Adventism and the Gospel

 

by Joseph Rector

 

The true gospel message is simple.  In fact, it’s the best news one could imagine!  Unfortunately, and probably predictably, people have been obscuring it with layers of human complexity ever since God offered the first sacrifice for the sin of Adam and Eve.  There is something in the human psyche that is offended by the concept of a totally free and undeserved gift.  We love gifts we feel we deserve, such as anniversary gifts and presents from friends and relatives who have been the recipients of similar attentions from us.  But we hate the idea of an undeserved gift.  For instance, when we receive an unexpected gift, how many of us try to reciprocate in some fashion?  Now, that’s all good from a human perspective, but carried into the spiritual realm, it can lead to disaster.

 

How Free Is Free?

Salvation is a free gift—one that we can never earn (see Romans 5).  The only thing a person must do for salvation is acknowledge his or her sinful condition and accept God’s grace through faith.  From an intellectual standpoint, I’ve known this truth for much of my life, but incredibly, I still wanted to do something to make myself a little more worthy of salvation.  In my heart, I felt that God’s grace primarily covered my past sins, but that He expected much better performance in the future in order to complete the salvation process.  Then I discovered that the gospel really is simple: it’s all about Jesus!


The teaching of the apostles and early church leaders reveals the clear and simple gospel: belief (or faith) in Jesus Christ is the only requirement for salvation.  When Paul and Silas were suddenly freed from prison by an earthquake, the jailor cried, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”  How did Paul and Silas respond?  Did they say anything about faith plus works?  Did they say anything about keeping the law?  What about keeping the Sabbath, or about sanctification being the work of a lifetime?  No.  “And they said, 'Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house'” (Acts 16:30-31).


When Philip converted the Ethiopian eunuch by telling him about Jesus, the eunuch requested baptism: “And Philip said, 'If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest.' And he answered and said, 'I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God'” (Acts 8:37).

Salvation is so simple!  All we have to do is place our faith in Jesus as our Savior from sin.  I used to be a bit jealous of the thief on the cross because he received assurance of salvation without the burden of a lifetime of obedience to the law.  Now I realize we are all saved in the same manner as the thief on the cross—all we have to do is believe, and Christ does all the rest!  In the realm of faith, belief involves more than head knowledge.  It requires more than mental assent to the truth.  To believe in Christ—to understand His goodness—means to love Him whole-heartedly (Matt. 22:37).  It means to take up our cross and follow Him (Matt. 16:24).  Saving faith is active faith.  It is committed; it is relational; but it is not based on our performance or our level of perfection.  It is based on the sure promises of Christ, who “is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy” (Jude 24).

 

The Historic SDA "Gospel"

 

The SDA gospel contained in the Spirit of Prophecy (the writings of Ellen White) takes the simple and makes it complex, introducing the requirement of perfect works.  For legalists, salvation by faith is too simple; therefore, they add works of the law to faith:

“Many at the present day say, 'Believe, only believe, and live.' Faith and works go together, believing and doing are blended. The Lord requires no less of the soul now, than He required of Adam in Paradise before he fell—perfect obedience, unblemished righteousness. The requirement of God under the covenant of grace is just as broad as the requirement He made in Paradise--harmony with His law, which is holy, and just, and good. The gospel does not weaken the claims of the law; it exalts the law and makes it honorable. . . .  Let no one take up with the delusion so pleasant to the natural heart, that God will accept of sincerity, no matter what may be the faith, no matter how imperfect may be the life. God requires of His child perfect obedience” (1SM 373-74).

I used to believe that justification took place when a sinner repented, but that the sinner must proceed to sanctification, which was the work of a lifetime.  According to Ellen White, “The Scriptures plainly show that the work of sanctification is progressive.  When in conversion the sinner finds peace with God through the blood of the atonement, the Christian life has just begun.  Now he is to ‘go on to perfection;’ to grow up ‘unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’” (GC 470). 

She goes on to state that “all who would have their names retained in the book of life should now, in the few remaining days of their probation, afflict their souls before God by sorrow for sin and true repentance. There must be deep, faithful searching of heart. The light, frivolous spirit indulged by so many professed Christians must be put away. There is earnest warfare before all who would subdue the evil tendencies that strive for the mastery. The work of preparation is an individual work. . . .  Though all nations are to pass in judgment before God, yet He will examine the case of each individual with as close and searching scrutiny as if there were not another being upon the earth. Everyone must be tested and found without spot or wrinkle or any such thing” (GC 490; see also 1MR 369).

Ellen White’s Jesus is more our example than our Savior, leaving believers with the burden of attaining character perfection through their faith in Him. “Said Christ, ‘I have glorified Thee in my human character, perfecting that character for the benefit of all humanity, to show human beings that man can keep the law of God in a world of sin and transgression, and through being a partaker of the divine nature, stand as an overcomer’” (6MR 233; see also 6MR 334 & 341).

