For those through the years who have sought to bring revival and reformation to the Seventh-day Adventist Church, two misleading theories—among others we could mention—have tended at critical times to dampen the courage and impede the resolve of the striving faithful.
One of these is the paradigm for Christian living—very popular for decades now in certain circles of Western Adventism, even among some conservatives—which views the struggle against sin in the believer’s life as entirely God’s responsibility, with the believer’s task viewed as merely maintaining a “relationship” with God through prayer, Bible study, and witnessing, while God presumably does all the dirty work of ridding our lives of sin. Taken into the larger denominational context, the logic of this theory easily evolves into the notion that whatever is wrong in the corporate life of the church will be addressed and remedied by God all by Himself, while believers busy themselves with personal piety, service to others, and evangelism.
The other of these misleading premises is based on a false understanding of Christ’s parable of the wheat and the tares, which views Christ’s command not to pull up the tares (Matt. 13:28-29) as a command against trying to expunge open sin and apostasy from the institutional church.
We will briefly address both of these theories in the light of Scripture and the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy.
Various versions of this theory have surfaced in modern Adventism, but perhaps the most popular of these has been the notion that the believer’s task in maintaining a relationship with God is to focus solely on what some have called the “three tangibles”—prayer, Bible study, and witnessing—while the work of fighting sin and Satan is to be left exclusively to the Lord.
“Righteousness by faith,” according to this definition, means simply to keep out of God’s way while He alone labors to expel sin from our lives. While we pray, read our Bibles, and witness for Jesus, so the theory goes, the only proactive resistance in which we must engage is to avoid trying to “help God out” in the work of overcoming sin.
But in no sense does the Bible support this understanding of faith and the Christian’s exercise thereof. Hebrews chapter 11, often called the Faith Chapter, offers unmistakably clear examples of believers exercising faith, not by letting God work all by Himself, but by claiming His power through faith to execute His will. “By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice” (verse 4), “by faith Abraham . . . went out, not knowing whither he went” (verse 8), “by faith Moses . . . refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter” (verse 24), “by faith [the children of Israel] passed through the Red Sea” (verse 29). Others who exercised faith are depicted in the same manner:
Through faith [Gideon, Barak, Samson, David, etc.] subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens (verses 33-34).
Perhaps the most explicit verse in this chapter relative to righteousness by faith is the one which describes the faith of Noah:
By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his household, by the which he condemned the world, and became heir of the righteousness which is by faith (verse 7).
Other verses are equally clear that human beings have an active role to play in the struggle against sin and Satan:
Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God (II Cor. 7:1).
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, and against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places (Eph. 6:12).
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you, both to will and to do of His good pleasure (Phil. 2:12-13).
Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw nigh to God, and He will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners, and purify your hearts, ye double minded (James 4:7-8).
Notice this final verse doesn’t say, as some have implied: “Submit yourselves to God, and then He will resist the devil in place of you.” Not at all. You and I must submit to God by surrendering our sins, submitting to His authority, and claiming His power to obey. When we do this, we can in fact resist the devil successfully.
Ellen White teaches the same principle of active divine/human cooperation in such statements as the following:
The fact that Christ has conquered should inspire His followers with courage to fight manfully the battle against sin and Satan (GC 510).
The Lord does not propose to perform for us either the willing or the doing. This is our proper work. As soon as we earnestly enter upon the work, God’s grace is given to work in us to will and to do, but never as a substitute for our effort (TM 240).
Let no one imagine that it is an easy thing to overcome the enemy and that he can be borne aloft to an incorruptible inheritance without effort on his part. . . . Few appreciate the importance of striving constantly to overcome. They relax their diligence and, as a result, become selfish and self-indulgent. Spiritual vigilance is not thought to be essential. Earnestness in human effort is not brought into the Christian life (5T 539-540).
Man cannot be towed to heaven; he cannot go as a passive passenger; he must himself use the oars, and work as a laborer together with God. It is only by earnest effort, by using the oars with all your might, that you can stem the current (OHC 310).
You are to open the door of the heart. You are to clear away the rubbish from the portals, that the heavenly Guest may find a welcome and an entrance. Christ will not enter a heart that is defiled with sin. It is our work to put away all iniquity (RH Oct. 30, 1888).
