Few can forget the story of the fabulous, ill-fated ocean liner on its maiden voyage, whose owners boasted that “God Himself could not sink this ship.” With its flaunted opulence and apparent invulnerability, the Titanic charted its course through a North Atlantic ice field at the perilous speed of 21 knots. Sighting an iceberg just ahead, the ship veered sharply leftward, exposing its starboard side to an enemy tougher than the hardest steel. Soon three hundred feet of the ship’s hull were gashed open, sending the “unsinkable” floating pleasure palace to an ignominious ocean grave.
This ill-starred episode, mirroring in so many ways the arrogance and haughty superiority of an age whose sun was about to set, still offers a multitude of lessons—spiritual and otherwise. And sadly, there are Seventh-day Adventists even now who bask in a false assurance which cannot but call to mind the illusory security of that White Star pride and joy, about to meet her doom.
Misunderstanding Christian Duty
A recent article in a prominent church publication, one of the readings for the 2015 Week of Prayer, offers a pointed example of this grave spiritual danger (1).
Early on, the article invites a serious misunderstanding of the faith-and-works issue as Scripture presents it. The authors write as follows:
Most major world religions share something in common. You have to do something to get something; salvation must be earned. Even in Christianity this mindset can subtly slip in. We can begin to depend on prayers, Bible reading, or even doing good things to somehow give us the assurance that we are going to be all right. Deep down there is the vague notion that it really is Christ plus the things that I do that save me (2).
There is an element of truth to this observation, to be sure. Ellen White states at one point that “the principle that man can save himself by his own works [lies] at the foundation of every heathen religion” (3). But both Scripture and Ellen White make a very clear distinction between what human beings attempt in their own strength apart from the power of God, and what the Holy Spirit accomplishes through divine-human cooperation in the experience of conversion. The same author who declares that we are not saved by works (Rom. 3:20,28; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8-9) also declares that we are saved, not only by God’s forgiveness (Rom. 3:24; Eph. 1:7), but also “by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Titus 3:5), that “God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth” (II Thess. 2:13).
In our own strength, apart from conversion, human beings are indeed incapable of doing anything to accomplish their salvation. But Jesus was very clear that obedience to His Father’s commandments is very much a condition of salvation. When asked about the conditions of eternal life by the rich young ruler, Jesus responded, “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matt. 19:17). When asked the same question by the lawyer to whom He told the Good Samaritan story, Jesus gave the same answer (Luke 10:25-28). Of course, Jesus was equally clear that only through God’s power can this obedience be rendered. After the young ruler had walked away sorrowfully, the disciples asked, “Who then can be saved?” (Matt. 19:25). Jesus replied, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (verse 26).
The apostle Paul confirms Spirit-empowered obedience as part of the condition of salvation when he writes, “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die; but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live” Rom. 8:13). Elsewhere he declares, speaking of Christ’s mission to the world: “And being made perfect He became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey Him” (Heb. 5:9).
The authors in question are quite correct in saying we are not saved by “Christ plus the things that I do” (4). But the work of sanctification, accomplished by divine grace and attendant human effort, is as fully the work of Christ as the work of pardoning our sins. This is how Paul can write, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). Indeed, even the Christian’s cooperative effort in the saving process is possible only through God’s mercy, as it is only through God’s grace that we live, move, and have our being. The problem with the legalist is not that he thinks he has something to do in the salvation process, but that he deludes himself into thinking he has something of His own to give in return for something of God’s. But none of us have anything of our own to give to God, for it is all His to begin with. As David declared in His final address to Israel, “All things come of Thee, and of Thine own have we given Thee” (I Chron. 29:14).
Ellen White is clear that legalism has nothing to do with trusting the work of Christ in and through the believer as a part of salvation. Writing of the obedience enjoined by Christ to the rich young ruler as the condition of salvation, she writes, “It is obedience to His law, not merely a legal obedience, but an obedience which enters into the life, and is exemplified in the character” (5). Elsewhere she writes, “The spirit of bondage is engendered by seeking to live in accordance with legal religion, through striving to fulfill the claims of the law in our own strength” (6). The contrast between salvation by faith and salvation by works, in other words, is between self-imposed, superficial conformity on the one hand, and heart-based, Spirit-enabled obedience on the other.
