My February editorial on the assurance of salvation brought a number of letters that have caused me to do further serious reflection on this subject. The new insights gained from these letters have thrilled my heart. The purpose of these articles is by no means to pontificate ail-knowingly on such a profound theme as salvation. I am sharing with you my own personal convictions on the subject, and if you have anything to add or correct, please feel free to write.
Study of the grand theme of salvation is a never-ending process. "The science of redemption is the science of all sciences; the science that is the study of the angels and of all the intelligences of the unfallen worlds; the science that engages the attention of our Lord and Saviour; the science that enters into the purpose brooded in the mind of the Infinite—'kept in silence through times eternal' (Romans 16:25, R.V.); the science that will be the study of God's redeemed throughout endless ages. This is the highest study in which it is possible for man to engage." —Education, p. 126.
Remarks are made at times that would indicate that there is too much talk about righteousness by faith, redemption, and salvation. If such a feeling stems from a desire to shut off caustic debate, it is understandable. To argue over such precious truths is inappropriate. But sincere discussion and study of God's "science of all sciences" is necessary and should be encouraged!
A letter from a colleague of mine, whom I respect greatly, illustrates what I am trying to say. He did not see eye to eye with every point I made in the February editorial, but in sharing his convictions, he prefaced his remarks with these words: "I respect you very greatly as a person and a Christian, so that what follows must be regarded as coming from a brother, not from one who wishes to embarrass, confuse, or divide." This beautiful spirit must possess our hearts as we discuss salvation's truths.
Any attempt to stay sincere, honest, open investigation of these truths cannot be motivated by the Spirit of God. This is a life-and-death matter! Our personal eternal salvation is at stake. But ever remember that any discussion and study of this subject must be done in the framework of loving tenderness and patient forbearance with one another. As human beings, we are all in this together—or at least we should be—for the one common goal of someday living with our Lord Jesus Christ on a forever basis.
In February I stressed the assurance we can have as Christians that we possess eternal life in Jesus. But let me make it abundantly clear that our acceptance with God and our assurance of salvation, based as it is upon the merits of Jesus Christ, must not lead us to believe that works or sanctification are of little consequence. My conviction on this point runs parallel with a good Baptist friend of mine, whom I have never met personally, but whom I feel I have come to know well through correspondence. This dear minister wrote in response to the February editorial, "The Scriptures never give assurance or promises to those who are living in sin, and any teaching (whether right or wrong) which is used to encourage sinful living is indeed a perversion."
Thus faith and works must ever be kept in perspective. By that I mean the individual whose heart has been convicted by the Holy Spirit, and who is led to repentance and a new-birth experience, will respond with wholehearted obedience to the will of God as he understands it. It is unfortunate, indeed, that the glorious truth of salvation through the merits of Christ alone is blurred, and even downgraded at times, by the unwise illustrations and remarks of a few who claim to be advocates of salvation by faith alone in Jesus Christ.
For instance, one sincere soul claimed that although she couldn't keep from committing sin even for five minutes, she still had the assurance of salvation on the merits of Christ alone. I must admit that this statement puzzles me. If taken one way, a non-Christian could ask, "What kind of a Saviour do you have? If you receive no benefits in terms of victory over evil, why become a Christian?" Of course, some professed Christians would agree with this statement, saying, "That's the beauty of it all. No matter what we do, we're still saved." This relegates the plan of salvation, it seems to me, to a ridiculous sublimity certainly unsupported by Scripture.
On the other hand, if this dear soul was distinguishing between an overt act of sin and a sinful state of being, she could have a point, although very poorly expressed.
My understanding of the nature of man is that he is born with a fallen nature. There is an antagonistic power resident in man. "There is in his nature a bent to evil, a force which, unaided, he cannot resist."—Ibid., p. 29. That force, stronger in some individuals than in others, is with us from birth until death. Paul declared, "For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh" (Rom. 7:18, R.S.V.). To further expand this point, may I refer to the words of Jeremiah 17:9: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" Is the deceitfulness of the heart forever and totally eradicated at conversion? Was the publican's sinful nature eradicated after he cried out, "God be merciful to me a sinner," and went down to his house justified? His carnal nature was still existent, and quite capable of being revived at a moment's notice!
This is not to say that the born-again Christian will not be advancing in the Christian life. Never! The ultimate purpose of God's plan of salvation is to bring man into complete harmony with the principles of His law, His character. The surrendering of the life to Jesus Christ is a surrender to a radical change of heart and reformation of life. There is no make-believe in this transformation! While I have stressed the imperfect state of man, even following conversion, the Scriptures make it clear, abundantly clear, that we have a Saviour who is able to save us from the power of sin. As one of my correspondents so beautifully wrote, "The merits of Christ given to me involve a transformation of my heart." In my opinion, if a person is not affected by what the Lord has done in His gracious act of forgiveness and justification, he has a perverted understanding of the gospel.
