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As evinced by the popularity of a new biography on E. J. Waggoner, righteousness by faith is still a hot topic among Adventists. I have often wondered why denominational leaders did not simply visit a Lutheran church and read what Luther and Melanchthon had to say about the subject. Ellen White endorsed Luther’s justification theology(1) and the Augsburg Confession,(2) written by Melanchthon. She had a copy of Luther’s Commentary on Galatians in her personal library.

Regarding justification, the Augsburg Confession states: “1] Also they [the Lutheran churches] teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for 2] Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. 3] This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4.”(3)

Along with his commentaries, treatises, catechism and numerous other things, Luther wrote prefaces to the books of the New Testament, which were included in his German translation of the New Testament. The Preface to Romans actually originated here, although it is often published along with his Commentary on Romans. It was while listening to a public reading of this preface that John Wesley, to whom Adventists are indebted theologically,(4) felt his heart “strangely warmed.” Here is how he described his experience: “About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”(5)

Wesley’s use of the expression “Christ alone” suggests a controversy which was at the heart of the Reformation: Christ Alone, Faith Alone, Scripture Alone, and Grace Alone. These four alones often stand together in summarizing the theology of Protestantism. When Luther translated Romans for his German New Testament, his critics complained that he inserted the word “alone” in Romans 3 :28: “Man is justified by faith alone without the works of the law.”[English paraphrase] English versions such as the KJV, ASV, NASB and NRSV, do not insert the word “alone” in the text, as Luther did. It is not in the Greek text. He answered his critics with the following explanation:

“Now I was not relying on and following the nature of the languages alone, however, when, in Roman 3[:28] I inserted the word solum (alone). Actually the text itself and the meaning of St. Paul urgently require and demand it. For in that very passage he is dealing with the main point of Christian doctrine, namely, that we are justified by faith in Christ without any works of the law. And Paul cuts away all works so completely, as even to say that the works of the law—though it is God’s law and word—do not help us for justification [Rom. 3:20]. He cites Abraham as an example and says that he was justified so entirely without works that even the highest work—which, moreover, had been newly commanded by God, over and above all other works and ordinances, namely circumcision—did not help him for justification; rather he was justified without circumcision and without any works, by faith, as he says in chapter 4[:2], “If Abraham was justified by works, he may boast, but not before God.” But when all works are so completely cut away—and that must mean that faith alone justifies—whoever would speak plainly and clearly about this cutting away of works will have to say, “Faith alone justifies us, and not works.” The matter itself, as well as the nature of the language, demands it.”(6)

Luther’s appealed to Paul’s explanation of Abraham’s biography in explaining how justification by faith takes place. The more closely we look at Abraham, the clearer the issue becomes. Genesis is the key to understanding references to Abraham in Romans, Galatians, and James. James and Paul both interpreted events in Abraham’s life to make their own case regarding justification. The tension between these two perspectives often runs high, even today.

This tension can be resolved by looking at the chronology of Abraham’s life.(7) The most conservative numbers would place the time between God’s promise to Abraham and circumcision at ~14 years. Paul called circumcision a sign of the righteousness that Abraham obtained by faith. Considering that Isaac carried the wood for the sacrifice, he must have been at least 12 years old. Various Jewish sources place his age between 25 and 37 years of age. If we assume that Abraham was justified at 85 and Isaac offered when he was 12, there is still at least 26 years from the promise of justification to the offering of Isaac.

In what condition was Abraham during this period? After Abraham received the promise, he took Hagar and fathered Ishmael. Yet there is no rebuke contained in Scripture. God actually blessed the boy. The promise was still fulfilled to Abraham and Isaac was born.

According to Galatians 3, there was no law in Abraham’s time. Abraham was essentially in the same spot as a Gentile. Had obedience to any law been instrumental in Abraham’s justification, justification could have been neither by grace nor faith. Because Abraham was justified on the same basis as a Gentile, without law, salvation can go to the entire world, even those who have not the law.

Romans 4 tell us that circumcision, which represented the law, served as a sign of the justification attained by faith in God’s promise. Circumcision played no part in Abraham’s justification. His justification was based on belief in God’s promise to him.

The lessons that Paul draws from Abraham’s life are important ones for Christians. He says they were “written for the benefit of those who believe in him who raised Jesus from the dead, the same Jesus who was delivered for our offenses and raised because of our justification Rom. 4:23,24.

So what about James? Considering the extensive arguments set forth by Paul in Romans and Galatians, James is often considered as a thorn in the side of those who favor a Pauline understanding of the gospel. In the Preface to James, for his New Testament, Luther simply rejected James as non canonical.(8)

Considering the record of events in Abraham’s life, at least 26 years had elapsed between the time Abraham was justified by faith and Isaac was offered. It can not be truly said that Abraham was justified by imputation when he offered Isaac. That happened years before.

The word justify is used different ways in Scripture. Most often, it refers to the event which occurs through faith when righteousness is imputed to the believer. There are, however, a few examples of the word being used in a different way.

Jesus, for example, said that “Wisdom is justified of her children (Lk. 7:35). Versions such as the NASB and NRSV say “Wisdom is vindicated by her children.” Regarding the baptism of John, it is said that those who submitted to it “justified God” (Lk. 7:29). We read of the young lawyer who wanted to “justify himself” (Lk. 10:29).

“Wisdom is justified or vindicated by her children.” One might express the idea this way: The benefits of wisdom are revealed by those who are wise. If we understand justification this way, what James is saying about Abraham’s justification is that by his offering, he was showing himself to be righteous or exhibiting righteousness. He was clearing himself of any possible blame regarding his faith. The word Hebrew word for justify is used just this way in the story of Joseph’s brothers. When a stolen cup was discovered in their bag, they asked one another, “How can we clear ourselves” (Lk. 44:16 NRSV)? This is just what the young lawyer wanted to do, be clear of blame.

By offering Isaac upon the altar, Abraham demonstrated the kind of faith that responded to God’s promises, a faith that simply trusted in the goodness and faithfulness of God.


1. White, Ellen, The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan (1911 Mountain View, CA Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1950) p. 253

2. Ibid. p 205




6. Luther, M. (1999, c1960). Vol. 35: Luther’s works, vol. 35 : Word and Sacrament I (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (Vol. 35, Page 195). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

7. Abraham left Haran at 75 (Gen.12:4).

Sometime between the age of 75 and 85, Abraham was justified by imputation because he believed God’s promise to him. (Gen. 15:6). Ishmael was born at 86 (Gen. 16:16). Abraham was circumcised at 99 ((Gen. 17:24). Sarah was ten years younger than Abraham (Gen. 17:17) Isaac was born when Abraham was 100 and Sarah was 90 (Gen. 21:5). Sarah died at 127; therefore, we can conclude that Isaac was less than 37 when offered upon the altar. (Gen. 23:1) Isaac marries Rebecca at 40 years of age. (Gen. 25:20)

8. Luther, M. (1999, c1960). Vol. 35: Luther’s works, vol. 35: Word and Sacrament I (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (Vol. 35, Page 395). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

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