Two recent statements from prominent evangelical and liberal Christian sources offer fresh evidence that both wings of the Christian church have, for different reasons, abandoned Bible truth for the sake of culture and tradition.
Recently, Union Theological Seminary in New York City, long a bastion of theological liberalism, published a “Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel” (1), apparently intended as a response to a conservative evangelical statement on the same subject (2). What should be significant for Seventh-day Adventists about these two statements is the manner in which they reveal the doctrinal failure of both liberal and evangelical Christianity, and why God has called the Seventh-day Adventist Church into existence as the means of restoring Bible truth as denied by both theological wings of the Christian community.
The Liberal Dilemma: Justice Without a Standard
The statement from Union Theological Seminary reads as follows:
Misguided sociological, psychological, and political theories have long fostered biblical misinterpretation. We wish to address untruths this document proclaims. Any treatise that says social justice is incidental to the gospel badly misunderstands both justice and the gospel.
I. Scripture. While divinely inspired, we deny the Bible is inerrant or infallible. It was written by humans over centuries and thus reflects both God’s truth and human sin & prejudice. We affirm that biblical scholarship and critical theory help us understand which messages are God’s.
II. Image Dei. We also affirm that God created every person in God’s own image. Accordingly, we deny that vitriol directed towards people because of how God made them (i.e. sexual orientation or gender identity) is in any way faithful, biblical or godly.
III. Justice. We affirm that justice is central to God’s liberative mission. Moreover, we affirm that God enacts that justice through humans, helping us correct millennia-old sins that permeate both church and culture. We deny that critical theory is irrelevant to this mission.
IV. God’s Law. We affirm that God’s law, as summarized in the two great commandments, should guide Christian morality. However, we deny that wisdom accrued in the centuries since the Bible’s inception is irrelevant to understanding what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself.
V. Sin. We affirm that all people, systems and institutions are affected by sin. We deny, however, that we are only responsible for our own, personal sins. God calls us to understand how we benefit or are harmed by structural oppression, and break sinful systems down.
VI. Gospel. We affirm that the gospel is revealed through Jesus, and that liberation was central to Christ’s mission. In his own life, however, Jesus demonstrated that works—living justly in the world—are every bit as foundational to the gospel as faith. They cannot be separated.
VII. Salvation. We deny that salvation is only found through Christianity, that God’s salvific grace is exclusive to any single faith or religion. Moreover, in God’s eyes there is no difference in spiritual value or worth between those who are “in Christ” and those who aren’t.
VIII. The Church. The primary role of the Church is to serve God. Certainly, that service includes preaching and administering sacraments, but we deny that political or social activism shouldn’t be viewed as integral to this work. Laws may or may not change sinful hearts, but they save lives.
IX. Heresy. We affirm that heresy is a denial of God’s will, but furthermore affirm that certain heresies have long concealed themselves inside the Church, corrupting it from within. Heresy ought to be condemned, regardless of whether those espousing it happen to be ministers.
X. Sexuality and Marriage. We affirm science and theory’s confirmation that God created humans to live into various sexual orientations and genders—the spectrum of human sexual experience attests to God’s expansive love. We deny that any love that does no harm should be rejected.
XI. Complementarianism. We affirm that this doctrine has long been used to propagate Christian patriarchy—it amounts to “separate but equal” cloaked in religious language. We deny that women are unfit to lead as pastors, and know the Church desperately needs their leadership.
XII. Race and Ethnicity. We affirm that, while race is a social construct, that doesn’t lessen the pernicious effects of racism and white supremacy. We deny that anyone can be truly committed to undoing racism if they “reject any teaching” that analyzes how oppression operates.
XIII. Culture. We affirm that any document which states “we affirm that some cultures operate on assumptions that are inherently better,” really believe that “divisions between people . . . [don’t belong] within Christianity.” You can’t denigrate cultures without disparaging people.
XIV. Racism. We affirm that racism is a sin which has long badly corrupted Christians, and caused people to justify some of history’s worst atrocities in Christ’s name. Moreover we affirm that white evangelicalism has done much to elevate one ethnic group and subjugate another (1).
We will resist the urge to offer a comprehensive analysis of either of the two statements reproduced in this article, tempting though such an analysis may be. Certainly many of the above statement’s goals, such as racial and ethnic equality and opposition to societal oppression, are laudable from a Biblical standpoint, while others—such as the notion that God created LGBT persons with their particular sexual orientations and the denial of complementary spiritual roles on the part of men and women—are not.
