I have had the privilege of sharing the message of “Christ Our Righteousness” during my ministry. I just returned from Camp Meeting in Nova Scotia, where every speaker spoke on this topic for every talk the whole week – a first at an Adventist Camp Meeting since the 1890s, I would dare say. Almost everyone I talked with said they were so blessed; that it was as though scales dropped from their eyes; that they had been waiting for 40 years to hear this message (a common theme I hear wherever this message is preached); that they now understand the gospel as never before. Those precious souls were starving for real good news. And, praise God, they got it from every speaker (of whom I was least).
What frustrates, pains, and saddens me, however, is the reaction (or, more accurately, pre–action) that some people share when they hear you are going to be preaching on righteousness by faith. To say the least, some people are indifferent, bored, or even patronizing.
People say stuff like:
“Righteousness by faith? Oh, yeah, we all know that.”
“It’s really neat that you like to preach on that topic.”
“Righteousness by faith? Yes, we could use a little refresher on that.”
“I preached a sermon on that last December.”
“I’m glad you have a burden for righteousness by faith. My real burden is for family ministries.”
Let’s be clear, folks: “righteousness by faith” is not just another subject; it’s not just one among many. It’s not as though there is family ministries, prayer ministries, stewardship, evangelism, and then, oh, yeah, righteousness by faith. It is the subject that, according to Ellen White, “swallows up every other” (Review and Herald, December 23, 1890).
What does this mean in a practical sense? It means that every subject I preach or speak on must be bathed in, within the context of, and saturated by righteousness by faith. As a preacher, it is not as though I preach a sermon on tithing, preach a sermon on the Sabbath, preach a sermon on God’s love, and then preach a sermon on righteousness by faith. Every sermon I preach must be within the context of this “one interest” that prevails.
Let’s also be clear on this: we don’t already know righteousness by faith, thereby implying that we can just move on to the next topic since we have that problem solved. We don’t know the subject to its fullest, but even if we did, we never graduate from the topic. (I am reminded of the anecdote that my good friend and mentor, Dr. Richard Davidson, likes to share: when he was in the seminary, he got an A+ in righteousness by faith, he says, but later realized he didn’t really know it.)
Righteousness by faith is not simply a set of facts one learns. It is a relationship that ever grows and goes deeper. And even if one were to come to a good grasp of the intellectual facts, one constantly needs to be reminded of their reality; constantly grounded in the love, grace, and power of God. I know that, even though I have been exposed to these powerful truths for my whole life, I am still learning more and more about this exhaustless theme and I ever want to discover and hear more.
As Ellen White says, “There is not a point that needs to be dwelt upon more earnestly, repeated more frequently, or established more firmly in the minds of all than the impossibility of fallen man meriting anything by his own best good works. Salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ alone” (Faith and Works, p. 18).
Lastly, we need to recognize this: I frequently encounter two camps when it comes to righteousness by faith. One camp speaks almost exclusively of Jesus, His forgiveness, His pardoning grace (all done, quite often, in a vague manner). Another camp speaks almost exclusively of the need for overcoming sin and vindicating God’s character. Both camps think they have the corner-market on righteousness by faith.
But it’s not this or that. It’s this and that. Even more accurately, however, it’s this (overcoming sin), accomplished by that (realizing that God loves me eternally and that my sins are forgiven). Or, as Paul put it, it’s “faith which worketh by love” (Galatians 5:6).
So let’s follow Ellen White’s counsel. Let’s allow first things to be first, always, and ever. The great Advent battle cry is sola righteousness by faith, prima righteousness by faith, and tota righteousness by faith.