Contrast With An Earlier Period
Here, incidentally, we see a fundamental difference between the impact of the modern Adventist salvation controversy and, for example, that of the controversy which took place during the 1888 era. No one, to my knowledge, has produced evidence that the teachings of A.T. Jones or E.J. Waggoner resulted in the slightest reduction in Adventist adherence to any lifestyle or worship standards. Antinomianism—disregard of the law—may indeed have been feared by certain ones, but no evidence can be offered that it ever became a notable problem—or even that such a problem was alleged to exist among adherents to the Jones-Waggoner message. Some might suggest that the controversy didn’t last long enough to exert any perceivable impact on the church’s practical experience. Yet other examples of short-lived ideologies from early Adventist history, such as the notorious “holy flesh” movement, demonstrated even in a brief time a conspicuous, visible, and most injurious effect on the behavior of its devotees. Such was not the case during the controversies of the 1888 period.
John Wesley and Contemporary Adventism
The editor quoted above, and many of like mind since, have noted the pilgrimage of John Wesley from self-trust in his spiritual life to a faith-based walk with God (1). Such are often fond of quoting what Ellen White has written regarding the practical result of Wesley’s discovery of the Biblical message of righteousness by faith:
He (Wesley) continued his strict and self-denying life, not now as the ground, but the result of faith; not the root, but the fruit of holiness. The grace of God in Christ is the foundation of the Christian’s hope, and that grace will be manifested in obedience. Wesley’s life was devoted to the preaching of the great truths which he had received—justification through faith in the atoning blood of Christ, and the renewing power of the Holy Spirit upon the heart, bringing forth fruit in a life conformed to the example of Christ (2).
This description of Wesley’s life after he learned the true meaning of divine grace is a benchmark not to be forgotten as we survey the consequences of many professedly “grace-oriented” teachings in contemporary Adventism.
First, it is important to understand what Ellen White does and does not say in the above statement regarding the relationship of “ground” and “result,” “root” and “fruit” in the saving process. Notice she does not say Wesley’s strict and self-denying life continued, not now as the ground or the root of salvation, but as the result and fruit thereof. Rather, Wesley’s ongoing life of self-denial was the result of faith and the fruit of holiness. Ellen White is clear elsewhere that “obedience is the fruit of faith” (3). And when holiness is implanted by divine grace in the human heart, outward deeds of righteousness are the sure result. But though Ellen White does teach that obedience is the fruit of faith and inward holiness, she does not teach that obedience is the fruit of salvation, as though believers first get saved, then become obedient afterward. Indeed, she writes at one point:
When souls are converted, their salvation is not yet accomplished. They then have the race to run. An arduous struggle is before them (4).
In other statements she is crystal clear that Spirit-empowered obedience is in fact the condition of our salvation:
The keeping of these (ten) commandments comprises the whole duty of man, and presents the conditions of eternal life. Now the question is, Will man comply with the requirements? Will he love God supremely and his neighbor as himself? There is no possible way for man to do this in his own strength. The divine power of Christ must be added to the effort of humanity (5).
But most significant of all, for the purposes of our present focus, is how Wesley continued his strict and self-denying life after discovering the true meaning and purpose of God’s grace. Looking at the landscape of contemporary Adventism, can it honestly be said that those embracing the justification-alone, pre-Fall Christology, perfection-denying doctrine have continued the strict, self-denying life they pursued before?
Once again, let’s not get distracted by anomalies. What is the general pattern in the lives of those Adventists who believe they are saved by justification only, who believe Jesus took the sinless nature of Adam before the fall, and who believe Christians can’t be perfect—even through the Spirit’s power—this side of heaven? What are the general Sabbath-keeping habits of these persons? Where do they generally stand regarding issues of worshipful reverence and music in the church? Where do they stand on the issue of gender roles in church and family? Are they more or less likely to be seen wearing jewelry, wedding rings included? Do they continue to abstain from the use of tea, coffee, flesh meat, and similar practices, or do they tend to be less strict about such things than before they embraced the “gospel”? Are they as strict in their choice of entertainment as they were before? In cases of unscriptural divorce and remarriage, couples in the church living together out of wedlock, and homosexual practice, are they as firm and uncompromising in upholding Biblical standards after they accepted the evangelical gospel as they were when believing differently about the conditions and scope of salvation?
We could go on and on. But the point should be clear. Wesley continued his strict, self-denying life after he learned that God’s grace rather than his own strength was the true key to victorious living. But one is hard pressed to make the same case regarding the vast majority of modern and postmodern Adventists who have embraced what has come to be known as the evangelical gospel, often called the New Theology. The overwhelming number of these, from all I have witnessed for several decades, have become decidedly less strict in their adherence both to the classic Adventist lifestyle and in their insistence on doctrinal and moral accountability in the overall life of the church.
Confusion Among the Faithful
Sadly, Adventists of a moderate-to-liberal bent are not the only ones unclear about the connection between the gospel issues and the doctrinal, worship, and lifestyle issues among us. Even some who are obviously conservative seem to miss this reality.
