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by Arnold Valentin Wallenkampf

14. Between Scylla and Charybdis

On his long journey from Troy, Ulysses of Greek mythology had to navigate the Strait of Messina. On the Italian side of the strait was the rock Scylla. Ancient Greek sailors personified this promontory as a monster with 12 feet, six heads on long snakelike necks, each head having a triple row of sharklike teeth that would snatch and devour unwary sailors. On the Sicilian side was the whirlpool Charybdis. It was personified as a monster that drank huge amounts of water and belched it forth three times a day. It would suck to death sailors who came too close. To navigate this perilous passage it was essential that Ulysses steer a steady course, lest he, his ship, and all his sailors either be sucked to a watery grave by coming too close to the whirlpool Charybdis or be devoured by the monster Scylla. Despite Ulysses’ vigilance, Scylla devoured six of his sailors.

This classic dilemma often illustrates life. In guarding against one danger we often come close to, or succumb to, another. The path of safety is seldom found easily.

In the area of mental persuasion or religious conviction, our course as Christians lies constantly between Scylla and Charybdis. The Christian must sail between legalism, a formal theoretical acceptance of the Written Word, with meticulous observance of the ethics of Christianity; and libertinism or emotional antinomianism, an alleged warm feeling of personal oneness with Jesus while disregarding the Written Word and despising the growth of the fruit of the Spirit in one’s life. In trying to avoid one pitfall, it is easy to fall prey to the other. Extreme stress on theological sanctification may result in a belief in salvation by works; undue stress on justification by faith may result in devotion to cheap grace.

E. J. Waggoner and A. T. Jones did God’s work at the Minneapolis General Conference session in 1888. By boldly proclaiming the message of righteousness by faith, they tried to rescue the church from sterile legalism and to nurture the believers in a living experience in Christ. Ellen G. White wholeheartedly endorsed their efforts to present Christ as our righteousness. Before sailing for Australia, she joined them in presenting this message in many ministerial institutes across the United States. About the message of righteousness by faith she writes: "The loud cry of the third angel has already begun in the revelation of the righteousness of Christ, the sin-pardoning Redeemer."1

Later, in a letter from New Zealand, she warns Jones: "In my dream you were presenting the subject of faith and the imputed righteousness of Christ by faith. You repeated several times that works amounted to nothing, that there are no conditions. The matter was presented in that light that I knew minds would be confused, and would not receive the correct impression in reference to faith and works, and I decided to write to you. You state this matter too strongly. There are conditions to our receiving justification and sanctification, and the righteousness of Christ. I know your meaning, but you leave a wrong impression upon many minds. While good works will not save even one soul, yet it is impossible for even one soul to be saved without good works."2

Justification by faith is attained without works. It is solely "by faith apart from works of law" (Rom. 3:28). This means that we are justified or put right with God without meriting it of ourselves. The sinner experiences justification by faith when he accepts the gift of salvation. It occurs when the sinner responds to the pleadings of the Holy Spirit and changes his attitude toward God from one of rebellion and enmity to one of veneration, trust, and loyalty. And this change manifests itself in obedience.

Obedience to God’s will as expressed in His law, and salvation by grace through faith are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they go together. Obedience does not imply legalism. To call observance of law legalism is to misconstrue the Word of God. Thinking that one can be saved by keeping the law is legalism. Willing obedience is not legalism. Jesus said, "For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother" (Matt. 12:50).

Neither the observance of the law of God nor the fulfilling of God’s will makes a person a legalist. Rather, it is the person’s attitude or motive for abiding by God’s will that may make him a legalist. If a person keeps the law, hoping that by doing so he will be saved, he surely is a rank legalist. No one, not even a converted person, can be saved by keeping the law, but he may be lost by not keeping it.

Salvation is not earned by keeping the law; salvation is a gift of God. "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God" (Eph. 2:8). But having been saved (forgiven of our past violations of God’s law) by Christ’s shed blood for us, we are now being saved (preserved from transgressing His law) by Jesus Himself, who is living out His life of obedience within us through His Holy Spirit.

Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus will protect us from sinning whenever we trust God and place our wills on the side of His will. "Every temptation, every opposing influence, whether open or secret, may be successfully resisted, ‘not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord of hosts.’"3

We are not saved by works any more than a tree produces fruit to prove that it is alive. A tree produces fruit because it is alive, not to prove that it is alive. So it is with a genuine Christian; he produces good works as fruit. "By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples" (John 15:8).

Although it may appear easy to hold a one-sided view of a question, it is not always the best or safest position. Years ago, while selling books in a Swedish county adjacent to Norway, I decided to cycle into Norway to spend my midsummer holiday in the Norwegian capital of Oslo. At that time, traffic in Sweden moved on the left side of the road, as it still does in the British Isles. However in Norway traffic moved on the right side of the road.

I entered Norway on a narrow, graveled country road barely wide enough for two cars. When I rode my bicycle on such a road in Sweden I would ordinarily stay in the middle of the infrequently traveled road and veer over to the extreme left side only when I would occasionally meet a car. When I crossed the dividing line between the two countries, I moved over to the right side of the road and remained on that side, even though the Norwegian road was no wider and carried no more traffic than the Swedish country road did.

Why did I cling to the right side of the narrow road in Norway, even though I had not hugged the left side of the road in my native Sweden? From early childhood I had made it a habit to turn to the left in a moment of unexpected danger. In Norway, to avoid the temptation of veering over to the left if I should unexpectedly meet a traveler, I stayed on the extreme right side of the road, even though I was in danger of running off the narrow road into the ditch.

