Righteousness by Faith and the Questions on Doctrine Controversy, Part I

The Birth of a Controversy

A rift has opened in the Seventh-day Adventist Church that has been here for over half of a century. It began when two inquirers from the evangelical world, Donald Barnhouse and Walter Martin, met with a few Seventh-day Adventist leaders to ask questions about our faith. Among those leaders were W. E. Read, Roy Allan Anderson, and L. E. Froom. Among Martin’s special concerns were Seventh-day Adventist teachings regarding the atonement, the human nature of Christ, and salvation (1).

During these discussions and until his death, M. L. Andreasen—who seemed to have been deliberately bypassed in the aforementioned discussions—expressed grave concern to church leaders. He wrote letters to the conferees imploring them not to publish the result of these discussions and to adhere to the church’s classic teachings on the disputed issues. He further stated his intention to make his letters public should the product of these conversations be published. 

M. L. Andreasen perceived that this revision of our theology constituted the omega of apostasy prophesied by Ellen White (2). By most assessments Andreasen was the Church’s premier systematic theologian at the time, in addition to having served as a pastor, church administrator, institutional president, and professor of religion. One is truly led to wonder what the outcome of the discussions with Barnhouse and Martin might have been if this adept scholar of the Bible had been in attendance.

The product of these discussions was the 1957 book, Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine (hereafter, Questions on Doctrine). The book helped, at least to a degree, to remove the Seventh-day Adventist Church from alleged “cult” status in many evangelical Christian minds. There is a lot of good content in the book, and it did explain much of our theology in easily understandable terms to evangelicals as well as fellow Adventists. However, on certain points it represented an abrupt departure from a century of accepted denominational teachings.

Questions on Doctrine …

Fundamental Belief #7: The Nature of Humanity reads at present,

“Man and woman were made in the image of God with individuality, the power and freedom to think and to do. Though created free beings, each is an indivisible unity of body, mind, and spirit, dependent upon God for life and breath and all else. When our first parents disobeyed God, they denied their dependence upon Him and fell from their high position. The image of God in them was marred and they became subject to death. Their descendants share this fallen nature and its consequences. They are born with weaknesses and tendencies to evil. But God in Christ reconciled the world to Himself and by His Spirit restores in penitent mortals the image of their Maker. Created for the glory of God, they are called to love Him and one another, and to care for their environment.(Gen. 1:26-28; 2:7, 15; 3; Ps. 8:4-8; 51:5, 10; 58:3; Jer. 17:9; Acts 17:24-28; Rom. 5:12-17; 2 Cor. 5:19, 20; Eph. 2:3; 1 Thess. 5:23; 1 John 3:4; 4:7, 8, 11, 20.)” (3) (Emp. added).

Our present fundamental beliefs about human nature say that “[we] are born with weaknesses and tendencies to evil,”—not that we are born guilty of evil. However, Questions on Doctrine stated,

Adam's sin involved the whole human race. ‘By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin,’ declares the apostle Paul (Rom. 5:12). The expression ‘by sin’ shows clearly that he is referring, not to actual individual sins, but rather to the sinful nature that we all inherited from Adam. ‘In Adam all die’ (1 Cor. 15:22). Because of Adam's sin, ‘death passed upon all men’ (Rom. 5:12). … From Adam we all have inherited a sinful nature. We all are ‘by nature the children of wrath’ (Eph. 2:3). Whether we be Jews or Gentiles, we are ‘all under sin.’ ‘There is none that seeketh after God. . . . There is none that doeth good, no, not one’ (Rom. 3:9, 11, 12). Consequently all are ‘guilty before God’ (verse 19)” (4) (Emp. added).

So, being born with weaknesses and tendencies to evil is here equated with being born guilty because of Adam’s sin! Pastor Larry Kirkpatrick has on his church’s website a copy of a pre-publication draft of this page of Questions on Doctrine, wherein is documented that in every place where “Adam’s sin” appeared in the actual published work, the authors originally intended to publish the words, “original sin” (5). Martin and Barnhouse, both Calvinists, would likely have been happier to have seen the inclusion of this phrase in the book, as the doctrine identified by this phrase teaches that the sinful nature humans inherit at birth is identical to sin itself. 