A few points, however, do merit mention. For example, while the above statement says nothing about belief in the theory of evolution, its language certainly doesn’t disallow a Darwinian interpretation of God’s creative work, and in light of the liberal theological leanings of the statement’s authors, one can fairly assume that a literal understanding of the Biblical creation story is not among the tenets to which they subscribe.
In view of this, one is curious as to exactly what stage of evolutionary development the statement’s reference to “how God made people (i.e. sexual orientation or gender identity)” is describing (2). If no perfect state has existed from which humans have fallen, and if humanity’s present state—and that of nature as a whole—is the result of the brutal, merciless process of natural selection (i.e. survival of the fittest), what standard is available which enables us to decide what creation in “God’s own image” truly means? Moreover, how does the savage saga of natural selection comport with the racial equality, defense of the downtrodden, and resistance to oppression which the above statement rightly defines as social justice?
But by far the biggest problem with the above statement is its rejection of Holy Scripture as an infallible, doctrinally and morally unerring, culturally transcendent authority. Without such an authority, it is inevitable that culture, circumstance, and experience will become the final deciders as to the meaning of justice and morality, with no transcendent, supernatural standard available as the measure of human choices and conduct. Justice of any kind, social or otherwise, is utterly meaningless without such a standard. In the absence of such an objective measure of right and wrong, what is deemed just at one point in time, within the setting of one culture, can easily be discarded or rejected as unjust once the trends of culture and society shift—as history shows they nearly always do.
The above statement speaks favorably of “critical theory” as a means both of understanding the Bible and pursuing the cause of justice in the world (3). Yet the impotence of this theory in combating injustice and oppression is notable in the experience of one of its leading twentieth-century architects—German existential philosopher and New Testament theologian Martin Heidegger, who strongly supported the Nazi regime and was severely criticized by many cultural and scholarly leaders in his time for doing so (4). Rudolf Bultmann, famous for stripping away “myths” from the Bible, used Heidegger’s existentialism as a tool in his criticism of the New Testament (5). But despite Bultmann’s disagreement with Heidegger over Nazism (6), Bultmann’s denial of Scripture’s transcendent authority and equation of Biblical supernatural narratives with “myths,” made it impossible for Bultmann to offer a transcendent moral argument against Hitler’s regime and Heidegger’s support thereof.
If indeed the Bible—and religion in general—are the product of culture, and if no supernatural, transcendent authority exists in the universe, why not say “Heil Hitler!” if at the time it is culturally fashionable and circumstantially convenient? While many religious conservatives (including, tragically, many German Seventh-day Adventists) also supported Nazism, they at least had a transcendent Biblical standard available to them in their belief system. By contrast, those like Bultmann and Heidegger, who deliberately robbed the Bible of its power by ascribing its origins and formation to nature and to culture, had no such standard available in the worldview they had adopted.
The same lack of a supernatural, culturally transcendent standard of justice and morality would later cause many of the so-called “Now” generation of the 1960s to morph into what became known as the “Me” generation of the 1970s. Political and social efforts by many within the ‘60s generation brought about the racial desegregation of the American South, forced the winding down of what many held to be an unjust war, and compelled a U.S. President not to seek re-election. But a scant few years later, following painful setbacks and a reversal of cultural and political tides, another presidential election season saw thousands of American youth headed for south Florida for uncorked pleasure-seeking, heedless of the quadrennial transfer of power and the great unresolved issues still festering throughout their country (7).
Most pathetic of all, perhaps, was Newsweek’s reporting of a comment from the above setting by one Ohio college senior—hailing from a state which, six years before, had seen demonstrators slain for a cause they loved (8): “We’ve given up on changing the world,” the student in question said. “The kids tried that and it didn’t work. All we ask . . . is to have a good time” (9). Forgetting the pivotal blows for peace and justice the young had indeed struck in the not-so-distant past, oblivious to reality and the unfinished tasks of a generation, these outriders of the Age of Apathy lost themselves in the narcissism of self-absorption and the follies of self-indulgence.
This is what happens when any cause of justice or morality is pursued in the absence of an objective, transcendent standard of right and wrong. Without such a standard, no matter how sincere the advocates of such causes may be, their zeal and direction are held captive to the trends of culture and society. Many years before, following the U.S. presidential election of 1920, in which he had run as the vice-presidential nominee on the losing ticket, future President Franklin D. Roosevelt lamented, “People tire quickly of ideals and we are now repeating history” (10). While this can happen to those with the best and greatest ideals, as with the church of Ephesus in Revelation whom Jesus rebuked because they had “left [their] first love” (Rev. 2:4), the absence of a transcendent measure of right and wrong, truth and error, is a near-guarantee that the pursuit of any cause—whether good or bad—will lie at the mercy of popular cultural and ideological fashion.
