Adventist Review - OCTOBER 4, 2017
How Can We Be Just Before God?
The Reformation heritage of justification by faith
RICHARD M. DAVIDSON
In what is likely the earliest book of the Bible, the patriarch Job asked
the penetrating question: “How can a mortal be just before God?” (Job
9:2, NRSV).1 Down through the centuries this question of our standing
before God, how one is justified by Him, has been viewed as the most
crucial question faced by Christians, foundational to all other
Martin Luther asserted, “If we lose the doctrine of justification, we lose
simply everything.”2 He believed that justification is “the article with and
by which the church stands, without which it falls.”3 In the preface to his
95 theses, drawn up in 1517, Luther boldly declared that “the article of
justification is the master and prince, the lord, the ruler, and the judge
over all kinds of doctrines; it preserves and governs all church doctrine
and raises up our conscience before God. Without this article the world
is utter death and darkness.”4
Similarly, John Calvin considered the doctrine of justification to be “the
main hinge upon which religion turns. . . . For unless you understand
first of all what your position is before God, and what the judgment
which he passes upon you, you have no foundation on which your
salvation can be laid, or on which piety toward God can be reared.”5
In the wake of the 1888 General Conference session, Ellen White
likewise affirmed the importance of the subject of justification by faith:
“The light given me of God places this important subject [justification
by faith] above any question in my mind.”6 At the same time she
warned that this subject is liable to be confused and is the object of
Satan’s attack: “The danger has been presented to me again and
again of entertaining, as a people, false ideas of justification by faith. I
have been shown for years that Satan would work in a special manner
to confuse the mind on this point.”7
Luther had earlier given a similar warning: “Whoever falls from the
doctrine of justification is ignorant of God and is an idolater. . . . For
once this doctrine is undermined, nothing more remains but sheer
error, hypocrisy, wickedness, and idolatry, regardless of how great the
sanctity that appears on the outside.”8
Based on Scripture
The Protestant Reformation occurred largely in protest against the
Roman Catholic understanding of justification, which Protestant
theologians considered a gross distortion of biblical teaching.
Building upon the writings of Paul, especially Romans and Galatians,
and their roots in the Old Testament, Luther presented justifying
righteousness as the “alien righteousness” of Christ. This was in
opposition to Augustinian understanding, in which justifying
righteousness, although completely through the grace of God, was
something inherent in humans. For Augustine, justification was God
making sinners righteous by a conversion of their wills; for Luther
justification was God’s act of declaring sinners righteous based solely
upon the righteousness of Christ credited to their account.
Luther affirmed that justified Christians were simul justus et peccator,
“at the same time righteous and sinner.” R. C. Sproul explains that
Luther’s famous dictum “goes to the heart of the issue regarding
forensic justification.” For Luther, in justification sinners are counted
just forensically by virtue of Christ’s righteousness while they remain, in
and of themselves, yet sinners.
Even though those justified “necessarily, inevitably, and immediately”
are indwelt by the Spirit and begin the process of sanctification, “the
grounds of that person’s justification remain solely and exclusively the
imputed righteousness of Christ. By His righteousness and His
righteousness alone that sinners are declared to be just.”9
For Luther, justification was not for the onlooking eyes of humanity, but
coram Deo, “before the face of God,” or as his theological colleague
Philip Melancthon put it: “before the heavenly divine tribunal.” Grace
was not a holy substance that came down from God and became
inherent in human beings; it was an attitude of divine favor. Melancthon
further worked out Luther’s concepts using more precise language of
imputation. Justification was presented as the divine act of declaring
sinners righteous, based upon the extrinsic, imputed righteousness of
Calvin’s doctrine of justification was deeply indebted to concepts
developed by Luther and Melancthon. Calvin eloquently emphasized
the forensic nature of justification by the imputed righteousness of
Christ as he summarized the doctrine in his Institutes:
“A man . . . [is] justified by faith when, excluded from the righteousness
of works, he by faith lays hold of the righteousness of Christ, and
clothed in it appears in the sight of God not as a sinner, but as
righteous. Thus we simply interpret justification as the acceptance with
which God receives us into His favor as if we were righteous. And we
say that this justification consists in the forgiveness of sins and the
imputation of the righteousness of Christ.”11
To justify, therefore, is nothing less than to acquit from the charge of
guilt, as if innocence were proved. Hence, when God justifies us
through the intercession of Christ, He acquits us, not on proof of our
own innocence, but by an imputation of righteousness, so that
although not righteous in ourselves, we are deemed righteous in
Building on the Foundation
For Calvin, justification and sanctification occur simultaneously and are
inseparable, but must be distinguished. He compared justification and
sanctification to the twofold attributes of the sun: “If the brightness of
the sun cannot be separated from its heat, are we therefore to say that
the earth is warmed by light and illumined by heat?” Even though there
is a “mutual and undivided connection” between heat and light, “yet
reason itself prohibits us from transferring the peculiar properties of the
one to the other.”13
While the Magisterial Reformers (especially Martin Luther, John Calvin,
and Philip Melancthon in the sixteenth century) emphasized different
aspects of the doctrine, and experienced their own personal growth in
understanding its meaning,14 by 1540 there was general consensus
regarding its essential contours.