The Bible, however, is clear that “sin is the transgression of the law” (I John 3:4) and that no one is held accountable for anyone else’s sins but their own, including the sins of their descendants and ancestors (Ezekiel 18:20). The apostle Paul teaches that death (eternal) has passed upon all men because “all have sinned” (Rom. 5:12), not because Adam sinned. James writes that to be lured and enticed by an inner desire to sin is not in fact sin itself, but that only when such desires conceive does sin result (James 1:14-15).

Because of this error, Questions on Doctrine had to revise another area of accepted Seventh-day Adventist thought: the humanity of Jesus. Daniel Ferraz notes, “During 100 years, 1852-1952, Adventists taught the post-Fall human nature of Jesus Christ as the undisputed official Adventist position” (6). Whereas the Bible and Ellen White teach that Jesus took fallen human nature identical with His contemporaries (Hebrews 2:14-15, 17; The Desire of Ages, pp. 48-49), Questions on Doctrine took the interesting—to say the least—position that Christ only partook of fallen human nature vicariously on the cross, but that His actual humanity was different from ours (7). Additionally, the authors used deceptive headings over, and ellipses within, various Ellen White statements, to make her say something that was the exact opposite of what she intended to convey when read entirely and in context! (8).

Once sin is believed to be imparted by nature rather than choice, once Jesus is not believed to have lived a sinless life in the same nature we have with the same power available to us (9), our theology of salvation must change. Justification becomes a mere declaration of righteousness over one who can’t help continuing in sin, instead of a deliverance and reclaiming from sin through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:1, 3; Titus 3:5, 7). Sanctification then becomes relegated to an add-on to salvation, rather than being of part of the process by which Jesus saves us from our sins (II Thessalonians 2:13; Matthew 1:21) (10).

The logical extension of this view is that the sinner can never truly overcome sin this side of heaven, as sanctification according to this teaching can never be a completed experience on this earth. Once this is believed, the classic Adventist teaching that the saints will stand before God without a mediator during the time of trouble becomes untenable, and the judgment whereon this close of probation is based becomes a mere question of legal standing rather than practical experience.

Since Ellen G. White never supported any of these premises, those who logically deduce the end of this belief system find Mrs. White’s doctrinal authority incompatible with their “new light,” and are forced to either misconstrue her writings through violation of context or to discard them altogether.

Two Gospels: Which is Right?

Two gospels are now being preached in many of our churches—one of legal fiction, and one of transformation; one of traditional Adventism, and the other of Adventism-evangelical corruption. Which is right? What is a true, biblical understanding of righteousness by faith? What is sin? How did Christ live? How does the atonement work? How does this impact our eschatological framework? These questions and others are the ones I intend to deal with in the upcoming articles of this series. Stay tuned! 

 

Richard Sheppard, 23, is a Bachelor of Arts student in Religious Studies at Burman University in Lacombe, Alberta, Canada.


References

  1. Woodrow W. Whidden, “Questions on Doctrine: Then and now,” Ministry Magazine, August 2003.
  2. Leroy Moore, Questions on Doctrine Revisited! (Ithaca: AB Publishing, 2005), p. 15.
  3. General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, “28 Fundamental Beliefs (2015 Edition)," Official website of the Seventh-day Adventist world church, July, 2015. 
  4. Ministerial Association of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine (Washington: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1957), pp. 406-408.
  5. Larry Kirkpatrick, “Original Sin in the Prepublication Draft of Questions on Doctrine,” Deer Park Seventh-day Adventist Church.
  6. Daniel Ferraz, “‘The Humanity of the Son of God Is Everything to Us’,” Adventists Affirm.
  7. Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine, pp. 55-57.
  8. Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine, pp. 55-57, 649-652; Questions on Doctrine Revisited!, pp. 71-78.
  9. Joe Crews, Down From His Glory (Roseville: Amazing Facts, Inc., 2005), pp. 18-20.
  10. Kenneth R. Sample, “From Controversy to Crisis: An Updated Assessment of Seventh-day Adventism,” Christian Research Journal, vol. 11, 1988 SUMMER Issue, pp. 9-14.