Justice without a standard, in the end, is not justice at all.
The Evangelical Dilemma: Unconquerable Sin
As noted at the beginning, the statement by Union Theological Seminary was intended as a response to another “Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel,” this one authored and signed by a number of luminaries in contemporary evangelical Christianity, particularly from the United States. The introduction to this evangelical statement includes such observations as the following:
In view of questionable sociological, psychological, and political theories presently permeating our culture and making inroads into Christ’s church, we wish to clarify certain key Christian doctrines and ethical principles prescribed in God’s Word. . . .
Specifically, we are deeply concerned that values borrowed from secular culture are currently undermining Scripture in the areas of race and ethnicity, manhood and womanhood, and human sexuality. The Bible’s teaching on each of these subjects is being challenged under the broad and somewhat nebulous rubric of concern for “social justice.” If the doctrines of God’s Word are not uncompromisingly reasserted and defended at these points, there is every reason to anticipate that these dangerous ideas and corrupted moral values will spread their influence into other realms of biblical doctrines and principles (11).
What follows in the evangelical statement are fourteen (14) couplets of affirmations and denials, which are reproduced below:
We affirm that the Bible is God’s Word, breathed out by him. It is inerrant, infallible, and the final authority for determining what is true (what we must believe) and what is right (how we must live). All truth claims and ethical standards must be tested by God’s final Word, which is Scripture alone.
We deny that Christian belief, character, or conduct can be dictated by any other authority, and we deny that the postmodern ideologies derived from intersectionality, radical feminism, and critical race theory are consistent with biblical teaching. We further deny that competency to teach on any biblical issue comes from any qualification for spiritual people other than clear understanding and simple communication of what is revealed in Scripture.
II. Imago Dei
We affirm that God created every person equally in his own image. As divine image-bearers, all people have inestimable value and dignity before God and deserve honor, respect and protection. Everyone has been created by God and for God.
We deny that God-given roles, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, religion, sex or physical condition or any other property of a person either negates or contributes to that individual’s worth as an image-bearer of God.
We affirm that since he is holy, righteous, and just, God requires those who bear his image to live justly in the world. This includes showing appropriate respect to every person and giving to each one what he or she is due. We affirm that societies must establish laws to correct injustices that have been imposed through cultural prejudice.
We deny that true justice can be culturally defined or that standards of justice that are merely socially constructed can be imposed with the same authority as those that are derived from Scripture. We further deny that Christians can live justly in the world under any principles other than the biblical standard of righteousness. Relativism, socially constructed standards of truth or morality, and notions of virtue and vice that are constantly in flux cannot result in authentic justice.
IV. God’s Law
We affirm that God’s law, as summarized in the ten commandments, more succinctly summarized in the two great commandments, and manifested in Jesus Christ, is the only standard of unchanging righteousness. Violation of that law is what constitutes sin.
We deny that any obligation that does not arise from God’s commandments can be legitimately imposed on Christians as a prescription for righteous living. We further deny the legitimacy of any charge of sin or call to repentance that does not arise from a violation of God’s commandments.
We affirm that all people are connected to Adam both naturally and federally. Therefore, because of original sin everyone is born under the curse of God’s law and all break his commandments through sin. There is no difference in the condition of sinners due to age, ethnicity, or sex. All are depraved in all their faculties and all stand condemned before God’s law. All human relationships, systems, and institutions have been affected by sin.
We deny that, other than the previously stated connection to Adam, any person is morally culpable for another person’s sin. Although families, groups, and nations can sin collectively, and cultures can be predisposed to particular sins, subsequent generations share the collective guilt of their ancestors only if they approve and embrace (or attempt to justify) those sins. Before God each person must repent and confess his or her own sins in order to receive forgiveness. We further deny that one’s ethnicity establishes any necessary connection to any particular sin.
We affirm that the gospel is the divinely-revealed message concerning the person and work of Jesus Christ—especially his virgin birth, righteous life, substitutionary sacrifice, atoning death, and bodily resurrection—revealing who he is and what he has done with the promise that he will save anyone and everyone who turns from sin by trusting him as Lord.
