Righteousness by Faith is not formalism. The two are direct opposites. Righteousness by Faith is an experience, a reality. It involves a complete transformation of the life. He who has entered into this new life has experienced deep contrition, and has made sincere, heartfelt confession and repudiation of sin. With his divine Lord, he has come to love righteousness and hate iniquity. And being justified, - accounted righteous by faith, - he has peace with God. He is a new creature; old things have passed away; all things have become new.
Formalism is vastly different. It is of the head, and deals with externals. It stops with the theory of religion. It goes no deeper than the form and the pretence. Hence it is like salt without savour. It is a joyless, loveless religion, for it does not bring peace, assurance, and victory. Formalism springs from and thrives in the natural heart, where it has its root. It is one of those subtle, all-pervading evils which the Redeemer came to uproot and eliminate from the human heart.
Formalism has always been a real peril to the church. A Christian writer of modern times has referred to this subtle peril as follows:
"The gospel of externalism is dear to the human heart. It may take the form of culture and moralities; or of 'services' and sacraments and churchly order; or of orthodoxy and philanthropy. These and such things make themselves our idols; and trust in them takes the place of faith in the living Christ. It is not enough that the eyes of our heart should have once seen the Lord, that we should in other days have experienced 'the renewing of the Holy Ghost.' It is possible to forget, possible to 'remove from Him that called us in the grace of Christ.' With little change in the form of our religious life, its inward reality of joy in God, of conscious sonship, of fellowship in the Spirit, may be utterly departed. The gospel of formalism will spring up and flourish on the most evangelical soil, and in the most strictly Pauline churches. Let it be banned and barred out never so completely; it knows how to find entrance, under the simplest modes of worship and the soundest doctrine. The serried defence of Articles and Confessions constructed against it will not prevent its entrance, and may even prove its cover and intrenchment. Nothing avails, as the apostle says, but a constant 'new creation.' The life of God in human souls is sustained by the energy of His Spirit, perpetually renewed, ever proceeding from the Father and the Son. 'The life that I live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.' This is the true orthodoxy. The vitality of his personal faith in Christ kept Paul safe from error, faithful in will and intellect to the one gospel." – G. G. Findlay, in his exposition of “The Epistle to the Galatians” (Expositor's Bible), pp. 42, 43.
The warnings of the Spirit of prophecy deal with this peril in its many phases, as the following extracts clearly indicate:
Formalism in Preaching
"Scores of men have preached the word when they themselves had not faith in it, and did not obey its teachings. They were unconverted, unsanctified, unholy. But if we would stand the test, piety must be brought into the life. What we want is inspiration from the cross of Calvary. Then God will open eyes to see that we are not to expect to do any work for the Master successfully, unless we connect with Christ. If we are indeed labourers together with God, we shall not have a dead, scientific religion, but our hearts will be infused with a living power, even the Spirit of Jesus." – Review and Herald, Jan. 31, 1893.
“Many present the doctrines and theories of our faith; but their presentation is as salt without savour; for the Holy Spirit is not working through their faithless ministry. They have not opened the heart to receive the grace of Christ; they know not the operation of the Spirit; they are as meal without leaven; for there is no working principle in all their labour, and they fail to win souls to Christ. They do not appropriate the righteousness of Christ; it is a robe unworn by them, a fullness unknown, a fountain untouched." – Review and Herald, Nov. 29, 1892.
“Ministers are wanted who feel the necessity of being labourers together with God, who will go forth to bring the people up in spiritual knowledge to the full measure of Christ. Ministers are wanted who will educate themselves by solemn, reverential communion with God in the closet, so that they shall be men of power in prayer. Piety is degenerating into a dead form, and it is necessary to strengthen the things that remain that are ready to die.” – Review and Herald, May 24, 1892.
"A man may preach pleasing, entertaining sermons, yet be far from Christ as regards religious experience. He may be exalted to the pinnacle of human greatness, yet never have experienced the inward work of grace that transforms the character. Such a one is deceived by his connection and familiarity with the sacred truths of the gospel, which have reached the intellect, but have not been brought into the inner sanctuary of the soul. We must have more than an intellectual belief in the truth." – Review and Herald, Feb. 14, 1899.
"Could we now leave the cold, traditional sentiments which hinder our advancement, we would view the work of saving souls in an altogether different light." – Review and Herald, May 6, 1890.