The Perfecting of the Last Generation
The article in question directly attacks what has come to be known as Last Generation Theology, in the following statement:
Some Seventh-day Adventists have claimed that the character of God will be vindicated through the perfect lives of the last generation of believers. This claim is based on certain Ellen White quotes read in isolation without the context of the rest of her writings. This claim often leads to fear and is inclined to direct a Christian’s focus inward instead of on Jesus (7).
But in fact, the belief decried by these authors is a pervasive theme embedded throughout both Scripture and the writings of Ellen White. Both Old and New Testaments speak of a faithful remnant at the end of time who will not do iniquity (Zeph. 3:13; Rev. 14:5), and describe those who will meet Christ in peace at His coming as “without spot, and blameless” (II Peter 3:14; see also I Thess. 5:23; I John 3:2-3), terminology employed in other passages to describe Jesus (I Peter 1:19). Those translated to heaven are described as free of both sin and guile (Rev. 14:5)--language which, once again, is used in Scripture to describe the Lord Himself (I Peter 2:21-22).
Far from being a theory “read in isolation without the context of the rest of [Ellen White’s] writings,” as the authors in question allege, the concept of a perfected final generation of believers is repeated in scores of statements in the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy, of which the following are but a small sample:
Those who are living upon the earth when the intercession of Christ shall cease in the sanctuary above, are to stand in the sight of a holy God without a mediator. Their robes must be spotless, their characters must be purified from sin by the blood of sprinkling. Through the grace of God and their own diligent effort they must be conquerors in the battle with evil. While the investigative judgment is going forward in heaven, while the sins of penitent believers are being removed from the sanctuary, there is to be a special work of purification, of putting away of sin, among God’s people upon the earth. . . . When this work shall have been accomplished, the followers of Christ will be ready for His appearing (8).
I also saw that many do not realize what they must be in order to live in the sight of the Lord without a high priest in the sanctuary through the time of trouble. Those who receive the seal of the living God and are protected in the time of trouble must reflect the image of Jesus fully. . . . I saw that none could share the ‘refreshing’ (latter rain) unless they obtain the victory over every besetment, over pride, selfishness, love of the world, and over every wrong word and action (9).
Those who come up to every point and stand every test, and overcome, be the price what it may, have heeded the counsel of the True Witness, and they will receive the latter rain, and thus be fitted for translation (10).
[From a chapter titled, “Pray for the Latter Rain”] By the power of the Holy Spirit the moral image of God is to be perfected in the character. We are to be wholly transformed into the likeness of Christ . . . Every individual must realize his own necessity. The heart must be emptied of every defilement, and cleansed for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (11).
Only those who have withstood temptation in the strength of the Mighty One will be permitted to act a part in proclaiming it (the third angel’s message) when it shall have swelled into the loud cry (12).
Not one of us will ever receive the seal of God while our characters have one spot or stain upon them. It is left with us to remedy the defects in our characters, to cleanse the soul temple of every defilement. Then the latter rain will fall upon us, as the early rain fell upon the disciples upon the day of Pentecost (13).
Now is the time to prepare. The seal of God will never be placed upon the forehead of an impure man or woman. It will never be placed upon the forehead of the ambitious, world-loving man or woman. It will never be placed upon the forehead of men or women of false tongues or deceitful hearts. All who receive the seal must be without spot before God—candidates for heaven (14).
The latter rain will come, and the blessing of God will fill every soul that is purified from every defilement. It is our work today to yield our souls to Christ, that we may be fitted for the time of refreshing from the presence of the Lord—fitted for the baptism of the Holy Spirit (15).
May the Lord help His people to cleanse the soul temple from every defilement, and to maintain such a close connection with Him that they may be partakers of the latter rain when it shall be poured out (16).
The refreshing or power of God comes only on those who have prepared themselves for it by doing the work which God bids them, namely, cleansing themselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God (17).
