Two Fundamental Lessons


THE disciples looked at Christ in amazement, hardly able to believe that He had actually said what their ears heard.

A young man had just approached their Master with the question "Teacher, what good deed must I do that I may have eternal life?"

Jesus' first response was, "Keep the commandments." To make clear what He meant He mentioned several of the Ten Commandments.

"I have kept all of these," the young man said. "Where do I still fall short?"

Now, this young man happened to be very rich. Jesus knew that his riches were at the center of his life and that as long as this was so he could never enter into the kingdom of heaven. So He said, "If you want to be perfect, go and sell your property, and give the proceeds to the poor. Then you will have possessions in heaven."

For a moment the man weighed Jesus' statement; then, without a word, he turned away. The sacrifice was too great.

As Jesus looked after his retreating figure He said to the disciples, sadly, "It is easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven."

It was this statement that astounded the twelve, for they had been taught that riches were a sign of God's favor, and poverty, of His disfavor. If this young man, whose great riches seemed to point to favor with God, could not make it into the kingdom, who could, they reasoned.

"Who, then, can be saved?" they asked in astonishment. Noting their amazement, Jesus said, "Humanly speaking, it is impossible that anyone can be saved, but with God all things are possible."

The Two Lessons

In Jesus' words are two fundamental lessons that all who would be Christians must learn.* Until we do we have not really grasped the ABC's of Christianity.

1. Of himself, man is able to do absolutely nothing to earn his salvation. His efforts to live a holy life are doomed to failure.

2. Through Jesus Christ, His merits and His strength, man can meet every requirement and perform every act necessary for holy living and for salvation.

Many sincere Christians live on the assumption that, at least in part, their salvation depends upon themselves alone. "Many have an idea that they must do some part of the work alone," writes Ellen G. White. "They have trusted in Christ for the forgiveness of sin, but now they seek by their own efforts to live aright." -Steps to Christ, p. 69. They depend on Sabbathkeeping, tithe-paying, health reform, honest living, faithful Ingathering, and other works to assure salvation.

It is natural to fall into this attitude. One of the hardest lessons for a person desiring to be a Christian to learn is that he cannot, by his own efforts, overcome sin, that God does not ask him to overcome sin by his own efforts, and that anything he does on his own to overcome sin brings him no merit with heaven.

The one who sincerely tries by his own efforts to overcome his sins is bound, sooner or later, to discover the impossibility of his task. Like Paul, he is eventually driven to the realization, "What I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I .... For the good that I would, I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do" (Rom. 7: 15-19).

The man who truly tries of himself to keep the law finds that it drives him with a demanding inflexibility that exhausts him. He discovers that the standard is too high for him. In striving to reach it, he falls back, spent and defeated. He finds himself to be a slave, a puppet, to his sinful habits. In his struggle to overcome, he may get to feel resentful toward God. Guiltily, he may think: God, I've repented of my sins and asked for forgiveness. I'm trying to do Your will. Lord, I keep on asking You to help me overcome my sins. But I keep on falling. Somehow, You don't seem to help me.

Meanwhile, his conscience is at him because of his failure. He is dogged with a sense of guilt, and haunted with a feeling of frustration.

It may take a person a long time to learn the lesson that he cannot possibly do God's will on his own. When he does, he may drift into one of two situations. He may become a "nominal Christian," living continually a defeated life, but thinking there is nothing better, that this is the lot of the Christian. Or he may come to the conclusion What's the use! There is nothing to all this about Christianity being able to give you victory over your sins and weaknesses, and to bring peace and happiness. I might as well forget it.

Both Lessons Must Be Learned

There are many striving Christians who learn the first of our two lessons-that man cannot live a holy life, and thus merit salvation, by his own efforts. There seem to be fewer who learn the second lesson, that, through Christ, the sanctified life, Christian victory, is abundantly possible, that "with God all things are possible."

It is necessary for the Christian to learn both lessons before he can truly understand the way of salvation. If he does not learn the first lesson, that he cannot through his own efforts obey God, he will go on trusting in his own works, his own righteousness, and be lost.

If he does not learn that he can have full victory through Jesus, he will go through life defeated, frustrated, faithless. And because he is faithless he cannot receive salvation.

The fact that we learn these lessons with such difficulty sometimes leads us to an imbalance in our Christian beliefs. There may be a tendency to emphasize God's forgiveness, rather than His demand for perfect obedience; a leaning toward emphasizing the imputed righteousness of Christ, with a consequent de-emphasis of His imparted righteousness. 71 In other words, we may be inclined to overaccentuate the righteousness that is offered to the sinner freely, and almost forget about the emphasis the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy place upon the quality character all must develop. We may place a lot of emphasis upon such statements as "When it is in the heart to obey God, when efforts are put forth to this end, Jesus accepts this disposition and effort as man's best service, and He makes up for the deficiency with His own divine merit." -My Life Today, p. 250.

This is a tremendous thought and offers great hope and encouragement for the born-again Christian. But it is only for the genuinely born-again person, as will be seen by reviewing points made in chapter eight, for example.

There is in the statement no assurance for those who are tempted to feel that it may be used as an excuse for habitual failing and failing. The words offer no security for one who thinks that, because he desires to do right, and is doing his best on his own, he need have no concern, even when he does sin.

For a proper understanding of such statements, other passages need to be placed with them. We would suggest, for example, a careful study of the chapter "Without a Wedding Garment" in the book Christ's Object Lessons (pp. 307-3l9).