Theory of Truth Not Sufficient
"Our doctrines may be correct; we may hate false doctrine, and may not receive those who are not true to principle; we may labour with untiring energy; but even this is not sufficient.... A belief in the theory of the truth is not enough. To present this theory to unbelievers does not constitute you a witness for Christ." – Review and Herald, Feb. 3, 1891.
“The trouble with our work has been that we have been content to present a cold theory of the truth.” – Review and Herald, May 28, 1889.
“How much more power would attend the preaching of the word today, if men dwelt less upon the theories and arguments of men, and far more upon the lessons of Christ, and upon practical
godliness.” – Review and Herald, Jan. 7, 1890.
The Only Way Truth Becomes of Value to the Soul
“The truth is of no value to any soul unless it is brought into the inner sanctuary, and sanctifies the soul. Piety will degenerate, and religion become a shallow sentimentalism, unless the plowshare of truth is made to go deep into the fallow ground of the heart." – Review and Herald, May 14, 1892.
"A theoretical knowledge of the truth is essential. But the knowledge of the greatest truth will
not save us; our knowledge must be practical.... . The truth must be brought into their hearts,
sanctifying and cleansing them from all earthliness and sensuality in the most private life. The
soul temple must be cleansed. – Review and Herald, May 24, 1887.
The greatest deception of the human mind in Christ's day was, that a mere assent to the truth
constitutes righteousness. In all human experience a theoretical knowledge of the truth has been
proved to be insufficient for the saving of the soul. It does not bring forth the fruits of
righteousness. A jealous regard for what is termed theological truth, often accompanies a hatred
of genuine truth as made manifest in life. The darkest chapters of history are burdened with the
record of crimes committed by bigoted religionists. The Pharisees claimed to be children of
Abraham, and boasted of their possession of the oracles of God; yet these advantages did not
preserve them from selfishness, malignity, greed for gain, and the basest hypocrisy. They
thought themselves the greatest religionists of the world, but their so-called orthodoxy led them
to crucify the Lord of glory.
"The same danger still exists. Many take it for granted that they are Christians, simply because they subscribe to certain theological tenets. But they have not brought the truth into practical life. They have not believed and loved it, therefore they have not received the power and grace that come through sanctification of the truth. Men may profess faith in the truth; but if it does not make them sincere, kind, patient, forbearing, heavenly-minded, it is a curse to its possessors, and through their influence it is a curse to the world." – "The Desire of Ages," pp. 309, 310.
"The tremendous issues of eternity demand of us something besides an imaginary religion, - a religion of words and forms, where the truth is kept in the outer court, to be admired as we admire a beautiful flower; they demand something more than a religion of feeling, which distrusts God when trials and difficulties come. Holiness does not consist in profession, but in lifting the cross, doing the will of God." – Review and Herald, May 21, 1908.
"In the lives of many of those whose names are on the church books there has been no genuine change. The truth has been kept in the outer court. There has been no genuine conversion, no positive work of grace done in the heart. Their desire to do God's will is based upon their own inclination, not upon the deep conviction of the Holy Spirit. Their conduct is not brought into harmony with the law of God. They profess to accept Christ as their Saviour, but they do not believe that He will give them power to overcome their sins. They have not a personal acquaintance with a living Saviour, and their characters reveal many blemishes. "– Review and Herald, July 7, 1904.
"Our hope is to be constantly strengthened by the knowledge that Christ is our righteousness.... The meagre views which so many have had of the exalted character and office of Christ have narrowed their religious experience, and have greatly hindered their progress in the divine life. Personal religion among us as a people is at a low ebb. There is much form, much machinery, much tongue religion; but something deeper and more solid must be brought into our religious experience.... What we need is to know God and the power of His love, as revealed in Christ, by an experimental knowledge.... Through the merits of Christ, through His righteousness, which by faith is imputed unto us, we are to attain to the perfection of Christian character." – "Testimonies," Vol. V, pp. 742-744 (written in 1890).
Cold, Legal Religion – A Christless Religion
“A cold, legal religion can never lead souls to Christ; for it is a loveless, Christless religion.” – Review and Herald, March 20, 1894.
"The saving salt is the pure first love, the love of Jesus, the gold tried in the fire. When this is left out of the religious experience, Jesus is not there; the light, the sunshine of His presence, is not there. What, then, is the religion worth? – Just as much as the salt that has lost its savour. It is a loveless religion. Then there is an effort to supply the lack by busy activity, a zeal that is Christless” – Review and Herald, Feb. 9, 1892.
