Romans 3:28 is a key text in Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.” When Martin Luther translated this text into German, he added the word “alone” to the word “faith.” Thus Luther’s translation says: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith alone apart from the deeds of the law.” Although the word “alone” is not found in the Greek text, his translation is theologically correct.
For Martin Luther righteousness or justification by faith was the article by which the church stands and falls. Justification, sola fide (by faith alone), was for him, and it should be for us, the gospel. If the church does not preach this message, it is failing in its mission. In 1889 Ellen White wrote: “Not one in one hundred understands . . . the Bible truth on [righteousness by faith].”¹ What would she say today? Do we understand righteousness by faith?
The plan of salvation includes three elements: justification, sanctification, and glorification. After the fall of Adam and Eve, God had three choices. First, He could have let them die. This would have been righteousness without mercy. Second, He could have simply forgiven them. This would have been mercy without justice. But because God is not only just but also merciful, He chose the third possibility, combining justice and mercy. By condemning sinners to death, God is just. By dying their death in the person of Jesus Himself, God is merciful.
Jesus on the cross died for all humankind, so that we can live (John 3:16). This is the good news. God does not come to us with demands, but with a gift, the gift of forgiveness, because “pardon and justification are one and the same thing.”² Through faith we accept this gift. Faith is the hand that accepts this gift. Faith is the means that God has chosen to impute to us—that is, to put to our account—Christ’s righteousness. Christ’s righteousness is Christ’s perfect, sinless life and His death. Therefore, when I say Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us, I mean that
His life is counted as our life,
His good deeds are counted as our deeds,
His death is counted as our death.
His life and death are attributed to us, reckoned as ours. Is there anything we have to do? Yes, we have to accept it. We cannot add anything to Christ’s righteousness, but we have to accept it. How do we indicate our willingness to accept it? Through confession and repentance (1 John 1:9). If we genuinely repent, we will receive God’s gift. The wonderful news is that even our repentance is the work of God in us (Rom. 2:4).
JESUS AND THE LAW
God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). Therefore, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2Cor. 5:21). What is the righteousness of God? His right doing, His perfect works, because He is perfect (Matt. 5:48). Consequently, only perfect obedience to the law is acceptable to God. No human could render this to God except Christ. He lived a perfect, sinless life in word, thought, and deed; then He took our place on the cross and died so that we might live.
This perfect obedience—His righteousness, the only righteousness God can accept—is given to us if we believe. It is imputed to us, that is, put to our account. This is justification or righteousness by faith; this is how we become righteous in the sight of God.
HUMANITY AND THE GIFT OF SALVATION
Does this mean we have nothing to do in the plan of salvation? No, not at all; we cannot add anything to the gift of Christ’s righteousness—we can only accept it by faith. But once we have it, once we are forgiven, once we are children of God, we have to hold on to the gift of righteousness because we can lose it again. “Once saved, always saved” is not a biblical teaching. The New Testament repeatedly admonishes us to “hold fast what you have” (Rev. 3:11; cf. Heb. 3:14; 1 Cor. 15:1, 2) and to “continue in the faith” (Col. 1:23). This is where obedience comes in.
Justification is Christ’s work for us on the cross and in the heavenly sanctuary. It is a work done outside of us; it’s a change of status: we become children of God. Sanctification is Christ’s work in us through the Holy Spirit. Sanctification changes us into the likeness of Christ. It changes our habits, our desires, our character. In sanctification Christ re-creates us and makes us fit for heaven. “The righteousness by which we are justified is imputed; the righteousness by which we are sanctified is imparted. The first is our title to heaven, the second is our fitness for heaven.”³
Justification answers the question, How do we become children of God? The answer: “It’s a gift of God.” Sanctification answers the question, How do we remain children of God? The answer is “By obedience through Jesus.” He works in us. This is where the good fight of faith is fought; where the battle between the spirit and the flesh, the old and the new, takes place, not to achieve salvation, but to hold on to it.
Justification and sanctification are two equally important components of the plan of salvation. Whomsoever God justifies He also sanctifies. One without the other is impossible. In other words, we are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is not alone, because it produces fruits of righteousness, or good works.
In the parable in Luke 18:10-14 the Pharisee depended on his own righteousness. The publican recognized his sinfulness, and he was justified by God.
A more modern example was John Newton, who was a godless English sailor in the eighteenth century. He worked as a slave trader and led many men into sin. For a time he himself lived as a slave in Africa. At the lowest point in his life God touched his heart, and John Newton became a Christian, a minister of the gospel, who wrote a number of books and songs. He is best remembered for the hymn “Amazing Grace,” which expresses his personal experience: “Amazing grace! how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.” This is the gospel—God’s love, His gift of righteousness.
This was the message of John Newton in the eighteenth century. This was the message of Paul in the first century. This is the message we must preach today— God’s love, God’s grace, His gift of righteousness, which can be ours by faith.
¹Ellen G. White, in Review and Herald, Sept. 3, 1889.
²Ellen G. White, Faith and Works (Nashville: Southern Pub. Assn., 1979), p. 103.
³Ellen G. White, Messages to Young People (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1930), p. 35.
Contributing Writer •
Burtonsville, Maryland, United States
Gerhard Pfandl, originally from Austria, served as a pastor, Bible teacher, field secretary, and associate director of the Biblical Research Institute. He enjoys an active retirement in Burtonsville, Maryland, United States, and is very engaged in his local congregation.