Although it appears easier for some Christians to veer to the side of a righteousness by faith that does not produce fruit, and for others to veer to righteousness by works, it is God’s will and plan that we succumb to neither extreme.

In 1890 Ellen G. White wrote: "We hear a great deal about faith, but we need to hear a great deal more about works. Many are deceiving their own souls by living an easygoing, accommodating, cross-less religion. But Jesus says, ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.’"4

In other words, although it should be impressed indelibly upon everyone s awareness that our salvation rests solely on God’s grace through faith, we must never come to the place where we believe the law is abrogated. A living, vital, saving relationship with God is not adequately expressed in a formal creed or in theoretical dogma and a set form of worship. But neither does it express itself in fatuous, fruitless faith. Rather, saving faith is a divine dynamic, operative in our lives through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, who abides and rules within every true Christian. In such a relationship the believer acclaims Jesus not merely as a loving Friend, a gracious Saviour, and an Intercessor at God’s throne, but exalts Him also as King in all the different facets of personal living here and now. He becomes a glad-hearted follower of Jesus, loyal to Him in every respect by keeping His law.

In her letter to A. T. Jones, Ellen White links "justification and sanctification, and the righteousness of Christ." The righteousness of Christ embraces both justification by faith and the resultant process of theological sanctification by faith in Jesus as our Redeemer. Sanctification is His righteousness made part of us, as we live under the constant guidance and power of the Holy Spirit.

The gospel encompasses both God’s gracious acceptance of the sinner and the subsequent grace—gift that enabled him to live according to God’s will. It steers a middle course between antinomianism and legalism. In Jesus, law and gospel are not opposites but complementary. We are redeemed by God’s grace through faith, but by a faith that works through love (see Gal. 5:6). "Faith and works are two oars which we must use equally."5

But the danger is constantly present, as Luther found to his extreme sorrow, that some will swing too far to one side or the other. He concluded that it was almost impossible to present the gospel of salvation by God’s free grace and justification by faith without some so-called Christians abusing it by turning grace into license and libertinism. He wrote: "Thus there is a danger on both sides... if grace or faith is not preached, no one is saved; for faith alone justifies and saves. On the other hand, if faith is preached, as it must be preached, the majority of men understand the teaching about faith in a fleshly way and transform the freedom of the Spirit with the freedom of the flesh. This can be discerned today in all classes of society, both high and low. They all boast of being evangelicals and boast of Christian freedom. Meanwhile, however, they give in to their desires and turn to greed, sexual desire, pride, envy, etc. No one performs his duty faithfully; no one serves another by love."6

But in spite of the danger that some may turn grace into libertinism, an ambassador for Christ will proclaim the message of salvation by God’s free grace in order to win men and women to Christ, just as a suitor must take the dare of proposing in order to win his bride.

Man in sin needs forgiveness. This is rescue. He must become a son of God in order to have eternal life. But rescue does not suffice. After having been rescued, life must be sustained. Man needs care and rehabilitation to be restored to the image of God in which he was created (see Gen. 1:26). Some erroneously call this deification. Such it is definitely not, since man, although redeemed, will never become God. He is, and always will remain, a creature; man will never become the Creator. But although a creature who has been soiled by sin, through justification by faith he stands without condemnation before God because he is in Christ Jesus. "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 8:1)

Both justification by faith and theological sanctification are divine truths. They are both part of God’s plan of salvation. Justification may be compared to the root system of a tree. Because the root system is physically below the tree, it is not therefore less important. As a matter of fact, the tree lives only because of its roots. Justification by faith is the root system on which theological sanctification grows. As there will be no tree without a root system, so there will be no theological sanctification without prior justification by faith.

But balance between the two must be maintained. Paul, the great proponent of justification and salvation by faith, did not slight the importance of good works. To Titus he wrote: "I desire you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to apply themselves to good deeds; these are excellent and profitable to men" (Titus 3:8).

In view of that, Luther emphasized that "It is extremely necessary, following Paul’s example, to exhort believers to do good works, that is, to exercise their faith through good works; for unless these works follow faith, this is the surest possible sign that the faith is not genuine."7 Indeed, "faith by itself if it has no works, is dead.... For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead" (James 2:17-26). "Faith and works will keep us evenly balanced, and make us successful in the work of perfecting Christian character."8

If either faith or works is stressed to the exclusion of the other, then the retained and emphasized part—although a truth of divine origin—becomes the rankest heresy. In such a case it is not what is retained and taught that is wrong or incorrect or heresy, but what has been omitted makes it such.

Today God is looking for a people who will intelligently join faith and works. When His professed followers achieve this ideal, then their light will "so shine before men, that they may see [their] good works and give glory to [their] Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 5:16).

The first work of grace is justification by faith. The continuing work of grace is sanctification in its theological meaning. And the final work of grace is glorification. Together, justification by faith, sanctification, and glorification constitute salvation. What God hath joined together let no man put asunder.


1 White, in Review and Herald, Nov. 22, 1892. [back]

2  ________, Selected Messages, book 1, pp. 377. [back]

3  ________, The Great Controversy, p. 529. [back]

4  ________, Selected Messages, book 1, p. 382. [back]

5 Welfare Ministry (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1952), p. 316. [back]

6 Luther’s Works, vol. 27, p. 48. For a modern discussion of this problem see Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Macmillan Co., 1966). [back]

7  Luther’s Works, vol. 27, p. 127. [back]

8 White, in Signs of the Times, June 16, 1890. [back]

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