Formal Religion Devoid of Saving Faith
"High pretensions, forms, and ceremonies, however imposing, do not make the heart good and the character pure. True love for God is an active principle, a purifying agency.... The Jewish nation had occupied the highest position; they had built walls great and high to enclose themselves from association with the heathen world; they had represented themselves as the special, loyal people who were favoured of God. But Christ presented their religion as devoid of saving faith." – Review and Herald, April 30, 1895.
"It is possible to be a formal, partial believer, and yet be found wanting, and lose eternal life. It is possible to practise some of the Bible injunctions, and be regarded as a Christian, and yet perish because you are lacking in essential qualifications that constitute Christian character. " – Review and Herald, Jan. 11, 1887.
“To subscribe the name to a church creed is not of the least value to anyone if the heart is not truly changed. . . . Men may be church members, and may apparently work earnestly, performing a round of duties from year to year, and yet be unconverted.” – Review and Herald, Feb. 14, 1899.
"There is a form of religion which is nothing more than selfishness. It takes pleasure in worldly enjoyment. It is satisfied with contemplating the religion of Christ, and knows nothing of its saving power. Those who possess this religion regard sin lightly because they do not know Jesus. While in this condition they estimate duty very lightly." – Review and Herald, May 21, 1908.
"It is painful to see the unbelief that exists in the hearts of many of God's professed followers. We have the most precious truths ever committed to mortals, and the faith of those who have received these truths should correspond to their greatness and value." – Review and Herald, March 5, 1889.
“There are many who do not feel averse to suffering, but they do not exercise simple, living faith. They say they do not know what it means to take God at His word. They have a religion of outward forms and observances.” – Review and Herald, March 5,1889.
“All who assume the ornaments of the sanctuary, but are not clothed with Christ's righteousness, will appear in the shame of their own nakedness." – "Testimonies," Vol. V, p. 81.
“The five foolish virgins had lamps (this means a knowledge of the Scripture truth), but they had not the grace of Christ. Day by day they went through a round of ceremonies and external duties, but their service was lifeless, devoid of the righteousness of Christ. The Sun of Righteousness did not shine in their hearts and minds, and they had not the love of the truth which conforms to the life and character, the image and superscription, of Christ. The oil of grace was not mingled with their endeavours. Their religion was a dry husk without the true kernel. They held fast to forms of doctrines, but they were deceived in their Christian life, full of self-righteousness, and failing to learn lessons in the school of Christ, which, if practised, would have made them wise unto salvation.” – Review and Herald, March 27, 1894.
Danger in Depending Upon Human Plans and Methods
“While we are incased in self-righteousness, and trust in ceremonies, and depend on rigid rules,
we cannot do the work for this time." – Review and Herald, May 6, 1890.
"The observance of external forms will never meet the great want of the human soul. A mere profession of Christ is not enough to prepare one to stand the test of the judgement." – Review and Herald, Jan. 25, 1887.
"Let us not forget that as activity increases, and we become successful in doing the work that must be accomplished, there is danger of our trusting in human plans and methods. There will be a tendency to pray less, and to have less faith." – Review and Herald, July 4, 1893.
”Spiritual things have not been discerned. Appearance and machinery have been exalted as of power, while the virtues of true goodness, noble piety, and heart holiness, have been made a secondary consideration. That which should have been made first has been made last and of least importance. " – Review and Herald, Feb. 27, 1894.
"When fastings and prayers are practised in a self-justifying spirit, they are abominable to God. The solemn assembly for worship, the round of religious ceremonies, the external humiliation, the imposed sacrifice, - all proclaim to the world the testimony that the doer of these things considers himself righteous. These things call attention to the observer of rigorous duties, saying, This man is entitled to heaven. But it is all a deception. Works will not buy for us an entrance into heaven. . . . Faith in Christ will be the means whereby the right spirit and motive will actuate the believer, and all goodness and heavenly-mindedness will proceed from him who looks unto Jesus, the author and finisher of his faith." – Review and Herald, March 20, 1894.
"There are many who seem to imagine that outside observances are sufficient for salvation; but formalism, rigorous attendance on religious exercises, will fail to bring the peace of God which passeth understanding. It is Jesus alone who can give us peace." – Review and Herald. Nov. 18, 1890.
"Those who have not a daily experience in the things of God will not move wisely. They may have a legal religion, a form of godliness, there may be an appearance of light in the church; all the machinery - much of it human invention - may appear to be working well, and yet the church may be as destitute of the grace of God as were the hills of Gilboa of dew and rain." – Review and Herald, Jan.31,1893.