One of my favorite stories told by Jesus is found in Matthew 18:21-35. Perhaps the importance of the truths contained in this parable are underlined by the tragic conclusion. It is the story of a servant who owed a multimillion-dollar debt to the king. When found out, he fell down at the king's feet and begged for mercy, saying, "Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all" (verse 26). What an illustration of man's desire to justify himself with his own works! Verse 25 makes it clear that he had absolutely nothing with which to pay, yet he promises to make good this enormous sum, which was equal to more than the entire revenue of Palestine during the days of Christ! The servant had no sense of the magnitude of his debt nor of the impossibility of ever satisfying it, or he never would have promised to pay it all back. Anything he could have paid would be infinitesimal compared with the total liability.
The amazing mercy of the lord is noted in verse 27. He "loosed him, and forgave him the debt." Not only did he take away the prison sentence but he cancelled the debt, as well. What a picture of our Lord's amazing grace! In tenderest love He cancels the debt of the sinner who, in repentance, begs for mercy.
But the story doesn't end with the glorious action of forgiveness! Forgiveness must produce a response of responsibility. This was what was lacking in the heart of the servant. After being forgiven a multimillion-dollar debt, he went out and found a fellow servant who owed him a pittance. The one who had been so mercifully treated, instead of demonstrating a corresponding mercy, "laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, 'Pay me that thou owest' " (verse 28). What a distressing attitude! Furthermore, this ill-treated fellow servant fell down at his feet and asked for the same mercy that the for given one had so recently craved, and in the same words that the servant himself had used—but to no avail.
The lessons of this parable are clear and vivid. The first servant had no concept of the enormity of his debt. Furthermore, when he was forgiven he had no adequate realization of the mercy and graciousness of the Lord. His heart was not touched or humbled. He had no conversion experience. The new birth was unknown to him. If he was baptized at that point, he was buried alive, for self never died. He never arose to walk in the newness of life in Christ. In all probability, there was a superficial ecstasy, a shallow burst of appreciation, a shouting of "I am saved," but no real change of heart. Had he sensed that he owed everything to God's free grace, would he not have shown it in a sanctified life? As Ellen White so beautifully expresses it, "We ourselves owe everything to God's free grace. Grace in the covenant ordained our adoption. Grace in the Saviour effected our redemption, our regeneration, and our exaltation to heirship with Christ. Let this grace be revealed to others."—Christ's Object Lessons, p. 250.
I plead with my fellow ministers to lift up Christ more beautifully and clearly before the people. This will inevitably lift the standards of our people. I plead with you not to put the cart before the horse. Both the horse and the cart are important! But put them in the right order. If we hammer on standards, if we spend more time preaching the law than we do Christ, we will end up lowering the standards. Preach against sin, but show what it is in the light of the cross. I ask you, in all honesty and sincerity, as you look at the church today, Are we stronger morally than ever before? Is the life style of our members more like that of Jesus Christ than ever before? Is the character of Jesus shining through the lives of our church members in a more dramatic way than ever before? Are we more zealous in proclaiming the gospel? I don't know what your answer is, but I know what mine is. And I firmly believe that the main reason for our condition is because we have not properly lifted up Jesus before the people.
The admonition written scores of years ago is still valid today. "Of all professing Christians, Seventh-day Adventists should be foremost in uplifting Christ before the world." —Gospel Workers, p. 156. What does this mean? Of all people in the world, we have had an amazing degree of light shining upon us through the Scriptures and the Spirit of Prophecy. No group on earth has ever had such detailed information regarding all phases of life style. Furthermore, we believe that our movement constitutes the climax of the Protestant Reformation. This Reformation reaches its zenith in a people described symbolically as the 144,000, who are an undefiled group, with mouths uttering no guile, and who stand without fault before the throne of God (see Rev. 14:1-5). Are we anywhere near this state in our spiritual advancement? If not, why not?
I come back again to uplifting Christ. Spend more time in your sermons uplifting Him and His free grace. This will help the people to lay hold of His power to save. Only as we behold Him will divine transformations take place in the character. Direct your mind and the minds of your people to "the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). It is a deeper under standing of the life and the atonement of Jesus Christ that causes a flood of divine compassion to flow into our souls, which in turn transforms us. Focusing time and attention on the light bulb separated from the socket doesn't make light. But connect that light with the source of power and things change.
In referring to such seventeenth-century English dissenters as Baxter, Flavel, and Alleine, Ellen White claims that through their preaching and writing thousands were taught how to commit their souls to Christ. For years I have read these statements and desired to secure some of the specific books mentioned. Our office recently ordered some of them, and I am presently reading Flavel's Method of Grace. Rarely have I ever read a book so saturated with Christ; from beginning to end, he extols the lovely Jesus. Such Christ-centered works sweep the mind with a deep spiritual excitement, making most of what comes off the religious presses today insipid and trivial in comparison. What a shame—books of this caliber are not required reading in our colleges and seminaries books that make plain the matchless love of Jesus Christ, which in turn throws a floodlight on the enormity and horribleness of sin.
O preacher, spend time with Christ through His Word and those authors who had a deep knowledge of Him. Then let Christ and His goodness, His love and sacrifice, be the theme of your sermons. "Nothing can take so strong a hold on the heart as the abiding sense of our responsibility to God. Nothing reaches so fully down to the deepest motives of conduct as a sense of the pardoning love of Christ."—The Desire of Ages, p. 493. J.R.S.