We deny that anything else, whether works to be performed or opinions to be held, can be added to the gospel without perverting it into another gospel. This also means that implications and applications of the gospel, such as the obligation to live justly in the world, though legitimate and important in their own right, are not definitional components of the gospel.
We affirm that salvation is granted by God’s grace alone received through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. Every believer is united to Christ, justified before God, and adopted into his family. Thus, in God’s eyes there is no difference in spiritual value or worth among those who are in Christ. Further, all who are united to Christ are also united to one another regardless of age, ethnicity, or sex. All believers are being conformed to the image of Christ. By God’s regenerating and sanctifying grace all believers will be brought to a final glorified, sinless state in the day of Jesus Christ.
We deny that salvation can be received in any other way. We also deny that salvation renders any Christian free from all remaining sin or immune from even grievous sin in this life. We further deny that ethnicity excludes anyone from understanding the gospel, nor does anyone’s ethnic or cultural heritage mitigate or remove the duty to repent and believe.
VIII. The Church
We affirm that the primary role of the church is to worship God through the preaching of his word, teaching sound doctrine, observing baptism and the Lord’s Supper, refuting those who contradict, equipping the saints, and evangelizing the lost. We affirm that when the primacy of the gospel is maintained that this often has a positive effect on the culture in which various societal ills are mollified. We affirm that, under the lordship of Christ, we are to obey the governing authorities established by God and pray for civil leaders.
We deny that political or social activism should be viewed as integral components of the gospel or primary to the mission of the church. Though believers can and should utilize all lawful means that God has providentially established to have some effect on the laws of a society, we deny that these activities are either evidence of saving faith or constitute a central part of the church’s mission given to her by Jesus Christ, her head. We deny that laws or regulations possess any inherent power to change sinful hearts.
We affirm that heresy is a denial of or departure from a doctrine that is essential to the Christian faith. We further affirm that heresy often involves the replacement of key, essential truths with variant concepts, or the elevation of non-essentials to the status of essentials. To embrace heresy is to depart from the faith once delivered to the saints and thus to be on a path toward spiritual destruction. We affirm that the accusation of heresy should be reserved for those departures from Christian truth that destroy the weight-bearing doctrines of the redemptive core of Scripture. We affirm that accusations of heresy should be accompanied with clear evidence of such destructive beliefs.
We deny that the charge of heresy can be legitimately brought against every failure to achieve perfect conformity to all that is implied in sincere faith in the gospel.
X. Sexuality and Marriage
We affirm that God created mankind male and female and that this divinely determined distinction is good, proper, and to be celebrated. Maleness and femaleness are biologically determined at conception and are not subject to change. The curse of sin results in sinful, disordered affections that manifest in some people as same-sex attraction. Salvation grants sanctifying power to renounce such dishonorable affections as sinful and to mortify them by the Spirit. We further affirm that God’s design for marriage is that one woman and one man live in a one-flesh, covenantal, sexual relationship until separated by death. Those who lack the desire or opportunity for marriage are called to serve God in singleness and chastity. This is as noble a calling as marriage.
We deny that human sexuality is a socially constructed concept. We also deny that one’s sex can be fluid. We reject “gay Christian” as a legitimate biblical category. We further deny that any kind of partnership or union can properly be called marriage other than one man and one woman in lifelong covenant together. We further deny that people should be identified as “sexual minorities”—which serves as a cultural classification rather than one that honors the image-bearing character of human sexuality as created by God.
We affirm that God created mankind both male and female with inherent biological and personal distinctions between them and that these created differences are good, proper, and beautiful. Though there is no difference between men and women before God’s law or as recipients of his saving grace, we affirm that God has designed men and women with distinct traits and to fill distinct roles. These differences are most clearly defined in marriage and the church, but are not irrelevant in other spheres of life. In marriage the husband is to lead, love, and safeguard his wife and the wife is to respect and be submissive to her husband in all things lawful. In the church, qualified men alone are to lead as pastors/elders/bishops and preach to and teach the whole congregation. We further affirm that the image of God is expressed most fully and beautifully in human society when men and women walk in obedience to their God-given roles and serve according to their God-given gifts.
We deny that the God-ordained differences in men’s and women’s roles disparage the inherent spiritual worth or value of one over the other, nor do those differences in any way inhibit either men or women from flourishing for the glory of God.
