In the first installment of this series, Kevin Paulson discusses why doctrine, lifestyle and salvation are inseparable; substitute righteousness; and the umbrella of eternal grace.
Once he articulates his premise that salvation is accomplished by substitutionary righteousness only (1), together with his belief in the imperfectability of Christian character (2), the author quoted at the beginning plunges into the continuing debate in Adventism over lifestyle and worship standards. Among other things, he admits a profound discomfort with the authoritative role of Ellen White in the church (3), believes Adventists should take a less rigid stand on such issues as jewelry (4), worship music (5), and dancing (6), and thinks the church should admit people into its fellowship who haven’t yet given up smoking (7).
Another contemporary Adventist author, also famous for his justification-alone salvation theology and denial of the possibility of sinless obedience in this life (8), has likewise spoken out for greater acceptance of contemporary worship and ornamental jewelry in the church (9), and believes Ellen White contradicted herself under inspiration (10). Still another such author, perhaps even better known for his anti-perfection stance (11), has urged the church to accommodate what he calls the “coming generation” who allegedly “don’t dress like their elders, sing like them, or even think like them” (12).
The significance of this finally-acknowledged connection between the salvation and standards debates in contemporary Adventism is, in the present writer’s view, one of the most pivotal developments in recent Adventist theological history. As the modern Adventist controversy over the gospel and related issues has accelerated in recent decades, many who take the position that embraces original sin, the pre-Fall humanity of Christ, justification-alone salvation, and the denial of perfection this side of heaven—often called evangelical Adventism or the New Theology—have sought passionately to assure the denomination that they are just as concerned about holiness, just as devout in their adherence to both unique Adventist and generic Christian lifestyle standards, just as faithful in their espousal of the distinctive Adventist worldview, as those on the other side of the sin, salvation, and Christology issues. It wasn’t many years ago that another contemporary Adventist author openly criticized those holding to post-Fall Christology and related doctrinal positions, on account of these persons’ conviction that those holding opposite views are encouraging laxity in lifestyle and worship standards (13).
But the positions taken by the authors noted earlier regarding both the salvation and standards controversies, offer new clarity on the compelling logic which constrains advocates of the evangelical gospel to “go easy” on the lifestyle imperatives of faith, especially those that aren’t so popular. This is not a matter of assessing or judging motives. God alone knows the heart (I Kings 8:39). It is simply a matter of understanding the logical extension and practical application of key premises and core assumptions.
“Doctrine Does Not Save Us”
The logical impact of one’s salvation theology on various doctrinal issues in the church was pointedly illustrated by a recent editorial in a quasi-Adventist magazine. Describing a recent discussion on the magazine’s blog site regarding creation and evolution, the editorial reported:
Person A was absolutely sure that science proved that life on earth was millions of years old, while Person B believed that life had been around for only thousands of years.
Neither side was convincing the other. So Person B said, “In the end it does not really matter what you believe in this area since we are saved by faith, not by knowledge. The important thing is that you have a relationship with Jesus and by faith have accepted His gracious offer of salvation” (14).
The editor went on to say that Person B subsequently asked Person A whether or not he in fact had such a relationship with Jesus, only to receive the angry retort that it was none of Person B’s business (15). The editor, to his credit, lamented this response, yet seems not to have considered the extent to which modern Adventist views of the gospel and salvation bear a direct responsibility for the presence among us of ideas and practices fundamentally hostile, not only to Adventism, but to the Christian faith itself. More recently this same editor (who currently pastors a Seventh-day Adventist church and some years ago was editor of a leading church publication), wrote the following in a letter published by an ex-Adventist newsletter:
Doctrine does not save us. Jesus does. Doctrines are humans’ imperfect way of trying to understand God. There will never be perfect doctrine (16).
One of the authors cited earlier likewise declared, in a book written some years ago: “It is not our theology that will save us, but the Lord of our theology” (17).
Some seem to forget it was Christ Himself who declared that man shall live “by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4), and later stated: “If ye continue in My word, then are ye My disciples indeed” (John 8:31). And what about God’s declaration through the prophet Hosea: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee” (Hosea 4:6)? The words of Paul to Timothy also come to mind:
Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee (I Tim. 4:16).
The above editor has likewise made it clear he doesn’t believe perfect obedience is either necessary or possible, even through sanctifying grace (18). One recalls the pointed words of a former Adventist some years ago—now an avowed atheist—who still comments frequently on liberal Adventist blog sites: “God has never required perfection, whether doctrinal or moral, from His agents” (19). Quite clearly, to believe sin is inevitable in Christian lives easily leads to the notion that doctrinal error is inevitable also—with predictable consequences for Biblical rectitude both moral and theological.
