Larry Kirkpatrick

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What is the New Theology, part 7: What is Justification?

Justification is, in the New Theology, rigidly held to mean counting right, not making right. It is kept to an external declaration made about the individual, rather than to such external declaration along with a work done inside the individual. The error of this position is made more difficult to understand because in many minds, justification and sanctification are rigidly separated, a carry-over from Methodism. Justification was held to count right and sanctification to be an increasing internal growth in holiness. Although the differences were minutely defined, inspiration warns us:

Many commit the error of trying to define minutely the fine points of distinction between justification and sanctification. Into the definitions of these two terms they often bring their own ideas and speculations (The Faith I Live By, p. 116).

The biblical picture, that justification is much more than only counting one right, is found so threatening to some New Theology advocates that it can call forth vehement objections. Its advocates will even complain that to say justification includes making right is to be Roman Catholic! But again, what does the Bible say?

Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which He shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; That being justified by His grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:5-7).
To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory: Whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus: Whereunto I also labour, striving according to His working, which worketh in me mightily (Colossians 1:27-29).
I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself for me (Galatians 2:20).

No, we are not saved by any merit from any of our own works done apart from God. But look at the pictures in these texts. Justification is here paired with metaphors of washing, of renewal, of a working of the Holy Spirit in us. No wonder Ellen G. White balances these things beautifully in Steps to Christ, pp. 62, 63:

It was possible for Adam, before the fall, to form a righteous character by obedience to God’s law. But he failed to do this, and because of his sin our natures are fallen and we cannot make ourselves righteous. Since we are sinful, unholy, we cannot perfectly obey the holy law. 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.
More than this, 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 you may say, ‘The life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself for me.’ Galatians 2:20. So Jesus said to His disciples, ‘It is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you.’ Matthew 10:20. Then with Christ working in you, you will manifest the same spirit and do the same good works—works of righteousness, obedience.
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 (Steps to Christ, pp. 62, 63).

Did you hear what inspiration said? “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.” We must have the counting and we must have the inward working. Together, these constitute “our only ground of hope.” On justification, the following also helps us.

God requires the entire surrender of the heart, before justification can take place; and in order for man to retain justification, there must be continual obedience, through active, living faith that works by love and purifies the soul (Faith and Works, p. 100).

One advocate of the New Theology position, says that this topic “is the great divide.” I concur, not in that this was the great divide upon which the Protestant Reformation was shaped, for it was not; but in that today it divides within the Church the New Theology advocates from the advocates of authentic Seventh-day Adventism. And which does Mrs. White ask? the “counted-only” question, “How shall a man be counted righteous?” or the “counted and changed” question, “How shall a man be made righteous?” Steps to Christ answers:

How shall a man be just with God? How shall the sinner be made righteous? (Steps to Christ, p. 23).

Being “just” is the same as being “made righteous.” Let’s look at another item. Listen to the following and ask yourself, is this mere legal accounting, or more?

There are many who testify daily, I am not changed in character, only in theory…. All may through faith gain a conqueror’s crown, but many are not willing to engage in hand to hand warfare with their own imperfect dispositions. They retain attributes which make them offensive to God. Daily they are transgressing the principles of His holy law. If all would only learn the simple lesson that they must take and wear the yoke of Christ and learn of the Great Teacher His meekness and lowliness of heart, they would better fulfill their covenant to love God supremely and their neighbor as themselves…. They must begin at the very beginning. Christ says, Take My yoke of restraint and obedience upon you, and learn of Me…. The heart will then be made right with God, through the creative power of Christ. Partakers of the divine nature, they are transformed…. (In Heavenly Places, p. 162).

Some of us have been in this work for awhile now. We have seen the fruitage of the New Theology impact the lives of good people who were misled by its apparent Christ-centeredness. Our interest in this problem arises from a pastoral perspective.

The truth of the matter is that the New Theology takes its cue from a radicalized Lutheran theology that, with its mistaken law versus grace dichotomy, refuses to hear inspiration. We are warned,

It is the work of true education… to train the youth to be thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other men’s thought (Education, p. 17).

Some people become very narrow, and it is not (at first) that they cannot see, but that they refuse to see. They are satisfied. They drive in their stakes and determine that they have the truth (1888 Materials, p. 991). This is not the Adventist way. We are explorers, we are mining for truth as for gold. The Bible says, “In Thy light, we see light” (Psalm 36:9). “The path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day” (Proverbs 4:18). If God’s movement for the last days is manifest in our midst, then we may only expect that we will continue to see more and more light right up until the Second Coming.

The Reformation did not, as many suppose, end with Luther. It is to be continued to the close of this world’s history. Luther had a great work to do in reflecting to others the light which God had permitted to shine upon him; yet he did not receive all the light which was to be given to the world. From that time to this, new light has been continually shining upon the Scriptures, and new truths have been constantly unfolding (The Great Controversy, pp. 148, 149).

Did you hear? “New light… continually shining… new truths… constantly unfolding.” If we believe the Spirit of Prophecy, we must believe this is true. And if so, we must ask, Is this unfolding truth found in the New Theology? or in truth consistent with what Heaven delivered to this people in the founding of this movement? That light must be shining—somewhere—today. And we believe it is. It is found in the development of the final generation presently under way. Upon us God’s light is shining.

