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Perfect In Christ

Helmut Ott

Chapter VII

Two Groups of People in the Church: 
Those Righteous in Christ by Faith and Those Unrighteous

Finally, we will consider some statements in Ellen White’s writings that indicate that the church contains only two kinds of people: (1) those who are righteous because they are covered in the merits of the Saviour and (2) those who are unrighteous because they attempt to meet God’s standard of perfect righteousness "independent of the atonement" and "without the virtue of divine mediation."

According to Ellen White, the two classes have their first representatives in Cain and Abel, and will coexist in the church to the end of time:

The Pharisee and the publican represent two great classes into which those who come to worship God are divided. Their first two representatives are found in the first two children that were born into the world. Cain thought himself righteous, and he came to God with a thank offering only. He made no confession of sin, and acknowledged no need of mercy. But Abel came with the blood that pointed to the Lamb of God. He came as a sinner, confessing himself lost; his only hope was the unmerited love of God (Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 152).

"By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain" (Heb. 11:4). Abel grasped the great principles of redemption. He saw himself a sinner. . . Through the shed blood [of a lamb] he looked to the future sacrifice, Christ dying on the cross of Calvary; and trusting in the atonement that was there to be made, he had the witness that he was righteous, and his offering accepted. . . . Cain and Abel represent two classes that will exist in the world till the close of time. One class avail themselves of the appointed sacrifice for sin; the other venture to depend upon their own merits; theirs is a sacrifice without the virtue of divine mediation, and thus it is not able to bring man into favor with God. . . .

Those who feel no need of the blood of Christ, who feel that without divine grace they can by their own works secure the approval of God, are making the same mistake as did Cain. If they do not accept the cleansing blood, they are under condemnation. There is no other provision made whereby they can be released from the thralldom of sin. . . . As Cain thought to secure the divine favor by an offering that lacked the blood of a sacrifice, so do these expect to exalt humanity to the divine standard, independent of the atonement (Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 72, 73).

We will look at three specific concepts: 

1. Cain understood neither his real predicament as a fallen being nor the dynamics of the salvation God provided in the Substitute. In his spiritual blindness he thought himself to be righteous, not realizing he was a lost, guilty, and unworthy sinner. Consequently he approached God with a thank offering only. He made no confession of sin, he brought no atoning blood, he acknowledged no need of mercy. As a result, he had no access either to God’s forgiveness or to the Saviour’s merits that Christ mediates only to those who come to God claiming His redemptive work on their behalf.

2. Abel realized his true condition as a fallen being and grasped the great principles of redemption. He went to God as a sinner, confessing himself lost, and placed his faith in and based his hope on the unmerited love of God as manifested in the atonement Christ would make at the cross on his behalf. By faith he brought the sacrifice God had stipulated—the blood that pointed to the Lamb of God. That is the basis—the only basis—for the witness that he was righteous, and the reason his offering was accepted.

3. The church—"those who come to worship God"— contains two distinct categories of people. One group— represented by Cain and the Pharisee in Christ’s parable—consists of religious moralists who are spiritually self-sufficient. They do not recognize the true depth of their own sinfulness and therefore come to God with a thank offering only—an offering that lacks the cleansing blood of Christ’s sacrifice and is independent of the atonement. Their offering does not have the virtue of divine mediation and, consequently, cannot give them access to God. In their Laodicean blindness they do not perceive their moral inadequacy and spiritual destitution. As a result, they have no desire to repent, and feel no need to open the door to Christ as their only source of saving righteousness.

The other group within the church—represented by Abel and the tax collector in Christ’s parable—is made up of those who understand both their predicament as fallen beings and the great principles of redemption. They know that except for the salvation God has provided in Christ, they are as lost, guilty, and helpless as any other sinner. That is why they avail themselves of Christ’s redemptive work on their behalf and, by faith, cover their spiritual nakedness with the robe of His all-sufficient righteousness. Like Abel they have the witness that they are righteous, the true children of God through faith in Jesus Christ.

