As we commemorate the founding of the Ministerial Association of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1922, here is an extremely productive ministerial question: What is the one thing Adventist ministers can do that will massively increase their effectiveness? Master the subject of righteousness by faith and incorporate it into all messages and practices of the life of the local church.
Righteousness by faith is, by definition, a relational dynamic. Paul explains that God saves us by relating to us according to our potential in Christ, not according to our current moral condition: “God,” Paul says, “calls those things which do not exist as though they did” (Rom. 4:17).1
Paul’s historical context here is the story of Abraham, who “believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness” (v. 3). The theological point the apostle draws is that God terms us righteous, even though we are really not. He relates to us as if we have never done anything wrong, although He knows we have done plenty wrong. Paul conveys the same idea earlier in the passage by saying, “God imputes righteousness apart from works” and does “not impute sin” (v. 6). To impute means to “ascribe,” to “assign,” to “attribute” a value or a state of being. In the apostle’s usage, God attributes a state of righteousness to unrighteous people. He responds to us as if we are righteous, not to justify our unrighteousness but to make us righteous. He treats us as if we are better than we actually are.
And that is precisely what we see on display in Christ.
When the angels sang to the shepherds of Bethlehem, they proclaimed the gospel in embryonic form: “ ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!’ ” (Luke 2:14). The glorious benediction of peace and goodwill is universal in its scope: “on earth” and “toward men,” meaning all human beings.
When the gospel baby grew up into a man, He proclaimed and demonstrated God’s egalitarian love for all human beings, whatever their social caste, ethnicity, or moral condition. “ ‘For God so loved the world,’ ” He said, “ ‘that whosoever believes in Him [the Son] should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved’ ” (John 3:16, 17; emphases added). Living out the practical reality of His teachings, He touched the untouchables, socialized with the outcasts of the religious system, embraced people across political and racial divides, and eagerly associated with the morally fallen and condemned. And then, having lavished His love freely upon the world, He laid down His life at Calvary as an atoning sacrifice for the entire human race.
Although Jesus never used the theological term righteousness by faith, He was, in fact, its embodiment. Relating to people according to their potential, not according to their actual moral condition, He poured love and acceptance and unmerited favor upon all. In other words, Jesus related to people as if they were righteous, even though they were not, which brings us back to Paul’s theological framing of the truth we see on display in Christ. Whereas Jesus was righteousness by faith personified, Paul was the main theological practitioner of righteousness by faith.
After having informed us in Romans 4 that God calls us righteous, even though we are sinners, Paul explains in chapter 5 that Christ is the Second Adam, the new representative head of the human race, so His righteousness redeems the first Adam’s failure and gives humanity a new starting point: “Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (vv. 18, 19).
Then, in chapter 6, following through with the implications of the Christ event, the apostle admonishes us to see ourselves the way God does and live accordingly: “For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (vv. 10, 11).
To “reckon” means to regard or count a thing to be true and proceed accordingly. Jesus lived the righteous life that Adam failed to achieve, He died the covenantal death of self-sacrificing love, and then He rose from the dead as the new genesis of a new humanity. So then, Paul reasons, we should “reckon ourselves” to be what God, in Christ, says we are: dead to sin and alive to God.
After having negated the law as a means of salvation, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul coined the specific theological term righteousness by faith as a simple and profound framing of the gospel: “For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love” (Gal. 5:5, 6).
Here Paul explains that righteousness comes only “by faith.” I cannot attain righteousness by pursuing it as an end in itself, as a moral goal to be achieved by trying hard enough, or as something I can do by myself. Faith alone is the means by which righteousness is attained. That is the first thing Paul wants us to get clear in our heads. But then he goes one vital step further. While we attain righteousness only by faith, faith only “worketh by love” (v. 6, KJV).
The word here translated “worketh” is energeo in the Greek, from which we get energy as the English equivalent. Paul is saying that God’s love, as revealed in Christ, is the energy source that awakens faith to action in us. Righteousness is the what, while faith energized by love is the how. There is an axiomatic relationship between righteousness, faith, and love:
- Righteousness is the moral standard of relational integrity from which humanity has fallen and to which we are redeemed in Christ.
- Faith is the psychological action by which righteousness becomes experiential.
