ILLY GRAHAM TELLS THE STORY OF Albert Einstein traveling by train to an out-of-town engagement. The conductor stopped by to punch his ticket. Preoccupied with his work, the great scientist, with much embarrassment, rummaged through his coat pockets and briefcase to no avail. He could not find his ticket. The conductor said, “We all know who you are, Dr. Einstein. I’m sure you bought a ticket. Don’t worry about it. Everything is OK.”
The conductor walked on down the aisle punching other tickets. Before he moved to the next car, he looked back and saw Dr. Einstein down on his hands and knees looking under his seat trying to find his ticket. He came back and gently said, “Dr. Einstein, please don’t worry about it. I know who you are.”
Einstein looked up and said, “I too know who I am. What I don’t know is where I’m going!”
Do you know where you are going? Do you know whether you are safe for eternity? What is the point of coming to church and even being part of a church community if you are not sure where you are going, that you are accepted by God?
Why This Uncertainty?
We all know that salvation is by grace alone through faith in Jesus Christ. But when I ask Adventist audiences how many have the assurance of salvation right now, only half raise their hands. Why? Many of us are confused about what God really expects from us when it comes to salvation. And we have been taught never to say, “I am saved.”
Our purpose in life is to glorify God, build a relationship with Jesus and with one another, and share the good news of God’s wonderful love and grace with everyone we meet. But if we don’t know whether we have been accepted by God, we don’t have any good news to share.
Many Adventists and other Christians are confused in this area. We have been brought up according to the concepts presented in Figure 1. We start out in the bottom left corner with conversion, giving ourselves to God. This is called justification, what God has done for us, His imputed righteousness.
Once we have given our lives to God we begin the process of sanctification, which is the imparted righteousness of Christ. Then our life is supposed to be a steady progress toward perfection. We have ups and downs, but the trend is always upward.
The problem of insecurity is graphically illustrated by this chart. (Everything below the diagonal line is sanctification and everything above is justification.) As we grow in sanctification, the thinking of some is that we need less and less of justification, until it is all sanctification and no justification.
But how do we know if we have reached perfection? And how much sanctification is necessary to be saved?
Richard Nies tells the story of a missionary driving a truck who, coming across some nationals carrying heavy baskets of merchandise on their heads, stopped to pick them up. After several miles he looked back to see how they were doing and discovered to his surprise that they still had the baskets balanced on their heads.
Stopping in the middle of the road, he turned and asked, “Why don’t you put those heavy baskets down and rest while you’re riding?”
“Oh, no!” they replied, “You’ve done enough. The least we can do is carry our own burdens.”1
Unfortunately many of us are like those people. We seem so reluctant to unload our burdens and put them on the Savior.
Knowing We’re Saved
Some of us remember this statement by Ellen White: “Those who accept the Saviour, however sincere their conversion, should never be taught to say or feel that they are saved. This is misleading. Everyone should be taught to cherish hope and faith; but even when we give ourselves to Christ and know that He accepts us, we are not beyond the reach of temptation.”2
It is amazing how we will see one part of a passage and miss another very important part in the same passage. Look at the second part of what Ellen White is saying, “even when we give ourselves to Christ and know that He accepts us.”
She says that we should know that Christ accepts us. This is in line with what the apostle John said: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13, emphasis supplied).*
Ellen White, in the first part of this quote, was reacting to the concept of “once saved, always saved,” the idea that once you have accepted Jesus you can never be lost. In theology this is called the perseverance of the saints. However, just as we choose to follow Jesus, so we can choose not to follow Jesus. But simply sinning after choosing Jesus does not mean that we have stopped choosing Jesus.
Should we seek to make ourselves righteous so God can accept us? No, otherwise you are saved by works. Paul made this crystal clear: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works [changes in behavior], so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8, 9). And in Romans, his magnum opus on salvation, he wrote: “If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Rom. 4:2-5).
Notice the last part of this passage: “God who justifies the wicked.”
The key to understanding assurance is found in the word “justified,” used in this passage. The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Dictionary defines justification as “the divine act by which God declares a penitent sinner righteous, or regards him as righteous. Justification is the opposite of condemnation (Rom. 5:16). Neither term specifies character, but only standing before God. Justification is not a transformation of inherent character; it does not impart righteousness any more than condemnation imparts sinfulness. . . . When God imputes righteousness to a repentant sinner He figuratively places the atonement provided by Christ and the righteousness of Christ to his credit on the books of heaven, and the sinner stands before God as if he had never sinned” (pp. 616, 617).