This discussion can lead in many directions, of course; the distinction between doctrine and Jesus gets more than slightly complicated when one considers that the most basic aspects of the Christian message—acknowledged by all Bible believers as essential components of the gospel—are all doctrinal formulations. (Without concise doctrine, how does one distinguish the Biblical Jesus from the New Age Jesus?) Not to mention the fundamental problems posed by the theory of evolution and Darwinian “natural selection” for basic Biblical assumptions about sin, the fall of man, the need for a Savior, and how to relate to the weak and vulnerable—who according to Darwin’s theory stand in the way of progress. But at the bottom line, the conversation quoted above regarding origins helps explain the logical momentum behind most if not all the doctrinal, lifestyle, and liturgical compromises we see in Adventism today. The main reason these compromises are so widely tolerated among us is a salvation theology that assures people of heaven regardless of what they believe, how they worship, and how they live while on earth.
Few if any discussions about theology, worship, or behavior transpire these days in the church without someone asking, “Is this a salvation issue?” The assumption behind this question is that if we agree a certain issue is not “salvational,” we needn’t get excited about it. Much of this thinking is flavored by the “minimum-requirement” mentality so prevalent in our culture today. For too many of us, such thinking has rewritten the words of the penitent Saul of Tarsus, who inquired on the road to Damascus, “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” (Acts 9:6), as asking instead, “Lord, what’s the least I have to do to squeak into heaven?”
The attempt to divide inspired writings into “salvation” and “non-salvation” parts is a perilous enterprise indeed, especially in view of the Bible verses quoted above (Hosea 4:6; Matt. 4:4; John 8:31; I Tim. 4:16). And it is equally clear that if one takes seriously both the role of doctrine in our salvation and that of Spirit-empowered obedience (see Matt. 19:16-17,26; Luke 10:25-28; Rom. 2:6-10; 8:13; Heb. 5:9), the supreme value placed by classic Adventism on doctrinal and moral integrity is understood. By the same token, if one decides—in harmony with the authors quoted above—that neither correct doctrine nor correct behavior are essential to salvation, the conclusion becomes inescapable that Christian fellowship need not—indeed, should not—be disrupted by appeals for clarity and faithfulness on such points.
Anomalies can always be noted, of course, but the evidence from grassroots Adventism regarding the correlation between one’s stand on the salvation/Christology issues and one’s stand on the various doctrinal, worship, and lifestyle issues among us, is nothing short of decisive. Visit your average church board convulsed by the broken marriage of a popular local elder, and see how quickly someone plays the “grace card” in seeking to forestall the disciplinary process. (“We’re all sinners, nobody’s perfect, and salvation doesn’t depend on how well we keep the law anyway. So let’s not be so rigid.”) Attend a church business meeting divided over contemporary worship forms, and see if members’ (and the pastor’s) stances on the salvation and Christology issues aren’t a fairly accurate predictor of their stances in the worship debate. Join a group of Adventists dining leisurely at a restaurant after church on Sabbath, and ask how many hold to post-Fall Christology and the perfectibility of Christian character. (Chances are, you won’t find many who do!) Come to a gathering where intelligent, educated young people seek the recovery of fundamental Adventism, where the vast majority believe in the possibility of sinless obedience through heaven’s power, and note the near-total absence of jewelry—even wedding rings—among those present.
The “Hermeneutic of Grace”
Few books in modern times have likely inflicted more harm on Adventist thinking than Philip Yancey’s 1997 book What’s So Amazing About Grace? (20). Its emotional stories, heart-tugging appeals, and almost lyrical beauty have done much to obscure in readers’ minds its dangerously skewed focus on forgiveness at the expense of practical holiness (21). Most of all, the book’s unbalanced definition of grace has become the template in many minds for a spiritual worldview heedless of parameters of any sort, including those found in God’s Word.
In many contemporary Adventist minds, as well as minds outside Adventism, the meaning of “grace” has moved beyond even the notion of pardon for transgression of a violated law—for indeed, the very concept of an objective, transcendent measure of right and wrong disrupts the paradigm of “inclusiveness” and “non-judgmentalism” so cherished by postmodern spirituality. For such persons, “grace” has become little more than a synonym for leniency whenever questions of doctrinal or moral accountability are raised among Christians. The written counsel of God may say one thing, but when this counsel requires an unpopular stand on the part of the church, when it means excluding certain ones from membership or leadership due to countercultural inspired commands, it is urged that the “hermeneutic of grace” be applied. It is imperative to recognize the roots of this approach in the unscriptural assumption that both sin and doctrinal error are inevitable, even for the converted Christian, due to humanity’s fallenness. Thus, when adherence to principle becomes painful and disunifying for the faith community, the solution is proposed that we “err on the side of grace” and agree to tolerate teachings and practices contrary to the written Word.
