My Tortured Conscience by Martin Weber (Review & Herald, 1991)
My Tortured Conscience is the spiritual autobiography of Martin Weber, a prominent Seventh-day Adventist pastor, evangelist, and author. Weber’s book tells the story of his immersion in legalism, his return to mainstream Adventism, and his brief flirtation with the liberal teachings of Desmond Ford. Throughout the book, Weber exhibits a pastoral concern to help his readers avoid his spiritual mistakes. Weber’s analysis of his mistakes and his advice for healthy Christian living are of the utmost importance because so many Adventists seek to follow his counsel.
In childhood, Weber was taught that one unforgiven sin would disqualify a person from heaven (17). The shocking legalism of 1950s Adventism is illustrated by a letter Martin’s mother received from their pastor’s wife stating that little Martin must lose weight or risk being lost. The letter actually included a dietary plan for the youngster (19)! Legalistic teachings dogged Weber through his academy years until he determined that perfection was impossible, so why even try?
A college week of prayer led Weber to rededicate his life to the Lord, but his spiritual high was ruined at a retreat conducted by the leader of a self-supporting SDA institution. Using Ellen White as his primary source, the speaker explained that Christ had not yet returned to earth because He is waiting for a perfect remnant who will demonstrate that it is possible for fallen humanity to keep the law of God (61; see also COL 69, GC 425, Ev 695-96, TM 41, & 5T 746). Weber dedicated his life to the pursuit of perfection by restricting his diet, his social life, and his extracurricular activities such as sports (63).
Feeling dissatisfied with the worldliness at the SDA college he was attending, Weber dropped out and joined a self-supporting institution, at which he wore ill-fitting clothing, ate sparingly, obeyed the leaders, and basically refrained from contact with women. Weber became the most fanatical member of his commune (71), taking to heart the counsel of Ellen White regarding Christ’s practice of praying all night, and the necessity of imitating Christ’s example. (After all, Christ had no advantage over us, according to Mrs. White.) Sleep would come only when Weber collapsed from exhaustion during his all-night vigils. He fell asleep while driving several times, but life was so miserable that he was remarkably unperturbed (69-75).
The women of the commune wore homemade garments (some of which were sewn from bed linens) and neglected to shave, but one still managed to catch Weber’s eye (64-65). However, the leaders denied his request for a courtship. According to the elders, Weber didn’t have the financial resources to support a family—an odd predicament because the group only paid him an allowance of twenty dollars a month, forbidding him to seek outside employment (82-83). Love prevailed, though, as it often does, and the two young people left the group and got married.
Weber began pastoring a small Adventist church, but his first convert had to be institutionalized shortly after baptism (76). Weber was so strict about expenditures that he would often sleep in derelict buildings while traveling, sneaking out to Laundromats early in the morning to clean himself (78). Conference leaders finally convinced Weber to adopt a respectable lifestyle and to emphasize grace instead of character perfection.
After moving into mainstream Adventism, Weber almost left the church during the era when Desmond Ford began publicly questioning the Investigative Judgment. However, he was persuaded to remain, and he wrote a book entitled Some Call It Heresy (1985) defending the SDA teaching of the Investigative Judgment. My Tortured Conscience tells about his period of uncertainty without ever sharing what he doubted and what he discovered, so we will have to read Some Call It Heresy to clarify his thinking on this issue.
Although My Tortured Conscience doesn’t get into the theology of the Investigative Judgment, Weber does offer a little philosophy. According to Ellen White, the confessed (and at least temporarily forgiven) sins of the righteous are sent to the Most Holy Place in heaven to await final atonement, mirroring the figurative transfer of the confessed sins of Israel to the Most Holy of the earthly sanctuary to await the annual Day of Atonement. Weber states that this is actually good news because the judgment is a “record of [God’s] forgiveness” (105) but that’s not exactly the teaching of Ellen White:
“The blood of Christ, while it was to release the repentant sinner from the condemnation of the law, was not to cancel the sin; it would stand on record in the sanctuary until the final atonement; so in the type the blood of the sin offering removed the sin from the penitent, but it rested in the sanctuary until the Day of Atonement” (PP 357).