Are we seeking for His fullness, ever pressing toward the mark set before us—the perfection of His character? When the Lord’s people reach this mark, they will be sealed in their foreheads. Filled with His Spirit, they will be complete in Christ, and the recording angel will declare, “It is finished” (18).
No impurity can enter the pearly gates of the golden city of God. And the question for us to settle is whether we will turn from all sin and comply with the conditions God has given us, that we may become His sons and daughters. . . .
When you are all ready, having overcome your sins, having put away all your iniquity from you, you are in a condition to receive the finishing touch of immortality (19).
Every living Christian will advance daily in the divine life. As he advances toward perfection, he experiences a conversion to God every day; and this conversion is not complete until he attains to perfection of Christian character, a full preparation for the finishing touch of immortality (20).
Jesus sits as a refiner and purifier of His people; and when His image is perfectly reflected in them, they are perfect and holy, and prepared for translation. A great work is required of the Christian. We are exhorted to cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God (21).
When He comes, He is not to cleanse us of our sins, to remove from us the defects in our characters, or to cure us of the infirmities of our tempers and dispositions. If wrought for us at all, this work will be accomplished before that time. When the Lord comes, those who are holy will be holy still. . . . The Refiner does not then sit to pursue His refining process and remove their sins and their corruption. This is all to be done in these hours of probation (22).
And then, of course, there is this well-known declaration, which the reader can see is by no means unique or isolated in the admonitions of Inspirations:
Christ is waiting with longing desire for the manifestation of Himself in His church. When the character of Christ shall be perfectly reproduced in His people, then He will come to claim them as His own (23).
The vindication of God’s character through history’s final generation is also a theological construct present throughout Scripture and the Spirit of Prophecy writings. The Bible is clear that God’s glory is synonymous with His character (Ex. 33:18-19; 34:6-7), and that this glory is to be displayed before all the world. No generation of human history has yet seen this happen. But the Bible is clear that one day this demonstration will occur (Num. 14:21; Isa. 40:5), and that it will take place through God’s people (Isa. 60:1-2; Rom. 8:18-19). This is what the first angel’s message enjoins, with its summons to “fear God, and give glory to Him” (Rev. 14:7).
Ellen White elaborates on this Biblical theme in such statements as the following:
From the beginning it has been God’s plan that through His church shall be reflected to the world His fullness and His sufficiency. The members of the church, those whom He has called out of darkness into His marvelous light, are to show forth His glory. The church is the repository of the riches of the grace of Christ; and through the church will eventually be made manifest, even to “the principalities and powers in heavenly places,” the final and full display of the love of God. Ephesians 3:10 (24).
The last rays of merciful light, the last message of mercy to be given to the world, is a revelation of His character of love. The children of God are to manifest His glory. In their own life and character they are to reveal what the grace of God has done for them.
The light of the Sun of Righteousness is to shine forth in good works—in words of truth and deeds of holiness (25).
According to the inspired pen, this demonstration is necessary so far as the controversy between good and evil is concerned. Consider the following, very remarkable Ellen White statement regarding the purpose of our creation:
We were brought into existence because we were needed. How sad the thought that if we stand on the wrong side, in the ranks of the enemy, we are lost to the design of our Creator (26).
The following passage is even more amazing:
All heaven is represented to me as watching the unfolding of events. A crisis is to be revealed in the great and prolonged controversy in the government of God on earth. Something great and decisive is to take place, and that right early. If any delay, the character of God and His throne will be compromised (27).
Consider what Ellen White says about how Job vindicated God’s character:
According to his faith, so it was unto Job. “When He hath tried me,” he said, “I shall come forth as gold.” Job 23:10. So it came to pass. By his patient endurance he vindicated his own character, and thus the character of Him whose representative he was (28).
Now God waits for vindication through His end-time church:
Pray, pray earnestly and without ceasing, but do not forget to praise. It becomes every child of God to vindicate His character. You can magnify the Lord; you can show the power of sustaining grace. There are multitudes who do not appreciate the great love of God nor the divine compassion of Jesus (29).
