In the previous article on Justification (link to article 7 on Justification) we have seen that the predominant view among the reformers was that justification is a legal declaration of imputed righteousness. Human beings can never achieve salvation through their own merits, but by accepting Christ’s substitutionary death they can be accounted righteous on behalf of His perfect sacrifice. We are saved through the merits of God and God alone. The Bible supports the same view. Not only do the terms used mean “declaration”, but various passages also point to the same view of justification as that of the reformers. This stands in contrast with the Catholic view, where justification includes sanctification, and therefore salvation is partially through works.
Related Article: Free Will and Salvation
Within the Seventh-day Adventist church, the LGT movement seems to lean towards a Catholic view of justification and sanctification, seeing them as a unified process. While all Adventists agree that both justification and sanctification are rooted in Christ and derive from Him, some argue that the two are distinct aspects, while LGT confuses the two aspects. This confusion is what allows for the belief that God needs a last generation of people whose character perfection vindicates the character of God before the universe. In their view, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was only a partial aspect in the plan of salvation—a first phase of salvation. Reconciliation in God’s cosmos, which requires a correct understanding of God’s true character, also necessitates a last generation, perfect in character to prove that God’s requirement and expectation of obedience to the law is sensible.
In conjunction with other teachings (link to article 1, Contours and Problems), this view of justification as including sanctification implies that, just before Christ’s return, a group of 144,000 individuals referred to in Revelation 7 and 14 will reach character perfection and will stand before God without the intercessory ministry of Christ. Character perfection is necessary for Christ’s return, for only when His character will be fully vindicated through this generation will He come back and destroy sin forever.
Related Article: How to Free Your Local Church From Last Generation Theology
So far, we have looked at the concepts of sin (links to articles on sin (historical and biblical) and justification, crucial for understanding salvation. But what is sanctification and what role does it play in a Christian’s life? Let’s take a closer look.
Sanctification Follows Justification
First, a reading of Fundamental Belief 10, “The Experience of Salvation,” is in order.
“In infinite love and mercy God made Christ, who knew no sin, to be sin for us, so that in Him we might be made the righteousness of God. Led by the Holy Spirit we sense our need, acknowledge our sinfulness, repent of our transgressions, and exercise faith in Jesus as Saviour and Lord, Substitute and Example. This saving faith comes through the divine power of the Word and is the gift of God’s grace. Through Christ we are justified, adopted as God’s sons and daughters, and delivered from the lordship of sin. Through the Spirit we are born again and sanctified; the Spirit renews our minds, writes God’s law of love in our hearts, and we are given the power to live a holy life. Abiding in Him we become partakers of the divine nature and have the assurance of salvation now and in the judgment. (Gen. 3:15; Isa. 45:22; 53; Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 33:11; 36:25-27; Hab. 2:4; Mark 9:23, 24; John 3:3-8, 16; 16:8; Rom. 3:21-26; 8:1-4, 14-17; 5:6-10; 10:17; 12:2; 2 Cor. 5:17-21; Gal. 1:4; 3:13, 14,26; 4:4-7; Eph. 2:4-10; Col. 1:13, 14; Titus 3:3-7; Heb. 8:7-12; 1 Peter 1:23; 2:21, 22; 2 Peter 1:3, 4; Rev. 13:8.).”[i]
Three things are important to note here, aside from the host of texts supporting this description of the experience of salvation:
- Christ’s substitutionary death makes us righteous (He justifies us through His imputed righteousness)
- Christ’s sacrifice not only justifies us, but it also adopts us into God’s family and enables us to be freed from the slavery of sin: “Through Christ we are justified, adopted as God’s sons and daughters, and delivered from the lordship of sin.”
- The Holy Spirit enables us to understand our sinfulness, repent, and accept Christ’s righteousness by faith. The Spirit also assists us in the process of sanctification by renewing our minds and enabling us to live a holy life.
There is no room in this statement for meritorious human works in salvation. As Denis Fortin points out, while the statement is not precisely clear on the sequence, it implies that sanctification comes after justification, both being rooted in Christ (see point 2 above).[ii] Once we are born again we begin a lifelong process of sanctification in which the life of Jesus provides the perfect example of holiness, and the Holy Spirit assists us in developing a Christ-like character. White refers to this concept in similar terms when she writes that
“Sanctification is not a work of a day or a year, but of a lifetime.”[iii]
Salvation Through Sanctification = Salvation Through Works
To be sure, God calls us to be holy, but our process of character perfection is (1) constant and never complete while in this corrupted body, and (2) a result of salvation, not a cause of it. Let’s dwell a little more on this important aspect.
Related Article: Searching for a Model of Salvation
The LGT end-time scenario implies that obedience is indispensable for salvation, which inevitably leads to a view of salvation as being partially achieved through works. As Kirkpatrick writes, in the LGT view
“Obedience is both a condition for salvation and an ongoing requirement of salvation.”[iv]
“[a Christian] must be obedient in order to be saved, but my obedience is not in itself sufficient to save me. Jesus died for me on the cross and He made a sacrifice of sufficient value to save me, but I must actively embrace His sacrifice. The question of salvation is not alone about the sufficiency of the sacrifice but also about my willingness to embrace it.”[v]
This is at odds with the Adventist view of salvation, justification, and sanctification, in which Christ alone ensures our salvation. In the LGT view, the death of Christ is sufficient only for the Christian who actively embraces this sacrifice. Note that this is different from saying that the death of Christ will only provide salvation for those who accept His sacrifice. The difference between accepting His sacrifice and actively embracing His sacrifice consists in the fact that the latter wording involves meritorious human works. I will try to explain the difference once again.
LGT: We are only saved if Christ’s accepted sacrifice produces fruit in us.
