This seven part series addresses a cluster of errors held by some conservative Adventists regarding the nature and destiny of God’s true church.
God’s covenant community has taken different forms throughout the history of this world. After the fall of our first parents, it consisted of the faithful who looked for the promise of salvation and the coming of the Messiah—beginning with Adam, Eve, Abel, Seth, and the latter’s descendants. After the Flood the leadership of this community was committed to the faithful members of the line of Shem, culminating in the call of Abraham. Abraham’s faithful posterity, the children of Jacob’s twelve sons, would receive affirmation of this covenant through the deliverance from Egypt and the proclamation of the law from Sinai.
Fifteen centuries later, Israel proved untrue to the covenant, and a new community of faith was established. But in time the Christian church would likewise fall victim to apostasy, and the faithful would be constrained to leave its fellowship and form new religious bodies. The experience of the church in the wilderness and the subsequent Protestant Reformation would accomplish this. But three centuries after Luther, the spiritual heirs of the Reformers would follow the course of the Mother Church in rejecting present truth for their time, and thus the remnant of the woman’s seed would be called out from the fallen churches (Rev. 12:17).
In each of the above cases, what caused corporate probation to close? And what lessons can be drawn from these experiences to offer guidance to Seventh-day Adventists who may at times wonder how much apostasy the church can absorb before God might again decide to move on to others?
The Testing Truth for Ancient Israel
In the second installment of our series we briefly traced the experience of ancient Israel through centuries of grotesque apostasy—idolatry, human sacrifice, social injustice, Sabbath violation, and much more. Yet despite successive divine punishments, including national dismemberment and captivity in heathen lands, probation did not close for Israel till a specific point in their apostate experience had been reached.
Jesus explained this principle in His parable of the vineyard and the wicked husbandmen. Centuries of rejecting and killing God’s messengers certainly brought about an increased hardening of hearts with the passing of generations. But it still didn’t bring about a corporate close of probation. According to Jesus’ parable, this only happened with the rejection and murder of the householder’s son. Which is why, after telling this story, Jesus declared:
The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof (Matt. 21:43).
Until this took place, even the gross apostasy rampant in Israel had not succeeded in annulling their status as God’s chosen people. Despite the unholy traffic in the Temple, Jesus still declared that building His Father’s house (John 2:16), and His own also (Luke 19:46). In His Sermon on the Mount He called Jerusalem “the city of the great King” (Matt. 5:35), for which reason He forbade oaths to be taken in its name. To the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well He declared, “Salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22).
Even the death of Jesus by itself was not sufficient to terminate Israel’s probation. They still had to understand what in fact they had done. The Bible is clear that God winks at the times of humanity’s ignorance (Acts 17:30), and states elsewhere, “To him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin” (James 4:17). In the light of this, it is significant that on the cross Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Thus, in order for probation to close for Israel on account of their killing the Messiah, they needed to understand what they had done. This opportunity was afforded them in the testimony of Stephen before the Sanhedrin. The one destined to be the first Christian martyr demonstrated from Israel’s history the chosen nation’s record of spurning divine appeals, culminating in the death of the promised Savior Himself (Acts 7:51-53). The murderous anger greeting the messenger’s witness was sufficient to bring Israel’s probation to an end, as evidenced by Stephen’s vision of “the Son of man standing on the right hand of God” (verse 56). This is the same language found in Daniel 12:1, where Michael—the Son of God and humanity’s Mediator—is seen as standing up, signifying another point—the final one—at which probation ceases for mankind.
This is why the seventy-week prophecy of Daniel 9 ends with the stoning of Stephen rather than the actual death of Christ. We have seen how Ellen White explains the significance of this event:
The seventy weeks, or 490 years, especially allotted to the Jews, ended, as we have seen, in A.D. 34. At that time, through the actions of the Jewish Sanhedrin, the nation sealed its rejection of the gospel by the martyrdom of Stephen and the persecution of the followers of Christ. Then the message of salvation, no longer restricted to the chosen people, was given to the world (1).
In other words, the testing truth which ultimately decided the corporate future of Israel as God’s chosen people was the coming of the promised Messiah. Century after century of horrific apostasy certainly prepared the way for this tragic conclusion of Israel’s role in the divine plan. But only when the testing truth of the Messiah’s mission was presented to God’s professed people, and rejected in the face of persuasive light from the inspired record, did Israel’s apostasy become irrevocable.
