Conditionalism: a cornerstone of Adventist doctrine

Salvation, immortality, and prophecy are all conditional for Christians. What are these conditions?

Tim Crosby, a pastor in the Georgia-Cumberland Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, writes from Ellijay, Georgia.

Some of the most important doctrines in Seventh-day Adventist theology are summarized in what I call the five C's: Christ, the cross, the Second Coming, the commandments," and conditionalism. The first four C's need little explanation; this article focuses on the meaning of the fifth.

Conditional immortality

It is commonly believed among evangelical Christians that man is different from the animals in that he possesses an immortal soul. But in the Creation account, both animals and men are called souls. The Hebrew word for soul, nephesh, used of Adam in Genesis 2:7, is used of animals in Genesis 1:21, 24; 2:19; 9:10, 12, 15, 16, etcetera, where it is translated "living creature." Sea creatures are called souls in Revelation 16:3. Basically, a soul is a living creature—whether man or animal.

Nowhere in Scripture is the soul ever called eternal or immortal. On the contrary, souls are said to die (Eze. 18:4; Lev. 23:29, 30; Matt. 10:28; Rev. 16:3). God alone has immortality (1 Tim. 6:14-16). Immortality is said to be something for which the righteous seek (Rom. 2:7). Why should we seek for that which we already have?

At present the dead are in the dust (Job 7:21; Dan. 12:2), in the graves (John 5:28), in the tomb (Job 21:32). The righteous dead are not in heaven praising God (Ps. 115:17; 6:5; 30:9; Isa. 38:18). Even David is in the grave, and not in heaven (Acts 2:29, 34).

The righteous do not become inherently immortal until the resurrection at the second coming of Christ (1 Cor. 15:53, 54). The wicked are not now and never will be immortal. After they are destroyed at the end of the millennium (Rev. 20:7-9), the wicked will cease to exist. They will be destroyed root and branch, and turned into ashes (Mal. 4:1, 3). God will destroy both the body and the soul in hell (Matt. 10:28). Even the devil will be destroyed (Eze.28:14-19), In fact, death itself will be destroyed (Rev. 20:14). Thus the Bible teaches that immortality is in the future and is bestowed on condition of faithfulness. Note that inherent immortality is not to be confused with eternal life, which the righteous possess by faith now, in Christ, not in themselves (1 John 5:11).

Conditional prophecy

The Scriptures teach that all of the prophecies, covenants, promises, and threats found in the Scriptures are conditional whether or not a condition is stated; their fulfillment is contingent upon man's response to God's commands. Promises of blessing cannot be fulfilled to a disobedient nation or individual, and prophecies of punishment will not be fulfilled against the repentant. This principle is clearly stated in Jeremiah 18:740.

There are a number of examples of conditional prophecy in the Scriptures, as the following list illustrates. First we note instances in which promised doom was averted by repentance, then instances in which promised blessing was averted by wickedness.

• Jonah's prediction that Nineveh would be destroyed was not fulfilled (Jonah 3:4, 10), even though his prophecy of doom was not qualified by any stated conditions.

• God's prophecies of Jerusalem's destruction in the days of Hezekiah were not fulfilled when the people repented (Jer. 26:18, 19).

• Isaiah's prophecy that Hezekiah would soon die of his present sickness was not fulfilled (2 Kings 20:1-6).

• God promised through Elijah to punish Ahab, then relented when Ahab repented (1 Kings 21:17-29).

• Because of Eli's disobedience, God retracted His promise that his descendants would serve the Lord forever (1 Sam. 2:30).

• God's promise to bring the Israelites who came out of Egypt into the Promised Land (Ex. 6:8) was not fulfilled (Num. 14:30-34).

• Though God through Moses promised the Israelites they would never see the Egyptians again (Ex. 14:13), He threatened to break that promise if they were disobedient (Deut. 28:58, 68).

• Ezekiel 5 contains God's promise to destroy Jerusalem, which was fulfilled a few years later (586 B.C.). Here God promised never to repeat this terrible punishment (verses 9, 10), but the same sort of destruction happened in A.D. 70.