Adventist: We are saved by accepting Christ’s sacrifice, which inevitably produces fruit in us.
Cause – Effect
Death of Christ – > salvation through faith and works (justification + sanctification)
Cause – Effect
Death of Christ –> salvation through faith (justification) –> sanctification
As Fortin points out,
“The LGT perspective is clear about the role of obedience, sanctification, and perfection in one’s salvation: without perfect obedience, there cannot be salvation.”[vi]
Justification Distinct from Sanctification
Maintaining a distinction between justification and sanctification is key in the SDA view of salvation through faith alone. While justification is God’s legal declaration of forgiveness, offered to the repentant sinner through grace, sanctification is the restoration of God’s image in the justified sinner.[vii] In a sense, both are lifetime processes, because we are being continuously justified before Christ (through his once and sufficient death), as well as being constantly sanctified. Yet the two remain distinct in the role they play in salvation. Justification renders us just and saves us for heaven based on the merits of Christ, through His imputed righteousness. Sanctification makes us progressively holy and prepares us for heaven but has no merit in our salvation. As noted in the following quotes, Ellen White subscribes to this view.
“Justification is wholly of grace and not procured by any works that fallen man can do.”[viii]
“As the penitent sinner, contrite before God, discerns Christ’s atonement in his behalf and accepts this atonement as his only hope in this life and the future life, his sins are pardoned. This is justification by faith.”[ix]
“Christ’s character stands in place of your character, and you are accepted before God just as if you had not sinned.”[x]
“Sanctification is not the work of a moment, an hour, a day, but of a lifetime. It is not gained by a happy flight of feeling, but is the result of constantly dying to sin, and constantly living for Christ. Wrongs cannot be righted nor reformations wrought in the character by feeble, intermittent efforts. It is only by long, persevering effort, sore discipline, and stern conflict, that we shall overcome. We know not one day how strong will be our conflict the next. So long as Satan reigns, we shall have self to subdue, besetting sins to overcome; so long as life shall last, there will be no stopping place, no point which we can reach and say, I have fully attained. Sanctification is the result of lifelong obedience.”[xi]
White makes it clear that our sinful inclination remains part of our nature as long as we are in this corrupted body. And while God does not hold us guilty for our inclinations, these preclude us from achieving holiness on this earth until glorification (1 Corinthians 15:50-57, 1 John 1:8):
“We cannot say, ‘I am sinless,’ till this vile body is changed and fashioned like unto His glorious body.”[xii]
Still, the justified and regenerated Christian will desire to imitate Christ’s character fully and will seek to develop it with the help of the Holy Spirit.
Related Article: The Intercessory Ministry of Jesus Christ
Who Must be Perfect and How Perfect Must They Be?
The LGT views on the role of sanctification in salvation and end-time scenario are confusing for two more reasons:
- If character perfection is necessary for salvation, yet character perfection is only required of the 144, 000 – in the LGT view the last generation that vindicates God, does God then have a double standard of salvation, one for the last generation, and one of those who died before Christ’s return? This would not only be unbiblical, but it would also make God unjust, too.
- If character perfection is required from the last generation, just how perfect must they be? What is the standard by which they are evaluated? If the standard is Christ, then nothing short of sinlessness can match up. Character perfection then means sinlessness. Yet as we saw above, neither the Bible nor Ellen White indicates that we can become sinless while in this corrupt body. And if the standard is not Christ, then what is it and how can a character short of Christ’s vindicate God, assuming that this vindication is required of us?
Who saves Whom?
Lastly, LGT is problematic on a major aspect, which I would state simply as “Who saves Whom?”
From the LGT perspective, Christ saves us through His death and then enables us to become perfect in character, which in turn enables us to “save” God by vindicating His character through our perfect character. Are we then becoming saviors? And strangely, even more, important saviors than God? For while God, the all-powerful, all-knowing, and infinite Creator, saves humanity, humanity, in turn, saves/vindicates this same all-powerful, all-knowing, and infinite God. Does God need our salvation? Sometimes does not seem right in this picture, and it certainly does not appear to be biblical. The desire to be holy like God is good and is condoned by the Bible. But the role this plays in our salvation can make a world of a difference in how we approach not only God, but also religion, church, and those around us.
Related Article: Luther’s Gospel Has a Problem
Three more articles will be included in this series: a closer look at Ellen White’s view of salvation, a brief summary of the investigative judgment, including the concept of the vindication of God’s character, and a final summary of the SDA and the LGT views, including some evaluations and reflections. While the honest desire to honor God through our character is laudable, we need to be careful in how we interpret the Bible on matters of salvation. It may not necessarily preclude us from heaven, but it may hinder our journey and the journey of those around us in ways we would not wish. But more on this in the last article of this series.
[ii] Denis Fortin, “Sanctification and Perfection and the Work of a Lifetime,” in God’s Character and the Last Generation, edited by John Peckham and Jiri Moskala (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2018), 104.
[iii] Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press”, 1948), 3:325, cited in Fortin, 103.
[iv] Larry Kirkpatrick, Cleanse and Close: Last Generation Theology in 14 Points (Highland, CA: GCO Press, 2005), 62, cited in Fortin, 104.
[v] Kirkpatrick, 65-66, cited in Fortin, 104.
[vi] Fortin, 105.
[vii] See Ellen G. White, Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1956), 114.
[viii] Ellen G. White, Faith and Works, 20, cited in Fortin, 106.
[ix] White, Faith and Works, 103, cited in Fortin, 106.
[x] Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ, 62, cited in Fortin, 107.
[xi] Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1911), 560, 561, cited in Fortin, 107.
[xii] Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, book 3 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1980), 355, cited in Fortin, 109.