We affirm God made all people from one man. Though people often can be distinguished by different ethnicities and nationalities, they are ontological equals before God in both creation and redemption. “Race” is not a biblical category, but rather a social construct that often has been used to classify groups of people in terms of inferiority and superiority. All that is good, honest, just, and beautiful in various ethnic backgrounds and experiences can be celebrated as the fruit of God’s grace. All sinful actions and their results (including evils perpetuated between and upon ethnic groups by others) are to be confessed as sinful, repeated of, and repudiated.
We deny that Christians should segregate themselves into racial groups or regard racial identity above, or even equal to, their identity in Christ. We deny that any divisions between people groups (from an unstated attitude of superiority to an overt spirit of resentment) have any legitimate place in the fellowship of the redeemed. We reject any teaching that encourages racial groups to view themselves as privileged oppressors or entitled victims of oppression. While we are to weep with those who weep, we deny that a person’s feelings of offense or oppression necessarily prove that someone else is guilty of sinful behaviors, oppression, or prejudice.
We affirm that some cultures operate on assumptions that are inherently better than those of other cultures because of the biblical truths that inform those worldviews that have produced these distinct assumptions. Those elements of a given culture that reflect divine revelation should be celebrated and promoted. But the various cultures out of which we have been called all have features that are worldly and sinful—and therefore those sinful features should be repudiated for the honor of Christ. We affirm that whatever evil influences to which we have been subjected via our culture can be—and must be—overcome through conversion and the training of both mind and heart through biblical truth.
We deny that individuals and sub-groups in any culture are unable, by God’s grace, to rise above whatever moral defects or spiritual deficiencies have been engendered or encouraged by their respective cultures.
We affirm that racism is a sin rooted in pride and malice which must be condemned and renounced by all who would honor the image of God in all people. Such racial sin can subtly or overtly manifest itself as racial animosity or racial vainglory. Such sinful prejudice or partiality falls short of God’s will and violates the royal law of love. We affirm that virtually all cultures, including our own, at times contain laws and systems that foster racist attitudes and policies.
We deny that treating people with sinful partiality or prejudice is consistent with biblical Christianity. We deny that only those in positions of power are capable of racism, or that individuals of any particular ethnic groups are incapable of racism. We deny that systemic racism is in any way compatible with the core principles of historic evangelical convictions. We deny that the Bible can be legitimately used to foster or justify partiality, prejudice, or contempt toward other ethnicities. We deny that the contemporary evangelical movement has any deliberate agenda to elevate one ethnic group and subjugate another. And we emphatically deny that lectures on social issues (or activism aimed at reshaping the wider culture) are as vital to the life and health of the church as the preaching of the gospel and the exposition of Scripture. Historically, such things tend to become distractions that inevitably lead to departures from the gospel (12).
Though the Bible-believing Seventh-day Adventist Christian will rightly concur in the vast majority of affirmations and denials found in the above statement, what is said in this statement regarding sin and salvation represents its fatal flaw, both in its effort to uphold authentic Bible doctrines and its effort to promote Biblical morality in today’s postmodern climate.
First, the above statement affirms its belief in the unscriptural doctrine of original sin, even using this term by name. It states that “because of original sin everyone is born under the curse of God’s law and all break his commandments through sin. . . . All are depraved in all their faculties and all stand condemned before God’s law” (13).
The Bible very clearly denies this teaching when it states that “the soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son” (Eze. 18:20). The New Testament declares that the reason Adam’s curse has fallen upon all humanity is because “all have sinned” (Rom. 5:12; see also 3:23). None in the human family are identified in Scripture as involuntary sinners merely because of what Adam did. Rather, all humans are sinners because they have chosen to follow Adam’s example. Elsewhere the Bible states that “every man is tempted when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then lust, when it hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin” (James 1:14-15).
In other words, choice, not birth, is the source of humanity’s universal guilt in transgressing the divine law.
Second, the above statement contains the following declaration:
We deny that anything else, whether works to be performed or opinions to be held, can be added to the gospel without perverting it into another gospel. This also means that implications and applications of the gospel, such as the obligation to live justly in the world, though legitimate and important in their own right, are not definitional components of the gospel (14).
This statement effectively excludes the Christian’s post-conversion experience of Spirit-empowered sanctification from the substance of the Biblical gospel, and by implication, from the ground of the believer’s salvation. The assumption on the part of the statement’s authors appears to be that when the New Testament declares that we are not saved by works (Rom. 3:20,28; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8-9), that it refers not only to self-generated works—a point on which we would all agree—but to anything human beings do, even after conversion.