We Seventh-day Adventists, as heirs of the Reformation,
must clearly understand the truth about justification by
Alister McGrath summarizes three main points of the consensus, in
contrast to Roman Catholic theology: (1) justification is the “forensic
declaration that the Christian is righteous, rather than the process by
which he or she is made righteous”; (2) justification is “the external act
by which God declares the believer to be righteous,” while
sanctification or regeneration is “the internal process of renewal by the
Holy Spirit”; and (3) justifying righteousness is “the alien righteousness
of Christ, imputed to the believer and external to him, not a
righteousness that is inherent within him, located within him, or in any
way belonging to him.”15
This basic understanding of justification was accepted by later
Reformers, such as Jacobus Arminius,16 and became embodied in the
major Protestant creeds in their treatment of justification.17
Ellen White affirmed that “the great doctrine of justification by faith”
was “clearly taught by Luther,” but laments that within 100 years after
Luther’s time this doctrine “had been almost wholly lost sight of; and
the Romish principle of trusting to good works for salvation, had taken
its place.”18 She documented how John and Charles Wesley in the
eighteenth century recovered this doctrine and faithfully proclaimed it.
At the Council of Trent (1545-1563) the Roman Catholic Church, in its
Decree on Justification (1547), not only systematically rejected the
distinctive tenets of justification by faith alone as espoused by the
Reformers, but anathematized (cursed and declared heretical) anyone
who believed or taught such beliefs.20
Within the past few decades, a number of evangelicals have engaged
in dialogue with Roman Catholics on this subject. In a surprising turn of
events, many evangelicals are now returning to Rome, reaching
consensus with Roman Catholic scholars and proclaiming that the
Reformation was a misunderstanding that should never have
Various joint declarations between Protestants and Catholics regarding
the doctrine of justification have been released.21 But a close look at
these developments reveals that the Catholics have not changed their
views on this doctrine since Trent. Rather, many Protestants have
capitulated and no longer see any need for ecclesiastical division
between Catholics and Protestants.22
We Seventh-day Adventists, as heirs of the Reformation, must clearly
understand the truth about justification by faith in view of its central
importance in our lives and in view of Satan’s special work to
undermine and to confuse minds on this foundational biblical teaching.
Ellen White carefully underscored the crucial difference between
justification and sanctification, in harmony with our Reformation
heritage: “The righteousness by which we are justified is imputed; the
righteousness by which we are sanctified is imparted.”23
She also stressed the centrality of this doctrine for the Advent message
in these last days: “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.’”24
1 Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible,
copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the
Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
2 Martin Luther, Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 1-4, vol. 26, of Luther’s Works,
ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis: Concordia, 1963), p. 26.
3 Martin Luther, What Luther Says: An Anthology, ed. Ewald M. Plass (St. Louis:
Concordia, 1959), vol. 2, p. 704, n. 5. “Although Luther did not coin this famous formula
himself, it is widely acknowledged that it nicely captures his sentiments concerning
justification” (Paul Rhodes Eddy, James K. Beilby and Steven E. Enderlein,
“Justification in Historical Perspective,” in Justification: Five Views, ed. James K. Beilby
and Paul Rhodes Eddy [Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2011], p. 24).
4 Luther, What Luther Says, vol. 2, p. 703.
5 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559 ed.), trans. Henry Beveridge
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966), III.xi.1.
6 Ellen G. White, Faith and Works (Nashville:Southern Pub. Assn., 1979), p. 20.
7 Ibid., p. 18.
8 Luther, Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 1-4, pp. 395, 396.
9 R. C. Sproul, “The Forensic Nature of Justification,” in Justification by Faith Alone:
Affirming the Doctrine by Which the Church and the Individual Stands or Falls, ed. John
Kistler,rev. and updated ed. (Morgan, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 2003), pp. 33,
10 The mature Melancthon also grasped the concept of the human free will in which
salvation was truly available to all human beings, unlike Calvin and Luther, who held on
to a doctrine of predestination. See Gregory B. Graybill, Evangelical Free Will: Philip
Melanchthon’s Journey on the Origins of Faith (New York: Oxford University Press,
11 Calvin, Institutes, III.xi.2.
12 Ibid., III.xi.3.
13 Ibid., III.xi.6.
14 For more details and substantiation, see, e.g., Bruce L. McCormack, ed., Justification in
Perspective: Historical Developments and Contemporary Challenges (Grand Rapids:
Baker; Edinburgh, Scotland: Rutherford House, 2006).
15 Alister McGrath, Justification by Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), p. 61.
16 See Jacbus Arminius, “Disputation 19: On the Justification of Man Before God,” in
Works, vol. 1 (accessed at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/arminius/works1.v.xx.html): “I
am not conscious to myself, of having taught or entertained any other sentiments
concerning the justification of man before God, than those which are held unanimously
by the Reformed and Protestant Churches, and which are in complete agreement with
their expressed opinions.” Arminius, however, as did the mature Melancthon, widened
justification to include all who chose to accept it (and not just the elect, as for Luther and
17 See John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches: A Reader in Christian Doctrine From
the Bible to the Present (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1963).
18 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,
1911), p. 253.
19 Ibid., pp. 253-259.
20 See H. J. Schroeder, Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (London: Herder,
21 For a collection of the main documents in the recent Protestant-Catholic rapprochement
over the doctrine of justification, and a sympathetic assessment, see, e.g., Anthony N.
S. Lane, Justification in Catholic-Protestant Dialogue: An Evangelical Assessment
(London: T & T Clark, 2002).
22 See Thomas Schreiner, Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification: What the Reformers
Taught . . . and Why It Still Matters (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), pp. 209-230; and
Klaas Runia, “Justification and Roman Catholicism,” in Right With God: Justification in
the Bible and the World, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), pp. 197-215.
23 Ellen G. White, in Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, June 4, 1895.
24 Ellen G. White, Selected Messages (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn.,
1958, 1980), book 1, p. 372.
Richard M. Davidson is the J. N. Andrews professor of Old Testament
interpretation at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary