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Sometimes even today we can see why the meaning of New Testament “faith” (pistis) has caused more division in the Christian church than any other subject. The same issues of whether faith is fundamentally objective or subjective or something else arise in many Spectrum articles and blogs and elsewhere. It seems that our Lord’s haunting cry was more prophetic than rhetorical: “When the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth” (Luke 18:8 NKJV)?

Often one notes that Ellen White emphasized that Martin Luther “so clearly taught” the great doctrine of justification by faith (Great Controversy, 253). But then the grand interpolation begins—expressing a doctrine of justification by faith that Luther had himself rejected. The problem of course is that most remember Luther as Melanchthon froze him in the legal scenarios of much Protestant atonement theories ever since. This shift from the real Luther to court analogies prepared the way for a transfer from faith in Christ himself to faith in a doctrine about Christ;

Many are the studies that reflect this fundamental shift in early Protestantism. ‘In some measure, Melanchthon appears to stand under the influenced of legal conceptions other than those of Scripture. In fact, his views on justification underwent significant change in the period of 1530–1534.…Melanchthon [narrowed] his conception of justification to a mere declaration in this period.…[F]or Melanchthon justification no longer signifies the presence of the new creation.…Unlike Melanchthon he [Luther] understands that the reckoning of divine righteousness creates the human being anew, so that sin is no longer present. Imputation is not a mere declaration for Luther, but an effective divine word.’1

The reason I cite this passage among many is to establish Ellen White’s reference to Luther as one who “clearly taught” the truth about righteousness by faith in contrast to the teachings of (1) the Catholic Church and (2) those of later Protestants who followed Melanchthon. Knowledge of this would have saved our church much mischief since the 1970s.

The reason for this issue, whether in the first century, or the sixteenth, or the twenty-first, is that the phrases “justification by faith,” “sanctification by faith,” and “righteousness by faith,” are all conditioned by how “faith” is defined. Faith in the Bible is not an event but an experience, leading to the event of the cross being made into a substitute for an experiential union with Christ. In other words, not an objective justification, nor a subjective justification, but a mighty ellipse wherein the objective death of Jesus grounds the intelligent, grateful, man or woman responding with the “obedience of faith (Acts 6:7; Rom. 1:5).

In other words, Luther and Paul understood faith as God’s work in us that responds to God’s work for us. Perhaps these few words say it all: “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” (Ellen White, Steps to Christ, 63). Has anyone said it better? Another example of the ellipse of truth!

Throughout the Bible, faith is a word that is used to describe “response to God in action.” Hebrews 11 is a clear and graphic description of men and women who have faith. No theological mental constructs, just simple illustrations.

By faith, Enoch pleased God, but “without faith it is impossible to please Him” (verses 5, 6); by faith, Noah built an ark and “became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith” (verse 7); by faith, Abraham “obeyed when he was called” (verse 8); by faith, Abraham “offered up Isaac (verse 17); by faith, Moses “refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter”; by faith, “he forsook Egypt” (verse 27); and so forth.

An old hymn that most of us sung in our childhood or after we became Adventists, is titled, “Trust and Obey.” Probably no better phrase sums up Hebrews 11 and the lives of anyone who truly rejoices in the “obedience of faith.”

I wonder if anyone has ever said it better:

To talk of religion in a casual way, to pray without soul hunger and living faith, avails nothing. A nominal faith in Christ, which accepts Him merely as the Saviour of the world, can never bring healing to the soul. The faith that is unto salvation is not a mere intellectual assent to the truth. He who waits for entire knowledge before he will exercise faith, cannot receive blessing from God. It is not enough to believe about Christ; we must believe in Him. The only faith that will benefit us is that which embraces Him as a personal Savior; which appropriates His merits to ourselves. Many hold faith as an opinion. Saving faith is a transaction by which those who receive Christ join themselves in covenant relation with God. Genuine faith is life. A living faith means an increase of vigor, a confiding trust, by which the soul becomes a conquering power. (Ellen White, Desire of Ages, 347)

Only when faith is understood within this description can we really understand the simplicity of justification or sanctification or righteousness (same Greek word as justification) by faith. Faith is simply saying Yes to God—to anything that God says for our present and future benefit.

Notes and References

1. Carson, O”Brien, Seifred, Justification and Variegated Nomism (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), 68–70.

Herbert E. Douglass is a theologian, retired college administrator, and author of twenty-two books who currently lives in Lincoln, California.

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