- The love of Christ is the energizing catalyst that arouses faith to its proper sphere of exercise—namely, to latch on to the objective gift of the righteousness of Christ as the only means capable of generating the subjective reality of righteousness in our lives.
It becomes evident, therefore, that God’s love must be our focus, for therein lies the power that sets the whole experience in motion. Employing the language of Galatians 5, Ellen White offered a simple yet brilliant definition of righteousness by faith: “It is the active principle of love imparted by the Holy Spirit.”2
Whereas Paul speaks in Romans of imputed righteousness and in Galatians of righteousness by faith, to the Corinthians, he articulates the same idea in terms of God occupying an already reconciled relational posture toward sinners:
“For the love of Christ compels us, because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died; and He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again.
“Therefore, from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation.
“Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:14–21).
Master this one subject and incorporate it into all your preaching and relational dynamics, and your ministry will skyrocket to a whole new level of relevance and power.
Paul’s gospel reasoning here is tight and cohesive: “The love of Christ” operates as a moving force inside us as we “judge”—in the sense of discerning and believing—that He “died for all.” Because He died for all human beings, His death constituted the death of all human beings in a representative, substitutionary sense. Then Paul explains that the love of Christ radically impacts us in two ways:
First, it breaks the power of selfishness in our hearts so that we stop living for ourselves and begin living for Him.
Second, it changes the way we see and relate to people. Believing that His death was for all, we no longer regard anyone “according to the flesh,” or according to their natural carnal state. Rather, we see and relate to people in the light of God’s love for them, as revealed in the magnitude of the sacrifice that He made on their behalf. We regard people according to their potential in Christ, according to what they can be through Him, and not according to what they are apart from Him. Thus, we relate to people as if they are what they are not because Christ has related to people (ourselves included) as if they are what they are not. That is to say, looping back to the language in Romans, God relates to us as if we were innocent and righteous, even though we are not.
Paul then recapitulates his point with slightly different language. God “has reconciled” humanity to Himself in Christ by “not imputing their trespasses to them” (v. 19)—or, as the New International Version says, “not counting people’s sins against them.” What Paul frames as imputed righteousness in Romans, he here frames as God occupying a reconciled posture toward all. “Now then,” the apostle reasons, because God, in Himself, is already reconciled to all human beings through Christ, all human beings are called upon to “be reconciled to God” from their side of the relational equation. Then he states the practical outcome God desires: Jesus became “sin for us” so “that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Said another way, the objective, historical, and achieved fact of God’s love for all human beings seeks to generate a subjective, experiential, and transformative righteousness in the lives of all who believe in and receive the sacrifice of Christ on their behalf.
Paul has thus built a bridge of understanding between the relational dynamic of righteousness by faith as it operates (1) from God toward humanity and (2) in the realm of our relational dynamics toward one another. The way I understand how God views me will determine how I see myself, and that will determine how I see others.
When we, as Seventh-day Adventist ministers, individually and collectively, get in sync with the moving of the Holy Spirit, righteousness by faith will not be one topic in a list of many, nor will it be an occasional subject in our preaching. No, it will be the truth that defines and pervades our total work as ministers of the gospel. Envisioning the final and climactic work of the church, which will illuminate the whole world with the glory of God as a global phenomenon, Ellen White said: “One interest will prevail, one subject will swallow up every other,—Christ our righteousness.”3
We do not have many things to preach, my ministerial brothers and sisters, but rather one thing in many forms. Properly understood and communicated, the doctrinal system of Adventism is a gospel monolith. Each doctrine interlocks with the others to form a single righteousness-by-faith structure. Righteousness by faith does not just involve our individual relationship with God. It affects how we regard and treat others. In fact, it must shape and guide everything we, as God’s people, do.
Master this one subject and incorporate it into all your preaching and relational dynamics, and your ministry will skyrocket to a whole new level of relevance and power. Magnifying God’s love and negating all human merit, the glorious message of righteousness by faith is the one truth that will, when we allow God to have His way with us, swallow up every other.
- Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations in this article arefrom the New King James Version.
- Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1928), 468.
- Ellen G. White, “ ‘Be Zealous and Repent,’ ” Review and Herald Extra, Decemeber 23, 1890, 2.