But the New Theology says justification is only counting right. How is this antagonistic to the third angel’s message? The message God has entrusted us with is all about transformation. The Gospel saves, but that very saving is renewing, transforming. God is recreating a people in whose heart and mind He is writing His law, inculcating, at their request, His character. In order to do this, God not only counts us right, but He works in us through His Holy Spirit to make us right.

The Bible answers Ellen White’s question, “How shall a man be just with God? How shall the sinner be made righteous?” by answering, “by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost.” The New Theology answers by asking blurry questions, like, “When I’ve sinned against my wife, am I now divorced?”

One well-meaning person, no doubt, read from my book Real Grace for Real People, and determined that I was teaching serious error. In the third chapter (“Justification, pt. 1”) I had pointed out that in the time of the Protestant Reformers,

The main Bible version in the West was Jerome’s Latin Vulgate which first incorporated a decidedly legal law-court modeled reading of those texts we have just been looking at [i.e. Romans ch. 4]. For the Greek verb dikaioo, Jerome’s translation uses “to justify,” and in the passive, “to be justified.” However, the original Greek term is more properly translated “to make righteous”… Whereas in the West, the church underwent a destructive fusion with the pagan Roman world, religion in the East was shaped by a continued reading of the New Testament in its Greek cradle. Therefore, the Greek dikaioo was never burdened in the East with the translated legal meanings of the West.1

That preacher turned to an occurrence of dikaioo in Luke 7:29: “And all the people that heard him, and the publicans, justified [dikaioo] God, being baptized with the baptism of John.” This preacher then proceeded to ask whether these people had made God righteous. He proclaimed that any answer other than his own was a Catholic one!

But there are 40 occurrences of dikaioo in the New Testament, including some of the following:

By thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned (Matthew 12:37).
For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified (Romans 2:13).
Moreover whom He did predestinate, them He also called: and whom He called, them He also justified: and whom He justified, them He also glorified (Romans 8:30).
And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory (1 Timothy 3:16).
But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which He shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; That being justified by His grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:5-7).
Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? (James 2:21).
Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only (James 2:24).
Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? (James 2:25).
He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous [dikaioo] still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still (Revelation 22:11).

We might have sampled more passages, but notice from the above and consider. In Matthew 12:37, are they counted words for which we are vindicated or condemned, or actual? In Romans 2:13 are the “doers of the law” justified or the hearers only? In Romans 8:20 are those whom God finally glorifies merely counted right or have they allowed God to change them? In 1 Timothy 3:16, was Jesus only counted just or did the Holy Spirit enable Him to live a truly just life? In Titus 3:5-7 does justification describe a legal status or a transformational reality? In James 2:21, 2:4, and 2:25, is James asserting that Abraham, Rahab, or people in general experience salvation apart from loyalty and transformed behavior, or not? Finally, in Revelation 22:11, is the man who is “righteous” and forever after “righteous still,” only counted that, or has he become that? The answers to all these questions are evident.

How then, do we answer this concern over Luke 7:29? It is suggested that translating dikaioo in Luke 7:29 as “make righteous” must be wrong, because it has people in this text making God righteous. First, we never gave that translation to that word in that context. We simply indicated that the dominant meaning for diakaioo is “to make righteous,” and gave several examples of the word used in its context to demonstrate this. The answer to this is very simple. Ellen G. White enunciated an important principle in Bible study: “Different meanings are expressed by the same word; there is not one word for each distinct idea” (Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 20). While far and away the dominant meaning of this word in the New Testament is “make righteous,” there are some cases where a more nuanced meaning better translate the idea.

There are a handful of occasions when dikaioo is best translated with the related but different word “vindicate. In Matthew 12:37 “by your words you will be justified [dikaioo],” another translation option for this is “vindicated.” Your words will vindicate or condemn you in the judgment. In Romans 3:4, where the text says of God, “That Thou mightest be justified [dikaioo] in Thy sayings, and mightest overcome when Thou art judged,” again, the best comparable English word for the meaning is “vindicate.” No one makes God righteous, but those who represent Him may indeed live lives that present evidence serving to vindicate the righteousness of His character.

The same translation is best for Luke 7:29: “And all the people that heard Him [Jesus], and the publicans, justified [dikaioo] God, being baptized with the baptism of John,” is more accurately, “And all the people that heard Him, and the publicans, vindicated God, being baptized with the baptism of John.” The people could not make God righteous. He already was righteous. Context must be taken into account. When it comes to fallen human beings, they are not righteous. They must be made righteous. And it can only be done by strength supplied from above.

If justification does not include transformation, and if sanctification is, as so often it is presented to be, never perfect, never good enough, then the bottom line is, when probation closes, what happens? All will be lost, for none will be sufficiently transformed to stand without a Mediator at that time. It is for this very reason that the inspired materials so clearly include transformation as part of the dominant meaning of justification. God desires to bring His people through that intense, climax period, where the gospel is shown to have or not to have healed God’s people. No wonder Mrs. White warned, “Many commit the error of trying to define minutely the fine points of distinction between justification and sanctification.” She knew of what she was speaking. Any viewpoint that destroys our concept of living after the close of probation is antagonistic to Adventism at its core.

NEXT: What is the New Theology Part 8: Obedience: Is it a Condition of Salvation or Does it Only Follow Salvation?


  1. Larry Kirkpatrick, Real Grace for Real People, p. 29.


Internet 2006-10-12