In the past few days, a short video titled “What Might Have Been,” which contains an enactment of one of Ellen White’s dreams from the early 1900s, has surfaced. At the close of the acted segment, at least four appeals are made by church leaders calling for the church to fulfill its mission by submitting to God and experiencing the revival that God wanted to bring at the 1901 General Conference Session. These appeals especially call for prayer for the upcoming General Conference Session, and they express a sense of longing for unity and a putting away of strife among brethren in order to facilitate a revival in the church. The message implied is that through seeking of such unity through confession and prayer, the coming of Christ can be expedited as the ultimate fulfillment of the Seventh-day Adventist church’s destiny. The desires, to see the church revived and see it filled with the Spirit of God in order that it may fulfill its mission, are most laudable. Heartily we can agree to pray for these things. However, on the other hand, there are some questions and concerns that this video raises.
First, it is important for us to realize that our church stands in many ways in a different position and in different circumstances today than it did in 1901. For example, in 1901 a much greater theological unity on the significance and meaning of foundational doctrines existed in Adventism than exists today. Yes, there were major issues facing the church at that time, but concerning the meaning of the cleansing of the sanctuary, the nature of Christ, the necessity of sanctification, our historicist prophetic exegesis, and the literal approach to Scripture, there was much greater unity in 1901, than there is today. The differences between the apostles on the Day of Pentecost and the state of the church in our time is even more pronounced. The disciples in the upper room, had been under the direct instruction and tutelage of the Master Himself for three years leading to that wonderfully fateful Day of Pentecost. They had been, although surely imperfectly, nonetheless conscientiously, wholeheartedly and devotedly following Jesus and learning at His feet for those three years. We need to seriously ask ourselves if their devotion at all reflects the record of our church in recent decades.
Second, we need to understand of what, specifically, we need to repent and confess. While the unbelief that hindered the coming of the Lord leading to 1901 manifested itself in numerous ways, there was also a compellingly specific aspect of unbelief about which the Spirit of Prophecy had been earnestly warning and entreating in the years leading to 1901. That aspect was especially the unbelief and resistance continuing to be manifested against the “most precious message,” which God was attempting to give to His people. The 1901 General Conference session was the prime opportunity for brethren to relinquish their continued unbelief and opposition to the message of righteousness by faith. The need to repent for the rejection of this message and accept it was particularly in focus at the 1901 General Conference session. At that session, E. J. Waggoner made presentations on these themes. Furthermore, W. W. Prescott earnestly appealed for the acceptance of this message, showing from the Spirit of Prophecy the connection between its acceptance or rejection and the fulfillment of God’s will in His church. Ellen White called for a personal experience and application of this message, which included the laying aside of continued hard feelings among those who had stood in opposition over this very matter. The scene from this recent film, in which a brother quotes from Christ’s counsel to the Laodicean church found in Revelation 3 in Ellen White’s dream, brings to our mind the important connection that needs to be made between 1888 and 1901. Ellen White had already identified the 1888 Message as it was being given by Waggoner and Jones in the early 1890s as being the sounding of the Laodicean message (1888 Materials, p. 1052). So these two messages are in essence the same.
On this point, the parallel between 1901 and 2015 holds true. Still preeminently before us is the need to acknowledge our sin of unbelief in the increased light on Righteousness by Faith brought to us in the 1888 era. It is upon this message, we have been told, that “the destiny of the church hangs" (Ellen White, Early Writings, 270). A careful analysis of the message given by the 1888 Messengers reveals not only that those delegates of a much smaller and more unified Adventism rejected the message, but that much of what is presented as righteousness by faith in our churches today is decidedly antithetical to it. Jones and Waggoner and a number of the distinctive points which they were giving under their message of righteousness by faith are still “persona non grata” in much of Adventism today. Those who are the foremost in trying to bring our attention to the tenets of that message and who continue to call for repentance for its rejection, are often maligned and marginalized. The True Witness demands that we repent of our stubborn, self-satisfied rejection of heaven-sent light. It is good to pray for revival and reformation, but without retracing our steps, acknowledging our specific sin of unbelief and rebellion concerning the 1888 Message, it shall all be in vain.