If there was ever a people in need of constantly increasing light from heaven, it is the people of God that, in this time of peril, God has called to be the depositories of His holy law, and to vindicate His character before the world (30).
Let all remember that . . . angels are recording in the book of remembrance every word that vindicates the character and mission of Christ. Of those who testify of the love of God, the Lord says, “They shall be Mine . . . in that day when I make up My jewels.” Malachi 3:17 (31).
His heart of sympathy goes out to all earth's sufferers, and with every one who works for their relief, He co-operates. As with His blessing health returns, the character of God will be vindicated, and the lie thrown back upon Satan, its originator (32).
The very image of God is to be reproduced in humanity. The honor of God, the honor of Christ, is involved in the perfection of the character of His people (33).
The authors of the article in question write, “God has always wanted every generation of Christians to find victory over the power of sin in their lives” (34). True enough, but Inspiration is clear that succeeding generations are accountable for a greater volume of light and truth. The Bible says God winks at the times of our ignorance (Acts 17:30), and declares that “to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin” (James 4:17). Jesus said that to the one to whom much is given, much is required (Luke 12:48), which is why in the parable of the sower, the seed falling on good ground brings forth fruit “some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold” (Matt. 13:8)—all among the saved.
Ellen White comments on this principle as follows:
We are accountable for the privileges that we enjoy, and for the light that shines upon our pathway. Those who lived in past generations were accountable for the light which was permitted to shine upon them. Their minds were exercised in regard to different points of Scripture which tested them. But they did not understand the truths which we do. They were not responsible for the light which they did not have. They had the Bible, as we have, but the time for the unfolding of special truth in relation to the closing scenes of this earth’s history, is during the last generations that shall live upon the earth.
Special truths have been adapted to the conditions of the generations as they have existed. The present truth, which is a test to the people of this generation, was not a test to the people of generations far back. . . . We are accountable only for the light that shines upon us (35).
This is how Ellen White can say elsewhere that for those living in the time of the investigative judgment in heaven, “there is to be a special work of purification, of putting away of sin, among God’s people upon the earth” (36). God has always demanded purity of character, but the final moments of history necessitate a purifying work not generally seen till then. In past ages God could use someone like Martin Luther, a beer-drinking anti-Semite whose hatred of Jews would later be celebrated by the Nazis (37). But in the final hours of the controversy with evil, God seeks a higher attainment from those who would serve Him. Few in contemporary Adventism would likely disagree here. (Some of our more liberal members might not see a problem with beer-drinking, but I doubt even they would want an anti-Semite teaching religion at one of our colleges or universities!)
Biblical Assurance of Salvation
The article in question states as follows:
God wants to give us the assurance of salvation (Rom. 8:31-32). But we will get this assurance only when we stop looking at our own efforts and ourselves and focus on what Jesus has done for us (38).
But according to the New Testament, our assurance of salvation is based not only on what Jesus was done for us; it is also based on what He is doing in and through us. Many are familiar with First John 5, verse 12, which speaks of how we may know that we have eternal life. But if we finish this chapter in First John, we learn what in fact it means to have eternal life. The apostle writes: “We are in Him that is true, even in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life” (verse 20). And what, according to this same epistle, does it mean to be “in Christ”?
And he that keepeth His commandments dwelleth in Him, and He in him (I John 3:24).
In other words, having eternal life here and now means keeping God’s commandments here and now, through His power and by His grace. It is for this reason that Ellen White declares:
We cannot have the assurance and perfect confiding trust in Christ as our Saviour until we acknowledge Him as our King and are obedient to His commandments (39).
His (the believer’s) life, cleansed from vanity and selfishness, is filled with the love of God. His daily obedience to the law of God obtains for him a character that assures him eternal life in the kingdom of God (40).
And none need fear that they might die before genuine repentance and total victory is complete in their lives, as we serve a God who is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (II Peter 3:9). In Ellen White’s words:
The angels never leave the tempted one a prey to the enemy who would destroy the souls of men if permitted to do so. As long as there is hope, until they resist the Holy Spirit to their eternal ruin, men are guarded by heavenly intelligences (41).
