Justification and conversion revisited

The ideas expressed in this feature are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Seventh-day Adventist Church or the opinions of the Ministry staff.

Marvin Moore is an editor at Pacific Press Publishing Association, Boise, Idaho.

Ministry editor David Newman recently wrote an excellent editorial on righteousness by faith ("Confused Over the Basis of Salvation," July 1991). I wish every Seventh-day Adventist understood this subject as clearly as Newman does. However, I take exception to one point Newman made on the role of justification and the new birth in salvation: "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 for give me?"

Newman goes on to point out that the basis of our salvation, and therefore the assurance of our salvation, must be justification, not conversion. Conversion cannot be a part of justification, he says, because conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit in us, and we must never look within ourselves for the assurance of salvation, but only outside of our selves to Christ and His forgiveness of our sins.

Newman is essentially correct that we must look outside of ourselves to Christ and what He has done for us as the basis of our assurance of salvation, and not within ourselves, questioning whether we are sufficiently converted.

However, we do not solve the problem by splitting conversion off from justification. Christ's statement that "no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again" (John 3:3, NIV) forces us to ask whether we are converted, regardless of whether or not we make conversion a part of justification. Conversion is a qualification for salvation.

Newman says that the problem leads to questions such as "How converted do I have to be in order to be saved?'' and "How much must I be transformed for God to forgive me?"

I do not find any such questions posed by Jesus' simple statement. Jesus did not say, "You have to be transformed 50 percent (or 75 percent) to be saved.'' We have no way to measure the degree of our conversion or to know if God is even concerned about it. With Christ the issue is whether we are converted, not how much. This is a pass/fail test, not a grading by percentages or A, B, C, and D.

Newman correctly distinguishes be tween what Christ does for us forensically (outside of us) and what He does for us experientially (inside of us). He also points out that the forensic precedes the experiential; the external precedes the internal. Forgiveness on the record books in heaven precedes the new birth in the heart.

Why even bring up the question "How much must I be transformed for God to forgive me?" By Newman's own theology, the answer to that question is "Not at all," since forgiveness (the external) always precedes the new birth (the internal). The issue is not whether we have been converted enough to be forgiven, but whether we have been forgiven enough to be converted.

Newman also points out, correctly again, that those who have appropriated Christ's external work on their behalf in forgiving their sins will inevitably and immediately experience the new birth. This order of "events" is very important for Christians to under stand. It causes us to put our confidence for salvation in what Christ has done for us outside of ourselves. We simply trust that once we have met the conditions to receive that, we are converted whether we feel like it or not.

Let's return now to the question of whether justification includes conversion, or whether conversion is separate from and comes after justification. I will begin my answer to that question by raising another one: Is the justified person saved and assured of a place in God's kingdom?

I think all the readers of Ministry would agree that the answer is yes. At least I hope all of us agree on that!

If a justified person is saved, then justification has to include conversion, since "no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." If we split conversion off from justification, then we must admit the odd notion that a person who is justified may not be saved.

It doesn't help to say "Well, a person who is justified is immediately born again." That is correct. And all would be fine if we could forget our fine-haired definitions and simply accept what God does for us, without trying to classify everything under this label or that. Let's forget the debate over terms and go on with what we all know God does.

Unfortunately, we humans have a propensity to label and argue about our labels. So if we are going to debate fine hairs, let's split fine hairs. When I split this fine hair, I discover that by excluding conversion from justification, the justified person is unsaved because he or she isn't converted. If we could push the pause button on the video of a person's life in that split second between justification and conversion, we could point to the screen and say, "There's a man who has been justified, but he's still not saved because he hasn't been converted yet."

I'm not as concerned about what a Christian includes in his or her definition of justification as I am that he or she understands correctly the order of events in the salvation process: conviction, repentance, confession, forgiveness, con version, sanctification.

When a person understands this order and applies it in his or her life, the question of what to include in justification becomes a matter of labels, and not worth arguing about. It is not worth letters to the General Conference president accusing people of heresy. It is not worth heated articles in independent newsletters excoriating the church for failure to adopt the authors' points of view.

I enjoy discussing these fine points of theology. It helps us grow in our under standing of salvation. Problems arise when, in spite of agreeing on the ideas and their relationship to each other, we spend our time arguing about how to classify them and which labels to attach to our various ways of grouping those ideas.

Let's teach people the steps in the salvation process. When we agree that the ideas and the order are correct, we can be tolerant of the variety of ways people label them.

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Marvin Moore is an editor at Pacific Press Publishing Association, Boise, Idaho.

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