Too much Jesus?

(Note: This is Part 1 of a 3-part series I’m doing on “Three Wrong Views of Minneapolis,” which discusses three of the most prevalent wrongly-held views among Adventists about what happened at the 1888 General Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. For my introductory thoughts on this entire topic, click herePart 2 is called “Sanctification by Faith.”)

I think one would be hard-pressed to find a Seventh-day Adventist – at least one who is at all familiar with our history – who would deny this basic premise: that in the years leading up to the 1888 General Conference meetings in Minneapolis, Adventism was largely characterized by legalism and an unbalanced emphasis on the law.

The testimony of Ellen White is overwhelming and undeniably clear: “We have been at work on the law until we get as dry as the hills of Gilboa, without dew or rain,”(1888 Materials, p. 557) she wrote in 1890. A year before she had said that “there have been entire discourses, dry and Christless, in which Jesus has scarcely been named. . . . We need to repent and be converted – yes, the preacher converted. The people must have Jesus lifted up before them” (Ibid.p. 430).

It is thus hard to get around the ubiquity of this sentiment in Ellen White’s writings leading up to 1888 and continuing for a few years after.

But here’s the rub: a common refrain among some Seventh-day Adventists is that that was then; and we have the opposite problem now. In other words, prior to 1888 Adventists struggled with legalism. The present climate of Adventism, however, is such that we have too much Jesus now and not enough law. We have completely overcompensated for our Jesus-deficiency by talking too much now about Jesus and His love and forgiveness and grace, neglecting to talk about obedience, sanctification, the law, overcoming.

This charge is bolstered by the fact that, collectively, we as a people have become a lot more lax when it comes to our standards: that which couldn’t even be imagined 50 years ago is now commonplace – whether it’s entertainment practices, health habits, dress standards, or any other number of practices.

As may already be self-evident, this refrain is often on the lips of those who would place themselves in the “conservative” camp, and many of them have further ammunition when they consider significant historical events in our denomination over the last half-century. In particular, the 1950s was a pivotal decade for Adventists, it is proposed, when the controversial book Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine (QOD) was published, undermining a few of our dearly-held doctrines which served as the basis for a sanctification-centric Gospel. Two doctrines in particular – the nature of Christ and the Investigative Judgment – were, at the very least, completely reframed in such a way that they pulled the rug out from underneath our emphasis on sanctification.

From there, it is maintained, Adventism spiraled out of control, leading to an increased emphasis on Jesus and a forgiveness-only Gospel, culminating in the notorious Desmond Ford incident in 1980. Both QOD’s and Ford’s influences have been the prevailing ones today, as is evident by a much larger emphasis on Jesus in today’s Adventism, which might be proven by just dropping into any random Seventh-day Adventist church on any given Sabbath morning.

Thus, for these Adventists, 1957 – the year QOD was published – is the pivotal date, not 1888, and they long for the golden years of the 1930s or 40s when within Adventism obedience, sanctification, perfection, and the law were the main entres.

What shall we thus say to this claim – which seems to be fairly substantiated? After all, is there any doubt that our standards have gotten more lax over the last 50 years? Or could one argue with the fact that Jesus does seem to be preached more today than He was in the 1940s or 1880s?

Truthfully, there have been times when I’ve been tempted to agree with this sentiment and been further tempted to push back, giving the trumpet no uncertain sound and placing great emphasis on obedience and standards and sanctification.

Such an approach, however, is simply an act of going from one ditch to the other, from one extreme to the other.

As I’ve grappled with this issue some more, I have come to a few critical realizations that lead me to conclude that the problem within Adventism in 2014 is still the same problem as it was in 1888 – even if it is framed in slightly different terms.

Consider this:

1. In her classic book, Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing, Ellen White makes this poignant and powerful statement. Don’t miss it:

The principles cherished by the Pharisees are such as are characteristic of humanity in all ages. The spirit of Pharisaism is the spirit of human nature; and as the Saviour showed the contrast between His own spirit and methods and those of the rabbis, His teaching is equally applicable to the people of all time. (p. 79)

The first time someone pointed out this quote to me, which was this last summer, I was blown away. I had always known this intuitively, but never noticed that Ellen White articulated it explicitly. Don’t miss her point! Simply put: human beings are, by nature, Pharisaical. We are born this way. And what does that mean? In the very next paragraph, Ellen White explains what the Spirit of the Pharisees was: “The Pharisees were continually trying to earn the favor of Heaven in order to secure the worldly honor and prosperity which they regarded as the reward of virtue.”

So follow it with me: human beings are, by nature, born “continually trying to earn the favor of Heaven.” This means that every single baby who has been born into an Adventist home since 1888 has been born a legalist – something that doesn’t just disappear by snapping one’s fingers, or hearing a Gospel-sermon a couple times. Legalism – “trying to earn the favor of Heaven” – as the “spirit of human nature,” is as every bit a force to be reckoned with and overcome as is our proclivity to sin. We thus strive against it our whole lives.

It is no wonder then, that Ellen White wrote in 1890: “The point that has been urged upon my mind for years is the imputed righteousness of Christ. I have wondered that this matter was not made the subject of discourses in our churches throughout the land, when the matter has been kept so constantly urged upon me” (Faith and Works, p. 18). In the next paragraph she then made this mind-boggling statement which cannot, indeed must not, be missed:

There is not a point that needs to be dwelt upon more earnestly, repeated more frequently, or established more firmly in the minds of all than the impossibility of fallen man meriting anything by his own best good works. Salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

We need to hear this again and again and again. Just because Adventists in the 1880s and 90s heard it (and even then, it was only a small percentage of the membership, since it was largely kept away from the church), doesn’t mean they heard it enough, and it doesn’t mean that the church of the 21st-century has inherited it genetically.

