How is it possible for a perfectly just and holy God to forgive sinners? This is the question that lies at the heart of the doctrine of justification, and is answered by the apostle Paul in Romans 3:21-26:
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it–the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
The apostle Paul uses a legal term–justification–to demonstrate how God is able to simultaneously be holy, just, and to have fellowship with sinners. God’s holiness prevents him from simply overlooking sin and he would be unjust if he did not bring judgment against it. Being rich in mercy, God provided a way for sin to be forgiven through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, securing fellowship with his sinful children while simultaneously preserving his holiness and justice.
But exactly which sins are forgiven–past sins or all sins (past, present and future)? Adventists have historically come down on the “past sins only” side of this argument, leading to a situation where future sins can disqualify the believer from salvation. This is the essence of the investigative judgment teaching which asserts that even one unconfessed sin will leave the sinner without salvation (for previous articles on this topic, please see The Experience of Salvation and The Gospel, 1844 and Judgment).
Adventists are not alone in teaching this, however.
“Q. What is meant by justification?
R. Justification means to be made righteous.”
Notice in this answer that the sinner is “made righteous”. This language is imprecise and unfortunately leads to the false conclusion that righteousness is inherent to the justified Christian rather than being derived from Christ’s righteousness, which is external to the Christian. It is on this point that the Protestant Reformers disagreed with Roman Catholics who taught that the sinner was justified based on inherent (in the sinner) rather than imputed (outside the sinner and in Christ) righteousness. Taken further, If one believes righteousness is inherent in the Christian, salvation is a reward for being found righteous, whereas if righteousness is externally derived from Christ, salvation is a gift of God to sinners who do not deserve it.
Consider just one article from the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent, where the main tenets of the Protestant Reformation were comprehensively denounced:
“If any one saith, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favour of God; let him be anathema.” (Canon XI)
From this statement we see that Catholics who hold to the sinner’s inherent righteousness necessarily consider salvation a reward rather than a unilateral and unmerited gift of God. What’s more, anyone who believes their justification comes solely from God’s unmerited favor has a curse (anathema) pronounced upon him! If by using the word “inherent”, Adventists and American Methodists mean the same thing as the Catholics in describing the sinner’s righteousness, they are necessarily moved into a position where their salvation is at least partly a reward for their good works and not completely a gift of God’s unmerited favor.
Moving on to the next question of the Catechism for American Methodists, we find:
“Q. How are we made righteous?
R. On two counts: we are forgiven for past sins through the blood of Christ; and we are empowered for holy living through Christ, in his Church, by the Holy Spirit; that is, we are pardoned and born again.”
The identical concern we wrote about previously regarding the Adventist understanding of justification is applicable here: “The implication that the sinner requires continual justification is at odds with what the Bible says in describing justification as a one-time event (Rom. 3:21-28, Rom. 5:1, Rom. 8:30. Rom. 10:4, Gal. 2:16, Gal. 3:24). ... The historic teaching of Protestant Christianity–that we are declared righteous by receiving Christ’s imputed righteousness–is thus clouded....”
The Protestant Reformers recorded their understanding of justification and imputation in the Westminster Larger Catechism as follows:
“Q70: What is justification?
A70: Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone.
1. Romans 3:22, Romans 3:24-25; Romans 4; Romans 5
2. 2 Corinthians 5:19, 21; Romans 3:22-25, Romans 3:27-28
3. Titus 3:5, 7; Ephesians 1:7
4. Romans 4:6-8; Romans 5:17-19
5. Acts 10:43; Galatians 2:16; Philippians 3:9
Q71: How is justification an act of God’s free grace?
A71: Although Christ, by his obedience and death, did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to God’s justice in the behalf of them that are justified; yet inasmuch as God accepteth the satisfaction from a surety, which he might have demanded of them, and did provide this surety, his own only Son, imputing his righteousness to them, and requiring nothing of them for their justification but faith, which also is his gift, their justification is to them of free grace.
1. Romans 5:8-10, Romans 5:19
2. 2 Timothy 2:5-6; Hebrews 7:22; Hebrews 10:10; Matthew 20:28; Daniel 9:24, 26; Isaiah 53:4-6, Isaiah 53:10-12; Romans 8:32; 1 Peter 1:18-19
3. 2 Corinthians 5:21
4. Romans 3:24-25
5. Ephesians 2:8
6. Ephesians 1:7”
The distinction between inherent and imputed righteousness is probably the greatest difference between Protestants who are true to their Reformation heritage and those who have unwittingly endorsed a Roman Catholic view. The concern here is not so much that Protestants have joined Catholics (which many of these Protestants would be surprised to learn), but that so many have given up the precious truths recovered through conviction, bloodshed and sometimes death at the Protestant Reformation. While seeing themselves as the inheritors of the Reformation, many Adventists and non-Adventist Protestants have taken leave of the very truth that lies at the center of their right standing with God. If we neglect the precious truth of justification by faith alone, we must admit that we can never really know whether we are saved (because we could fall into sin at any time–sin which may not be covered by God’s future forgiveness), and we find ourselves in agreement with Ellen White, who said, “Those who accept the Savior, however sincere their conversion, should never be taught to say or feel that they are saved” (Christ’s Object lessons, p. 155).
Instead of being uncertain and merely hopeful about what lies ahead in the Christian life, let us make our calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10). May our faith be in Jesus Christ, who is the source of our imputed righteousness and who is able to complete the work he began in us (Philippians 1:6).