A few years ago, I watched a documentary that followed a group of pilgrims on a grueling journey through the Himalayas to Lhasa, Tibet’s capital. I was spellbound by the pilgrimage. Every eight steps the pilgrims would stop, kneel, and extend themselves into a full prostrate position—their arms outstretched with their faces to the ground. They would stand, walk eight steps, and then repeat the same arduous ritual over and over again with mind numbing grit. Eight steps. Kneel. Prostration. Eight steps. Kneel. Prostration. Every mile of the journey consisted of the same agonizing kowtow. The pilgrims donned wooden clogs on their hands and leather aprons around their waists to prevent their skin from being ground to the bone from the endless repetition. They would cover six miles a day through mountain passes, around waterfalls and avalanches. The pilgrimage would take over six months to complete—a distance of over 1200 miles!
As I watched, I was filled with conflicting emotions—admiration for their perseverance while profoundly heartbroken. They were suffering in order to be counted worthy; the relentless ritual arose from the angst of trying to measure up. The pilgrims were enduring this searing exercise for one purpose—merit.
In the 16th century a tormented monk, climbing Pilate’s staircase in Rome with the same meritorious mindset of earning salvation, had an awakening. In the midst of his agonized drill, he heard the thunderous words “The just shall live by faith.” He sprang to his feet and a revolution was born. The Protestant Reformation rediscovered the radical notion that salvation requires no human merit—in other words, no payment is needed. It is a gift.
I couldn’t help but think of Ellen White’s emphasis when she said:
“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.” —Ellen White, Manuscript Release, vol. 3, p. 420
Some may say that if we take this position we’re giving license for a lackadaisical, lethargic, listless religion—as if to imply that the only possible motivation for good works is merit. Quite the contrary, through faith and acceptance, the unmerited gift touches the very soul of our fallen humanity. Filled with divine gratitude we respond, “My Lord, and my God.”
The fact is, if we feel the need to pay for the gift, we haven’t experienced it. If we’re unresponsive, we haven’t experienced it either. The root issue is the same.
Why did Ellen White make such an adamant statement of the need to continually replay the message of humanity never meriting salvation? Perhaps because it’s human nature to assume we must pay.
“Let the subject be made distinct and plain that it is not possible to effect anything in our standing before God or in the gift of God to us through creature merit. Should faith and works purchase the gift of salvation for anyone, then the Creator is under obligation to the creature. Here is an opportunity for falsehood to be accepted as truth. If any man can merit salvation by anything he may do, then he is in the same position as the Catholic to do penance for his sins. Salvation, then, is partly of debt that may be earned as wages. If man cannot, by any of his good works, merit salvation, then it must be wholly of grace, received by man as a sinner because he receives and believes in Jesus. It is wholly a free gift. Justification by faith is placed beyond controversy. And all this controversy is ended, as soon as the matter is settled that the merits of fallen man in his good works can never procure eternal life for him.” —Ellen White, Manuscript Release, vol. 3, pp. 420-421
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.”—Ephesians 2:8
Let us experience the gift.
—David Shin is the pastor of the
Hillside O’Malley Church in
Anchorage, Alaska. His passion is
that all may come to know and
experience the wonders of
God’s grace—“Christ Our Righteousness.”