 

But what does Christ say about His mission?  Did He come to condemn humanity by proving that we can keep the law perfectly, and by stating that we must?  No, He came as Savior.  “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:16-18).

 

Paul calls the law “the ministration of death” and “the ministration of condemnation” (II Cor. 3:7-9).  Christ did not come to condemn; therefore, He did not come to reinforce law keeping, which is only a ministry of condemnation. 

Following Ellen White’s teachings, I knew that sanctification involved overcoming sin through faith in Christ and reaching a point of moral perfection that would enable me to live without sin during the time of trouble.  Sinless perfection is vital for two reasons: first, God needs a group of people to vindicate His law by showing that fallen human beings can keep the moral law (see TM 41); second, the mediation of Christ will cease during the time of trouble, so any sins committed after that point would doom the sinner (see GC 614).  As long as Adventism refuses to repudiate Ellen White as a prophet, perfectionism will be the quicksand sucking grace and assurance from Adventists.

 

Sanctification in Present Tense

Once I realized that Ellen White’s teachings were not of God, the scales of legalism began slowly falling from my eyes, and I began seeing the plan of salvation from a biblical perspective.  One of the first points I discovered is that according to the Bible, believers are already sanctified.  Sanctification is not the work of the lifetime—praise God!  The Bible triumphantly declares, “[W]e are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10:10).  When does sanctification occur? Paul told the Corinthians, who were far from literal human perfection, that they had already been washed, sanctified, and justified when they received the Holy Spirit: “[B]ut ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God” (I Cor. 6:11).  If we are in Christ, we are already sanctified—it’s in present tense!  Sanctification is not a lifelong struggle.

The good news gets even better.  Legal perfection is also a gift bestowed upon the believer based on what Christ accomplished on the cross: “For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified” (Heb. 10:14).  Christ perfects us “for ever,” ending worries about achievement in the lives of true believers.  Sanctification and legal perfection are gifts from God.  They belong to us now if we accept the robe of Christ's righteousness to cover our vain attempts at self-improvement. The cross of Christ accomplished everything on our behalf.  Our victory comes by accepting Christ.  We get to be on the winning team even though we never score any points.  In fact, we make countless errors, but our blunders are covered by our unbeatable Captain, Jesus Christ!

Now, if character perfection is required, why doesn't Paul say anything about that?  Why isn't it made explicit?  Why doesn't Paul say, "You start by believing in Christ, which leads to justification.  But then you have to be sanctified to prove that fallen human beings really can keep the law of God"?  The doctrine of character perfection sounds great on the surface because it gives us something to accomplish on our behalf (and on God's behalf).  But what does the Bible say? We are sanctified when we accept Christ.  God declares us perfect IN Christ, and trying to add anything to that marvelous gift actually diminishes what Christ has already done for us.

Jesus tells us, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life” (John 5:24).  I'm quoting from the KJV, so it's important to note that many modern translations say that God's people will “not come into judgment.”  If one read the passage in context, it is clearly discussing judgment, so the modern translations are faithful to the original intent.  Believers have "passed from death unto life," and that is the radical, simple gospel.  Their cases don’t even appear in the judgment because they are in Christ (compare to GC 490).

The implications of the preceding passages of scripture are profound.  If believers are already justified, sanctified, and considered legally perfect through Christ’s righteousness, and if believers are exempt from the judgment because they already have eternal life, what about works of the law in the Christian life?  Let’s see what the Bible teaches about the law.

 

The Law and the Christian
 
“And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it” (Col. 2:13-15).
 
What were the ordinances that were against us?  SDAs say they were the ceremonial laws and the rules of the scribes and Pharisees, but how does this interpretation fit the context, which is the forgiveness of “all trespasses”?  Forgiveness of all sins would require that this passage is dealing with all law—particularly with the ten commandments.  Christ nailed all law to the cross.  (Incidentally, many Adventists don't realize that in scripture, there is no distinction between ceremonial laws and moral laws.  They are all called “the law.”) The startling truth is that Christ replaced the entire Old Covenant legal system with His New Covenant (see Heb. 8:13).

It is commonly thought that the Jerusalem council of Acts 15 dealt primarily with circumcision, but it actually addressed the entire Old Covenant legal system.  Look at the context: “But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5).  Peter answered the pharisaical argument by declaring that the law is a "yoke" that even the disciples could not bear.  “Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bearBut we believe that through the grace of the LORD Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they” (Acts 15:10-11).  By removing circumcision, which was the entrance requirement for the Old Covenant, the apostles knew what they were doing: they were formally moving the church from law to faith.  In Romans 10:1-4, Paul makes it clear that attempting to live by the Old Covenant is not the path to salvation:

 

“Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved.  For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge.  For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.  For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.”

