Night and day the earnest young man struggled to find peace with God. Torturing his body, he fasted and prayed, racking his brains to confess every sin he had ever committed. Nothing worked.
God's Way of Righteousness
Simple, easy, uncomplicated
By William G. Johnsson
Night and day the earnest young man struggled to find peace with God. Torturing his body, he fasted and prayed, racking his brains to confess every sin he had ever committed. Nothing worked. After hours spent in confession, he would awake in the middle of the night with a terrifying thought: What about the sins he could not remember, those that still lay unconfessed and would condemn him before an angry God?
The struggling soul was the monk Martin Luther. His life-and-death quest to find righteousness gave birth to the Protestant Reformation. Luther tried every path to peace that the church of his day offered, but all in vain. At last, however, he found what he desperately craved through study of Paul’s letter to the Romans.
“Night and day,” he wrote later, “I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by his faith.’ Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.”1
Luther’s liberating discovery was an idea utterly foreign to human thought to this point. We do not earn righteousness by our human striving; instead, God freely reckons His righteousness to us as we trust Him. Not our efforts, but God’s gift. Not because of our good works, but through faith—this is God’s way of righteousness.
The book of Romans rings with this glorious affirmation. It is indeed the gospel, good news. “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’?” (Rom. 1:17).2 “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Rom. 3:21, 22).
The Teachings of Jesus
Long before Luther discovered the liberating good news of righteousness by faith, Jesus had emphasized the concept. He did not employ closely reasoned arguments the way Paul did, but used disarmingly simple, profound illustrations and parables.
The religious leaders of Jesus’ society had constructed an elaborate theology that centered on the law. They counted 613 commandments in the Pentateuch, and to them they added a series of oral traditions designed to establish a hedge around the 613 stipulations. Thus, to the plain Sabbath commandment in the Decalogue they had added a long list, specifying what activities were permitted and what were not.
Jesus clashed sharply with the scribes and Pharisees over their view of religion. In the Sermon on the Mount He told His hearers: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). Disputing with them over their rules concerning ceremonial purity, He said: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions” (Mark 7:9).
Jesus raised the bar of righteousness so high that the whole system of attempting to please God by scrupulous attention to detailed observances collapsed under its own weight. He taught that in God’s eyes righteousness is more than not committing murder, adultery, and so on: God’s righteousness embraces even our thoughts and motives so that hate and lust make us transgressors of the law (see Matt. 5:21-47). This was a righteousness of an altogether new order, a righteousness beyond human achievement, a righteousness that Jewish religious teachers never attempted to embrace. This was a righteousness so demanding that humans can never attain it, a righteousness that only God can provide as a gift.
Over and over the parables of Jesus surprise, even shock, the reader. They reverse the way the world functions. Here someone who works only one hour receives the same pay as the person who labors the whole day (Matt. 20:1-16). Here two men go to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee who gives his whole life to strict observance of the law, the other a tax collector, someone despised by others because he serves the interest of the hated Roman overlords and grows rich by unscrupulous practices. The Pharisee as he prays thanks the Lord that he isn’t like other people, certainly not like the tax collector standing nearby. By contrast, the tax man simply bows his head and says, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13).
And surprise! God accepts the prayer of the tax collector, not the Pharisee’s.
In another parable Jesus tells about a king who prepares a huge banquet. He invites a list of guests, but for one flimsy excuse or another they all refuse to come. Then the king orders his servants to go out on the streets and into the lanes and bring all whom they find to the celebration. These new guests are a motley lot, but for every one of them the king provides a wedding garment. Later, however, as he greets the guests, he discovers a man who isn’t wearing wedding clothes. He orders that person thrown out of the party (Matt. 22:1-14).
Jesus’ mode of teaching differs from Paul’s, but the ideas are the same: we do not earn God’s righteousness; He gives it to us. Our part is to trust Him and accept His gift.
In the Old Testament
Some Christians draw a heavy line between the Old Testament and the New Testament, asserting that the former is the era of works, the latter the era of grace. Not so: righteousness by faith runs like a golden thread from Genesis to Revelation.
We read that “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). The apostle Paul underscores this passage in both Romans (4:1-4) and Galatians (3:6-9). Jeremiah calls Yahweh “The Lord Our Righteousness” (Jer. 23:6, NKJV),3 a wonderful name that gives hope to despairing sinners. In the book of Zechariah the prophet sees a vision of Joshua the high priest clothed in filthy garments. He represents the people of Israel in their great need; but then a comforting word comes from heaven: “?‘Take off his filthy clothes.’ . . . ‘See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put rich garments on you’?” (Zech. 3:4).
