Christ Our Righteousness – Our salvation, our mission, and our hope
Only Christ-empowered justification and sanctification will save us, change us, and nurture us into true disciples of Christ. It is something that Jesus does both for us and in us.
Often Seventh-day Adventists have been accused of being legalistic, promoting salvation by works. Nothing could be further from the truth! As we understand our need for revival and reformation in these last days, we need to realize that the foundation of revival and reformation is nothing less than a full and correct acceptance of Christ and His all-encompassing righteousness. The voices of Seventh-day Adventists should be the strongest in proclaiming salvation through the grace of Christ and Him alone! The two great provisions of salvation – justification and sanctification – cannot be separated, for they constitute the fullness of Christ, Our Righteousness.
At times, there seems to be a confusion about justification and sanctification and how they relate to each other and our salvation. Some promote justification to the exclusion of sanctification and arrive at what has been termed “cheap grace.” Others focus almost exclusively on sanctification and arrive at what has been termed “perfectionism,” or a self-initiated form of legalistic salvation by works. But God’s all-encompassing righteousness involves the completeness of both justification and sanctification. It is His plan, not ours. It is His way of bringing us into an immediate and long-term relationship with Him in preparation for spending eternity with Him. It is His divinely-appointed means of not only calling us good but also making us good; of changing both our standing in the books of heaven and our character in life here on earth.
God’s plan of salvation is so marvelous and assuring, and yet incomprehensible in every detail. It is so simple that a child can understand it, and yet so grand that we will be studying it throughout eternity. Jesus, the Son of God, came to this earth to become one of us. He lived a perfect and sinless life on this earth, died for us, rose to life, intercedes for us in the Most Holy Place of the heavenly sanctuary, and will soon return to take us home.
Special privilege of Adventists
God has entrusted into the hands of His last-day people the privilege of proclaiming the three angels’ messages of Revelation 14, that focus on Christ and His righteousness and turning people back to the true worship of God. “In a special sense Seventh-day Adventists have been set in the world as watchmen and light bearers. To them has been entrusted the last warning for a perishing world. On them is shining wonderful light from the Word of God. They have been given a work of the most solemn import – the proclamation of the first, second, and third angels’ messages. There is no other work of so great importance. They are to allow nothing else to absorb their attention.”1
What this means is that we are to lift up the true worship of God, our Creator, giving glory to Him and proclaiming the everlasting gospel and the arrival of His judgment. We are to proclaim the fall of Babylon – the forces that bring spiritual confusion among people – and return to a pure and simple understanding of God’s plan of salvation. We are to warn against worshiping the beast or his image and receiving the mark of the beast on our forehead or hand – which means accepting the authority that has claimed to change God’s law and promote a false teaching of biblical truth and Christ’s righteousness.
The truth as in Jesus
Adventists have been called to proclaim the truth as it is in Jesus. He and He alone is our salvation. Paul declares unequivocally: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone would boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:8-10).
The grace of God alone saves us from sin, justifies us through Christ’s righteousness, and proclaims us perfect before God. As we accept the power that accompanies justification, Christ begins to sanctify us, transforming us into His glorious image. This entire change is due to the all-encompassing righteousness of Christ. That is why Paul, after describing the incredible humility of Christ in coming to die as a perfect substitute for us as sinners, proclaims in Philippians 2:12, 13: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.”
This is not a call for salvation by works. This is a call for righteousness by faith in God “who works in you both to will and to do.” When we accept Jesus into our lives, a miraculous Spirit-filled conversion takes place and Christ changes us into His likeness. Christ justifies and allows us to connect with Him so that we become more and more like Him.
That is why the unconverted become converted. That is why drunkards become sober. That is why loose-living people become moral. That is why mean-spirited individuals become peacemakers. That is why liars become honest. That is why filthy-minded people become pure. That is why evolutionists become creationists. That is why selfish, self-centered people become selfless, generous benefactors.
It is all due to the power of God that begins to produce the fruits of the Spirit in our lives. Hence, James is right: “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). By focusing our complete attention on Christ and His righteousness, we are placed in a right relationship with Him, and His power changes us from within.