This passage makes it clear that Christ is the end (or fulfillment) of the law for righteousness for those who believe.  Righteousness only comes through faith—never through law-keeping.  Again, Paul fails to mention the SDA idea that works are somehow an integral part of attaining salvation.  I'm not trying to criticize sincere perfectionists, but the Bible says that choosing to pursue works of the law means to be under a curse:

For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.  But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith.  And the law is not of faith: but, the man that doeth them shall live in them.  Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us . . . .” (Gal. 3:10-13).

 

For me as a former SDA, there are so many WOWs in this passage!   We can choose one of two courses: we can pursue righteousness through the works of the law, or we can receive Christ’s righteousness through faith.  The law is strict, and one must obey it completely if one is to be successful, but Paul states categorically that law-keeping won't work for anyone.  The law can't justify because no one can keep it. That’s why Christ kept the law on our behalf—because no one could ever keep it once sin entered the world.  Christ removed the curse of law so that we can be free in Him, for “the law is not of faith.”  Faith is the opposite of law-keeping as a spiritual goal.  Adventism makes law-keeping a goal: “It is only as the law of God is restored to its rightful position that there can be a revival of primitive faith and godliness among His professed people” (GC 478).  The Sabbath is the most clear example of SDA's insistence on law—they believe God’s people must keep the Sabbath, or else they will be lost....  Sadly, they are under a curse, according to scripture.

“Wherefore then serveth the law?  It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator.  Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one.  Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law.  But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.  But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed.  Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.  But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.  For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:19-27).

When we are baptized, we put on Christ—His robe of righteousness.  We are covered in His grace even though we are not perfect on our own.  We are perfect because God declares us perfect, which is called imputed righteousness (see Rom. 4:6).

 

Why Did Jesus Say, “Be Ye Perfect?”

 

As an Adventist, when confronted with texts such as “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth,” I would automatically go back in my mind to Matthew 5:17-18: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”  I failed to recognize that the law must still exist for those who are not in Christ.  When Jesus cried, “It is finished,” He ended law as an objective for the believer because a person with living faith doesn’t need the coercion of law.

Jesus underscores the point of faith versus law by saying, “For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20).  Of what did the “righteousness” of the scribes and Pharisees consist?  They specialized in works of the law.  Was Jesus instructing His followers to beat the Pharisees at their own game, or was He saying something much more radical?  He was actually telling believers to go beyond the letter of the law to perform actions of faith (see Matt. 5:21-47).  Jesus concludes, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). 

How do we accomplish perfection equaling the perfection of God Himself?  By faith in Christ who fulfilled the law, and who nailed it to the cross on behalf of all who believe on His name!  In Matthew 5, Christ is not teaching the perpetuity of the law for believers—He is actually moving us beyond law to faith.  Legalists try to keep the letter of the law (and will be lost as a result of their guaranteed failure to keep it perfectly), but a person of faith keeps the law in the Spirit, which far exceeds the letter of Old Covenant law.  No, Christ did not come to destroy the law—it still applies to all who are outside the grace of God.  But believers are already considered perfect: “For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified” (Heb. 10:14).  Christ accomplished on our behalf what would otherwise be an utter impossibility.

 

The New Covenant Works

Because of James 2, many Adventists confuse faith with works, almost conflating the two.
 
“But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?  Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?  And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.  Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.  Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?  For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (James 2:20-26).

The book of James emphasizes that works naturally spring from faith.  James is saying that we must act upon our faith (as Abraham and Rahab acted on theirs), or it isn't faith.  That's a far cry from saying we must become morally perfect in this life in order to finalize our salvation.  We are saved by faith.  Period. Works come naturally as a result, but they have no bearing on the salvation process because at every step of the Christian journey, we are covered by the righteousness of Christ.  The Bible does not teach a doctrine of character perfection.  James is speaking to people who claim that a faith experience exempts them from doing the will of God.  No true believer would make such a claim.

The teachings of scripture are consistent, which means that James must agree with Paul, and Paul must agree with all the other inspired writers.  It is our job to interpret them in the light of their theological unity and not make them say what they aren’t saying.

“Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.  Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered” (Rom. 4:4-7).
 

This passage shows that God imputes (gives) righteousness to us because of our faith, not based on works (vs. 6).  But some people chose to work rather than accept God's grace, and their reward is an eternity of debt, for they can never work hard enough to satisfy the law (vs. 4).  The choice is clear: law, or grace?  James is addressing people who are actually unconverted.  He declares that they have no real experience of faith because they make no attempt to live the Christian life.  Their faith is dead.  They aren’t in Christ, and that’s why they are subject to “judgment without mercy” (James 2:13; compare John 5:24).  The teachings of scripture are utterly consistent when interpreted in context.  James is not telling people they must attain a state of literal moral perfection, and he’s not even talking about the works of the law; he’s talking about the importance of works springing naturally from a faith connection to the Vine.