It is important to note that the criterion determining the separation of the church into two groups is not achievement-centered but Christ-centered. In other words, the church does not divide into one segment who are righteous in themselves and have learned to live without sinning, and another who failed to reach this double objective. Instead, the church separates into those who avail themselves of Christ’s redemptive work on their behalf and therefore are righteous in Christ by faith, and those who make their own spiritual accomplishments the ultimate basis of their standing and consequently have nothing to bring them into favor with God.

Notice how Ellen White elsewhere expresses the same concept:

The Pharisee felt no conviction of sin. The Holy Spirit could not work with him. His soul was encased in a self-righteous armor which the arrows of God, barbed and true, aimed by angel hands, failed to penetrate. It is only he who knows himself to be a sinner that Christ can save (Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 158).

Self-righteousness is the danger of this age; it separates the soul from Christ. Those who trust to their own righteousness cannot understand how salvation comes through Christ (Faith and Works, p. 96; italics supplied). There is nothing so offensive to God or so dangerous to the human soul as pride and self-sufficiency. Of all sins it is the most hopeless, the most incurable (Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 154).

Let those who feel inclined to make a high profession of holiness look into the mirror of God’s law. As they see its far-reaching claims, and understand its work as a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart, they will not boast of sinlessness (The Acts of the Apostles, p. 562).

How can anyone who is brought before the holy standard of God’s law—which makes apparent the evil motives, the unhallowed desires, the infidelity of the heart, the impurity of the lips, and that lays bare the life— make any boast of holiness? His acts of disloyalty in making void the law of God are exposed to his sight, and his spirit is stricken and afflicted under the searching influence of the Spirit of God. He loathes himself, as he views the greatness, the majesty, the pure and spotless character of Jesus Christ (Ellen G. White, in Review and Herald, Oct. 16, 1888).

There is nothing in us from which we can clothe the soul so that its nakedness shall not appear. We are to receive the robe of righteousness woven in the loom of heaven, even the spotless robe of Christ’s righteousness (ibid., July 19, 1892). Nothing is apparently more helpless, yet really more invincible, than the soul that feels its nothingness and relies wholly on the merits of the Saviour (The Ministry of Healing, p. 182).

No man can look within himself and find anything in his character that will recommend him to God, or make his acceptance sure. It is only through Jesus, whom the Father gave for the life of the world, that the sinner may find access to God. Jesus alone is our Redeemer, our Advocate and Mediator; in Him is our only hope for pardon, peace, and righteousness (Selected Messages, book 1, pp. 332, 333).

Since the considerations in this chapter arise from the stories of Cain and Abel, and the Pharisee and the tax collector in Christ’s parable, we will briefly examine and discuss the scriptural account of the two cases.

1. Cain and Abel Offer Sacrifices to God

Scripture says little about the circumstances surrounding the incident when Cain and Abel brought their respective sacrifices to God. However, when we examine the implications of Cain’s act of bringing "some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord" (Gen. 4:3), we can draw several conclusions with a reasonable degree of certainty:

First, at least to some extent, Cain recognized his fallen condition and wanted reconciliation with God— otherwise it is difficult to see why he should have brought God a sacrifice at all. Second, he obeyed God in building an altar and in bringing an offering. His problem was that he had the wrong sacrifice—one that, instead of representing faith in the Substitute, symbolized dependence on one’s own efforts for his standing with God.

Third, apparently Cain ignored the fact that only Christ’s righteousness can accomplish man’s reconciliation with God. He failed to understand that when it comes to our personal standing with God, nothing less than the Saviour’s perfect merits is sufficient, nothing equally meritorious is possible, and nothing else is acceptable to God. Since "without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness" (Heb. 9:22), nothing a sinner can grow in his own garden can take the place of the Lamb that God provided as a means to bring man back into favor with Him. The fruit Cain brought was probably the very best he had to offer, and it all grew through the power of God. But it symbolized man’s accomplishments, accomplishments that, having no redemptive value, do not belong on the altar.

Fourth, Cain’s behavior indicates quite persuasively that while he accepted the idea of reconciliation with God —and to some extent showed he wanted to live in good terms with Him—he rejected the means God provided in Christ to make both reconciliation and a right relationship possible. Because Cain’s fruit represented a change in God’s plan to redeem His lost children, his offering not only failed to achieve its intended purpose but also increased his guilt and alienation from God.