Paul describes this provision for a right relationship in one of the most powerful verses of the Bible: “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). God, the Father, provided His Son as a sacrifice for our sins, that we would be able to take on the perfect righteousness of Christ. This is the “born-again” experience Jesus proclaimed, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
This born-again experience makes us an entirely new person. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation: old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). Through the leading of the Holy Spirit, as we confess our sins and fall at the foot of the cross before Christ, we are cleansed of our sins and recreated into the image of God. “If we confess our sins,” says John, “He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). He further states, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12, 13). And again: “For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith” (1 John 5:4).
What is Christ’s righteousness?
We are saved by grace and we live by faith, all because of and through Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord! We can proclaim with Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). That is to say, accepting Christ and His righteousness means accepting Him and obeying Him and the wonderful truths and doctrines of the Bible, all centered in Him. As Paul says, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:11-13).
In verses 5 and 6, Paul indicates that it was “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and the renewing of the Holy Spirit.” Note what Paul says: we are justified through Christ’s power alone (“according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration”) and sanctified through Christ’s power alone (the “renewing of the Holy Spirit whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior”). All our righteousness, either in the books of heaven or in our lives on earth, comes through the grace and power of Christ alone.
Paul further states in verse 7 “that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” We are justified by Christ. We are covered with His robe of righteousness. This justifying righteousness is imputed to us. We appear perfect before the Father, just as if we had not sinned. That is Christ’s righteousness.
In verse 8, Paul says, “This is a faithful saying, and these things I want you to affirm constantly, that those who have believed in God should be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable to men.” The good works are not done by our own strength but accomplished by the sanctifying power of Christ. The Holy Spirit works in us to make us more and more like Christ. We are totally dependent on our relationship with Christ for sanctification. That is Christ’s righteousness.
The Spirit of Prophecy gives us some wonderful insights on Christ’s righteousness. Here are some selected gems:
Christ has made a way of escape. “We have no righteousness of our own with which to meet the claims of the law of God. But Christ has made a way of escape for us. He lived on earth amid trials and temptations such as we have to meet. He lived a sinless life. He died for us, and now He offers to take our sins and give us His righteousness. If you give yourself to Him, and accept Him as your Saviour, then, sinful as your life may have been, for His sake you are accounted righteous. Christ’s character stands in place of your character, and you are accepted before God just as if you had not sinned.”2
“Christ changes the heart. He abides in your heart by faith. You are to maintain this connection with Christ by faith and the continual surrender of your will to Him; and so long as you do this, He will work in you to will and to do according to His good pleasure. … So we have nothing in ourselves of which to boast. We have no ground for self-exaltation. Our only ground of hope is in the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and in that wrought by His Spirit working in and through us.”3
“A life in Christ is a life of restfulness.… Your hope is not in yourself; it is in Christ. … Let the mind dwell upon His love, upon the beauty, the perfection of His character. Christ in His self-denial, Christ in His humiliation, Christ in His purity and holiness. Christ in His matchless love – this is the subject for the soul’s contemplation. It is by loving Him, copying Him, depending wholly upon Him, that you are to be transformed into His likeness.”4
Christ is our all in all. “In taking upon Himself man’s nature in its fallen condition, Christ did not in the least participate in its sin. … We should have no misgivings in regard to the perfect sinlessness of the human nature of Christ. Our faith must be an intelligent faith, looking unto Jesus in perfect confidence, in full and entire faith in the atoning sacrifice. … Divine power is placed upon man, that he may become a partaker of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. This is why repenting, believing man can be made the righteousness of God in Christ.”5
Conformity to God’s will.
“The righteousness which Christ taught is conformity of heart and life to the revealed will of God. Sinful man can become righteous only as they have faith in God and maintain a vital connection with Him. Then true godliness will elevate the thoughts and ennoble the life. Then the external forms of religion accord with the Christian’s internal purity.”6
A work of a lifetime
Let no one in the Seventh-day Adventist Church think of himself or herself as better than anyone else or accuse others of not being holy or perfect. We are all sinners at the foot of the cross in need of a Savior who provides for us His righteousness. As we consecrate ourselves to Christ and allow Him to work in us, we stay close to Him and His Word. In this process, “Christ is waiting with longing desire for the manifestation of Himself in His church. When the character of Christ shall be perfectly reproduced in His people, then He will come to claim them as His own.”7
It is not in ourselves to accomplish this task of perfectly reproducing the character of Christ in us. We must daily allow the Holy Spirit to change us more and more into the likeness of Christ. It is the work of a lifetime. We are to ask for Christ’s character in our lives as we learn practical obedience to His Word through His power.
