In certain circles of contemporary Adventism, what has come to be known in recent years as Last Generation Theology has become an epithet. Punctuated with quotation marks, dismissive scorn, and the taint of implied extremism, this belief is noted by certain ones as an example of a thought system which Biblically informed, theologically mature, and spiritually balanced Adventists should rightfully shun.
But critics of this doctrinal construct have built around it a cluster of assumptions which evidence suggests should rightly be called myths. These notions merit examination both careful and succinct:
Myth No. 1: Last Generation Theology is based on Ellen White rather than the Bible.
In reality, Last Generation Theology is a theme found throughout the Bible. Both Old and New Testaments speak of a time when God’s glory—identified as His character (Ex. 33:18-19; 34:6-7; Rom. 3:23)—will be revealed to the world (Num. 14:21; Isa. 40:5), and that this revelation will occur through God’s people (Isa. 60:1-2; Rom. 8:18-19; II Cor. 3:18; Eph. 3:16-21; 5:25-27; Phil. 1:11). This helps us better understand the first angel’s message of Revelation 14, in which humanity is exhorted to “fear God and give glory to Him” (verse 7).
The Old Testament introduces the concept of a faithful remnant at the end of time whose lives will be free from sin through God’s transforming grace. The prophet Zephaniah foretells this demonstration in the following verse:
The remnant of Israel shall not do iniquity, nor speak lies, neither shall a deceitful tongue by found in their mouth; for they shall feed and lie down, and none shall make them afraid (Zeph. 3:13).
The concept of total sanctification as a prerequisite for the return of Jesus is found in a number of New Testament passages:
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).
Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, Looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat? . . .Wherefore, brethren, seeing that ye look for such things, be diligent that ye be found of Him in peace, without spot, and blameless (II Peter 3:11-12,14).
Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be; but we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And every man that hath this hope in Him purifieth himself, even as He is pure (I John 3:2-3).
The last two of the above passages are especially clear in noting that the total removal of sin from the Christian life is to occur in advance of the second coming, not when the second coming takes place. This is why Peter urges the Christian to “hasten” the coming of Jesus by means of the practical holiness being described (II Peter 3:12), and why he urges believers to be “found of Him in peace, without spot, and blameless” (verse 14). Notice how it is necessary to be “found” in this condition when Jesus comes, which means this preparation must be complete before He appears.
The same is true with the passage from First John. It is those who have the “hope” of Jesus’ coming who will purify themselves “even as He is pure” (I John 3:3). This means the purification being described is both a case of divine-human cooperation and something to be accomplished while we still have the hope of His coming. When He appears in the clouds, Jesus’ return is no longer a hope, but a reality. It is while His coming is our hope that we must claim His power to purify our lives of sin, “even as He is pure.”
And echoing the prophet Zephaniah, John the Revelator declares regarding those who will be translated without seeing death at the coming of Jesus:
And in their mouth was found no guile, for they are without fault before the throne of God (Rev. 14:5).
Ellen White, therefore, marches in lockstep with Scripture when she writes:
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. It is the privilege of the Christian not only to look for but to hasten the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (II Peter 3:12, margin) (1).
Myth No. 2: Last Generation Theology contradicts the Bible doctrine of salvation by grace through faith.
Biblical salvation is first and foremost about being saved from sin (Matt. 1:21), not about the mere providing of a ticket to heaven. This salvation from sin, accomplished by divine grace through faith, includes both forgiveness for past sins (Rom. 3:24; Eph. 1:7) and the regeneration and sanctification accomplished in Christian lives through the Holy Spirit (II Thess. 2:13; Titus 3:5). This transformation through the Spirit is contrasted by the apostle Paul with the self-generated works which can save no one (Titus 3:5).
