Before one of my sermons, the congregation received a handout with a number of theological propositions arranged in two columns. Without knowing the origin of the statements, they had to indicate which ones they agreed with. On the left, I had the five solas of the Protestant Reformation, while the right column contained theological assertions patterned after the Catholic doctrine formulated at the Council of Trent. It turned out that the majority sided with the Catholic mindset. I thought to myself, At some point in our doctrinal journey, we will have to make up our minds if we are Protestant Adventists or Catholic Adventists. Am I declared righteous by grace alone or by grace plus some level of moral refinement? Am I saved by faith alone or by faith plus works of faith? Am I declared right with God because of a righteousness outside of myself or by Christ’s righteousness working within me?
Unfortunately, many church members are sitting on the fence or are even confused by such questions. Human nature desires at least some merit, something that we add or do, especially in being declared righteous, so we become creative. In our minds, even our faith can mistakenly become meritorious.
During the Reformation, the defining doctrinal line between Protestant and Catholic positions regarding being declared “right with God” was very clear: Protestants claimed that it happened through Christ alone, grace alone, and faith alone, while Catholics maintained that moral renovation and transformation also played a meritorious role in salvation.
The doctrine of righteousness by faith, which we can more accurately describe as the doctrine of “righteousness by grace through faith” (see Eph. 2:8, 9), deals with the foundational question, On what basis does God declare me righteous in His sight given the fact that I have a sinful nature? We have been saved (see the Greek tense) by His grace, and we grasp this grace through faith. And even the faith to clasp and accept His grace is a gift from God.
After studying this topic for many years, I would like to offer a definition of “righteousness by grace through faith”: to be declared “right with God” not by our works but by grace through faith in the One who did all the work. We are not declared righteous because of the good works we perform or those that the Holy Spirit accomplishes in and through us. As important as the Holy Spirit’s transformational activity in us is (for the advancement of God’s kingdom and to reveal His love to the world through us), it still does not confer in the least any merit to our salvation nor are we declared righteous because of it. The primary role of the Holy Spirit is to reveal to us who Christ is, what He has done for us, and how, by believing in His gracious accomplishments on our behalf, we are declared righteous in God’s sight. The good works that the Spirit creates in and through us have a heavenly purpose, but that purpose is not to deserve or merit salvation.
Many claim that they believe in Christ’s righteousness but then add such statements as, “I don’t see myself as very righteous, so I’m not sure I am good enough to be saved.” But none of us are good enough to be saved. The declaration “right with God” has nothing to do with my “goodness.” It is what the Reformers called alien righteousness—Christ’s righteousness (His perfect life of obedience on my behalf, His perfect laying down of His life for my sins, and His perfect resurrection as a confirmation that His sacrifice on my behalf has been accepted and victory over death accomplished).
Old Testament witness
In His conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus gave a great example from the history of Israel about this alien righteousness to explain why His death was necessary: “ ‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.
“ ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life’ ” (John 3:14–16, NASB). The antidote for the snakebites was not found in the people. God did not give them something to swallow, inject, or somehow put inside themselves as an antidote. They were not expected to do something to deserve or help with the healing process. Instead, they were to direct their sight outside of themselves, look at the bronze serpent, and believe in God’s antidote (Num. 21:6–9). Just like the bronze serpent, Jesus would also be lifted up on a standard (nissi; Num. 21:8; see also Isa. 11:10) in the likeness of sin so that we could receive the gift of forgiveness and be declared righteous through His merits, not ours. As Paul later explained: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him”
(2 Cor. 5:21, NASB; emphasis added).
New Testament affirmation
Many of us learned about the concept of righteousness by grace through faith from the writings of Paul. But the topic runs throughout the Bible. Paul refers to the Law and the Prophets as being witnesses of this truth. To explain how we are declared right with God, he appeals to the Old Testament. Paul mentions such Old Testament characters as Abraham, David, and Adam (Rom. 4; 5). Furthermore, he proposes that even though Old Testament scriptures testify of it, the Righteousness of God has been manifested not in, but apart from the law. “But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:21–24, NASB; emphasis added).
The core theme of the whole Bible is the claim that God offers us a free gift of grace by simply declaring us right with Him. We receive that gift by believing in Jesus’ perfect life and death on our behalf. Jesus Himself taught His disciples on Resurrection day that the Law, Prophets, and Psalms offer testimony of the necessity of His sacrifice: “Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.” “Now He said to them, ‘These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27, 44, 45, NASB; emphasis added).
