Judgment or justification?

Many have rejected the idea of an investigative judgment. Why? Is this Adventist doctrine biblical?

Roy Adams, Ph.D., is an associate editor of Adventist Review.

Historically, Adventists have understood the investigative judgment to represent the second and final phase of Christ's priestly ministry for mankind. This judgment, currently in session, involves the individual examination of God's professed people, dead and alive.

Probably no other doctrine taught by Seventh-day Adventists has occasioned more ridicule and contempt than that of the investigative judgment. Virtually all non-Adventist theologians react negatively. Even within the Adventist Church, prominent leaders have from time to time expressed strong misgivings about the concept.1

This negative reaction seems to arise from a perception that an investigative judgment flies in the face of righteousness by faith and Christian assurance. This was clearly the case with defrocked Adventist minister-evangelist, Albion Fox Ballenger (1861-1921). 2

Ballenger's experience is interesting for this anniversary year. For one thing, he began his ministry in the Adventist Church in the 1880s. And although it is difficult to ascertain the extent to which he was influenced by the righteousness debate of 1888, it is beyond question that it was this doctrine that eventually came to dominate his theology.3

But whereas the 1888 debate had to do with conflicting or competing emphases on law versus grace, Ballenger's concern for righteousness by faith had little, if anything, to do with an Adventist over emphasis on law. "The basis of his indictment was, rather, Adventism's under standing of the doctrine of the sanctuary." For him, this was the heart of Adventist legalism.4

Accordingly, when he undertook his radical reinterpretation of the Adventist sanctuary doctrine, it was to weed out all elements of legalism. Curiously, with just one exception, he retained every major component of traditional Adventist sanctuary theology. The exception: the investigative judgment. This teaching he completely repudiated. 5 Like other critics of this Adventist doctrine, he found it utterly inimical to righteousness by faith and Christian assurance.

Initial assessment of criticism

Seventh-day Adventists are veterans of opposition and disdain; and critics have repeatedly been frustrated by our ability to absorb their theological contumely. Especially does the church lend a deaf ear when the criticism is fundamentally flawed, as it is in this case. For if the notion of an investigative judgment is inimical to righteousness by faith and Christian assurance, then ipso facto, the notion of judgment, per se, must be also.

But how can anyone credibly deny that judgment is a fundamental New Testament teaching? Notice how clearly the concept emerges from these texts: "For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. . . . For we know Him who said, 'Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.'And again, 'The Lord will judge His people' " (Heb. 10:26-30).*

"For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, . . . whether good or bad" (2 Cor. 5:10).

"For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it be gins with us first, what will be the out come for those who do not obey the gospel of God?" (1 Peter 4:17).

If our need for assurance or our emphasis on righteousness by faith, as valid as these are, obscures the biblical teaching of judgment, then we have allowed it to become an obsession. Righteousness by faith and Christian assurance are indeed fundamental New Testament teachings. But so is judgment. We gain nothing, either theologically or experientially, by attempting to negate or neutralize any one of them.

As theologians and Bible students, we do not create theology, we discover it. This implies that we stand (or perhaps better, kneel) before the Word, without prejudice, and listen. To allow any one biblical emphasis to so dominate our thinking as to become a litmus test of the validity of all others is to short-circuit the listening process. This was the mind-set that led Martin Luther, that towering Reformer, to repudiate the book of James.

Theological maturity seeks to hold in balance (sometimes in tension) the various fundamental biblical themes. So, however important righteousness by faith, and however desirable Christian assurance, we cannot neglect the judgment and remain faithful to Scripture.

Understanding our critics

In the light of the unequivocal New Testament affirmation of the judgment, why the continued vigorous criticism of the Adventist position? Our observation at this point suggests two possible reasons, both essentially psychological.

The first has to do with the contemporaneous nature of the investigative judgment. Veteran attorney Louis Nizerre members that "on the morning of the trial all the physical indicia of unbearable trepidation are evident. Hands are clammy, brows . . . wet, cheeks . . . flushed or sickly pale, eyes . . . red-rimmed, voices. . . froggy, there are artificial yawns, dry lips, and . . . frequent visits to the toilet." 6

Adventists have always taught that the judgment is now in session, an announcement potentially unnerving for anyone who has ever been summoned to appear in a human courtroom and who still remembers the shrill voice of the clerk calling all to rise as the judge enters. A judgment at the end of all time or after the millennium does not have the same psychological impact. Distance tends to minimize its terror. Even less disturbing is the theological contrivance that puts this judgment at the cross long ago and far away.

But a judgment in session now! That's ominous!

