The gospel of Holy Scripture embraces the total universe of human conduct, whether personal or social. Where Christians have gotten into trouble at times is when one area of moral responsibility is dwelt upon to the neglect of the other.
No genuine spiritual awakening will fail to encompass both the Biblical imperative of personal integrity and the Biblical imperative of visible compassion for others. The Wesleyan revivals in eighteenth-century England didn’t stop with the moral transformation of people’s private lives. They also extended into the social realm, encouraging greater attentiveness to the needs of the poor and the rights of workers (1)—in addition to giving impetus to the movement to abolish slavery in England’s far-flung colonies, led by such as William Wilberforce (2).
The same was true in America during the Second Great Awakening, in which such prominent advocates of Bible sanctification as Francis Asbury and Charles Finney also denounced and sought an end to the institution of slavery (3). The early Adventist pioneers participated in this movement, a fact demonstrated by Ellen White’s urging of our people to defy the infamous Fugitive Slaw Law (4) and her statement that Adventists “cannot receive the approval of God while they neglect sympathy for the oppressed colored race” (5).
The Gyrating Pendulum
Heresy of any kind is always partial truth. This is because error is by nature parasitic; it cannot stand on its own the way truth does. The forbidden tree in Eden was not called the tree of the knowledge of evil, but rather, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:9). Evil must include good in order to attract takers, just as fantasy must be based on a measure of reality in order to be credible. Novelists understand this, as few if any fictional characters do not bear some resemblance to persons in real life, whether past or present. Only God is able to create something out of nothing.
The focus of popular Christian piety through the centuries has too often reflected the partial truth model noted above. Whether among those whose moral agenda concerns primarily issues of self-discipline (e.g. sexuality, entertainment choices, physical health), or those for whom Christian morality is defined almost solely by issues of social responsibility (e.g. economic opportunity, race relations, environmental protection, world peace), an important part of the Biblical message is lost. Historically speaking, one should beware of a broad-brush identification of the latter group with what has come to be known as the Social Gospel movement, as not all who have embraced features of this movement since its origin have either rejected or neglected orthodox Biblical teachings regarding sin and righteousness.
Often the approach of Christians to moral issues, be they personal or social, is influenced more by cultural and ideological trends in society than by strict faithfulness to God’s Word. If at a given time, vocal and fashionable elements in society are focused on improving the material lot of the downtrodden, more often than not this focus comes to dominate the agenda and public emphasis of those Christians seeking what many are pleased to call “relevance.” If, by contrast, a different time period finds the larger culture focused less on others’ needs and more on individual comfort and personal betterment, those Christians wishing to “scratch where people are itching”—to use a popular phrase—will likely choose a different tone in their public witness.
True Sanctification is Total
In contrast to the above gyrating pendulum, often blown hither and yon by worldly trends and thought patterns, the heart transformed by Biblical grace will submit to “all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Too many Christians who speak of “grace” in our postmodern context seem to forget this.
One notable Christian author some years ago, in a bestselling book on the subject of God’s grace, writes at length of the wrongful way many Christians treat each other, the unforgiving spirit manifested in many professedly Christian lives, and what he considers the moral “trivialities” many Christians dwell on in contrast to what he holds to be “weightier” issues. Paraphrasing Jesus’ rebuke to the scribes and Pharisees, this author writes:
What trivialities do we obsess over, and what weighty matters of the law—justice, mercy, faithfulness—might we be missing? Does God care more about nose rings or about urban decay? Grange music or world hunger? Worship styles or a culture of violence? (6).
Like so many others, the above author forgets how Jesus followed His sharp words about neglect of the law's "weightier matters" with the statement, "These ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone" (Matt. 23:23). I honestly get nervous when people ask which divine commands God cares most about; too often such questions are asked with what savors of a "minimum-requirement" attitude, rather than the spirit of the penitent Saul of Tarsus, "Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?" (Acts 9:6). We need to remember, for starters, that when Jesus spoke of the "weightier matters of the law" (Matt. 23:23), He was contrasting such priorities as justice and mercy with rules which took the practice of tithing to extremes not found in the written Word. The Pharisees were correct in their attentiveness to tithing; the Bible declares the neglect of such to be robbery toward God (Mal. 3:8-10). This is why Jesus told them "not to leave the other (tithing) undone" (Matt. 23:23). It was an extremism in this practice which God had not commanded that Jesus described as less important than justice, mercy, and faith. According to Scripture, all of God's genuine commandments reveal His faithfulness, His mercy, His justice, and His love (Psalm 119:58,89-92; Rom. 7:12). To distinguish God's commands from any of the above is to contradict the Bible.