Of course this is not biblical grace being described here, but rather, a fabricated postmodern counterfeit. The doctrine of grace found in Scripture assumes the existence of a transcendent law by which righteousness and sin are defined (Rom. 6:14-15; James 2:10-12; I John 3:4), and is depicted as both forgiving and transformative (Rom. 3:24; Eph. 1:7; II Cor. 12:9; II Tim. 2:1; Titus 2:11-12; Heb. 12:28). There is, in short, no “hermeneutic of grace” in the Bible which can justify the inclusion of error or sinful practices within the body of Christ.
Righteousness by Faith and Standards
More than two decades ago, the now-deceased editor of a prominent Adventist journal wrote an editorial about the relationship of righteousness by faith to lifestyle standards in the church. It would be hard to find one more devoted to the core of Adventism, to the Lord Jesus Christ, and to the moral constraints of the Advent message than this brother who now rests from his labors. Yet his comments on the standards debate in Adventism, and its relationship to the gospel, reveal a tragic failure on his part to recognize the corrosive impact on the church’s lifestyle witness of the salvation theology he held dear, endorsed in a number of his previous editorials (22).
In his editorial on righteousness by faith and standards, the editor in question noted his high regard for a number of the church’s unique lifestyle imperatives, and at one point draws a contrast between these and disagreements over the human nature of Christ:
I find no difficulty in enjoying fellowship with those with whom I might not see eye to eye on the nature of Christ, but for me it is difficult to enjoy a deep, intimate Christian fellowship with a meat-eating, coffee-drinking, wine-sipping, jewelry-laden, rock-and-roll-music-loving, gambling, etc. etc. member (23).
I would probably agree to some extent; I too know and enjoy the fellowship of otherwise conservative Adventists who take a different position from mine regarding Jesus’ humanity. But one must wonder whether persons like this editor have given thought to the differences in moral seriousness created by the contrasting views in contemporary Adventism regarding the Savior’s incarnate struggle with evil. Can one truly dismiss as irrelevant to practical godliness the question of whether our Lord was constrained to subdue by divine grace the fleshly urges common to fallen humanity, or whether His struggle merely took place at some lofty, remote level of conflict unknown to anyone since the fall, or perhaps ever?
Years before, this same editor wrote that the Christian’s assurance of salvation is not based on human performance of any kind, even the works Christ performs in the believer through sanctification (24). His later editorial on righteousness by faith and standards followed the same line of reasoning:
There is no peace for the Christian who seeks the assurance of salvation through performance, for the simple reason that we will never know how much performance is enough to gain God’s acceptance. The perfectionistic Christian is of all people most miserable. This condition constitutes slavery, not a son or daughter relationship (25).
Sadly, whether he realized it or not, these core principles—salvation by justification alone and the imperfectability of Christian character—invariably fostered the very laxity in standards he deplored so strongly. By excluding Spirit-empowered transformation and obedience from the ground of salvation, by denying God’s power to make men and women perfect this side of heaven, the imperative for faithful Christian living is effectively lost. (Even infidels, after all, can be as moral as their frail best allows.) Following the script of so much in contemporary Adventism that has left uncorrected the worldly, self-indulgent trends among us, the above editor warned in vague terms of the perils of “judging” people (26)—without carefully defining the difference between the wrongful judging condemned by Jesus (Matt. 7:1-2) and the rightful fruit-inspecting and reproof of sin declared essential by both Jesus and other Bible writers (Isa. 58:1; Matt. 7:20; Rev. 3:19).
In this context the above author brings up the volatile wedding-ring issue, declaring: “Neither my wife nor I wear a wedding ring and never intend to, but God forbid that I should judge anyone who wears one” (27). Unfortunately, he gave no indication as to how he might encourage such a one to reconsider a practice which—if the record of recent decades in North American Adventism is any clue—offers far greater evidence of being merely an excuse to wear jewelry (not to mention a continuing source of division in the church) as distinct from indicating an upsurge in devotion to the relationship the ring presumably signifies. (Why, indeed, have so few publicly asked whether the increased popularity of the wedding ring in Adventism has paralleled a decline in the Adventist divorce rate?)
Continuing the same line of thought, the above editor insisted that “standards are not truly elevated through whipping the sheep into shape” (28). But again, because he failed to define just what “whipping the sheep into shape” means (as distinct from the proper, Biblically-commanded correction of wrongdoing), it is hard to imagine his words accomplished anything except to give further aid and comfort to those resentful of the radically intrusive, life-reordering summons of classic Adventist behavioral standards.
One contemporary Adventist author and speaker, whose teachings draw a rigid line between lifestyle choices and the believer’s “relationship” with Christ, makes an even more extreme statement than the above:
Jesus never made you or me a fruit inspector. Like a child who keeps digging up seeds to see if the plants are growing, our personal inspections are counterproductive. Jesus doesn’t ask us to look at ourselves and our imperfections (29).