This is a point often missed by those who endeavor to teach the Bible doctrine of salvation by grace through faith. They assume that when the Bible says we are not saved by works (Rom. 3:20,28; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8-9), that it is speaking of anything human beings do under any and all circumstances, including what is done through the power bestowed at conversion. But this is not what the Bible teaches. Not only does Titus 3:5 draw a contrast between “works of righteousness which we have done” with “the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost,” the apostle Paul is also clear that the “works of the law” which do not justify the Christian are in fact the works of self apart from Christ (Rom. 2:17-23; Eph. 2:8), not the Spirit-empowered obedience made possible through conversion. This Spirit-empowered obedience, in fact, is described by Paul as a condition of salvation:
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).
If Biblical sanctification through the Holy Spirit is in fact a part of salvation (II Thess. 2:13), and if—as we have seen—this sanctification must be complete in advance of the coming of Christ (I Thess. 5:23), then it is clear from the Bible that salvation by grace through faith is definitionally the same as Last Generation Theology. Righteousness by faith, as identified in Scripture, is never identified as forgiveness (or justification) alone. The living out of this righteousness through practical godliness, made possible through imparted divine strength (Phil. 2:12-13), is also a part of Biblical righteousness by faith. The numerous practical examples of righteousness lived by faith in Hebrews chapter 11 give evidence of this reality.
Myth No. 3: Last Generation Theology teaches that following the close of probation, God’s people will stand on their own power.
Where this assumption got started, one is permitted to guess. To the present writer’s knowledge, no one at any time in Adventist history who has taught Last Generation Theology has ever taught that the saints at any time, after the close of probation or otherwise, will stand on their own power. The only thing the saints will stand without during the period following probation’s close is the continuous availability of forgiveness. Their past sins will be forgiven, but as they have achieved through divine power the total conquest of sin in their lives (Zeph. 3:13; I Thess. 5:23; II Peter 3:10-14; I John 3:2-3; Rev. 14:5), the Mediator’s work in the heavenly sanctuary can in fact be brought to a close.
The Bible describes the close of the Mediator’s work in heaven with the following pronouncement, given as probation is about to cease:
He that is unjust, let him be unjust still; and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still; and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still; and he that is holy, let him be holy still (Rev. 22:11).
Ellen White, echoing this passage, describes the spiritual condition of God’s people who will pass through this time:
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 (2).
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” (3).
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 (4).
But standing without a Mediator isn’t the same as standing without divine power. The work of a mediator is to resolve differences. When Chrysler and the United Auto Workers get along fine, no government mediator is summoned. Differences between God and humanity are called sins. No sin committed, no Mediator needed, in other words. But Ellen White is clear that “our sanctification is the work of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (5). No competition exists among the Members of the Godhead regarding salvation. All are involved in each step of the process. The perfectly victorious believer needs Christ every bit as much as one who falls into sin. The only difference is that the one falling into sin needs both forgiving and empowering righteousness, while the one who has gained the victory needs empowering righteousness only. But one way or the other, it is all Christ's righteousness. It is never any of our own.
Myth No. 4: Last Generation Theology teaches that God’s requirements are inconsistent.
First of all, it is a fact of sacred history that succeeding generations receive greater divine light than former ones, and thus greater spiritual responsibility. Proverbs 4:18 observes that “the path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day.” In the parable of the sower Jesus describes the seed falling on good ground as achieving different levels of growth, “some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold” (Matt. 13:8)—all among the saved. Elsewhere Jesus declared:
For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask for more (Luke 12:48).
Ellen White is clear, of course, that the condition of eternal life in every age has always been what it first was in Eden—perfect obedience to the law of God (6). But since our loving God winks at the times of our ignorance (Acts 17:30), and says that “to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin” (James 4:17), we must conclude that the perfect obedience God requires is in proportion to the volume of light and truth revealed. This is why Ellen White speaks of the atonement of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary as including mediation for sins of ignorance:
The minds of all who embrace this message are directed to the most holy place, where Jesus stands before the ark, making His final intercession for all those for whom mercy still lingers and for those who have ignorantly broken the law of God. This atonement is made for the righteous dead as well as for the righteous living. It includes all who died trusting in Christ, but who, not having received the light upon God’s commandments, had sinned ignorantly in transgressing its precepts (7).
