Adventists: Heirs to the Reformation

Justification: "to make righteous", or "to declare righteous"?

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After 500 years do we still remember the central issue that brought about the Protestant Reformation? According to both Protestants and Catholics, it was justification by faith.1 Adventists acknowledge it as “the great truth that, more than any other truth, brought about the Protestant Reformation”.2

Despite Catholics stating they teach, as do Protestants, “that the whole of justification is the work of God’s grace”,3 there are five areas where Catholics and Protestants differ on the issue of justification: (1) the meaning; (2) the basis; (3) the means; (4) the effect; and (5) the nature of sin and depravity.

Ellen White says that Luther clearly taught “justification by faith”; it was central to the 1888 message, and “is the third angel’s message”.4 “Seventh-day Adventists see themselves as heirs of . . . the Reformation . . . teaching on justification by grace through faith alone.”5

The Council of Trent (1545-1563) formulated the Catholic Church’s doctrine of justification in opposition to the Reformers’ teachings. To the question: “How can sinners stand before God’s holy law in the judgement and be acquitted?” came two radically different answers.

Two views of salvation

Trent ruled that the meaning of justification was “to make righteous” and it included sanctification.6 In contrast, the Reformers taught that justification meant “to declare righteous”.7 Irish theologian Alister McGrath summarises the Reformation view: “Justification is the forensic declaration that the Christian is righteous, rather than the process by which he or she is made righteous. Luther insists that justification involves a change in an individual status before God, rather than a fundamental change in his nature.”8

For Adventists, as Protestants, Ellen White states, in justification sinners are “declared righteous . . . before the universe”.9 Two recent Sabbath School pamphlets, The Gospel in Galatians and Justification by Faith Alone: The Book of Romans, state it well: “Justification . . . is a legal term . . . the verdict a judge pronounces when a person is declared innocent of the charges brought against him or her. It is the opposite of condemnation.” And, “The Greek verb [‘justified’] represents the action as being completed. We have been declared righteous, or regarded as righteous, not through any deeds of law but through our having accepted Jesus Christ.”10

The basis of justification for the Reformers is Jesus’ perfect life and death imputed or credited to the believer—an act of grace for us.11 For Trent it was on the basis of an inherent righteousness infused or imparted—sanctifying grace in us, “which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost”.12

For Adventists, sinners “are justified alone through the imputed righteousness of Christ”.13 Again from The Gospel in Galatians: “imputed righteousness” means “to credit” or “to place something to one’s account . . . [W]hat is placed into our accounts is righteousness.” The “words just and righteous come from the same Greek word . . . ‘to be justified’ means that the person also is counted as ‘righteous’. Thus, justification involves more than simply pardon or forgiveness; it is the positive declaration that a person is righteous.” And from the lesson on Romans, the “perfect life” and “law-keeping” of Jesus “has been credited to us”.14

Trent denied that the means of justification is by faith alone in the merits of Christ.15 Justification was by God making us righteous “through rebirth in Christ” and the infusion of righteousness in sanctification through the Holy Spirit.16 For Luther it was by faith alone in the completed work of Christ—plus nothing.17

Adventists agree that “justification” comes “alone through faith in Christ”.18 The fourth lesson in The Gospel in Galatians is entitled, “Justification by faith alone”. Author Carl Cosaert adds, “faith itself doesn’t add to justification, as if faith were meritorious . . . Faith is, instead, the means by which we take hold of Christ and His works in our behalf. We are not justified on the basis of our faith but on the basis of Christ’s faithfulness for us”, accepted by faith.19

For the Reformers, the effect of justification was full and complete pardon and acceptance the moment a sinner believed in Christ (Romans 8:1). New birth and sanctification were the immediate fruit.20 Luther acknowledged, while obedience is whole-hearted, complete obedience is impossible due to our sinful nature (see Romans 3:10-20; 1 John 1:8, 10).21 White concurs: while “justification is a full, complete pardon of sin”, the best efforts of “true believers” are “so defiled” by the “corrupt channels of humanity”.22 

“Justification is what God does for us, while sanctification is what God does in us.”

In opposition, Trent maintained that justification, based on sanctification, was incomplete. It could be increased by good works.23 The Council said no-one should say “the observance of the commandments . . . is impossible for one that is justified. For God does not command impossibilities.”24

The basic difference between the two views is their understanding of sin and depravity. Trent taught the will was not affected by the Fall. It limited sin to conscious wrong-doing, denied sinful propensities constitute sin and considered depravity curable in this life.25 Thus, sinless perfection and complete obedience are possible in this life through indwelling righteousness by the Holy Spirit.