The second reason is essentially tied up with the first, and revolves around the word investigative. Linked to the contemporary nature of the event, this buzzword conjures up the image of Christians under surveillance by a celestial, cloak-and-dagger, round-the-clock investigative unit. 7

To heighten the tension even further, some Adventist preachers have suggested that at whatever moment this heavenly assize takes up the case of any living person, it passes a final judgment, and there and then closes the probation of that individual. Should this happen at a moment when there was the indulgence of the slightest sin or mischief in the life, the person is lost forever. 8 It is instructive to note that it was this view of the investigative judgment that Ballenger espoused before he repudiated the doctrine entirely. 9

It has not always been easy to provide from Scripture a straightforward demonstration of the notion of an investigative judgment. However, the concept of a pre-Advent decision fairly permeates biblical apocalypse.

For example, in Daniel 12:1, we are informed of an eschatological time of crisis from which only those "found written in the book" will be rescued. And in the apocalyptic account of Matthew we learn that, at the time of the Parousia, a loud trumpet call gathers together the "elect from the four winds" (Matt. 24:30, 31). The contexts of these two passages clearly imply a prior determination of the spiritual standing of these individuals.

In Revelation 16, the seven last plagues, like guided missiles, pursue only those who have "the mark of the beast" (RSV). Obviously, there has been a prior assessment in order to "legally" affix the mark to some and not to others.

The locus classicus of a pre-Advent judgment is Daniel 7. In this apocalyptic passage, the prophet observes in vision the little horn's nefarious activities on earth and simultaneously views a judgment scene in heaven. He switches back and forth from earth to heaven, studying these two arresting scenes, until the notorious little horn is destroyed and judgment given in favor of the saints (see Dan. 7:22). In his recent dissertation, Arthur Ferch successfully demonstrated that these two activities transpire within historical time and, therefore, the judgment of Daniel 7 is pre-Advent.10

One must not advance the useless argument that since God knows every thing, the concept of a pre-Advent judgment is theoretical and unnecessary. Such an approach, carried to its logical conclusion, repudiates the whole biblical notion of judgment. It arises from a theological shallowness that cannot conceive of worlds and systems of created intelligences beyond our own, who, if the uni verse is to be secure, must be satisfied with the integrity of God's election. And the great controversy revolves around the fact that not all such intelligences are friendly.

Enlarging the judgment's scope

Early Adventists may well have found the term investigative judgment sufficient in part because of their own restricted conception of the nature and scope of the activity involved. They perceived only the subjective aspect of this judgment's having to do with our personal standing before God. And, their preoccupation with this aspect of the judgment blinded them to its other important components, just as the preoccupation with righteousness by faith blinds some to the biblical emphasis on judgment.

Standing as they do on the shoulders of these pioneers, contemporary Adventist theologians have grown increasingly conscious of the universal scope of this judgment activity. This consciousness has led them to question whether the word investigative is sufficiently comprehensive to describe it.

Especially does this become evident from a consideration of Daniel 7. Clearly, in this chapter the little horn is a major target of the judgment. This fact alone suffices to show that this judgment has a much broader frame of reference than our pioneers were able to see in their time.

The dimensions expand even further as one compares the activities described in Daniel 7 with those of Revelation 12- 14-n Such a comparison makes it clear: (1) that this judgment is post-cross, coming, as it does, after the end of the 42 months or 1,260 years mentioned in the two accounts; and (2) that its scope is universal.

Revelation 12 and 13 unmask the power behind the beast (the little horn of Daniel 7), portraying it as the dragon, that "ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world" (Rev. 12:7-9, RSV; cf. Rev. 13:1-3). Through his operatives, this evil genius utters blasphemies against God, His name, His sanctuary, and the inhabitants of heaven (see Rev. 13:6). In other words, God Himself stands accused! And herein lies the side of this judgment that our pioneers did not clearly see—the objective side.

To be sure, this judgment does separate God's true saints from the multitudes who falsely claim His name, and in this sense, can be called investigative. Keep in mind that in this great assize books are opened. Whatever else this means, the idea of evaluation, of scrutiny, of investigation, if you please, cannot be ignored. "Not everyone who says . . ., 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 7:21). Evaluation is an essential part of this judgment, and it is this aspect that impressed our pioneers. Unnerving? Yes. But that's what the afflicting of the soul at Yom Kippur was all about (see Lev. 23:26-32).

But the scope of this judgment is much broader. Vindication is its fundamental concern vindication of God's sanctuary, vindication of God's name, vindication of God's people.

We cannot visualize all the ramifications of this judgment, of course. But certainly its focus is the heavenly sanctuary, the seat of God's law and government, the nerve center of human salvation. Upon its vindication hangs the security of the universe. Hence, the theological significance of that cryptic statement in Daniel 8:14: "Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed" (KJV).

This judgment-day message is a far cry from the foot-stomping, amen-'rousing pabulum of much that passes for gospel theology today. But it is a message that takes the fullest account of reality as we know it through experience and revelation.