Jesus tells us clearly how to perform the works of God.  He was asked “What shall we do that we may work the works of God?”  and He replied, This is the work of God that you believe in Him whom He has sent” (John 6:28-29).  Our work is to believe, and everything else springs from the faith relationship embodied in belief.

 

The Commandments of God

 

“Let all be careful not to make an outcry against the only people who are fulfilling the description given of the remnant people, who keep the commandments of God, and have the faith of Jesus, who are exalting the standard of righteousness in these last days. God has a distinct people, a church on earth, second to none, but superior to all in their facilities to teach the truth, to vindicate the law of God” (R&H, Sept. 12, 1893).

Adventists often appeal to Revelation 14:12 as upholding the keeping of the ten commandments.  When it comes time to produce baptismal decisions during SDA evangelistic meetings, people are told that the Bible defines the saved as those who keep the ten commandments. They ask people, “Which church keeps all ten commandments?  Once you find the commandment-keeping church, you have found the remnant of whom God approves.”

Does Revelation 14:12 stand against the rest of the New Testament by teaching that law-keeping is required for salvation?  No indeed!  The Greek word translated as “commandments” here is entole, referring to Christ's commands.  John always uses nomos when he refers to the ten commandments and the rest of the law of Moses.  The commandments referenced here would include all the commands and teachings of Christ (see John 15:10-17). What is the central command from which all the others flow? “And this is his commandment, That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment” (I John 3:23).  Therefore, the people who “keep the commandments of God” are the people who have a living faith that springs forth in love.  Christian works flow from faith, never from law.

 

Once Saved, Always Saved?

 

Because of their emphasis on sanctification being the work of a lifetime, Adventists strongly oppose the concept of once saved, always saved.  Ellen White instructed her followers that they must never say, “I am saved.”  Doing so was a sure sign of being unsanctified (see 1SM 314).  Unfortunately, Ellen White’s teaching robs her followers of the assurance God intends for His people to experience.

The true gospel brings assurance.  “Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment: because as he is, so are we in this world.  There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love” (I John 4:17-18).  God doesn’t want Christians to be fearful regarding their salvation.  He is dishonored by lack of assurance because He has promised that nothing can separate us from His love (Rom. 8:31-39).

I believe in once saved, always saved because Christ teaches that the believer is passed from death unto life” (John 5:24).  We have eternal life now.  It is a fact of the walk of faith, and Christ promises “to keep [us] from falling” (Jude 24).  One of the most powerful statements of once saved, always saved is John 3:3: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  Can a baby ever be unborn once he or she is born?  No.  In the same manner, a born-again Christian has assurance of salvation—he or she will not be unborn spiritually.

Some people believe that once a person goes forward for an altar call, he or she cannot be lost no matter what they subsequently do.  They are locked in to salvation whether they like it or not!  If one considers the parable of the seed that falls on various types of ground, it is clear that the gospel seed can sprout but not take root (Matt. 13:3-23). The writer of Hebrews describes the same situation: “For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame” (Heb. 6:4-6).  Yes, people can fall away from God after responding to the truth.  But were they ever saved?  I believe they were not.  It is possible to go through the motions of Christianity without ever becoming a Christian (see James 2).  Salvation requires genuine faith on the part of the believer.  Such faith may come during one’s initial response to the gospel (e.g. the thief on the cross), but it may also come over time under the ministration of the Holy Spirit.  Once a person is saved, eternal life is permanent.  A saved individual would never sin against the Holy Spirit because a faith relationship with God is too precious to ever reject.  The only person who would leave the Lord is a person for whom religion is an intellectual or social pursuit rather than a heart experience.  Assurance of salvation does not require loss of personal freedom.  We are always free to accept or reject God, but a saved person would never leave his or her eternal-life joy.

 

The All-Sufficiency of Christ

 

Is salvation simple or complex?  Is it difficult or easy?  Is Christ's sacrifice all-sufficient, or do we have to pass a test of obedience?

Christ’s righteousness covers believers so that we are considered perfect, saved, and sanctified now.  Our perfection is entirely Christ’s achievement—it is a free and gracious gift.  God’s people don’t even come under judgment—having literally passed from death to life!  We are safe in Christ, covered by His righteousness, and saved by faith in His grace.  We are perfect and sanctified while still growing.  Salvation is all about what Christ accomplished as our substitute
 
The idea of character perfection actually detracts from what Christ accomplished on our behalf. In a way, it sounds so good to overcome as Christ overcame—in God's strength, of course.  But if Christ has provided the robe of His perfect righteousness, and then we keep trying to create our own perfection, we are in effect diminishing what He accomplished.  The gospel is better news than Ellen White could ever have imagined!

 

Joseph Rector, 2010