• God promised Aaron and his sons a perpetual priesthood that would last throughout their generations (Ex. 40:15; Num. 25:13). Yet the Levitical priesthood was replaced with the Melchizedekian (Hebrews 7).

Conditionalism helps us to understand why many of the prophecies of the Old Testament, such as the description of the new Temple in the last nine chapters of Ezekiel, were never literally fulfilled. Some prophecies will never be literally fulfilled on earth because their fulfillment was conditional upon the Jews' remaining faithful in their covenant relationship with God. The promise that Israel would inherit the land of Canaan was clearly conditional on their obedience (Deut. 4:25-31; 11:13-17, 22-28; 28:1-68; 29:22-30:10; 30:15-20; 31:16-29; Jeremiah 7; 17:24-27). Though they were God's chosen people, God threatened them with destruction for unfaithfulness (Deut. 8:19, 20).

The New Testament teaches that literal Israel, as a nation, has been rejected by God. The nation finally sealed its fate when it crucified its promised King. Because the Jews rejected the Promiser, they lost the promises; because they rejected the King, they lost the kingdom. This is clearly stated in the allegorical parable of Israel's history in Matthew 21:33-43. According to verse 43, the kingdom of God was to be taken from the Jews and given to another "nation"—namely, the Christian church (1 Peter 2:9; Rev. 1:6). Christ also foretold in two other parables the rejection of the Jewish nation as His people (Matt. 8:11, 12; 22:1-14). "Your house," Christ said, "is left unto you desolate" (chap. 23:38), and Paul said that God's wrath had finally come upon them (1 Thess. 2:16). Thus the promises to the Jews were nullified by their own apostasy.

The New Testament teaches that physical descent from Abraham is meaningless (Luke 3:8; John 8:39-44); it is Abraham's spiritual descendants—those who accept Christ as the Messiah—who are now God's special people and who inherit all the Old Testament kingdom promises (Gal. 3:7, 28, 29). There is now no difference between Jew and Gentile in regard to salvation or God's favor (chap. 3:28; Eph. 2:11-15; Rom. 10:12, 13). In fact, the term Jew itself is redefined in the New Testament to mean the true followers of Christ (Rom. 2:28, 29; Phil. 3:3). Not only did the Christian church appropriate the title "Jews"; the members also called themselves "Israel" (Gal. 6:14-16; Rom. 9:6). Therefore James could address his Epistle "to the twelve tribes" (James 1:1), even though he was writing to Christians. Many of the promises made to Israel in the Old Testament are appropriated by the Christian church in the New and will be fulfilled only in the age to come.

Does God change?

Properly understood, the concept of conditional prophecy does not imply that God is changeable or wishy-washy in relation to man. God's very unchangeableness in His essential nature and attitude toward sin requires Him to change His tactics when His people change their attitude toward Him. Water's unchanging property of always seeking the lowest level makes it constantly change its position, sometimes sitting placidly, other times raging and cutting. God does not change, but His children's changing relationship to Him sometimes makes it impossible for Him to fulfill His promises to them.

Conditional salvation

There are two different sorts of organizations in the world: those that allow their members to leave whenever they wish, and those that compel members to remain against their will. Which of these groups is more like the kingdom of heaven? Many evangelical Christians believe that Christ's kingdom is more like the second group in that once you are in, it is impossible to get out. This viewpoint is popularly labeled "once saved, always saved."

While the Bible asserts that men are saved by faith apart from the works of the law, and that salvation is a free gift of God's grace (Rom. 11:6; Gal. 2:16; Titus 3:5; Eph. 2:8), it also clearly asserts that the believer retains his salvation only on condition of obedience: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father" (Matt. 7:21, RSV). Only those who keep Christ's word (John 8:51), who keep His commandments (chap. 15:10, 14), who persevere in doing good (Rom. 2:7), will be saved. We maintain our salvation only if we abide in Christ's word (John 8:31).

if we suffer with Christ (Rom. 8:17).

if we continue in God's kindness (chap. 11:22).

if we hold firmly to the apostles' word (1 Cor. 15:2).

if we do not grow weary and lose heart (Gal. 6:9).

if we continue in the faith (Col. 1:22, 23). if we continue in right doctrine (1 Tim. 4:16).

if we endure and do not deny Him (2 Tim. 2:12; Matt. 10:32, 33).

if we hold fast our confidence firmly unto the end (Heb. 3:6, 1244).

if we have endurance and do not shrink back (chap. 10:35-39).

if what we have heard abides in us (1 John 2:24).