Ellen White is clear that different generations throughout history have been accountable for different levels of light and truth, in contrast with history’s final generation:
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 (8).
History’s final generation, which will pass through the great time of trouble following probation’s close, will have a unique experience. “In that fearful time the righteous must live in the sight of a holy God without an intercessor” (9). Fully aware of the whole counsel of God—or at least that which is essential for the total conquest of sin—by His grace they will now live accordingly. All ignorant sin in their lives will before that time have been revealed and conquered, for the Mediator will no longer be available to make atonement for sin, whether ignorant or otherwise. For this reason Ellen White declares that at the second coming, “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” (10).
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 (11). But in the final hours of the controversy with evil, God seeks a higher attainment from those who would serve Him. Few in the present discussion would likely disagree here. (Some of our more worldly members might not see a problem with beer-drinking, but I doubt even they would want an anti-Semite teaching at one of our colleges or universities!)
In sum, God’s requirements are not inconsistent; perfect obedience has always been required through God’s enabling grace. But as God is infinitely fair in His expectations, human beings are required to adhere only to that level of light and truth of which they are aware (Acts 17:30; James 4:17), with sins of ignorance covered by the heavenly Mediator (12). However, greater light and truth does mean greater accountability (Prov. 4:18; Matt. 13:8; Luke 12:48), which means the last generation of believers will be in possession of the highest volume of light in human history, and thus the highest level of accountability. But none need despair, for as the servant of the Lord maintains regarding God’s requirements: “All His biddings are enablings” (13).
Myth No. 5: Last Generation Theology is primarily the product of the teachings of A.T. Jones, E.J. Waggoner, and M.L. Andreasen, and has never been part of mainstream Seventh-day Adventist thought.
In fact, what in contemporary times has come to be known as Last Generation Theology is a theme deeply embedded in the theological DNA of classic Seventh-day Adventism, stretching back to the origin of our denomination. Such early Adventist luminaries as Joseph Bates (14), James White (15), Stephen Haskell (16), D.T. Bordeau (17), and W.W. Prescott (18) presented key aspects of this theology in their preaching and writing. Much of this has been documented by the late Herbert Douglass in his book Why Jesus Waits (19). An even longer list of Adventist notables in support of this theology is documented by Douglass in his later book A Fork in the Road (20).
In later years, such prominent Adventist thinkers as W.H. Branson (21), who served as president of the General Conference from 1950 to 1954; Herbert E. Douglass (22), C. Mervyn Maxwell (23), Dennis E. Priebe (24), and J.R. Zurcher (25) have made these teachings a centerpiece of their ministry. Zurcher’s 1999 book Touched With Our Feelings (26), as well as Ralph Larson’s The Word Was Made Flesh (27), have demonstrated the pervasiveness—throughout a century of Adventist history—of the post-Fall view of Christ’s human nature, a key component of Last Generation Theology.
The late General Conference President Robert H. Pierson, who served in that position from 1966 to 1978, was likewise a strong advocate of this view, writing at one point:
God’s last-generation people are to reveal the character of Jesus to the world. They will overcome as He overcame. They will be victorious, living representatives of the Master. The enabling power to live this life, to achieve this character, comes from Jesus. Only through His imputed and imparted righteousness can we prevail (28).
More recently, Elder Ted N.C. Wilson, elected as General Conference President in June 2010, gave prominent attention in his inaugural sermon to the Ellen White statement noted earlier from Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 69, and to another statement in Steps to Christ, p. 63, which declares—in contravention of much that is presently taught concerning the gospel in some circles of contemporary Adventism—that the ground of the Christian’s salvation includes both justification and sanctification (29). In a message to General Conference workers following the Atlanta session, Wilson declared: “The belief that Christians cannot ‘hasten or delay’ the Second Coming is a misconception” (30). Later, at the 2014 Annual Council, Wilson again stressed a key theme of Last Generation Theology by underscoring the need to confess and forsake sin in preparation for standing without a Mediator after the close of probation (31).