Another point that is not well elucidated in the recent video is the prerequisite nature of giving the straight testimony which exalts the standard of God in the church and mandates accountability therein. We have been told that this straight testimony will stir many to rise against it in terrific opposition. However, this experience cannot be circumvented. The Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of Truth. This means that true unity, what the Bible calls the “unity of the Spirit,” comes only when parties are agreed in actual submissive obedience to the revealed truth of God found in the Holy Scriptures and the Inspired counsels. Yet on so many points, we have not and are not earnestly obeying the counsel that we have been given: music, worship, institutional management, the handling of funds, family life, recreation, entertainment, canvassing, evangelism, pastoral ministry, and conference administration. No amount of praying, however earnest or sincere, can obtain the blessing of the Holy Spirit for a disobedient people. It can never happen. Indeed, it seems a bit ironic that this recent video appeal is presented in the form of a theatrical production. From nowhere in the Spirit of Prophecy, much less the Bible, can an actual recommendation for this manner of presenting the truth be brought forth. While the “What Might Have Been” video is well intentioned, and I agree that the message it conveys is generally good, it seems to me that we may need to more diligently apply the eye salve of the plain words of inspiration to our experience and be willing to discern all of the ways in which we may be unwittingly departing from the Lord’s counsel.
In administration and in the general church membership is found little if any accountability in the church. I believe that one of the primary reasons for this lack is our acceptance of the principle of “kingly power” instead of the Scriptural principle of the “priesthood of all believers.” The church members must be empowered to take ownership and responsibility for the condition of the churches. When the people are revived by the Gospel and are taught to rely totally upon God and His Word, then we can expect a genuine work of reformation to go forward. It cannot be spiritually healthy for the congregation to continue looking with blind credulity for guidance to the actions of church leaders and the opinions of learned theologians. Every believer is to be armed with the Word of God and prepared to judge. The individual church members and church workers need to be taught and habituated to look to God and ultimately God alone for their marching orders. Instead, all manner of directives and policies are being piled up to bind about the church of God in slavery to human authority, rather than Divine. We should not forget that the final revival work to go forward in the world will be characterized by the ignoring of human restrictions and the asserting of God-given liberty in Christ Jesus.
What we desire of a triumphant Pentecostal power is not what we can hope to have until the conditions of repentance are met, and a decided reformation is entered upon. Our first need is to meet with Elijah and His uncompromising words of rebuke. Our hearts must first be turned to the Lord in contrition; only then, after we have followed on to know the Lord, will He come unto us as the Latter Rain (See Hosea 6:3).
This leads us to the biggest danger that I fear the recent video production may represent. When we separate praying for God’s working from the necessary conditions for receiving the outpouring of God’s Spirit, we are in danger of engaging in a form of mysticism. We must never conflate a superficial outward unity, even when accompanied by apparent manifestations of spiritual power, with that true unity which comes only to those who obey completely. To work and pray merely for the former could actually be very disastrous. All of the conservative cries against an overt mysticism of the emerging church, will do us no good, if we fall for a similar, apparently conservative mysticism, that predicates a revival and reformation based upon mystical spiritual experience and outward mechanisms and manifestations, rather than the true and uncompromising fulfillment of the conditions laid out for us in the Bible and Spirit of Prophecy.
Jesus says, “I will go and return unto my place until they acknowledge their offense and seek My face. In their affliction they will seek me early” (King James Version, Hosea 5:15). Yes, “What Might Have Been” in 1901 can be. They needed to start upon the serious work of reformation by allowing their hearts to be broken under the influence of Calvary and accepting the heaven-sent light of the Message of Christ’s Righteousness. Our church corporately and each of us individually still need to do this. Yes, we can begin the journey of repentance, revival and reformation now and at the upcoming General Conference Session much as they could have done in 1901. However, a few saying, “I’m sorry,” will not suffice. Under the influence of the Righteousness by Faith message, the standard of God’s Word is to be raised and the rulership of Christ in the church reestablished. The congregation is to be sanctified. Right church order and discipline is to be restored. We must zealously remove the uncleanness of open sin and disobedience from among us. We have a work to do to prepare the way of the Lord. May God help us to repent and do first the earnest, devoted works of implicit, trusting obedience. For this work to be much advanced at the 2015 General Conference Session, we will earnestly pray. And while we seek to find unity with our fellow church workers and church members, we also pray for courage and determination to stand unflinchingly for the truths of God’s Word no matter the necessary division that this may cause. May God help us to implore, as did Charles Wesley, “Now incline me to repent, let me now my sins lament. Now, my foul revolt deplore. Weep, believe, and sin no more” (Charles Wesley, “Depth of Mercy”). Herein lies the secret to hastening the coming of the Lord.