Perseverance and salvation; in the foregoing statements, all are conditions to our salvation. Thus it is correct to say that our salvation is conditional upon our perseverance (Mark 13:13; Rom. 2:7; James 1:12; 2 Peter 1:5-11; Rev. 2:10, 11, 26). This is really only a special case of the general rule of conditional prophecy discussed earlier that states that promises of good are fulfilled only on condition of obedience.

Salvation is represented by the wedding garment (Isa. 61:10; Matt. 22:1- 14). The garment signifies primarily the imparted righteousness of Christ (cf. Col. 3:9-14; Rev. 3:18; 19:8) and is a free gift. But it must be worn to obtain admission to the feast. It must not be taken off (Rev. 16:15). If soiled (chap. 3:4), it must be washed (chaps. 7:14; 22:14). Otherwise, salvation is lost (chaps. 3:11; 22:19).

According to Ezekiel 33:13 (cf. chap. 18:24), when a righteous man turns wicked he will die and all his righteousness will be forgotten.

The ungrateful debtor had his sins forgiven, and then had that forgiveness revoked when he acted unmercifully toward his own servant (Matt. 18:21- 35).

The faithful steward of Luke 12:42 is in a state of salvation (verse 44), but if he becomes disobedient (verse 45), he is assigned a place with the unbelievers (verse 46).

According to 2 Peter 2:20-22, those who have "escaped the defilements of the world" (RSV; cf. chap. 1:4) through the knowledge (Greek epignosis, used only of saved individuals; cf. 1 Tim. 2:4; Heb. 10:26-29) of Christ and who then turn back to the world are worse off than if they had never been saved.

Names once written in the book of life can be blotted out again (Rev. 3:5; 22:19).

Every unfruitful branch in Christ is cut off and burned (John 15:1-6). The expression in Christ can refer only to a once-saved person. The same symbolism is used in Romans 11:17-24, which pictures God's people as a tree, with individual Gentile Christians represented by grafted-in branches that will be cut off again if they are unfaithful (verse 22).

Individuals who have once been saved but who fall away cannot be restored while they continue to crucify the Son of God afresh (Heb. 6:4-8).

A person who has been sanctified by the blood of the covenant but continues in willful sin will have no atonement for his sins and will be consumed with fire when the Lord judges His people (chap. 10:26-30).

This does not mean that every sinful mistake causes us to lose our salvation. There are degrees of sin; note how Psalm 19:12, 13 discriminates between hidden faults and presumptuous sins. It is continued, willful sin (Heb. 10:26), not a momentary lapse, that causes the loss of salvation.

The possibility of falling from grace does not deprive the faithful Christian of assurance of salvation any more than the legal possibility of divorce deprives one of assurance of the loyalty of one's spouse. John, who is so insistent that a man's salvation is shown by his actions (1 John 1:6, 7; 2:3-6; 3:6-10, 24), is also insistent that we may have certainty about our salvation (chaps. 4:13, 17, 18; 5:13). Our confidence is in Christ, "who is able to keep you from falling and to present you without blemish before the presence of his glory" (Jude 24, RSV). We can be sure that as long as we practice these things, we will never stumble (2 Peter 1:10).


What, then, does Bible conditionalism tell us about the God we serve? It tells us that He is responsive to us and is even willing to temporarily set aside His own plan in order to let us have our way, so that in the end all of creation may see that God's way is best. It tells us that we are not puppets in a play, but that God has at infinite cost to Himself purchased our freedom. We are truly and terribly free to determine our own destiny. Only total love can bestow such total freedom upon the beloved. Such love commands our total allegiance and trust.

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Tim Crosby, a pastor in the Georgia-Cumberland Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, writes from Ellijay, Georgia.

August 1986

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