The sanctification taught in God’s Word is total, not partial. The apostle Paul writes: “And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Thess. 5:23). This admonition includes the social as well as the personal obligations of Biblical religion. Attention to the one, however diligent, will not compensate for the neglect of the other.
Acknowledging—and Correcting—Our Shortcomings
Recently a video was released by students on a prominent Adventist University campus which drew attention to the still-festering problem of racial bias in certain settings within the church. My heart has been pained both by the awareness that these problems persist within the movement whose divine charter encompasses “every nation, kindred, tongue, and people” (Rev. 14:6), and by the insensitive, even harsh responses to this cry of anguish—such responses giving notable evidence of coming from persons whose life experience in most cases cannot possibly offer familiarity with what many of a different skin color are still forced to endure.
Not only is empathetic dialogue and listening imperative at a moment such as this, so is the underlying, Bible-based acknowledgement that no sin of any kind—personal or social—is tolerable in the lives of Christians facing the final crisis of history. Any theory of the gospel or salvation which makes room for recurrent sin through the duration of our earthly lives will invariably accommodate whatever shortcomings persist in anyone’s spiritual journey. For some this cluster of lingering faults may include the personal—dietary indulgence, sexual immorality, morally injurious entertainment, outward adornment, etc.—while for others the list may include insensitivity to the material needs of others or the plight suffered by persons of a different racial origin.
Either way, our Christian witness is compromised. Either way, God’s ideal for His church remains elusive. Either way, eternal loss is the result. Whether we like it or not, James 2:10 is still in the Bible: “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.”
The Biblical Balance
The same Bible which commands us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked (Matt. 25:35-36), also declares that what we eat and wear matters to God (I Cor. 6:19-20; III John 2; I Tim. 2:9-10; I Peter 3:3-4). The same Bible which commands us to relieve the oppressed and plead for the widow (Isa. 1:17), also summons the believer to think only on what which is true, pure, honest, just, lovely, and of good report (Phil. 4:8)—a principle which easily excludes most of today's popular entertainment. The same Bible which condemns racism and violence (Isa. 1:15; Acts 17:26) declares that certain ways of approaching God in worship are unacceptable to Him (Gen. 4:4-5; Ex. 32; I Cor. 14:40). The same Jesus who commands His followers to relieve the temporal needs of humanity (Matt. 25:31-46) is also the One who said to the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn thee; go, and sin no more” (John 8:11).
If, as the afore-quoted Christian author maintains, “It is our human destiny on earth to remain imperfect" (7), if—as he insists—our acceptance with God has nothing to do with our performance (8), this applies as much to issues of social justice as to issues of private conduct. The one who can’t expunge racial hostilities from his worldview and thought patterns is as helpless as the one who can’t give up the occasional glass of booze. The unforgiving parent or child can no more achieve reconciliation with the one who has wronged them than can the glutton stop overeating. The materialist can no more sacrifice monetary comfort for the sake of the disadvantaged than can the practicing homosexual relinquish his lifestyle.
Too much of the talk we hear regarding issues like homosexuality invariably comes back to the notion that “we’re all sinners, nobody’s perfect, salvation doesn’t depend on how well we keep the law, so let’s ease off in our demands for strict obedience.” But this logic is almost never applied to those sins considered culturally unfashionable or socially reprehensible at a given time. Few, for example, even among the most theologically liberal church members, would argue for such leniency on behalf of an abusive husband or father. But if our sinful natures are too strong even for the Lord to subdue, Christians will inevitably make peace with whatever their more persistent transgressions might be.
Thankfully, the Bible offers a better way.
With the written counsel of God as our unerring and eternal guide, every sin that lingers among us—whether personal or social, culturally fashionable or culturally reviled—can and must be surrendered to the Savior who has promised to cleanse us from them all (I John 1:9). Neither the racially prejudiced nor the sexually immoral, neither the hoarder of wealth nor the chronically impatient, neither the destroyer of the natural environment nor the polluter of one’s body through indulged appetite, will be found in that final fellowship of the victorious of which the third angel of Revelation declares, “Here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus” (Rev. 14:12).
1. Richard P. Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodists (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), pp. 263-264.
2. Ibid, p. 207.
3. Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1992), pp. 173,174,176; Edwin Gaustad and Leigh Schmidt, The Religious History of America (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2002), p. 188.
4. Ellen G. White, Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 202.
5. Ibid, p. 534.
6. Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing Co, 1997), p. 201.
7. Ibid, p. 273.
8. Ibid, pp. 69, 72, 210.