Luther taught, however, that we are born sinners and depravity affects every area of our being. Sin will not be eradicated from our nature until glorification (see 1 Corinthians 15:51-57).26

Similarly, in the Adventist view, White declares that sin is the “inheritance of children”. It has “deranged” the “whole human organism”. We have “a bent to evil”, which “unaided” we “cannot resist” and which is not eradicated until Jesus comes again.27 Cosaert agrees: “By the Spirit’s power we certainly can subdue the desires of the flesh, the conflict [because believers possess two natures, Galatians 5:17] will continue in various ways until we receive a new body at the second coming.”28

A subtle shift

Trent substituted the transforming work of the Holy Spirit for the work of Christ as Saviour.29 The new birth and progressive sanctification (God’s grace in us) is made the basis of justification, instead of the completed work of Christ.30

For the Reformers, justification and sanctification, while inseparable, are distinct.31 Adventists would agree. “Justification is what God does for us, while sanctification is what God does in us.”32 Adventist author Clifford Goldstein states while we “must never separate them” we “must keep distinct, theologically, the imputed righteousness of Christ (that justifies us) from the work that the Holy Spirit does within us to change us [sanctification].”33

The judgement

“How can sinners stand before God’s holy law in the judgement and be acquitted?” Because Trent made justification depend on sanctification there can be no assurance of salvation until we are perfect.34 By limiting sin to conscious wrong-doing and lessening the effects of the Fall, Trent could advocate perfectionism. All theories of perfectionism lower the standard of righteousness and lessen the enormity of sin.35

For Adventists, believers have perfection credited to them—even the righteousness of Jesus—the moment they believe and accept the free gift of grace in Christ.36 On this basis alone, they are acquitted in the judgement. Obedience is the loving response of the believer to this gift. White says, “We do not earn salvation by our obedience; for salvation is the free gift of God, to be received by faith. But obedience is the fruit of faith.”37

Adventists, as Protestants, are heirs of the reformation.


Errol Webster is a retired pastor living in Bathurst, NSW, and author of the ‘Try Jesus’ Bible lessons.

  1. James Buchanan. The Doctrine of Justification. (Grand Rapids Michigan: Baker, 1977 from 1867 ed.), 9-10; W.J. McDonald. (Ed.). New Catholic Encyclopedia. (New York: McGraw, 1967), VIII:89 (NCE).
  2. Clifford Goldstein (Ed.). Justification by faith alone: The Book of Romans. Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. Oct –Dec 2017, 44
  3. NCE, VIII:90.
  4. The Great Controversy, (Mountain View California: Pacific Press, 1911), 253; Testimonies to Ministers, (Mountain View California: Pacific Press, 1962), 91-2.
  5. Raoul Dederen (Ed.), Handbook of Seventh-Day Adventist Theology. (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald. 2001), 307.
  6. Session 6:7; NCE, VIII:85.
  7. Martin Chemnitz. Examination of the Council of Trent Part 1 (1565-1573). (St. Louis, Missouri: Concordia, 1971. English Trans. Fred Kramer), 474.
  8. Allister McGrath. Justification by Faith: What it Means for Us Today. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1988, 61-62).
  9. Selected Messages, (Washington D.C.: Review and Herald, 1958), 1:392.
  10. Carl Cosaert. The Gospel in Galatians. Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide, July- Sept, 2017, pp. 45; Goldstein, Op. Cit., 73.
  11. Martin Luther. Commentary on Galatians (1535). (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel, 1979), 71, 80; Martin Luther. Commentary on Romans (1515-16). (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel, 1954), 83
  12. Session 6, Canon 11.
  13. Ellen G. White. Our High Calling. (Washington D.C.: Review and Herald, 1961), 52.
  14. Cosaert, 60, 45; Goldstein, 73.
  15. Session 6:11; Canon 9.
  16. NCE, XII:125; NCE, VIII:84-85; Session 6:3.
  17. Galatians 71.
  18. White, 1SM330.
  19. Page 47
  20. Chemnitz, 579-580.
  21. Galatians, 71,129-133; Romans, 115.
  22. 1SM344.
  23. Session 6:10.
  24. Session 6:11; Canon 18.
  25. Session 6, Canon 5. Session 5:5; NCE, VIII:88.
  26. Romans, 95; Luther, 71, 130.
  27. Child Guidance 475. Ministry of Healing. 451. Education, 29. Signs of the Times, March 23, 1888.
  28. Gospel in Galatian, 152.
  29. Buchanan, 387.
  30. McGrath (1988), 68;
  31. Calvin, J. (1997). Institutes of the Christian religion (1559 edit.). Bellingham, WA: Ch. 11:6, 11.
  32. Seventh-day Adventists Believe… (Washington, D.C.: Ministerial Association, 1988), 123.
  33. Clifford Goldstein (Ed.). Garments of Grace, Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide, April-May-June, 2011, 14.
  34. Buchanan, 123.
  35. Louis Berkhof. Systematic Theology. (London: Banner of Truth, 1941), 537-538.
  36. White, 3SM195.
  37. Steps to Christ. (Washington D.C.: Review and Herald, 1893), 60-61.
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