Each day he must renew his consecration, each day do battle with evil. Old habits, hereditary tendencies to wrong, will strive for the mastery, and against these he is to be ever on guard, striving in Christ’s strength for victory (AA 477).
One of Ellen White’s strongest affirmations of humanity’s essential, proactive role in the battle with sin is the following:
Man must work with his human power, aided by the divine power of Christ, to resist and conquer at any cost to himself. In short, man must overcome as Christ overcame. . . This could not be the case if Christ alone did all the overcoming. Man must do his part; he must be victor on his own account (4T 32-33, italics original).
It is imperative that this false notion of effortless victory in the Christian life be set aside if believers are to rightly understand the proactive role God wishes them to play in the struggle against sin and apostasy in the community of believers. It isn’t hard to understand how the belief that God will purify our lives from sin all by Himself can easily produce the assumption that God will also purify His church all by Himself. Neither theory, according to inspired counsel, is correct. Many who face issues of conflict in local congregations or denominational institutions are tempted and even taught to believe that cleaning up the church is entirely God’s responsibility and not theirs. Such persons should consider carefully the following Ellen White statement regarding Joshua’s battle with the Amorites, and what was done by Israel’s commander before he called for the sun to stand still:
Joshua had received the promise that God would surely overthrow these enemies of Israel, yet he put forth as earnest effort as though success depended upon the armies of Israel alone. He did all that human energy could do, and then he cried in faith for divine aid. The secret of success is the union of divine power with human effort (PP 509).
The Wheat and the Tares
This is doubtless one of the most misunderstood parables Jesus ever told. And in no way is it more misunderstood than when some attempt to apply it to issues of church discipline.
Most of us know the parable well. A farmer who sowed grain in his field finds that an enemy has sowed tares, or weeds, among the wheat (Matt. 13:24-26). The farmer’s servants want to pull up the tares (verse 28), but the farmer forbids them, lest the wheat be pulled up also (verse 29). The farmer then instructs the servants:
Let both [wheat and tares] grow together until the harvest; and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them; but gather the wheat into my barn (verse 30).
But who in fact are represented by the tares Jesus is talking about here? If, as some allege, this parable forbids Christians to remove from church employment or fellowship those who publicly teach unscriptural error or live in open disobedience to the commands of God’s Word, Jesus would be contradicting Himself, as in a later chapter in the same Gospel He speaks of a process by which sinners who remain unrepentant after being properly labored with must in fact be removed from the faith community (Matt. 18:15-17). The apostle Paul likewise describes the need to remove from church fellowship those who disobey the inspired counsel of his epistles (II Thess. 3:14-15) or persist in immoral practices (I Cor. 5:9-13).
Ellen White, under divine inspiration, helps us understand the kind of persons Jesus was talking about in this parable, when He used the symbolism of tares:
Christ has plainly taught that those who persist in open sin must be separated from the church, but He has not committed to us the work of judging character and motive. He knows our natures too well to entrust this work to us. Should we try to uproot from the church those whom we suppose to be spurious Christians, we should be sure to make mistakes (COL 71).
Notice the distinction that is drawn in this statement between open sin, which human beings can discern based on the objective standard of God’s Word (Isa. 8:20; Acts 17:11), in contrast with the judgment of character and motive, which according to the Bible is known only to God (I Kings 8:39).
In short, the parable of the wheat and the tares does not forbid the removal from church employment or membership of individuals who persist either in the teaching of false doctrine or the pursuit of lifestyle or liturgical choices contrary to the written counsel of God.
Edmund Burke is reputed to have said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” The enemy has a quiver full of rationalizations as to why struggling Christians should avoid the field of battle, whether in their own spiritual lives or in the corporate life of the church. But the Biblical command to “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3) is as much in force as the command to bring our fleshly desires into subjection to God’s will (I Cor. 9:27). Only through heaven’s imparted strength, of course, can such striving succeed (Matt. 19:26; John 15:5; Phil. 4:13), whether we battle against personal wrongs or the wrongs of others. Wisdom must always be blended with knowledge, compassion with courage, love with boldness. But the Bible never confuses faith with inaction, nor surrender to God with the abdication of responsibility.