The following year, at a meeting of the Adventist Theological Society, Wilson was asked, “What do you think of ‘last generation theology’?” (32). While phrasing his answer so as to avoid letting this term be defined by others, as well as eschewing any notion of perfection being accomplished by one’s own strength (33), Wilson replied with unmistakable clarity:
Leaning completely upon Christ and His righteousness, we need to believe that Christ will give us victory over sin through His power and not our own power (Phil 4:13; Romans 12:1,2). Otherwise, Christianity has no power. Philippians 2:5 tells us, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” . . . As we consecrate ourselves to Christ and allow Him to work in us to stay close to Him and His Word, we can then realize that beautiful quotation from Christ’s Object Lessons: “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” (p. 69) (34).
It is easy to understand how, after surveying over a century’s worth of Adventist literature, Anglican scholar Geoffrey Paxton could write in 1977: “The doctrine of the perfecting of the final generation stands near the heart of Adventist theology” (35). In this same context, Paxton declares that to his knowledge it would be impossible to find support for the anti-perfection viewpoint in pre-1950 Adventism (36). Two more recent historians—one a former Adventist, the other from an Adventist background but who was never baptized—are equally emphatic on this point:
If Christ had an unfair advantage, how could individuals be expected to follow his example in living a perfect life? The problem was particularly acute since perfection had been suggested by Ellen White as the goal of the Adventist people: “While our great High Priest is making the atonement for us, we should seek to become perfect in Christ.” Her call to perfection was urgent: “Jesus does not change the character at His coming. The work of transformation must be done now.” . . . Prior to Heppenstall, no important Adventist writer denied the possibility of perfection. Ellen White had been unequivocal: “As the Son of Man was perfect in His life, so His followers are to be perfect in their life” (37).
Thus, without in any way wishing to denigrate the massive contributions to Adventist thought made by A.T. Jones, E.J. Waggoner, and M.L. Andreasen, these men cannot rightfully bear responsibility for introducing the church to the concept many today know as Last Generation Theology. Many who cite these three men as the alleged principal sources of this doctrine give evidence of doing so as a means of implying that this teaching is, and has been, primarily the preserve of persons who, for whatever reason, have found themselves disgruntled and marginalized within the Adventist family.
But as our study has shown, the facts say otherwise. Whatever one’s objections to Last Generation Theology might be, this teaching cannot be dismissed as the product of fringe dwellers so far as Adventist thought and history are concerned. Quite to the contrary, its principal tenets—and the substantial support they find in Scripture and the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy—have been part of the Adventist consensus for most of the church’s corporate experience.
1. Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 69.
2. ----Early Writings, p. 71.
3. ----SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 6, p. 1118.
4. ----The Great Controversy, p. 425.
5. ----SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 7, p. 908.
6. ----Steps to Christ, p. 62; Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing, p. 76; Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 381.
7. ----Early Writings, p. 254.
8. ----Testimonies, vol. 2, pp. 692-693.
9. ----The Great Controversy, p. 614.
10. ----Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 355.
11. See William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1960), pp. 91,236.
12. White, Early Writings, p. 254.
13. ----Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 333.
14. Joseph Bates, “Midnight Cry in the Past,” Review and Herald, December 1858, p. 21.
15. James White, Review and Herald, Jan. 29, 1857; Life Sketches of James White and Ellen G. White, p. 431.
16. Stephen N. Haskell, “A Few Thoughts on the Philadelphia and Laodicean Churches,” Review and Herald, Nov. 6, 1856, p. 6.
