by Pastor Tom Hughes, March 12, 2017: The gospel of grace taught by Seventh-day Adventists is solidly in the Protestant camp. Ellen G. White in The Great Controversy agreed with Martin Luther’s message and his differences with the papal church when it comes to the gospel. The church’s official position on the gospel contained in the Twenty-Eight Fundamentals of the faith is also Lutheran, or Protestant. So officially, the church stands squarely upon a solid Protestant foundation when it comes to the gospel. However, there is another group of Adventists who teach a variation of the Roman Catholic tenet of salvation by works, a form of righteousness by character development eventually resulting in achieving a perfect character or “sainthood.” These two gospels are competing constantly with one another, resulting in confusion and conflict within the membership. Let’s explore the two.
- First, let’s discuss the Gospel of Grace
The Apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:8-10 “(8) For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: (9) Not of works, lest any man should boast. (10) For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” These verses teach us that we are not saved by faith or works. We are saved by grace. The grace of God is what saves us, not our faith or our works. It is true that we are saved THROUGH faith, but faith is NOT OUR SAVIOR. This is important to understand because the gospel of grace is not something that happens because we, through the Holy Spirit, exercise our gift of faith. Grace saved us before we were even born. While we were all sinners and enemies of God, Christ died for us.
The Bible teaches us that “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” [i] All mankind is sinful and has come short of Christ’s perfect character, which is the glory of God. God’s glory is his goodness, his character. All mankind are sinners and have fallen short. That’s why we desperately need Jesus to save us. The Bible makes it clear that even when we were God’s enemies, God loved us and sent his Son to do what we couldn’t do: live a perfect life of righteous obedience. Romans 5:8 reads, “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” He lived a perfect life so that he could use it to exchange for our sinful disobedient lives. Romans 5:10 reads, “For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.”** Before we knew God existed, he loved us and sent Jesus to die to save each and every one of us. We are saved by God’s grace, through faith, and not by our own works. Salvation is a free gift that we cannot ACHIEVE. We can only RECEIVE it through the grace of God. When it comes to salvation we can only be receivers, not achievers!
To be reconciled to God we need to accept Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross as an atonement for our sins. Romans 5:10 reads “For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.” How do we receive Jesus as our Savior? We acknowledge that we are sinners, that we have come short of the glory of God, and that we are his enemy and need reconciliation. Next, we need to confess our sins and claim his death as our only hope of salvation. The apostle John taught that “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” He continued, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” And “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” [ii]
These verses make several important points. First, we are sinners right now. No one is sinless, perfect or holy now. Second, if we simply confess our sins God is always willing to forgive us and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness and account us holy in Christ. That’s the good news of the good spell, or gospel! Christ takes our place, and God has done all this FOR US without any input from us! He then gives us “good works,” that we can walk in, through the Holy Spirit, that will demonstrate we have truly been converted. These “good works,” sinful though they may be, do not merit us anything, but rather are the fruit of the gospel, revealing to the world that we are true followers of Christ. So, we are saved by grace, through faith, to work! Saved by the life of Jesus, reconciled to God by the death of Jesus, justified by his death, sanctified by his death, and saved by his life!
The true gospel of grace is all about what God has done FOR YOU, and not about what you do FOR GOD. It exalts Jesus Christ, who is our only hope, our only perfection, our only sanctification, our only justification and our only righteousness! Now let’s examine a false gospel that is Roman Catholic in its origin and one that has been adopted by many Seventh-day Adventists to their detriment.
