Romans 5 can be broken down into three sections: (1) The first five verses complete Paul’s exposition of righteousness by faith which began in chapter 3, (2) verses 6-11 explore the fact that it was God who took the initiative in our salvation, and (3) verses 12-21 address the issue of our sinful inheritance.
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. (Romans 5:1-2)
In previous lessons, we explained that the key shift in Luther’s understanding of the gospel was the idea that justification is forensic in nature. God looks at the guilty, but repentant, sinner, and declares him righteous through Christ’s merits alone. We pointed out that, while this concept is extremely powerful and life-changing, it also creates a number of theological problems that need to be addressed.
We discussed how Luther and especially Calvin (who, by developing a systematic Protestant theology, came to exert significant influence within Protestantism) opted to resolve these theological difficulties by relying on a framework of Divine sovereignty and predestination. Over time, three factions emerged: Calvinism, Arminianism, and OSAS (Once-Saved-Always-Saved) Arminianism. Each has offered incomplete solutions which fix some problems, while creating others. We showed how the 2-room model found in the Old Testament temple/sanctuary (in the context of the great controversy) adequately addresses all these concerns.
There are some individuals who still find the idea of forensic justification difficult because, in their own personal experience, their conversion brought with it significant change in the life as well. It appears to them that, when they were saved, God didn’t merely declare them righteous, but actually made them righteous. The moment in their life when justification happened was also the moment when a significant transformation occurred.
In Mark 8:22-25, we read an interesting story about a blind man who was brought to Jesus, whose eyes weren’t immediately healed when Jesus touched them. At first, all he could see was people that “look like trees walking around.” Jesus had to touch him a second time to fully restore his sight. This man needed to first experience a partial miracle in order to be able to exercise faith so that he could be fully healed.
In the same way, some people feel so defeated by the power of sin in their life that they can’t grasp the promise of the gospel by faith unless God does something to encourage them first. To such people, God sometimes grants a miraculous victory over some aspect of their life that has overpowered them for a long time, that they might then be able to exercise the faith to be saved. However, no matter how great the transformation—a person might turn from a life of crime to a life of service—the transformation itself is not the basis of their justification; rather, it is through Christ’s perfect righteousness that they are justified.
Again, as previously explained, this doesn’t mean that transformation of character doesn’t happen. It just means that it follows justification, rather than being its basis or cause. Transformation occurs as a love response to God’s forgiveness and acceptance, which we received while we were yet sinners.
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
In this segment of chapter 5, Paul takes the time to clarify that our justification is not the result of us seeking after God, but that it was God who initiated the process. At this juncture, it is especially important for those of us who believe in free will to clarify that, even though we do have a choice in our salvation, our choice comes way down the line.
Long before we accepted God’s offer, He had put together a plan for our salvation: Christ had pledged Himself as our substitute, He came and died for us, and then, the Holy Spirit, throughout our entire life, had orchestrated events to bring us to an awareness of our condition and our need of a Savior. Our choice to respond to God’s call is the result of a long effort on God’s part to get through to us.
Since, in this commentary series, we are especially keeping track of issues that have impacted Adventism, this topic brings us to another debate among some segments of the church. Several decades ago, a few well-meaning folks decided they needed to study what occurred at Minneapolis in 1888 in greater detail. When they attempted to gain access to additional resources from the denominational archives, they met with some resistance, and this led them to believe that there was some type of conspiracy among denominational leadership to restrict access to that segment of history (such conspiracy theories have created many unnecessary conflicts for our church).
When they finally gained access to the materials, they came to the conclusion that Jones and Waggoner had been blessed by God with a deeper understanding of the gospel than ever before in history, and thus they began to search out exactly what this unique understanding was.
One of the key concepts that emerged from this study was the idea of Universal Legal Justification (ULJ). Along with several other related concepts, this concept became, in the mind of many, an advanced understanding of the Adventist message that would bring about the latter rain. Essentially, the idea presented was that the concept of justification had been misunderstood. Rather than justification occurring only when an individual chooses Christ, justification is something that God has already done for everyone, and thus people simply need to be made aware of it. All of humanity is already justified in Christ.
Unfortunately, this whole concept was mostly the product of a lack of familiarity with Christian theology; in the end, ULJ turned out to be nothing more than semantical gymnastics. Theological terminology does not have inherent meaning. It gains its meaning by convention. People agree to mean certain things when using certain words, for the purpose of communicating effectively. All Arminians agree that God paid the price for everyone’s sins when He died on the cross. However, by justification we refer to the time in a person’s life when they choose to personally take advantage of the gift of God
Giving old terminology new meanings is not the same as discovering a novel concept. Moreover, even if we redefine justification to mean what God has done for the entire race, we still need another term that refers to the moment when an individual chooses to take advantage of what God has done. Ultimately, all that is accomplished is an exchange of wording.
The simplest way to make sense of what happened in 1888 is to recognize that, prior to that time, righteousness by faith had been eclipsed by other topics in the mind of many Adventists, and thus there was a need to bring the gospel back to the center of Adventist theology. Nonetheless, even to this day, groups that hold these views continue to unnecessarily promote confusion and division within the church.
We now turn our attention to the last part of the chapter, which deals with an even more volatile issue: original sin.
Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people… (Romans 5:12)
The question behind original sin is simply whether human beings are born with an inclination towards good, are born morally neutral, or are born with a bent towards evil. This topic has been a subject of debate among Christians for centuries, dealing with questions such as, “what is sin, how does it get passed down to us, and does it carry Adam’s guilt with it?”
This debate came to the forefront of Adventism in the 1950’s, when several Evangelical cult experts decided to examine Adventist theology. Issues including the nature of sin, the nature of Christ, last generation perfection, the atonement, and the vindication of God’s character became subjects of intense debate.
Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, it is evident that the evangelicals evaluated theology using a very different metric than Adventists; therefore, these debates were really unnecessary. Catholic and Protestant theology starts with a classical view of a God who is simple, immutable, impassible, and timeless.
They hold a dualistic view of man as being primarily a “soul that has a body,” and understand sin as a corruption of the original perfection. They believe that each person receives a soul at conception, either through soul creationism (God creates a new soul for each person) or through traducianism (where a new soul is generated by the parents along with the body).
As Adventists, we hold a holistic view of man. Because of this, neither of the Catholic/Evangelical methods for the transfer of original sin work for us. Soul creationism doesn’t work, because it implies that God actually creates sinful souls. Traducianism doesn’t work either, because the human body is nothing but cells at conception, and having a soul without a body would contradict the holistic view of man. Our view of sin is different as well, since it revolves more around morality than ontological imperfection.
Essentially, as Adventists, we need an entirely new way to make sense of original sin, and cannot rely on the systems used by other Christians. We must develop our understanding of what constitutes personhood in a non-dualistic sense. Once we address these primordial issues, all the confusion over the surrounding topics mentioned above will be resolved as well.
Nonetheless, the debates over these topics have been a source of division in Adventism for decades. Distrust of church theologians and administrators has led some to create independent and self-supporting ministries in an attempt to hold on to “purer” theology and to fulfill the church’s mission independent of its organization.
The resulting lack of involvement with the organized church structure has created a vacuum of leadership which has often been filled by individuals who have taken the church in directions that have created even more division. The initial conspiracy theories of the 1950’s have, in a sense, become self-fulfilling prophecies.
If we were to reverse-engineer Adventist theology, we would discover that this theology was derived through a distinct theological method built on a unique epistemology (sola tota scriptura). This approach to theology, if followed systematically from beginning to end, actually resolves the conflicting elements other Christians have to deal with, and thus we aren’t forced to replicate their debates and confusion within our own ranks.