Assessing the reasons for this confusion would take us too far afield. Unfortunately, many such reasons have little to do with the weight of Biblical or Spirit of Prophecy evidence on the topics in question. Some arise from what can only be called a “guilt by association” mentality. Because, in certain conservative Adventist minds, such doctrinal positions as salvation by both justification and sanctification, the post-Fall nature of Christ, and the perfectibility of Christian character are associated with ministries or institutions thought to be negative toward the church, or perhaps a critical spirit altogether, it is assumed these doctrinal positions must be wrong. A related tendency chooses theology based on what is considered “respectable,” with an eye to keeping distance from what conventional wisdom holds to be extremes on either side of the Adventist spectrum
But those seeking a return to the Biblical foundations of Adventism should be the first to acknowledge that nothing but the written counsel of God has the right to determine what Adventists believe. Guilt by association, conventional wisdom, negative experiences with people holding a certain theology, should not be factors in such decisions. What is more, the implications of the evangelical gospel for the church’s moral seriousness cannot be ignored by those for whom the revival of such seriousness is a principal concern. It is an exercise in profound self-contradiction to call for a restoration of worshipful reverence in the church, godliness in personal relationships, Biblical gender roles in church and family, modesty in dress, and similar reforms—with all the potential for division and the taking of sides such initiatives portend—while at the same time coddling or even promoting a gospel theology which removes obedience from the conditions of salvation, insists the believer’s earthly performance will always be less than perfect, and assures people of a place in heaven despite occasional sin. Intelligent observers, especially among the youth, won’t take long to figure out that it makes no sense to risk the beauty and blessedness of Christian unity for issues supposedly not “salvational” anyway.
I return to the now-deceased editor quoted earlier. A conservative Adventist if ever there was one—by all accounts in love with the Lord Jesus, devoutly committed to the church’s message and mission, strictly faithful to the Adventist lifestyle witness. Ensconced from his earliest moments in the worldview, culture, and standards of the church, he could probably no more have seen himself using his gospel theology as an excuse for sin than he could imagine himself flying. For persons of his background who embraced the justification-alone, pre-Fall Christology, perfection-denying concept of salvation, Adventist thinking and Adventist behavior were likely taken for granted. Many of them, after all, had known nothing else. Like many of their generation, they couldn’t envision their children choosing a contrary path, or abusing liberties they had always kept within discreet bounds.
But as Western culture learned the hard way during the twentieth-century decades of upheaval, Adventists found that prosperity facilitates experimentation. And prosperity can be theoretical as well as material. Abundance of any kind tends to produce complacency. A society where plenty abounds can more easily think itself, rightly or wrongly, to be able to take chances in the name of freedom or progress. And a religious community saturated with truth-awareness and moral clarity can easily convince itself that flirtation with the edges of holiness and orthodoxy are—when all is said and done—being undertaken by good people in good faith, and thus aren’t likely to jeopardize assumed and generally accepted patterns of belief or behavior.
But as always, the enemy applied the strategy of creeping compromise. Every downward step has been small enough to defend. Little by little, the “saved in sin” gospel has facilitated the erosion of doctrinal and moral clarity in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. And now, in a postmodern culture with little regard for authority, and where—in the words of one liberal Adventist—“each individual is absolutely sovereign” in spiritual matters (9)—the impact of this so-called “gospel” has been utterly devastating.
During the late 1990s, the American President came under fire for a sexual indiscretion committed with a White House intern. A telling editorial at the time was written by Newsweek religion editor Kenneth Woodward, titled, “Sex, sin, and salvation” (10). Woodward describes the salvation theology with which the former President was raised—the notion that “once he was born again, his salvation was ensured. Sinning—even repeatedly—would not bar his soul from heaven” (11). Woodward went on to quote a number of evangelical leaders who declare—in contrast with the Bible (e.g. Matt. 19:16-17; Luke 10:25-28; Rom. 2:13; 8:13; Heb. 5:9)—that obedience is the result of being saved, not a condition thereof (12). Woodward concluded his editorial by observing that Bill Clinton “learned his worldview not in the dark of a Saturday night but in the light of a Sunday morning” (13).
What everlasting shame that some have likely learned this same worldview in the light of a Sabbath morning! The current quest of our church and its leaders for revival and reformation cannot succeed until the cause-and-effect relation is understood between one’s view of the gospel and one’s doctrinal, worship, and behavioral choices as a Seventh-day Adventist Christian.
- Spangler, “From the Editor,” Ministry, February 1979, p. 21.
- White, The Great Controversy, p. 256 (italics original).
- ----Steps to Christ, p. 61.
- ----My Life Today, p. 313.
- ----Signs of the Times, Nov. 24, 1887.
- ----SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 7, p. 972.
- ----Acts of the Apostles, p. 482.
- ----Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 147.
- Gregory Schneider, “Twenty-Five Years after Glacier View and Who Cares?” Spectrum, Winter 2005, p. 7.
- Kenneth L. Woodward, “Sex, sin, and salvation,” Newsweek, Nov. 2, 1998, p. 37.