17. D.T. Bordeau, “Sanctification: or Living Holiness,” Review and Herald, Aug. 2, 1864.
18. W.W. Prescott, “The Gospel Message for Today,” General Conference Bulletin, April 2, 1903, pp. 53,54.
19. Herbert E. Douglass, Why Jesus Waits: How the Sanctuary Doctrine Explains the Mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church (Washington, D.C: Review and Herald Publishing Assn, 1976), pp. 47-49.
20. ----A Fork in the Road: Questions on Doctrine: The Historic Adventist Divide of 1957 (Coldwater, MI: Remnant Publications, 2008), p. 19. Leading Adventist proponents of Last Generation Theology referenced here include C.P. Bollman, C. Lester Bond, F.G. Clifford, J.B. Conley, Gwynne Dalrymple, A.G. Daniels, Christian Edwardson, I.H. Evans, T.M. French, Fenton Edwin Froom, J.E. Fulton, E.F. Hackman, Carlyle B. Haynes, Benjamin Hoffman, W.E. Howell, Varner Johns, M.E. Kern, D. H. Kress, Frederick Lee, Meade MacGuire, J.L. McElhany, J.A. McMillan, Merlin Neff, Don F. Neufeld, A.V. Olson, W.E. Read, G.W. Reaser, H.L. Rudy, E.K. Slade, Uriah Smith, C.M. Snow, J.C. Stevens, Oscar Tait, G.B. Thompson, A.W. Truman, Allen Walker, F.M. Wilcox, L.A. Wilcox, M.C. Wilcox, William Wirth, L.H. Wood, and Dallas Young.
21. W.H. Branson, Drama of the Ages (Washington, D.C: Review and Herald Publishing Assn, 1950), pp. 155-161.
22. Douglass, “Men of Faith: The Showcase of God’s Grace,” Perfection: The Impossible Possibility (Nashville, TN: Southern Publishing Assn, 1975), pp. 13-56; Why Jesus Waits: How the Sanctuary Doctrine Explains the Mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church (Washington, D.C: Review and Herald Publishing Assn, 1976); Jesus—The Benchmark of Humanity (With Leo Van Dolson) (Nashville, TN: Southern Publishing Assn, 1977); The End: Unique Voice of Adventists About the Return of Jesus (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 1979); The Heartbeat of Adventism: The Great Controversy Theme in the Writings of Ellen G. White (Boise, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 2010).
23. C. Mervyn Maxwell, “Ready for His Appearing,” Perfection: The Impossible Possibility (Nashville, TN: Southern Publishing Assn, 1975), pp. 141-200.
24. Dennis E. Priebe, Face to Face With the Real Gospel (Boise, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 1985).
25. J.R. Zurcher, Touched With Our Feelings: A Historical Survey of Adventist Thought on the Human Nature of Christ (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Assn, 1999).
27. Ralph Larson, The Word Was Made Flesh: One Hundred Years of Seventh-day Adventist Christology, 1852-1952 (Cherry Valley, CA: The Cherrystone Press, 1986).
28. Robert H. Pierson, on the back cover of W.D. Frazee, Ransom and Reunion Through the Sanctuary (Wildwood, GA: Pioneers Memorial, 1994). See also Pierson, We Still Believe (Washington, D.C: Review and Herald Publishing Assn, 1975), p. 243.
29. Ted N.C. Wilson, “Go Forward!” Sermon delivered at 59th World Session of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Atlanta, Georgia, July 3, 2010. http://archives.adventistreview.org/article/3614/archives/issue-2010-1526/go-forward
30. “New Adventist president envisions a church marked by prayer, revival,” Adventist News Network, Aug. 2, 2010.
35. Geoffrey J. Paxton, The Shaking of Adventism (Wilmington, DE: Zenith Publishing Co, 1977), p. 114.
36. Ibid, p. 113.
37. Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart, Seeking a Sanctuary: Seventh-day Adventism and the American Dream (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2007), pp. 86-87.