A recent study of more than 12,000 Seventh-day Adventist young people found that 81 percent of them believe that they "must live by God's rules in order to be saved." This church-sponsored study, called Valuegenesis, also revealed that only 28 percent agreed that "there is nothing I can do to earn salvation." Sixty-two percent indicated that "the way to be accepted by God is to try sincerely to live a good life." And 44 percent believe that "the main emphasis of the gospel is on God's rules for right living."
Why are our young people so confused over the gospel? Whenever a church emphasizes holy living—high ethical and moral standards—it runs the risk of distorting the gospel. While rules and correct behavior are necessary in the Christian's life, they never constitute the basis of salvation. God saves a person on the basis of the perfect life and death of Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:9, 10), not on the basis of any contribution the person may have made.
A recent series of Sabbath school lessons on the book of Romans unwittingly added to the confusion. These lessons taught that the new birth is part of justification. This mingling of justification (the forensic) and the new birth (the experiential) presents a very real problem. Questions arise in the mind: How converted do I have to be in order to be saved? Is there enough evidence of conversion in my life to grant the assurance of salvation? How much must I be transformed for God to forgive me?
Once individuals begin this inward look, taking their eyes off the cross and the objective work of Christ and focusing on the subjective work of Christ in them, they no longer have a fixed frame of reference. When they look at how well they are keeping the Sabbath, how victorious they are over sin, how correct their behavior is, they will be confused over what constitutes salvation.
This is not to deny the importance of the new birth; without it no one will see the kingdom of heaven. Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born again. But individuals cannot and dare not look to the new birth as part of the ground of their assurance in Christ. If they are justified by faith, the new birth will inevitably follow.
People are saved not because they are converted, but because through faith they place their trust in Jesus Christ. God accepts that faith, imputes the righteousness of Christ to them, credits them with the perfect life of Christ, and treats them as if they have never sinned (see Rom. 4:3,5). At the same time God transforms them through the new birth experience so that they possess the will to live a holy life. The growth in Christ that begins here is the work of a life time, never fully realized in this life. But throughout the process, always be cause of the doing and dying of Christ, God treats the believers as perfect and worthy of salvation.
What is justification?
The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Dictionary defines justification as follows: "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. . . . 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'' (page 635).
When God justifies a person, He declares that person righteous because of Christ. Justification does not make a person intrinsically righteous (see verse 5). Sinners enjoy the assurance of salvation not because their standing rests in what they have done or in what has been done to them, but because it rests in what Christ has done for them (verses 9, 10). He wrought out their victory at Calvary and now offers that victory to all who believe.
When God justifies and transforms an individual, He also begins the lifelong process of sanctification. Every believer will want to live according to everything that God wills. Jesus said, "If you love me, you will obey what I command" (John 14:15; see also John 15:10).* But the believer keeps God's rules only as a response to having already been justified in Christ, never as the cause or part of the cause of that justification.
God continues to declare those who live under the umbrella of justification 100 percent righteous as long as they choose to live under that umbrella. The law no longer condemns them, for Christ fulfilled all the demands of the law (see Rom. 10:4; cf. Matt. 5:17). No wonder Paul could say "Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 5:1).
Christians are at peace because they trust in the perfect law-keeping of Jesus Christ. They are no longer under condemnation (Rom. 8:1). They no longer feel guilty. Joy fills their lives.
Christians exalt Christ, never themselves. They also become very concerned about victory over sin. They take seriously Paul's words "Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?" (Rom. 6:1, 2).
If we adulterate the gospel, if we cause our young people to be uncertain of their salvation, if we lead them to believe that right behavior is an essential part of the basis of their salvation, then we are contributing to what may become their eternal damnation. Then we are in danger of emulating the Pharisees, who were so zealous that they would "travel over land and sea to win a single convert" (Matt. 23:15), yet despite all their emphasis on holy living "shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces" (verse 13).
Paul reminds us that it is through grace that we are saved, not by works (Eph. 2:8, 9). And grace is unmerited favor. God accepts us not because of some change in us, but because of what Jesus did at the cross. If we accept Him as our Saviour, He will change us. But that change, that new birth, is always part of the result of our new standing in Christ, never part of the cause of that standing.
Rules are important. The church needs to uphold high ethical and moral standards. But—and I want to stress this point— they must never become a stumbling block to people's salvation. May the church live—and not just teach—the righteousness of Christ.