From the Apostolic Church to William Miller
After three centuries of dramatic expansion and fierce external challenge, the early Christian church suffered the great apostasy through compromise with paganism. Many of the faithful were forced to flee into hiding. Church and state blended their power as the blood of martyrs flowed in rivers. Medieval Catholicism stood supreme above monks and monarchs, peasants and patricians, the poor and the prosperous. In the words of one historian, cited by the servant of the Lord in The Great Controversy, “The noon of the papacy was the midnight of the world” (2).
Then the citadels of Christendom were faced with the testing truth that would, like the coming of Christ to Judaism, decide their corporate destiny. The message of reform brought by Wycliffe, Huss, Jerome, Luther, Calvin, Knox, Zwingli, and so many others, was designed to cleanse the established church of corruption and restore the purity of the apostolic witness. But Rome would not change. Ellen White describes the dilemma confronted by the great Reformers when the papal church proved intransigent, as well as the dilemma confronted by truth-seekers since the Reformation:
When the Reformers preached the word of God, they had no thought of separating themselves from the established church; but the religious leaders would not tolerate the light, and those that bore it were forced to seek another class, who were longing for the truth. In our day few of the professed followers of the Reformers are actuated by their spirit. Few are listening for the voice of God, and ready to accept truth in whatever guise it may be presented. Often those who follow in the steps of the Reformers are forced to turn away from the churches they love, in order to declare the plain teaching of the word of God. And many times those who are seeking for light are by the same teaching obliged to leave the church of their fathers, that they may render obedience (3).
Indeed, the heirs of the Reformers have—according to Inspiration—followed sufficiently in the footsteps of the Mother Church to, like her, be characterized as Babylon:
The message of Revelation 14, announcing the fall of Babylon, must apply to religious bodies that were once pure and have become corrupt. Since this message follows the warning of the judgment, it must be given in the last days; therefore it cannot refer to the Roman Church alone, for that church has been in a fallen condition for many centuries. . . .
Many of the Protestant churches are following Rome’s example of iniquitous connection with “the kings of the earth”—the state churches, by their relation to secular government; and other denominations, by seeking the favor of the world. And the term “Babylon”—confusion—may be appropriately applied to these bodies, all professing to derive their doctrines from the Bible, yet divided into almost innumerable sects, with widely conflicting creeds and theories (4).
According to Ellen White, the gradual departure of Protestantism from the faith of the Reformers, and the simultaneous failure of Protestants to accept further light from Scripture, reached a pivotal moment in the proclamation of the Advent message by William Miller and his associates. In her words:
The second angel’s message of Revelation 14 was first preached in the summer of 1844, and it then had a more direct application to the churches of the United States, where the warning of the judgment had been most widely proclaimed and more generally rejected, and where the declension in the churches had been most rapid. But the message of the second angel did not reach its complete fulfillment in 1844. The churches then experienced a moral fall, in consequence of their refusal of the light of the advent message; but that fall was not complete. As they have continued to reject the special truths for this time they have fallen lower and lower (5).
So just as the message of the crucified and risen Messiah was the testing truth for ancient Israel, just as the message of supreme Biblical authority and salvation by grace through faith was the testing truth brought to Christendom by the Protestant Reformers, so the end-time Advent message—first proclaimed by William Miller, then declared in greater precision and power by the Seventh-day Adventist Church—has been the testing truth for Catholicism and nominal Protestantism.
In the following passage Ellen White explains the progressive nature of the fall of Protestant Babylon, and when that fall will be complete:
The spirit of world conforming and indifference to the testing truths for our time exists and has been gaining ground in churches of the Protestant faith in all the countries of Christendom; and these churches are included in the solemn and terrible denunciation of the second angel. But the work of apostasy has not yet reached its culmination. . . .
Revelation 18 points to the time when, as the result of rejecting the threefold warning of Revelation 14:6-12, the church will have fully reached the condition foretold by the second angel, and the people of God still in Babylon will be called upon to separate from her communion. This message is the last that will ever be given to the world; and it will accomplish its work. When those that “believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (2 Thessalonians 2:12), shall be left to receive strong delusion and to believe a lie, then the light of truth will shine upon all whose hearts are open to receive it, and all the children of the Lord that remain in Babylon will heed the call: “Come out of her, My people” (Revelation 18:4) (6).
Thus the inspired pen sets the stage for the ultimate testing truth to confront both professed Christians and the entire world—the choice between Babylon’s apostasy and the primitive truths of Scripture as restored, declared, and demonstrated by the remnant church of Bible prophecy (Rev. 12:17).