This week’s Sabbath School lesson continues with a study of the fourth chapter of Romans. This chapter is intriguing because it functions as a sort of interlude between chapters 3 and 5—both of which take more of a theological approach to justification and related topics. Chapter 4, by contrast, is more of a case study of justification in practice. Having established that justification is by grace and not of works, Paul demonstrates that this is how God justified key biblical figures in the past, including Abraham and David.
It is important, when discussing theology, to take concepts from the theoretical realm and apply them to real-life scenarios that people can relate to. However, another reason why Paul is taking the time to go back to these Old Testament stories is to address the potential accusation that he is manufacturing a new soteriology out of thin air. Paul wants his readers to understand that the principles of righteousness by faith are, in fact, Old Testament theology.
The Judaizers who were constantly opposing Paul used Scripture to argue that circumcision and the keeping of the law was an everlasting arrangement, and thus still binding and necessary for salvation. To many, it appeared that Paul was introducing new theology. Even today, some argue that, since the Judaizers were making their case from Scripture, the Bible alone is not a sufficient theological guide, and that anointed church leaders such as Paul, Peter, or their modern counterparts are necessary to guide the church.
Paul, however, shows his readers that the gospel is clearly present in the Hebrew Scriptures. Abraham and David were just two examples to which many others could be added. Moreover, the temple/sanctuary service itself illustrated the gospel through its symbols.
Few Christians today take into account the fact that the sanctuary was the primary means through which the gospel was communicated to God’s Old Testament people. In the many debates over soteriology following the Protestant Reformation, no effort was made to go back to the sanctuary service and look for clues that might help resolve soteriological conflicts.
This is unfortunate because, as mentioned last week, the sanctuary resolves the confusion over forensic justification caused by the three Protestant camps: Calvinism, Arminianism, and Once Saved Always Saved Arminianism. We will delve into this in more detail shortly, but first let’s take a look at an interesting statement from Ellen White, found in Wednesday’s lesson, which brings to mind an old Adventist debate:
The principle that man can save himself by his own works lay at the foundation of every heathen religion […] Wherever it is held, men have no barrier against sin. (Desire of Ages, pg. 35, 36)
This is a powerful statement, because it implicitly turns the tables on those who would argue that if justification is by faith alone, people would have no reason to stop sinning. Instead, she says, it is the belief that we can do something to save ourselves that predisposes us to sin. Why would that be the case? Because when we try to save ourselves through works, we focus on changing our behavior, rather than our character, and a sinful character will produce sinful actions irrespective of any attempts at behavior modification. Jesus put it this way:
Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad. (Matthew 12:33, NIV)
We mentioned in last week’s commentary that God changes us from the inside out, and does this, not through some instantaneous miracle, but by creating a context of acceptance and love. When we receive the gift of His righteousness by faith, when we realize that God has already pardoned and accepted us into His family in spite of our sin, love for God is awakened in our hearts, and this begins a real transformation of the character.
In contrast, those who attempt to make themselves worthy of God’s acceptance by doing good things and not doing bad things never experience a change of character, because their actions stem from selfish motives. Whether they’re working to gain heaven, to avoid hell, or to impress others, they are not motivated by love for God:
We love him, because he first loved us. (1 John 4:19)
In Adventism, for many decades individuals have argued about how best to define sin. Is sin only our thoughts, words, and actions (of omission as well as commission), or is it our nature as well? Those who insist that sin is action only argue that if sin is nature, we are still in sin whether or not we commit sinful acts; therefore, why not just commit them then? It would be like someone immersed in a puddle of dirty water attempting to wash their hands.
Those who insist that sin is nature point to the fact that, as one matures in Christ, they come to realize that the roots of sin are buried deep within the heart, and go much further than just the behavior.
This discussion has deep implications because, if sin is nature, then Christ could not have taken the same nature as us, as that would make Him a sinner as well. However, in the absence of the same nature, would He be sufficiently like us to be an adequate substitute and example?
This issue is further complicated by the fact that, if sin is nature, and if Christ did not share our nature, it would not be possible to reach character perfection, which, according to some, was necessary in order for God to defeat Satan and win the great controversy.
We will address some of these topics in a future study. However, for now, I want to address the question of what sin is. Or, to articulate it differently, on what basis does God judge human beings?