To “explain” is translated from the Greek verb diermēneuō, from the root word of which we get the term hermeneutics, the science of interpreting a biblical text. Here the Lukan Jesus gives the number-one principle of Christ-centered hermeneutics: to interpret the whole Bible in light of the Cross. It turned out that His disciples had not understood the Scriptures, but now they saw that the Scriptures were all about Jesus and the plan of redemption.
Paul uses this interpretive method to demonstrate for us on what basis we are declared right with God and that it is a gift of His grace. He uses several examples from the very beginning of the Jewish Scriptures. Following is a review of one of those examples.
Abrahamic case study (logizomai)
The first verse in the Bible that equates “believing” in God’s word as “righteousness” is Genesis 15:6, which Paul quotes in Romans 4: “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (vv. 3–6, NASB; emphasis added). “Credited” (sometimes also translated as “accounted” or “taken into account”) is a verb used in the practice of accounting (Greek logizomai). It indicates both credits and debits. Paul uses the word to signify Abraham’s belief being credited as righteousness and in the opposite sense when referring to Psalm 32: “ ‘Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD will not take into account [also logizomai]’ ” (Rom. 4:8, NASB). The apostle employs the verb many times in Romans 4 when explaining how we end up with “righteousness” on our account not because of the presence of good works (e.g., Abraham’s later covenant of circumcision) or bad works (e.g., David’s sin). Furthermore, the apostle uses the verb once again in the conclusion of the chapter by applying it to us personally: “Now not for his [Abraham’s] sake only was it written that it was credited [logizomai] to him, but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited [logizomai], as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification” (vv. 23, 24, NASB; emphasis added). God credits (logizomai) Christ’s righteousness to our record simply because we believe in His gracious gift.
The Septuagint (LXX) is a very good source for word study in the New Testament, primarily because most New Testament writers are quoting the Old Testament directly from it. That is why I wanted to check if the verb logizomai is the one used in the Greek version of Genesis 15:6, and it was!1
Yearning to know more, I wanted to see whether I could find in the Septuagint the gospel principle of the great exchange that Paul emphasizes again and again. It is the concept that we are declared right with God, not simply because He arbitrarily decided so but because Jesus was made sin on our behalf. The fact that I am “accounted” (logizomai) righteous because of Christ’s righteousness, not mine, must be the counterpart of the fact that Jesus was “accounted” (logizomai) transgressor because of my transgressions, not His. And yes, it was in the Septuagint!
Because He poured out Himself to death,
And was numbered [or accounted (Greek verb: logizomai)] with the transgressors;
Yet He Himself bore the sin of many,
And interceded for the transgressors
(Isa. 53:12, NASB).
He was counted (logizomai) as a transgressor on my behalf so that I could be counted (logizomai) as righteous because of Him!
Even though there are implied pointers to the gospel substitutionary exchange early on in the Bible (like God clothing Adam and Eve in animal skins after the Fall), it is in the story of Abraham at Moriah that we get to see the very first explicit substitutionary event. In Genesis 22:2, the Lord commands him to do something extraordinary with the son through whom the promise of Genesis 15 was to be fulfilled. The divine command is expressed in three actions: take, go, and offer him as a burnt offering. When the angel stopped the hand of Abraham from killing his son, “then Abraham raised his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram and offered him up for a burnt offering in the place of his son” (Gen. 22:13, NASB; emphasis added). The three actions (go, take, and offer) were fulfilled through a substitute in place of his son. No wonder Jesus said that Abraham saw His day and rejoiced (John 8:56).
Our top priority
The core of our preaching as we await Christ's second coming must be that we are declared “right with God” not by our works but by grace through faith in the One who did all the work. For years past, we have been admonished to make this topic our priority: “One interest will prevail, one subject will swallow up every other,—Christ our Righteousness.”2 That we are justified or declared right in God’s eyes by faith in His sacrifice is the third angel’s message, confirmed author Ellen G. White: “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.’ ”3 Only when we start proclaiming loudly and clearly that we are saved by Christ’s righteousness alone on our behalf, as manifested at the cross, will the Holy Spirit fall on us corporately to empower us to preach the true gospel throughout the world. “And then the end will come!”
- Paul also employs it in the case of David when he quotes Psalm 32.
- Ellen G. White, Sons and Daughters of God (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1955), 259.
- Ellen G. White, “Repentance the Gift of God,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, April 1, 1890, 1.