One is truly constrained to wonder how this author deals with our Lord’s declaration that “by their fruits ye shall know them” (Matt. 7:20). How does this verse make sense if Jesus never intended us to be fruit inspectors? And what about the apostle Paul’s exhortation to “examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith” (II Cor. 13:5; see also I Cor. 11:28)? And what of the following statement from Ellen White?
The daily review of our acts, to see whether conscience approves or condemns, is necessary for all who wish to arrive at the perfection of Christian character (30).
The logic of these modern theories of the gospel and salvation is compelling and breathtakingly simple: If obedience—even the sanctified kind—isn’t a condition of salvation, why upset the saints by insisting on its various particulars, especially those running counter to popular culture and personal preference? If the Christian’s performance is never free from sin before Christ returns, why should the church be so surprised when the imperfections in Christian lives are exposed for all to see? Sometime ago I conversed with a prominent educator in the church, who maintained it was impossible for Christians to achieve sinless obedience on earth, even through divine power. In the same conversation, ironically, he spoke of how he had recently been constrained to expel some students from the program under his guidance, due to sexual immorality. Reflecting later on the conversation, I wondered what this educator’s response might have been had I suggested that perhaps the sin for which these students were expelled might have been one of those over which—at least in their lives—victory was impossible.
At the bottom line, if we teach that perfect obedience is unattainable even for the sanctified Christian, we shouldn’t be shocked when Christians practice what we preach.
The third installment will discuss John Wesley and contemporary Adventism and the confusion in the church over the connection between the gospel, doctrine, worship and lifestyle.
- Hayden, Lifestyles of the Remnant, pp. 17-19.
- Ibid, pp. 16-24.
- Ibid, pp. 70,120.
- Ibid, pp. 56-74.
- Ibid, pp. 25,75-85.
- Ibid, p. 125.
- Ibid, pp. 50-52.
- Martin Weber, Adventist Hot Potatoes (Boise, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 1991), pp. 34-35,53,58-59,81-82,109; More Adventist Hot Potatoes (Boise, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 1992), pp. 39-75; Who’s Got the Truth? Making sense out of five different Adventist gospels (Silver Spring, MD: Home Study International Press, 1994), pp. 100-113,169-186,228-247.
- ----Adventist Hot Potatoes, pp. 11-24,36-47,70.
- Ibid, pp. 106-109; Who’s Got the Truth?, pp. 187-211.
- George R. Knight, Angry Saints: Tensions and Possibilities in the Adventist Struggle Over Righteousness by Faith (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Assn, 1989), pp. 134,147-149; The Pharisee’s Guide to Perfect Holiness: A study of sin and salvation (Boise, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 1992), pp. 131-207; I Used to Be Perfect: An ex-legalist looks at law, sin, and grace (Boise, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 1994), pp. 66-94; The Apocalyptic Vision and the Neutering of Adventism (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Assn, 2008), p. 71.
- ----If I Were the Devil: Seeing Through the Enemy’s Smoke Screen: Contemporary Challenges Facing Adventism (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Assn, 2007), p. 20.
- Woodrow W. Whidden II, Ellen White on the Humanity of Christ (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Assn, 1997), p. 80.
- J. David Newman, “Science is Not Enough,” Adventist Today, Spring 2011, p. 3.
- ----letter to Proclamation! April May June 2011, p. 30.
- Knight, From 1888 to Apostasy: The Case of A.T. Jones (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Assn, 1987), p. 135.
- Newman, “Can I Know I’m Saved?” Adventist Review, Aug. 24, 2006, p. 25.
- Aage Rendalen, “Adventism: Has the Medium Become the Message?” Evangelica, December 1980, p. 36.
- Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1997).
- For a more in-depth review of Yancey’s book see Kevin D. Paulson, “Only Half of Grace” http://www.greatcontroversy.org/reportandreview/pau-yancey.php3
- Spangler, “Ask the Editor,” Ministry, April 1978, pp. 21-23; “Ask the Editor,” Ministry, June 1978, pp. 14-16; “Ask the Editor,” Ministry, August 1978, pp. 14-17; “Ask the Editor,” Ministry, October 1978, pp. 10-12.
- ----“Righteousness by faith and standards,” Ministry, October 1989, p. 30.
- ----“From the Editor,” Ministry, February 1979, p. 21.
- ----“Righteousness by faith and standards,” Ministry, October 1989, p. 31.
- Lee Venden, It’s All About Him: After Jesus, Everything Else is Hardly Worth Talking About (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Assn, 2004), p. 95.
- White, Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 512.