Many additional examples of righteousness by faith might be cited from the Old Testament. One passage, however, is so outstanding that we cannot leave it unmentioned. In Isaiah 52:13-53:12 we find a powerful description of the Suffering Servant who “bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isa. 53:12). He was “despised and rejected by mankind. . . . He took up our pain and bore our suffering. . . . He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities, the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. . . . The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (verses 3-6).
Here, approximately 700 years before Jesus’ birth, we find encapsulated the ministry of our Savior. Here we gaze into the heart of God’s plan to save a lost world: God’s own Son, His Suffering Servant, takes upon Himself our guilt and shame.
In Adventist History
In every age the gospel has seemed too good to be true. Whenever it is proclaimed, it arouses opposition, just as it did when Paul brought it to the Galatians. Not surprisingly, therefore, Adventist history presents a mixed picture with regard to righteousness by faith.
Early Adventist preachers, feeling called to declare the importance of the Sabbath, tended to focus on the law rather than the gospel. They preached the law to such an extent that Ellen White stated that their sermons were “as dry as the hills of Gilboa.”4 Matters came to a head at the General Conference session of 1888, held in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Two young ministers, Ellet J. Waggoner and Alonzo T. Jones, sounded the theme of righteousness by faith alone. Leaders of the church, thinking that this emphasis weakened the arguments for the law and the Sabbath, opposed them strongly. So Waggoner and Jones stood alone against George I. Butler, president of the General Conference; Uriah Smith, editor of the Review and Herald; as well as other stalwarts.
Not quite alone! One leader publicly espoused the cause: Ellen G. White. In a sad turn of events, however, she found her counsel rejected.
But the gospel was unstoppable, just as it has been in every age. Following the 1888 General Conference session, especially under Ellen White’s leadership by pen and voice, the message of righteousness by faith slowly advanced, wider and wider, further and further, until it became an established teaching of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Ellen White penned some of the loveliest expressions of the gospel found anywhere. Echoing Isaiah’s prophecy of the Suffering Servant, she wrote: “Christ was treated as we deserve, that we might be treated as He deserves. He was condemned for our sins, in which He had no share, that we might be justified by His righteousness, in which we had no share. He suffered the death which was ours, that we might receive the life which was His. ‘With his stripes we are healed.’?”5
Commenting on Jesus’ parable of the man without a wedding garment, she noted: “Only the covering which Christ Himself has provided can make us meet to appear in God’s presence. This covering, the robe of His own righteousness, Christ will put upon every repenting, believing soul. ‘I counsel thee,’ He says, ‘to buy of me . . . white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear’ (Rev. 3:18, KJV).
“This robe, woven in the loom of heaven, has in it not one thread of human devising.”6
During Adventism’s struggle over the gospel, editor Uriah Smith wrote a series of editorials in the Review in which he argued that we need Christ’s righteousness to be justified, but after we accept Christ we must develop a righteousness of our own by keeping the law. Ellen White rebuked him sharply in a letter. She stated that she had read Smith’s editorial and that a “noble personage” had stood beside her and told her that Uriah Smith “is walking like a blind man into the prepared net of the enemy, but he feels no danger because light is becoming darkness to him and darkness light.”7
Of all Ellen White’s numerous gems on righteousness by faith, here is my favorite: “To him who is content to receive without deserving, who feels that he can never recompense such love, who lays all doubt and unbelief aside, and comes as a little child to the feet of Jesus, all the treasures of eternal love are a free, everlasting gift.”8
Friend of mine, I leave you with this question: Are you content to receive without deserving? Are you willing to admit that all your righteousness—all your work, all your service, all your good living—counts for nothing before God’s holiness, that it is only filthy rags? Will you, leaving aside every human boast and all pride, simply accept God’s righteousness as the free gift of His marvelous grace?
1-Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1940), p. 68.
2-Unless otherwise noted, Bible texts in this article are from the New International Version.
3-Bible texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version.
4-In Review and Herald, Mar. 11, 1890.
5-The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898), p. 25.
6-Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1900), p. 311.
7-Letter 55, 1889, in The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials (Washington, D.C.: Ellen G. White Estate, 1987), p. 336.
8-Letter 19e, 1892, in Ellen G. White, Manuscript Releases (Silver Spring, Md.: Ellen G. White Estate, 1990), vol. 8, p. 186.