Justification is God declaring a person righteous because of Christ. It does not make a person intrinsically righteous. Sinners enjoy the assurance of salvation because their standing rests not in what they have done or in what has been done to them but in what has been done to Christ. Christ wrought out their victory at Calvary and now offers that victory to all who believe.
Justification is a legal term that Paul took from the Roman law courts. When a person was put on trial and found to be innocent, he was pronounced “justified.” In Jesus, we’ve been justified. Jesus has taken away our guilt. “God made him [Jesus] who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
Look at It This Way
In Figure 2 you again find justification and sanctification. Justification is like an umbrella. When God justifies and transforms an individual, He also begins the lifelong process of sanctification. Every Christian will want to live according to everything that God wills. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15; see also 15:10). But keeping God’s rules only comes as a response to the salvation He has already given in Christ, never as the cause (or part of the cause) of that salvation.
And God does want us to perform good works. But these good works are not to get us to heaven. They are to glorify God. Jesus said, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).
When you messed up in your family as a child, were you kicked out? No. You were still part of the family. When we mess up in God’s family, He does not kick us out. Christ’s blood still covers us. We do not lose our salvation every time we sin. We lose our salvation only when we decide that we no longer want to be surrendered to God, when we no longer want Him in our lives.
King David would never be considered a perfect man. He sinned in many ways, but look at the vote of confidence God gave him, describing him at one time as “my servant David, who kept my commands and followed me with all his heart, doing only what was right in my eyes” (1 Kings 14:8).
Did David always “do only what was right in God’s eyes”? No, he did not. But because he lived in surrender to God and was always repentant when he sinned, God looked at him as if he had never sinned. In the same way God looks at us through Jesus.
Paul told the church at Corinth that some will barely make it into heaven, “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor. 3:11-15, NRSV).†
Paul is telling the church in Corinth that there will be people who make a mess of their lives, but at the end come fully to God and will be saved. But none of their deeds will have benefited anyone else. Our goal should be doing the most we can for God, not the least.
Ellen G. White Affirmations
Ellen White has been accused of promoting a lack of assurance in our standing before God, but that is not true. Here are some of her statements regarding what it means to be in a right relationship with God.
“Some who come to God by repentance and confession, and even believe that their sins are forgiven, still fail of claiming, as they should, the promises of God. They do not see that Jesus is an ever-present Saviour; and they are not ready to commit the keeping of their souls to Him, relying upon Him to perfect the work of grace begun in their hearts. While they think they are committing themselves to God, there is a great deal of self-dependence. There are conscientious souls that trust partly to God and partly to themselves. They do not look to God, to be kept by His power, but depend upon watchfulness against temptation and the performance of certain duties for acceptance with Him. There are no victories in this kind of faith. Such persons toil to no purpose; their souls are in continual bondage, and they find no rest until their burdens are laid at the feet of Jesus.”3
In the chapter on “Faith and Acceptance” in the book Steps to Christ, Ellen White wrote: “Do not wait to feel that you are made whole, but say, ‘I believe it; it is so, not because I feel it, but because God has promised.’”4
“The character is revealed, not by the occasional good deeds and occasional misdeeds, but by the tendency of the habitual words and acts.”5
“We shall often have to bow down and weep at the feet of Jesus because of our shortcomings and mistakes, but we are not to be discouraged. Even if we are overcome by the enemy, we are not cast off, not forsaken and rejected of God. No; Christ is at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us. Said the beloved John, ‘These things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.’ 1 John 2:1.”6
Yes, we can have the assurance of salvation right now!
*Unless otherwise noted, all Bible texts in this article are from the NIV.
†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.
1Richard Nies, “Without a Doubt,” Insight, March 1986, p. 18.
2E. G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 155.
3E. G. White, Faith and Works, p. 38.
4E. G. White, Steps to Christ, p. 51.
5Ibid., pp. 57, 58.
6Ibid., p. 64.
David Newman is senior pastor of the New Hope Seventh-day Adventist Church in Fulton, Maryland.