By contrast, the New Testament not only states explicitly that the Holy Spirit’s regeneration and sanctification—along with divine forgiveness (Rom. 3:24; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14)—are part of the means of our salvation (II Thess. 2:13; Titus 3:5); it also states that Spirit-empowered obedience is the condition of salvation (Matt. 7:21; 19:16-26; 25:31-46; Luke 10:25-28; Rom. 2:6-10; 8:13; Heb. 5:9).
To exclude the Spirit’s transforming work from the ground or means of salvation invariably pushes practical godliness to marginal status in the believer’s spiritual journey, as such practical piety is invariably seen as outside the gospel and outside of salvation. The above statement itself makes this point by declaring that such responsibilities as the need “to live justly in the world . . . are not definitional components of the gospel” (15).
The above statement offers no Biblical basis for its claim that the gospel should be defined apart from the practical demands of the Christian faith. The fact that the New Testament defines salvation as being saved from sin (Matt. 1:21), along with the apostle Paul’s statement that the “gospel of Christ . . . is the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16), would seem to make it quite difficult to speak of the gospel as something apart from practical godliness and sanctification.
Third, the above statement declares that “by God’s regenerating and sanctifying grace all believers will be brought to a final glorified, sinless state in the day of Jesus Christ,” and denies ”that salvation renders any Christian free from all remaining sin or immune from even grievous sin in this life” (16).
By contrast, the Bible is clear that the total expulsion from sin through God’s power in this present life is both possible and imperative—relative, of course, to one’s knowledge of the divine will (Prov. 4:18; Acts 17:30; James 4:17). Both Old and New Testaments are clear that sinless obedience is not something to be achieved “in the day of Jesus Christ” (17), but rather, on this earth, through heaven’s power (e.g. Psalm 119:1-3,11; Zeph. 3:13; Rom. 8:4; I Cor. 15:34; II Cor. 7:1; 10:4-5; Eph. 5:27; Phil. 4:13; I Thess. 5:23; I Peter 2:21-22; 4:1; II Peter 3:10-14; I John 1:7,9; 3:2-3,7; Jude 24; Rev. 3:21; 14:5).
This notion of unavoidable imperfection is applied in the above statement not only to moral conduct, but also to theology. One of the statement’s denials reads as follows:
We deny that the charge of heresy can be legitimately brought against every failure to achieve perfect conformity to all that is implied in sincere faith in the gospel (17).
But the statement offers no clue as to how it distinguishes “all that is implied in sincere faith in the gospel” from the gospel itself. Nowhere does it demonstrate from the Bible that any distinction exists for the Christian between “salvational” and “non-salvational” features of the Christian message. Such ambiguity leaves the believer free to make such distinctions on a personal, subjective basis, with all the inconsistency and hypocrisy that invariably attend such choices.
Contrary to the above statement, the Bible is clear that correct doctrinal belief as defined in the Word of God is very much a salvation issue. God declared through the prophet Hosea, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee” (Hosea 4:6). Jesus declared to Satan in the wilderness that man shall live “by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4), and later stated to His disciples, “If ye continue in My word, then are ye My disciples indeed” (John 8:31).
The apostle Paul not only called down the curse of God on those teaching “another gospel” (Gal. 1:8); he made it clear that doctrinal truth in the broadest sense is a matter of salvation. The following verse is clear that both sanctification through the Holy Spirit and belief of the truth are salvational:
God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth (II Thess. 2:13).
In the following verse, written to young Timothy, the same connection is established:
Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine: continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee (I Tim. 4:16).
The above evangelical statement rightly states, regarding same-sex attractions, that “salvation grants sanctifying power to renounce such dishonorable affections as sinful and to mortify them by the Spirit,” and goes on to say that “those who lack the desire or opportunity for marriage are called to serve God in singleness and chastity” (18). The statement likewise declares, regarding those cultural influences that run contrary to Scripture,
We affirm that whatever evil influences to which we have been subjected via our culture can be—and must be—overcome through conversion and the training of both mind and heart through biblical truth (19).
But how is this “must be” overcoming of sin, this mortification of sinful desire by the Spirit, supposed to happen if it is impossible for the Christian to become “free from all remaining sin or immune from even grievous sin in this life” (20)? Which sins, be they sexual or cultural (or both), are essential for the Christian to expel from one’s earthly life, and which not?