- The Gospel of “Character Development”
The false Gospel of Character Development (taught by some misinformed SDA’s) is a lie. It only takes two quotes from the writings of Ellen White to expose it for the false gospel it is. She writes, “The character of Christ is an infinitely perfect character, and He must be lifted up, He must be brought prominently into view, for He is the power, the might, the sanctification and righteousness of all who believe in Him.” [iii] Christ’s absolute perfection becomes our sanctification and righteousness, by faith. Contrast this with her declaration about the character of even the best among us, “The divine beauty of the character of Christ, of whom the NOBLEST and most gentle among men are but a FAINT reflection; of whom Solomon by the Spirit of inspiration wrote, He is “the chiefest among ten thousand, . . . yea, He is altogether lovely” (Song of Solomon 5:10-16); of whom David, seeing Him in prophetic vision, said, “Thou art fairer than the children of men” (Psalm 45:2); Jesus, the express image of the Father’s person, the effulgence of His glory; the self-denying Redeemer, throughout His pilgrimage of love on earth, was a living representation of the character of the law of God. In His life, it is made manifest that heaven-born love, Christlike principles, underlie the laws of eternal rectitude.” [iv]
If only Christ’s infinitely perfect character can atone for our sins, and even the noblest of men are but a faint reflection of that character, teaching people that unless they achieve a perfect character they can’t be saved is a satanic lie. This statement about character includes the 12 apostles, all the prophets, and the 144,000. None of them can achieve sinless perfection; they all have flawed characters that are but a faint reflection of Christ’s character. You are only saved by Christ’s perfection, and no one else ever has been (except Adam and Eve until they sinned) or will be perfect or sinless until Jesus comes. Adventists believe that “Nobody is perfect but Jesus.” [v] Our salvation is not “achieved” by character development. It is “received” as a free gift from Jesus Christ. Paul writes, “And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now RECEIVED the atonement.” [vi] The prophet teaches that “Christ’s character stands in place of our character and God looks at us as if we’d never sinned.” [vii]
We are saved by HIS LIFE not ours. “For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by HIS LIFE.” [viii] Never confuse sanctification with glorification. The all-encompassing perfection of sinlessness is only received in glorification, not sanctification. [ix] We are sanctified by faith through Christ and not by our own works. You see, all our good deeds, even those done by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, are sinful. Not because of any deficiency of the Holy Spirit, of course, but because of the sinfulness of the born-again believer. Even though the carnal nature of a converted sinner no longer reigns, the fact of the matter is that it still remains. As long as man has a carnal nature, he will be sinful and therefore a sinner. Even his best works are valueless for meritorious salvation. This is what the Bible teaches in Isaiah 64:6, “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.” Notice this doesn’t say “All our sins are filthy rags.” It says “All our RIGHTEOUSNESSES are sinful. It calls our righteousnesses “iniquities.” Martin Luther taught that even our good works are sinful. “Although the works of man always appear attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins.” [x] Roman Catholics believe we can by our good deeds achieve sainthood. But Protestants teach that even our good works are sinful and that we can only RECEIVE salvation by faith alone, and not by what we do. We cannot make ourselves holy; it is only God that can declare us holy. [xi]
The Bible also teaches that we are sanctified by grace in the same way that we are justified by grace. Both justification and sanctification are by faith and not by our own works. Notice Hebrews 10:10: “By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” In this verse, we see that we are not only justified by faith, as we discussed earlier, but we are sanctified by faith. Our sanctification is not the result of our own efforts or achievements; rather, it was achieved for us on the cross by Christ’s sacrifice. We are reconciled to God by the death of Christ on the cross and saved by his life’s achievements not ours.
We are justified by the blood of Christ, saved by HIS LIFE, and we are also sanctified by his blood offering on the cross! This is what sanctification accomplishes for us. We are declared HOLY by God, and our sanctification has already been accomplished through Christ on the cross! Romans 5:9 reads, “Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.” We are justified by his blood and saved through him. Now let’s read Hebrews 10:14: “For by one offering he hath perfected forever them that are sanctified.” This verse makes it clear that we have already been declared perfect through Christ upon the cross, that his perfect character stands in place of our imperfect character, and that in God’s eyes we are “as if we had never sinned.” Our perfection is not some weak, sinful achievement based on our own works, but it is based on Jesus’ life and sacrificial offering on Calvary and is forever for those sanctified by his sacrifice. By faith we are justified, sanctified and glorified! Finally, the Bible teaches this directly in 1 Corinthians 1:30: “But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.” If we are in Christ, HE IS OUR SANCTIFICATION, OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS AND REDEMPTION! We are therefore saved by what God has done FOR US, not by what WE DO FOR God. Anyone who emphasizes what we have to do for God more than what God has done for us is a legalist. So, reject the false gospel of righteousness by character development and choose instead the righteousness of Christ! Claim the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ as your only hope, your only perfection and your only salvation!
[i] Romans 3:23
[ii] 1 John 1:8-10
[iii] Manuscript 27, 1889; Reflecting Christ, p. 82.
[iv] Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, p. 49
[v] That I May Know Him, p. 136
[vi] Romans 5:11
[vii] Steps to Christ, p.69
[viii] Romans 5:10
[ix] Excerpted from Seventh-day Adventists Believe… 28 Fundamentals, pp. 133-147, or 27 Fundamentals, pp. 127-131
[x] Heidelberg Disputation Article 3
[xi] Ezekiel 20:12, the Sabbath is a sign God makes us holy.
Tom Hughes is a district pastor in the Ohio Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and an evangelist throughout the denomination’s North American Division, as well as a key leader in outreach to motorcyclists around the world. He addresses these mythologies in a new book entitled The First Angel’s Message Revealed.