Conclusion—Adventists on the Titanic
No Seventh-day Adventist, to my knowledge, went down with that ill-fated luxury liner into the icy waters of the North Atlantic. But tragically, many are at present on board a spiritual Titanic, believing themselves sure of salvation despite occasional sin which they persuade themselves cannot cost them their place in heaven. But all it took was one sin to remove our first parents from Eden, and all it will take is one sin—unconfessed and unforsaken—to keep any of us from the eternal blessedness of Eden restored (James 2:10-12).
The article in question declares, “On this side of heaven, perfection is always a growth process, not a stagnant state” (42). Actually, this will be true throughout eternity as well. In the words of Ellen White:
It is your work to advance toward perfection, making constant improvement, until at last you are pronounced worthy to receive immortal life. And even then the work of progression will not cease, but will continue throughout eternity (43).
However, while spiritual growth continues through the ages of eternity, we have seen from both Scripture and Ellen White that the expulsion of sin is complete in the life of the Christian here on earth, before Jesus comes. Scripture tells us that believers at the second coming are to be “found of Him in peace, without spot, and blameless” (II Peter 3:14). In other words, they must be found this way when He comes; they won’t be made that way when He arrives. John writes, concerning those who meet Christ at His coming, “And every man that hath this hope in Him purifieth himself, even as He is pure” (I John 3:3). In other words, we must be purified as Christ is pure while we still have the hope of His coming. When we see Him in the clouds, it won’t be a hope any longer, but a reality. And it is while Jesus’ coming is still a hope, not when it becomes reality, that our lives must be cleansed from every stain of sin.
This is why the modern prophet writes so plainly, as we have seen, that when Christ returns “the Refiner does not then sit to pursue His refining process and remove their sins and their corruption. This is all to be done in these hours of probation” (44).
In the day of judgment the course of the man who has retained the frailty and imperfection of humanity will not be vindicated. For him there will be no place in heaven. He could not enjoy the perfection of the saints in light. He who has not sufficient faith in Christ to believe that He can keep him from sinning, has not the faith that will give him an entrance into the kingdom of God (45).
Christ came to this world and lived a life of perfect obedience, that men and women, through His grace, might also live lives of perfect obedience. This is necessary to their salvation (46).
The Saviour is wounded afresh and put to open shame when His people pay no heed to His word. He came to this world and lived a sinless life, that in His power His people might also live lives of sinlessness. He desires them by practicing the principles of truth to show to the world that God’s grace has power to sanctify the heart (47).
3. Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 35.
5. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 523.
6. ----SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 6, p. 1077.
8. White, The Great Controversy, p. 425.
9. ----Early Writings, p. 71.
10. ----Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 187.
11. ----Testimonies to Ministers, pp. 506-507.
12. ----Review and Herald, Nov. 19, 1908.
13. ----Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 214.
14. Ibid, p. 216.
15. ----Evangelism, p. 702.
16. ----SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 6, p. 1055.
17. ----Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 619.
18. ----SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 6, p. 1118.
19. ----From the Heart, p. 44.
20. ----Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 505.
21. Ibid, vol. 1, p. 340.
22. Ibid, vol. 2, p. 355.
23. ----Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 69.
24. ----Acts of the Apostles, p. 9.
25. ----Christ’s Object Lessons, pp. 415-416.
26. ----Signs of the Times, April 22, 1903.
27. ----Special Testimonies, Series A01b, p. 38.
28. ----Education, p. 156.
29. ----Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 317.
30. Ibid, p. 746.
31. ----Our High Calling, p. 168.
32. ----Christian Educator, Oct. 1, 1898.
33. ----The Desire of Ages, p. 671.
35. White, Testimonies, vol. 2, pp. 692-693.
36. ----The Great Controversy, p. 425.
37, See William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960), pp. 91,236.
39. White, Faith and Works, p. 16.
40. ----Sons and Daughters of God, p. 42.
41. ----Our High Calling, p. 23.
43. White, In Heavenly Places, p. 186.
44. ----Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 355.
45. ----Selected Messages, vol. 3, p. 360.
46. ----Review and Herald, March 15, 1906.
47. Ibid, April 1, 1902.