February 18, 2015

40 Below

The issue with Seventh-day Adventists,” the preacher explained, “is that they believe they are saved by their works.” 

This accusation reappears every decade or so and is nothing new to the Adventist faithful. Since the days of Ellen White we’ve been bombarded
with labels such as legalists, Pharisees, bigots, flat-earthers, and my personal favorite, Jews. Another critical remark I’ve heard about the Adventist Church is that our greatest blunder was the elimination of righteousness by faith. 

As a youth growing up in the Bible Belt of the United States, the varying doctrines of our fellow Protestants were ever-present and ever-vocal in my upbringing. Whatever doctrinal distinctive one may critique about the Adventist Church, the conversation would inevitably touch on righteousness by faith at some point. In those days the most common dispute I heard did not have to do with the sanctuary. Rather, it had to do with works. 

I must admit that even I didn’t fully understand the role works played. Hearing a constant barrage of criticisms against the importance of works made me second-guess whether they were at all necessary. “The just shall live by faith,” someone would say, quoting Martin Luther and Romans 1:17. From these encounters I would always walk away deep in thought. Were they right?

Simultaneously, the familiar passages “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:26)* and “A man is justified by works, and not by faith only” (verse 24) reverberated in my mind. Works did matter, I argued in response.

Truly, works do matter. But do they save?

My epiphany did not come until I reached my 20s, after several years of serious Bible study. Works do matter, but they do not save us. In fact, works are a memorial to our salvation, not the source of it. 

Did God create the world by resting on the seventh day and sanctifying it? Of course not. So then do we find salvation by working? No, our works are a result of gratitude and remembering God’s saving work in our lives, just as the Sabbath stands as a memorial to God’s creative work in the world.

In the Past

In the book of Genesis, God told Abram that his descendants would be captive in a land not their own for 400 years. The Lord also promised to judge their oppressor and to bring Abram’s posterity up from Egypt and give them the land He had promised to their fathers. When the time to free the children of Israel came, the Lord visited plague upon plague on the Egyptians and the hardened pharaoh. The final and most devastating plague brought on the mourning of an entire people, as all of Egypt’s firstborn died in the nighttime gloom.

Remember, the law of Moses, the Ten Commandments, and the various ordinances given at Sinai were still unheard-of to the Israelites. The Lord saved them not by works, but by faith in the blood of the Passover Lamb, Christ Jesus. Truly, “the just shall live by faith” in both the Old and New Testaments. First God brought salvation, and then He brought His children to Sinai. Not the other way around.

This illustration is akin to the idea that God will meet us where we are. God will always meet us where we are, but He refuses to keep us there. God did not expect Israel to escape Egypt and navigate their way to Sinai. Nor did He plan to save them but keep them in Egypt. With a mighty hand the Lord brought His children up. Not once did works play a role in their salvation—only faith.

Then, with the giving of the Ten Commandments, God’s first words are “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Ex. 20:2). A deeper spiritual lesson exists here beyond literal Egypt. More important than the actual giving of the law, God first reminded the Israelites who He was, first and foremost—their Savior.

After Sinai, the entire Jewish economy revolved around the elaborate sacrificial system. This system not only remembered the Lord’s salvation out of Egypt, but looked in faith to the future coming of a Savior who would free His people.

The Source

Any theology that makes works a part of receiving salvation is a false religion. As the apostle Paul so clearly states: “Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law” (Rom. 3:27, 28).

But before we throw the importance of works out the window, remember that Jesus said, “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15). We cannot minimize the importance of what Jesus is saying, or not saying. He is not saying, “If you want to be saved, keep My commandments.” He is expressing that those who have come to Christ, have experienced His grace and mercy, and have been washed in the blood of the Lamb will inevitably reflect Christ’s character by default rather than obligation.

We live holy, consecrated lives not so that we may be saved, but because we are saved! Christ, the Passover Lamb, did not die to do away with the law; rather He fulfilled its demand for blood on our behalf. Now by faith and in constant gratitude we are enabled to follow in Christ’s footsteps as His children, as the seed of Abraham and heirs of the promise.

Works are a memorial to the Lord’s salvation. They are never the source of it! In the days of Moses, when children asked, “What do you mean by this service?” parents would say, “It is the Passover sacrifice of the Lord, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt when He struck the Egyptians and delivered our households” (Ex. 12:26, 27).

So today, when we welcome the Sabbath hours with prayer and hymns, when we take Communion, or when we study God’s Word together and someone asks, “Why do we do this?” we have an answer.

“We love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). n

* Texts in this article are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.