This week’s Sabbath School study focuses on the apostle Paul’s distinctive contribution to the theme of the Great Controversy. In Paul’s writings this theme, like all other themes, are viewed in the light of the apostle’s main emphasis on Christ and His ultimate victory in providing salvation to the world. Atonement is the heart of Paul’s theology (Rom 3:25; 5:1-11; 1 Cor 5:7; Eph 1:7; 5:2; Col 1:14, 20). The salvation of the world completely depends on the perfected atonement at the Cross. “All that is lost in the first man will be restored in the second.” The good news that Paul shares is that Christ triumphed over Satan, and for this sole reason believers can become overcomers in the battle with evil. Christ’s victory is also our victory. Ecclesiological and eschatological implications of the salvation event and salvation reality are permanently linked to believers’ struggles to remain faithful and be powerful witnesses to this disintegrated and dying world still under the control of the enemy. For Paul righteousness by faith is the pivotal doctrine and represents the Gospel message in its purity and power. My focus in this essay is primarily on this soteriological aspect of Paul’s theology, and how it stands at the heart of believers’ spiritual combats.
The metaphors of the ‘second Adam’ (Rom 5:12-21), the church as ‘building’ and ‘body’ (1 Cor 3:10-11; 16-17; 1 Cor 12:14-26), and death as the ‘last enemy’ (1 Cor 15:52-53) are all closely related to a single spiritual and theological phenomenon, namely, assurance of salvation based on faith. The faith of/in Christ is the underlying principle of the Gospel message. Yet faith, and so the certainty of salvation, is sometimes a matter around which believers’ spiritual battles revolve. One of the reasons for this is perhaps the apparent paradoxical nature of the salvific faith. On the one hand, we have secured salvation in the graciously offered righteousness of the second Adam received by faith only (we contributed nothing to the perfected atonement of Christ); on the other hand, unless we take all the armor of God (Eph 6:11-17) we cannot preserve our total dependence upon God and ultimately secure salvation in Christ. Salvation is entirely dependent on God’s gracious gift and offer (Phil 3:9; Eph 2:8). Yet our diligence to take the full armor of God and work out our salvation with fear and trembling will keep us protected from the archenemy and the loss of salvation (Rim 13:12; Eph 6:11, 13; Phil 2:12).
For Paul faith is not an idle feeling or intellectual assent to something that is true and eternal. Faith is formed, shaped and transformed in the midst of the struggles for the ultimate good, justice and salvation, and that is why we are in need of the full armor of God. Faith is not concerned with pleasing God externally and formally by keeping the standards and laws of morality. E.P. Sanders would call this “pattern of religion” “covenantal nomism.” Faith is not an instrument of the perfect legal status, as in Galatian heresy (e.g., Gal 3:1-14). It does not make the righteousness of God into an instrument of our perfected sanctification. Faith is the cause of sanctification, but that is not the first goal and the essence of faith. Faith’s goal is to permanently stay in relationship to the One who is the source of atonement and salvation. Oswald Chambers rightly maintains that:
It is a snare to imagine that God wants to make us perfect specimens of what He can do; God’s purpose is to make us one with Himself. The emphasis of holiness movements is apt to be that God is producing specimens of holiness to put in His museum. If you go off this idea of personal holiness, the dead-set of your life will not be for God, but for what you call the manifestation of God in your life.
Glorification of God in a believer’s life comes from selfless and devoted commitment to Jesus Christ alone. The Holy Spirit imparts Christ’s righteousness to the believer in order to make him or her one with the Lord. In this regard, faith is accompanied by other elements of God’s armor. In the midst of the combat, the ‘knight of faith’ is fully equipped and he cannot afford losing even one element of this armor. Truth, justice and peace are very significant elements but without faith the knight is open to merciless attacks of the “fiery darts of the wicked one” (Eph 6:16).
We are saved by faith only, because faith is a dynamic reality that keeps us in a proper relationship to God, and so is indispensable in the combat against the forces of evil. Faith grows, stumbles, is tempted, weakened, and strengthened again. The shield is sometimes laid low because the arms become tired, but faith preserves the salvation intact and secured, because it always looks to the source of power and victory, “the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Heb 12:2). It glorifies the Source (God through Christ), not us as seekers of self-centered perfected sanctification or eternal bliss.
Though, we still do not know what faith is in its essence (it transcends intellect, emotions and will), we do know that it both successfully responds to God’s free offer of completed salvation through the atonement and righteousness of Christ, and keenly preserves this salvation in the midst of the fierce battle with the world, Satan, and the sinful nature. Therefore, both the beggars’ reception of God’s unconditional gift in Christ and the act of putting upon ourselves the full armor of God are the actions of faith. Is my salvation certain then? Yes, it depends on the reality of the accomplished atonement of Christ, and again, yes, because daily walk and struggle for righteousness depend on faith in the One who provided the atonement blood and the One who gives us strength and reason to believe and carry on in life. Any attempt to rationally resolve the apparent paradoxical nature of faith distorts the apostolic teaching of salvation by faith alone by creating false dualism of faith and works, righteousness and perfection, and grace and achievement. Preoccupation with the effects of salvation rather than the Source of salvation leads some believers to start depending on their own works, and this takes away from them the certainty of salvation. There is no merit in faith, since it is a gift of God. It paradoxically saves us without any merit, and fills us with passion and zeal for doing what is good and just. Faith is a gift that saves, preserves, overcomes, has already accomplished everything that is expected of us, and brings all things to consummation. Martin Luther exalts this kind of faith:
Faith is God's work in us, that changes us and gives new birth from God (John 1:13). It kills the Old Adam and makes us completely different people. It changes our hearts, our spirits, our thoughts and all our powers. It brings the Holy Spirit with it. Yes, it is a living, creative, active and powerful thing, this faith. Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. It doesn't stop to ask if good works ought to be done, but before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to do them without ceasing.
Ellen G. White, Signs of the Times, November 4, 1908.
E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Fortress Press, 1977), 420, 544.
“Faith is a living, bold trust in God's grace, so certain of God's favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God's grace makes you happy, joyful and bold in your relationship to God and all creatures. The Holy Spirit makes this happen through faith. Because of it, you freely, willingly and joyfully do good to everyone, serve everyone, suffer all kinds of things, love and praise the God who has shown you such grace. Thus, it is just as impossible to separate faith and works as it is to separate heat and light from fire!” (Martin Luther, “Definition of Faith,” An excerpt from An Introduction to St. Paul's Letter to the Romans, Luther's German Bible of 1522, Translated by Rev. Robert E. Smith from Dr. Martin Luther’s Vermischte Deutsche Schriften, Johann K. Irmischer, ed. Vol. 63 (Erlangen: Heyder and Zimmer, 1854), pp.124-125. [EA 63:124-125], August 1994).
Aleksandar S. Santrac, DPhil, PhD, is the Professor of Ethics and Philosophy, Chair of Religion Department, Washington Adventist University, and Extraordinary Research Professor of Dogmatics at North-West University, South Africa. He has recently completed his visiting research fellow program in Christian Ethics at Yale Divinity School, working on peace and reconciliation studies.