The spiritual poverty and failure of evangelical salvation theology was put on conspicuous display during the presidential scandal in the United States during the late 1990s. An editorial in Newsweek magazine, written by the magazine’s religion editor, Kenneth Woodward, analyzed the theology with which then-President Bill Clinton had been raised. Woodward noted that Clinton, as a Baptist, had been taught from his youth that “once he was born again, his salvation was ensured. Sinning—even repeatedly—would not bar his soul from heaven” (21). The editorial closed with the observation that the former President “learned his worldview not in the dark of a Saturday night but in the light of a Sunday morning” (22).
More recently, on the opposite side of the political spectrum, we have seen the same theology in operation. In the Alabama U.S. Senate special election of 2017, one of the candidates was accused of unwanted sexual advances, some of them allegedly occurring decades ago with women who were minors at the time. It is not our purpose here to assess the accuracy or credibility of these allegations, only to assess the impact of popular evangelical salvation theology on the reaction of certain voters to these charges.
One Alabama voter, interviewed by a number of media outlets, has made the following statement:
If he—he went to the Lord and asked for forgiveness for that and hasn’t done anything like that in—since then, I believe that if the good Lord’s forgiven him, as a Christian I have to forgive him also (23).
Another respondent, in a Facebook post addressing the Moore allegations, declared:
God has forgiven Roy Moore and He will forgive those who vote for him (24).
The TV anchor receiving this post responded, “I wish I could see your face as you’re typing. Like, Are you serious?” (25).
Were the anchor in question to study popular evangelical theology, he would understand that chances are, the claim on the part of this person is exceedingly serious—though from a Biblical standpoint, profoundly erroneous.
Here is the problem: Judge Moore, as of this writing, continues to deny that the alleged incidents ever happened. If in fact he asked the Lord to forgive him at some point in the past, that would mean the alleged incidents actually did happen, and that his present denials are falsehoods. Such a course on the judge’s part would in no way be consistent with Biblical conditions for receiving God’s forgiveness.
But sadly, it would be consistent with much of popular, contemporary evangelical theology. In his bestselling 1997 book What’s So Amazing About Grace?, evangelical author Philip Yancey quotes favorably an author who writes of “God’s unconditional grace and forgiveness” (26). This theme is a pervasive one throughout the book in question. There is every evidence that this understanding of the divine pardon of human sin remains widespread in mainstream evangelical circles. Yet the Bible is very clear that God’s forgiveness is very conditional:
If My people, which are called by My name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sins, and heal their land (II Chron. 7:14).
He that covereth his sins shall not prosper, but whoso confesseth, and forsaketh them shall have mercy (Prov. 28:13).
Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord, and He will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon (Isa. 55:7).
Jesus also made it clear there were conditions for receiving His Father’s forgiveness:
For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.
But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Matt. 6:14-15).
The apostle John wrote, in a verse familiar to most:
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrigheousness (I John 1:9).
In none of these verses can any hint be found of forgiveness without repentance. The notion that God forgives people irrespective of their sorrow for sin or the lack thereof, irrespective of whether or not the sin in question has been renounced and forsaken, is utterly without Biblical support.
Conclusion: A Dual Failure
In sum, justice without a standard is the path to failure charted by the Union Theological Seminary statement on social justice and the gospel. And the path to failure charted by the above evangelical statement, to which the Union statement is designed to respond, is its surrender to the presumed inevitability of unavoidable heresy and unconquerable sin—neither of which, according to the evangelical statement, appears capable of costing the Christian his or her salvation. Whether one adheres to doctrinal error or struggles with sin (be they personal or social), both evangelical and liberal theology leave us helpless.
The logical alliance between the presumed impossibility of lifestyle purity here on earth and a similar perspective regarding doctrinal purity, could be detected in certain Adventist circles as early as several decades ago, perhaps earlier. Not long after the events of Glacier View in the summer of 1980, when Desmond Ford was removed from the Adventist ministry on account of his attack on the classic Adventist teaching on the sanctuary as well as the authority of Ellen White in doctrinal matters, one supporter of Ford’s theology—who became an atheist before his recent death—explicitly connected imperfection of theology with imperfection of behavior so far as the Christian’s earthly lot is concerned.
In this particular author’s words:
The Reformation rejected perfectionism in the area of morals but tended to retain it in the field of theology. Having rejected the law as a standard of salvation, the Reformation reintroduced it in the form of orthodoxy. Theological perfection was made such a basic requirement that it virtually canceled the salvation of the heretic (27).