“At the time appointed for the judgment—the close of the 2300 days, in 1844—began the work of investigation and blotting out of sins. All who have ever taken upon themselves the name of Christ must pass its searching scrutiny. Both the living and the dead are to be judged "out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. Sins that have not been repented of and forsaken will not be pardoned and blotted out of the books of record, but will stand to witness against the sinner in the day of God” (GC 486).
At best, the records used in the Investigative Judgment are records of provisional rather than permanent forgiveness, so we must disagree with Weber’s philosophy. If Ellen White is a true prophet (Weber currently operates a Web site defending Ellen White), then the Investigative Judgment isn’t a celebration of God’s forgiveness—it’s actually a determination of whether God’s people have been faithful enough to merit final pardon.
Weber’s most important potential contribution in My Tortured Conscience is his position regarding the legalism that once tormented him. Weber states that many Adventists are “imprisoned in a spiritual Siberia” (20), practicing “legalism by faith” (72). He advises against “attempting to qualify ourselves for heaven through Christ’s perfecting power rather than by finding our only refuge in His saving blood” (67). These are wonderful quotes, but unfortunately, Weber doesn’t stop there.
In his legalistic days, he believed himself “an apostle of righteousness by faith,” meaning that he intended “to perfect a victorious faith relationship with Christ” (66). Righteousness would be accomplished by having enough faith. But now he has discovered grace. He now asserts that “living under grace provides power to obey God.” (95). “[T]he joy of the Lord” now gives him “power to honor those same commandments that used to be so oppressive” (95). He insists that “the security of God’s acceptance in Christ” makes “overcoming sin . . . an exciting adventure” (59). How is Weber’s new gospel fundamentally different from the old? Under the old beliefs, he intended to become perfect through faith; under his new theology, he continues attempting to obey the law and overcome sin, apparently also through faith. What’s the difference? It still sounds like “legalism by faith.”
In contrast, the Bible teaches that believers are saved through life in the Spirit apart from works of the law:
“Know ye not, brethren, (for I speak to them that know the law,) how that the law hath dominion over a man as long as he liveth? . . . . Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God. For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death. But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter” (Rom. 7:1-6).
Does the Christian perform good works? Absolutely, but these works are performed “in newness of spirit”—not because we are under the “letter” of the law. When we walk in the spirit, the flesh will still fail. Thank God Ellen White was wrong when she declared, “When the character of Christ shall be perfectly reproduced in His people, then He will come to claim them as His own” (COL 69)! Thank God Ellen White was wrong when she said, “The honor of God, the honor of Christ, is involved in the perfection of the character of His people” (DA 671)! Thank God that Christians are not “judged . . . according to their works” (GC 486)! Weber defends Ellen White rather than denying that “her writings are a continuing and authoritative source of truth” as SDA fundamental belief 18 states; thus, we must conclude that his statements about “living out the victorious life” (58), “overcoming sin” (59), living in “uncompromising commitment” (87), and having “power over sin” (93) as being consistent with Mrs. White’s teaching of character perfection.
Unfortunately, Weber continues teaching that while Christians are saved by faith, they must produce good works; otherwise, they obviously don’t have saving faith. Weber’s response to the good news of Romans 7 is that “grace provides power to keep the law . . . .” (93). In essence, Weber envisions Christians who are “dead to the law” being resurrected to keep it again! God forbid! Believers are dead to the law, enabling life in the Spirit. We cannot be “married” to both law and Christ (Rom. 7:4). Until Adventists recognize that “the law is not of faith” (Gal. 3:12), they will continue adding works as an essential part of the salvation process.
The most tragic part of My Tortured Conscience is Weber’s self-chosen epitaph: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (124). This strikes us as the plea of a person still under the curse of law, still craving mercy (see Gal. 3:10-13). In contrast, true believers are covered by such amazing grace that they have already “passed from death to life”; they are so completely saved that they do “not come under judgment” (John 5:24, NRSV). The saints triumphantly cry, “Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb” (Rev. 7:10)! May this praise be the eternal song of all believers—let’s start singing it now!
Joseph Rector, May 28, 2010