We are not to work towards what may be termed “perfectionism,” reflecting a legalistic checklist or pulling ourselves up by our own power. We must not point out the faults of others or bring about division in the church with accusations that we are more righteous than others. We are not to think of ourselves as perfect, except as we are perfect in Christ’s righteousness – what He does for us justifying us, and what He does through us sanctifying us.
We are to be unified in Christ in word and action. “The secret of unity is found in the quality of believers in Christ. The reason for all division, discord, and difference is found in separation from Christ. Christ is the center to which all should be attracted; for the nearer we approach the center, the closer we shall come together in feeling, in sympathy, in love, growing into the character and image of Jesus.”8
We are not to think that we are righteous in our own right. We are completely dependent on Christ for any changes in our lives as we submit to Him. We are never to boast of being perfect or having attained perfection. “No one who claims holiness is really holy. Those who are registered as holy in the books of Heaven are not aware of the fact, and are the last ones to boast of their own goodness. None of the prophets and apostles ever professed holiness, not even Daniel, Paul, or John. The righteous never make such a claim. The more nearly they resemble Christ, the more they lament their unlikeness to Him.”9
“When men learn they cannot earn righteousness by their own merit of works, and they look with firm and entire reliance upon Jesus Christ as their only hope, there will not be so much of self and so little of Jesus. … God works and cooperates with the gifts He has imparted to man, and man, by being a partaker of the divine nature, and doing the work of Christ may be an overcomer and win eternal life. … Divine power and the human agency combined will be a complete success, for Christ’s righteousness accomplishes everything.”10
This is truly Christ’s all-encompassing righteousness. We are totally dependent on Him.
How, then, should we live?
So how should we live in these last days of earth’s history just before Christ’s second coming? How should we understand the plan of salvation?
Cheap grace will not do it. It denies the power of the Holy Spirit to change the life of the believer day by day to become more and more like Christ. Legalism will not do it. It blocks the only way to salvation, which is total dependence on Jesus Christ, our only way to salvation. An intellectual, higher-
critical approach will not do it. It destroys the very miracle of conversion and sanctification and strips God’s salvation of its power to change lives.
Only Christ-empowered justification and sanctification will save us, change us, and nurture us into true disciples of Christ. It is something that Jesus does both for us and in us. “There is no excuse for sin, or for indolence. Jesus has led the way, and He wishes us to follow in His steps. He has suffered, He has sacrificed as none of us can, that He might bring salvation within our reach. We need not be discouraged. Jesus came to our world to bring divine power to man, that through His grace, we might be transformed into His likeness.”11
Through His grace we can have divine power and His character, as we are made more and more like Him. Christ came to this earth. He lived a sinless life, died for us, rose for us, intercedes right now for us in the most holy place of the heavenly sanctuary as our High Priest, and will soon return as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. What a wonderful day that will be! The culmination of all of earth’s history and the end of the great controversy! It will be the ultimate revelation of His all-encompassing righteousness and salvation! We will go home to be with Him forever, never to be tempted again, never to be separated from our Lord!
Ted N.C.Wilson (Ph.D., New York University) is the president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.
- Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 9:19.
- ________, Steps to Christ (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1956), p. 62.
- Ibid., p. 63.
- Ibid., p. 70.
- ________, Selected Messages (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958, 1980), book 1, p. 256.
- ________, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), p. 310.
- ________, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1941), p. 69.
- ________, Selected Messages, book 1, p. 259.
- ________, True Revival, p. 62
- ________, Faith and Works (Nashville, Tennessee: Southern Pub. Assn., 1979), pp. 17-28.
- ________, True Revival, p. 45.