2. One of the real “flies in the ointment” is that, statistically, even though we have theoretically been preaching Christ more as a people (though, as I will mention below, I really question even this thesis), there still seems to be a disconnect among our people – especially our young people (those same young people who are born legalists). In 1990, the first Valuegenesis study was done which surveyed 12,000 Adventist young people about a number of issues – including salvation. The results were staggering.

According to the survey (the results of which are discussed, among other places, in the July, 1991 issue of Ministry), a mind-blowing 81 percent of teenegers believed that they “must live by God’s rules in order to be saved.” Furthermore, 62 percent of them agreed that “the way to be accepted by God is to try sincerely to live a good life” and 44 percent believed that “the main emphasis of the gospel is on God’s rules for right living.”

It would be naive of a person to think that, were these same questions asked today (this survey has actually been repeated every ten years, with 2010’s results still not released, I don’t believe), that they would be a whole lot better. Even if those numbers were cut in half (which I would highly doubt), and 30 percent of young people agreed, for example, that “the way to be accepted by God is to try sincerely to live a good life,” that’s 30 percent too many!

Furthermore, it shouldn’t take a person very long to observe that young people are born with the craving to experience love and acceptance – even in a stable home. The fact that more and more young people come from broken homes, where unconditional love and acceptance are not modeled, further exacerbates the problem. And these young people who don’t experience love and acceptance as young people grow up to be adults who are still looking for love and acceptance.

The bottom line is that, as much as we’ve been supposedly preaching about Christ and His forgiveness and grace, we still aren’t preaching about it enough – or, at the very least, in the right way.

But that’s not all: what blew my mind recently is that it is now apparent that Adventists – who are viewed by many to be inherently legalistic because of our emphasis on the Sabbath and diet, etc. – are not alone when it comes to this hang-up. It is not surprising that Catholics would be tripped up by this, but Evangelicals themselves are victims of this same mentality. According to Christianity Today, “Two out of three (68%) said that a person obtains peace with God by seeking God first, and then God responds with grace,” and, further, 56 percent affirmed that they must contribute their own personal effort for salvation.

And yet these are the people – it is often claimed by Adventists – who talk about Jesus and His grace too much! What is going on?

Simply put, “The spirit of Pharisaism is the spirit of human nature,” and it knows no denomination. And since we are admonished to repeat it “more frequently,” I will take the opportunity to do just that in response to these sobering statistics both among Adventists and Evangelicals:

There is not a point that needs to be dwelt upon more earnestly, repeated more frequently, or established more firmly in the minds of all than the impossibility of fallen man meriting anything by his own best good works. Salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

3. I will just touch upon this briefly, but encourage you to review this post I shared a while back where I grappled with the question “Are Adventists Legalists?” How do I know that the problem of legalism in the 1880s is still a problem today? It’s simple: just as in the 1880s, people in the world, by and large, still think we’re legalists. Period.

4. Lastly, I want to turn to a little bit more of a subjective reflection. Simply put, as I mentioned above, I think it would be naive to say that Christ is not “named” in our sermons more today than He was 50 or 130 years ago. Truthfully, I think Christ is talked about more in sermons today than in times past, but here’s the catch: I don’t know that His character and sacrifice and love (in all its depth, not just done so in a superficial way) is lifted up to any greater degree.

Let me explain.

As you survey the counsel of Ellen White on the need to lift up Christ in our preaching, she doesn’t simply leave it there. When she talks about this need she is doing so within the context of redemption and the cross. Thus, she says stuff like, “No discourse should ever be preached without presenting Christ and Him crucified as the foundation of the gospel” (Evangelism, p. 360 – emphasis mine). Elsewhere, she writes, “In every discourse the love of God, as manifested in Christ, the sinner’s only hope, should be dwelt upon until the people realize something of its power and preciousness” (Gospel Workers, p. 227 – emphasis mine).

Further, she writes this beautiful admonition, “The love that Christ manifested in taking human nature, in bearing insult, reproach, and the rejection of men, in suffering crucifixion on the cross, should be presented in every discourse” (Review and Herald, Sept. 3, 1889).

Can it get any plainer? It is not simply Christ that we need to talk about more; we need to lift up His love, His sacrifice, His forgiveness, His grace, in “every discourse.” Thus, it’s not enough for sermons to simply be christocentric; they need to be cross-centric.

Not to be critical of anyone or any preacher, but I have heard a lot of sermons that talk about Christ (and maybe even His love), but they are either done so in a vague way, with no depth, or done in a way that reduces Christ to nothing more than a wise sage who prescribes good advice, or serves as an example. There’s no cross, no self-sacrificing love, no unconditional pardon. Similarly, there is a sort of “prosperity gospel” Jesus that is present in a lot of Adventist preaching, where He is simply someone who provides for our temporal needs – you know, pays our bills, helps us pass tests, gets us the car for the price we wanted. 

But this is not enough to change the heart or awaken us from our legalistic stupor. And it’s why people still check off the boxes that say we have to do something in order to be accepted and loved by God.

Thus, in short, though it might be true that Christ is talked about more, He has not necessarily been lifted up – in all His beauty, self-sacrifice, and love – on the cross any more than He was in 19th-century Adventism.

It is for this reason that what we need today is the same as what they needed in 1888: “Christ our righteousness.”

This article was originally published at New England Pastor. It is reposted with permission.

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