A Character That All Must Possess

Let us note briefly a few quotations from this chapter:

The wedding garment represents the character which all must possess who shall be accounted fit guests for the wedding. -Page 307. (Italics supplied.)

Only the covering which Christ Himself has provided can make us meet to appear in God's presence. This covering, the robe of His own righteousness, Christ will put upon every repenting, believing soul. -Page 311.

It is in this life that we are to put on the robe of Christ's righteousness. -Page 319.

Then Ellen White tells us what the wedding garment represents:

By the wedding garment in the parable is represented the pure, spotless character which Christ's true followers will possess. To the church it is given "that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white" (Rev. 19:8) "not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing" (Eph. 5:27). The fine linen, says the Scripture, "is the righteousness of saints." -Page 310.

Now, note particularly exactly what Mrs. White says the garment is:

It is the righteousness of Christ, His own unblemished character, that through faith is imparted to all who receive Him as their personal Saviour. -Ibid. (Italics supplied.)

A study of Ellen White's interpretation of the term wedding garment, as listed in the Index to her writings, reveals that of the thirteen times listed in which she refers to it, most of them are ambiguous-they could be understood as meaning either imputed or imparted righteousness, or both. But when she does become more specific, in almost all cases she seems to suggest imparted righteousness. In the quotation above she is unequivocal.

We also note that she refers in this connection to Revelation 19:8 ("the fine linen is the righteousness of saints"). The SDA Bible Commentary comments on this passage: "[The Greek term used] applies particularly to the sanctified deeds of the Christian, his victorious life developed by the grace of the indwelling Christ." -Vol. 7, p. 872.

Consider again what we have read: All who have a part in the wedding supper must have the wedding garment. That garment represents the "pure, spotless character which Christ's true followers will possess." But the emphasis Ellen White makes is not Christ's righteousness IMPUTED to us, rather it is that it must be IMPARTED. * 72

What does this mean?

God calls upon us to reach the standard of perfection, and places before us the example of Christ's character. In His humanity, perfected by a life of constant resistance of evil, the Saviour showed that through co-operation with Divinity, human beings may in this life attain to perfection of character .-The Acts of the Apostles, p. 531

What Christ was in His perfect humanity, we must be; for we must form characters for eternity. -Testimonies to Ministers, p. 173.

That perfection of character which the Lord requires is the fitting up of the whole being as a temple for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. God will accept of nothing less than the service of the entire human organism .... God desires to prepare a people to stand before Him pure and holy, that He may introduce them into the society of heavenly angels. -Our High Calling, p. 265.

There are literally scores of Spirit of Prophecy statements, expressing the same idea, that might be quoted.

If, then, we must have more than God's forgiveness and the imputed righteousness of Jesus, there is one thing that Christians must have in the life. That is-victory.

As one woman said to me, "It is not enough to have Jesus' righteousness cover my imperfections. That is marvelous. I'm so grateful for His forgiveness. But I must have victory in my life. I can't go on living in frustrated defeat."

And victory we may have. The Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy make it amply plain that complete victory over every sin, every weakness, every inherited tendency to evil, is abundantly sure, if we meet the conditions.

"His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:3, 4, R.S.V.).

"But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumph" (2 Cor. 2: 14, R.S.V.).

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 15:57, R.S.V.).

"In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us" (Rom. 8:37, R.S.V.).

"Sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace" (chap. 6: 14, R.S.V.).

"I can do all things in him who strengthens me" (Phil. 4: 13, R.S.V.).

"Now to him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you without blemish before the presence of his glory with rejoicing" (Jude 24, R.S.V.).

The following statements are representative of many found in the writings of Ellen G. White:

Man is, through faith, to be a partaker in the divine nature, and to overcome every temptation wherewith he is beset. -Our High Calling, p. 48.

We can overcome. Yes, fully, entirely. Jesus died to make a way of escape for us, that we might overcome every evil temper, every sin, every temptation, and sit down at last with Him. -Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 144.

If we will trust Him, and commit our ways to Him, He will direct our steps in the very path that will result in our obtaining the victory over every evil passion, and every trait of character that is unlike the character of our divine Pattern. -Our High Calling, p. 316.

Man may become a partaker of the divine nature; not a soul lives who may not summon the aid of Heaven in temptation and trial. Christ came to reveal the source of His power, that man might never rely on his unaided human capabilities. -Selected Messages, book I, pp. 408, 409.

The life that Christ lived in this world, men and women can live through His power and under His instruction. In their conflict with Satan, they may have all the help that He had. They may be more than conquerors through Him who loved them and gave Himself for them. -Testimonies, vol. 9, p. 22.

We shall return to this subject of victory in chapter 19, following the examination of other matters in the next three chapters.

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* For the basic idea presented in this chapter I am indebted to the book Absolute Surrender, by Andrew Murray.

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* When this requirement is emphasized, the question is frequently raised: But what about the thief on the cross? What chance did he have for anything but imputed righteousness? But he will be saved, won't he?

The implication being, Is this matter of imparted righteousness that important?

It is to be remembered first, that total, unconditional surrender, which brings justification, pardon, the new birth, is required. This surrender the thief made. Second, the very act of surrender brings the Holy Spirit into the life, and, "the impartation of the Spirit is the impartation of the life of Christ" (The Desire of Ages, p. 805). Thus the character of Christ had been and was being imparted to the thief during the few hours he lived. Righteousness begins to be imparted the moment it is imputed.

For a discussion of imparted in what is thought of as the "absolute" sense, see the two following chapters,