I would suggest that there is a third category besides the two already mentioned (sin as action vs. sin as nature), which is the category of sin as character. To put it simply, the three categories are what we do, what we are and, who we are. Sin is more than our actions, but it’s not our nature. Rather, it is the character that we ourselves have developed from birth. This is what God judges, because this is what will determine whether or not we will rebel again, once the great controversy has ended.
When we view sin as being conscious action alone, we are prone to view the gospel as some combination of faith and works. When we view our nature itself as sin, we are prone to see the gospel as something that happens entirely outside of our participation or control. It is only when we see the roots of sin as being buried deep in our cultivated character that forensic justification makes sense, since only a realization of God’s love can transform our characters and our actions.
In Matthew 23:26, Jesus stated that one must wash the inside of the cup, and then the outside will be clean also. If the “inside of the cup” here refers to our nature, why is Jesus telling us to wash it, since, according to Scripture, our nature will not be transformed until God Himself transforms it at the coming of Christ? Neither can Jesus be speaking here about our willful actions alone, as that is what the “outside of the cup” refers to.
But how do we wash the inside of the cup? From the time we were born, we have been developing our identity and character through the accumulation of years and years of patterns of behavior. We cannot, of ourselves, change in a moment what has been built up over a lifetime. However, neither can God instantaneously change us since, if He did, we would no longer be the same person. It is only as we walk by faith in a context of acceptance and love that the character is transformed, and the inside of the cup is washed.
We are not here replacing a theology of justification by works with a theology of justification by character. Our justification is forensic; it is by the declaration of God that we are accounted righteous through Christ’s merits alone. We are merely pointing out that sanctification can happen only in a context of justification by faith. Thus, let’s return to the sanctuary and figure out how all of this comes together, and how justification can be forensic without allowing for cheap grace.
In the old sanctuary service, the sinner brought a lamb to the sanctuary, sacrificed it, and walked away forgiven. However, the justification of the sinner wasn’t the end of the story, as far as the sanctuary service was concerned. The blood of the lamb was taken and sprinkled on the veil inside the tent, and wasn’t cleansed again until the Day of Atonement. Throughout the entire year, the priest performed a work of intercession in the Holy Place. On the Day of Atonement, however, he performed a work of judgment in the Most Holy Place. Thus, the Sanctuary introduces us to a two-room model of salvation.
The two-room model solves the soteriological problems that Protestantism has wrestled with throughout its history. Essentially, this model states that God’s work with humanity takes place in two phases: the Holy Place ministry (while the individual is alive), and the Most Holy Place ministry (after the individual’s death – think about the fact that the judgment began in 1844, and most of human history happened before that).
During a person’s lifetime, all of God’s efforts are concentrated on saving them; there is no judgment or condemnation. God sees the believer through the righteousness of Christ—irrespective of anything the believer does. Considering that an individual’s lifetime is God’s only opportunity, throughout all eternity, to save them, every living moment must be maximized for the purpose of redemption.
After an individual’s death, when nothing more can be done, the judgment phase begins. In this phase, the question asked is: what was the final choice of the individual? Did the individual persevere in his initial choice to follow Christ, or did he turn back? This question bears on whether the individual will be happy or miserable in the presence of God for the rest of eternity. It also bears on whether this individual is liable to start a second rebellion after God brings an end to sin.
The Sanctuary’s two-room model thus explains how God can offer salvation freely to everyone, how He can justify repentant sinners forensically, and yet still maintain the integrity of his judicial system. At the same time, this model provides the basis for an assurance of salvation (since, for as long as I am alive, I know God is extending me grace without condemnation), and eliminates the possibility of presumption. It has no need for predestination (which maligns God’s character), but still maintains the Protestant sola gratia/sola fide without making room for cheap grace.
This is not some “new” soteriology, distinct from traditional Protestant thought. All Arminians believe that we have free will to come to Christ, and free will to subsequently turn away. The sanctuary only points out that God doesn’t take into consideration our decision to turn away until after our death. This makes it possible for us to walk in faith and trust as Christians without losing hope, even when we fall back into sin.
If the Protestant reformers had paid more attention to the Old Testament as they developed their theology, they might have avoided much of the soteriological confusion that has split Protestantism for 500 years.