In another statement, addressed more directly to Adventists, this same author insisted:
God has never required perfection, whether doctrinal or moral, from his agents (28).
More recently, a prominent contemporary Adventist author whose stance in favor of justification-alone salvation and the imperfectability of Christian character is well known in the church (29), has also declared correct doctrine to be non-salvational:
Doctrine does not save us. Jesus does. Doctrines are humans’ imperfect way of trying to understand God. There will never be perfect doctrine (30).
Tragically, the ongoing debate in contemporary Adventism over women’s ordination has brought the “deconstruction” approach to Scripture taught by Martin Heidegger into the thinking of prominent Western Adventist scholars (31), as seen in their use of what they call the “Principle-Based-Historical-Cultural” approach to Bible interpretation, constraining them to describe God’s Word as follows:
The text is primarily seen as a construct, insofar as meaning is taken to reside in the encounter or interchange between text and reader. Meaning thus emerges as an outcome of interplay between text and reader, both of which are culturally and historically conditioned (32).
If this is true, the Bible is again robbed of its transcendent authority.
What is fascinating about the Adventist experience of recent decades is the extent to which polar-opposite theological tendencies in the larger Christian world—evangelicalism and liberalism—are seen on closer scrutiny to have more in common than most realize. At the bottom line, whether one leaves religious faith and morals captive to either culture or original sin, either way God’s Word is denied and dishonored. Either way those doctrinal or moral tenets deemed by certain ones to be less important than others—on any number of cultural, scholarly, circumstantial, or experiential grounds—will be disrespected. Looking at these two doctrinal statements from respective evangelical and liberal sources, it should be clear that the fall of prophetic Babylon—across the theological and moral spectrum—continues (Rev. 14:8; 18:2).
It is for this reason that the great Advent movement was called into existence. Classic Seventh-day Adventism offers rebuke and correction to both evangelical and liberal wings of the Christian church. The message of classic Adventism rejects both the “critical theory” of theological liberalism and the original sin doctrine of evangelicalism, as both in their own way undermine the authority of God’s Word. It is for this reason that in modern times Satan has launched a two-pronged assault on our faith, from both the left and right wings of Christian theology. It is for this reason that in our present denominational climate, a variety of premises and concepts from both evangelical and liberal theological scholarship have been brought into our ranks by the misguided and unwary, from the larger Christian world. And it is for this reason that both must be resolutely and vigorously opposed.
5. James C. Livingston, Modern Christian Thought: From the Enlightenment to Vatican II (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co, 1971), pp. 377-378.
6. “Rudolf Bultmann”
7. “Wish You Were Here,” Newsweek, April 19, 1976, p. 23.
8. “Kent State Shootings”
9. “Wish You Were Here,” Newsweek, April 19, 1976, p. 23.
10. Robert Dallek, Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life (New York: Viking, 2017), p. 73.
21. Kenneth L. Woodward, “Sex, sin, and salvation,” Newsweek, Nov. 2, 1998, p. 37.
23. Peter Hasson, “Moore Supporter: ‘As a Christian I Have to Forgive Him,” The Daily Caller, Nov. 10, 2017
24. Grackle Green, Facebook post reported by Michael Smerconish, CNN, Nov. 18, 2017 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zxlRZjjr-NQ
26. Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace?” (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing Co, 1997), p. 15.
27. Aage Rendalen, “The Gospel Demands Grace for the Heretic as Well as the Sinner,” Verdict, September 1981, p. 18.
28. ----“Adventism: Has the Medium Become the Message?” Evangelica, December 1980, p. 36.
29. J. David Newman, “Can I Know I’m Saved?” Adventist Review, Aug. 24, 2006, pp. 24-27.
30. ----letter to Proclamation! April, May, June 2011, p. 30.
31. John W. Peters, “Restoration of the Image of God: Headship and Submission,” p. 86.
32. Theology of Ordination Study Committee Report (Seventh-day Adventist Church, North American Division, 2013), p. 28.
Pastor Kevin Paulson holds a Bachelor’s degree in theology from Pacific Union College, a Master of Arts in systematic theology from Loma Linda University, and a Master of Divinity from the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He served the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists for ten years as a Bible instructor, evangelist, and local pastor. He writes regularly for Liberty magazine and does script writing for various evangelistic ministries within the denomination. He continues to hold evangelistic and revival meetings throughout the North American Division and beyond, and is a sought-after seminar speaker relative to current issues in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He presently resides in Berrien Springs, Michigan.