Fifth, God did not reject Cain because he was a sinner. God knew the man’s lost condition, and that is precisely why He provided a solution to his sin problem. The Lord could not accept Cain and his offering, because he did not place his faith in the Substitute God provided as the only means of salvation.

By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead (Heb. 11:4).

Abel’s offering was "better" because (1) it was the one God had stipulated as a symbol of Christ, and because (2) he brought it "by faith." He was "commended as a righteous man," not because he was morally blameless and spiritually perfect, but because through his sacrifice he showed his faith in the atoning blood of Christ for forgiveness, and his dependence on Christ’s infinite merits for a right standing with God.

2. Pharisee and Tax Collector Pray in the Temple

According to Jesus’ parable recorded in Luke 18:9-14, a Pharisee and a tax collector went up to the Temple to pray. They were both religious men—church members, we would probably say in our modern terminology. The Pharisee thanked God for being a better person and having a better behavioral record than "other men" who, according to him, were "robbers, evildoers, adulterers." In contrast, the tax collector recognized himself a sinner and prayed to God for mercy.

Since Jesus did not contradict the Pharisee’s selfevaluation, we can conclude that he spoke the truth when he said he did not rob or commit adultery as did other men. He probably also had long and detailed records to prove he fasted twice a week and paid faithful tithe. So his problem was not that he was a chronic sinner who lived in deliberate and open violation to the will of God. Instead, it was that because he thought himself righteous he felt no need of a Saviour.

The Pharisee’s spiritual predicament resulted from two theological misunderstandings: First, he apparently defined man’s sin problem only in terms of moral character and ethical behavior. In his view, only wicked people who expressed open rebellion against God by willfully breaking the letter of the law were guilty of sin. Therefore he felt quite good about himself. Because he was not evil and immoral as he perceived other men to be, he thought he had a good moral character that deserved God’s approval. Having not broken any specific prohibition of the law—such as robbing and adultery—he assumed that he had rendered perfect obedience and was therefore free of guilt. And because he believed that he had evidence to prove he fulfilled his religious duties—such as fasting twice a week and paying an accurate tithe—he concluded that he was positively righteous, truly worthy of God’s approval.

Second, the Pharisee had a righteousness-by-works conception of salvation. That is, he based his standing with God—and by extension his assurance of eternal life—on his personal moral goodness and behavioral flawlessness. Such a view ruled out two things: (1) God’s grace in providing the Substitute to pay the penalty for his guilt, cancel his death sentence, and give him the right to become a child of God, and (2) the believer’s response of repentance and faith by which he would become a participant in the Saviour’s redemptive activity—an activity that would grant him God’s forgiveness and make him worthy of eternal life through the imputed righteousness of Christ.

According to the parable, the Pharisee’s visit to the Temple brought him no blessing, and he returned home unchanged. He was a morally righteous man—a man with deep religious commitment, a great regard for the law, and a high standard of ethical behavior. But he was also someone who in his spiritual pride and religious self-sufficiency did not realize his desperate need of a Saviour. That is, he felt no need for either God’s forgiveness or the imputed righteousness of Christ. Although he had obeyed the law—in a sense—he ignored the gospel. As a result, he had no access to God’s covenant of grace, no part in Christ and the salvation He alone provides. So he went home convinced that according to the law he was righteous, but unaware that according to the gospel he was lost.

The tax collector’s experience was the exact opposite of what happened to the Pharisee. The prayer of the taxgatherer indicates that he recognized himself a sinner and based his hope for a right standing with God on His mercy. Because in repentance he surrendered what he was and because in faith he accepted what God’s grace provides, he "went home justified before God" (Luke 18:14). He came to the Temple a lost, guilty, and hopeless sinner, but returned to his home fully reconciled to God, a son of God in Christ, an heir to eternal life. Should he have died—or should probation have ended—at that point in time his eternal salvation would have been secure in Christ. The publican would have participated at the wedding feast of the Lamb and had part in God’s eternal kingdom of glory, not because he no longer was a sinner, but because he now had a Saviour, and consequently stood before God totally forgiven and perfectly righteous in Christ by faith. 

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