Prior to the Second Advent, the judgment now in session settles the question of God's love and justice. It confirms the validity and legality of the plan of salvation, and carries in its verdict the final vindication of God's people. It is in this context that we understand the jubilant cry of the heavenly messenger, "Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, because God has pronounced judgment for you against her" (Rev. 18:20).

What assurance! What security!

1. Desmond Ford has listed a whole catalog of Adventist workers he alleges have had serious reservations about the doctrine. See Desmond Ford, "Daniel 8:14, The Day of Atonement, and Investigative Judgment" (unpublished manuscript, 1980), pp. 47-147. Ford himself says flatly that the doctrine is not in the Bible (Ibid., p. 14).

2. Roy Adams, The Sanctuary Doctrine: Three Approaches in the Seventh-day Adventist Church (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 1981), pp. 104-107, 135-140. Cf. Ford, p. 42.

3. Adams, pp. 104-107.

4. Ibid., p. 107.

5. Ibid., p. 136.

6. Louis Nizer, My Life in Court (New York: Pyramid Publications, Inc., 1944), p. 39.

7. Is the term expendable? This is a sensitive question. It sounds so much like tampering with the fundamentals. But the term investigative is not absolutely indispensible to making the case for the doctrine for several years the pioneers were able to do so without it.

The term investigative judgment was apparently first used by Elon Everts in a letter to the Review editor, dated December 17, 1856, arid published in the issue of January 1, 1857 (Paul Gordon, The Sanctuary, 1844, and the Pioneers [Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1983], p. 87). Four weeks later, James White used the terminology in an article, and it soon came into general use among early Adventists, including, of course, Ellen G. White. It was essentially a convenience term, and not all were satisfied with it. Uriah Smith implied he would switch to more appropriate language if such could be found (Adams, p. 81).

The expression pre-Advent would make a good
substitute (ibid., pp. 260-262). Four reasons are:

  1. Acceptance within the church. Pre-Advent has already been bug-tested the expression has been in use in Adventist circles for at least 27 years (see W. E. Read, in Doctrinal Discussions [Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, n.d.], Chaps. Ill, IV) and is finding growing acceptance within contem porary Adventism.
  2. Apologetics. Pre-Advent avoids the unnecessary red-flagging of our critics that investigative seems to involve. Yet, it makes an essential point: this special judgment precedes the parousia.
  3.  Facility of demonstration. It has not always been easy to. provide from Scripture a straightfor ward demonstration of the particular notion of an investigative judgment. However, as my article points out, the concept of a pre-Advent decision fairly permeates biblical apocalypse.
  4. Adequacy of language. As my article suggests, investigative may be too narrow a term for this judgment. Pre-Advent allows a broader scope that can include concepts built on the foundation the pioneers' investigative judgment laid.

8. This frightful interpretation, which we heard from the pulpit as recently as last summer's campmeeting, fortunately cannot be substantiated in authentic Adventism.

9. Adams, pp. 135, 136.

10. For a summary of this finding, see Arthur J. Ferch, in Adventist Review, Oct. 30, 1980, pp. 4-7.

11. That these two apocalyptic sections of Scrip ture are parallel and complementary is beyond question. For example:

a. In Daniel 7:25, God's saints are persecuted "for a time, two times, and half a time" (RSV). Correspondingly, Revelation 12:14 portrays the woman, because of persecution, going underground "for a time, and times, and half a time" (RSV).

b. In Daniel 7:25, the little hom speaks "words against the Most High" and continues for three and a half times (or 42 months). In Revelation 13:5, the beast speaks "arrogant words and blasphemies" against God and continues "for forty-two months" (RSV).

c. In Daniel 7:25, the little horn attempts to change times and the law. In'Revelation 12:17, the dragon rages against those who keep God's law.

d. In Daniel 7:22, 25-27, the persecution of God's people is followed by judgment against their persecutor and a ruling in their favor. In Revelation 14:6ff, judgment is announced against the persecutors, and a ruling (verses 12, 13) is rendered in favor of the saints.


Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus

Roy Adams, Ph.D., is an associate editor of Adventist Review.

February 1988

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

1888--issues, outcomes, lessons

Did the 1888 session yield good for the church or bad? How can we benefit from Ellen White's reaction and counsel?

The men of Minneapolis

How much of the conflict at Minneapolis in 1888 could be attributed to theological differences and how much to personality clashes?

What is the 1888 Message?

While we do not have transcripts of Jones's and Waggoner's talks at that fateful session, we have an impeccable source for the message of righteousness by faith they were to deliver.

Elder Hottel goes to General Conference

R. DeWitt Hottel's diary gives a participant's perspective on the 1888 General Conference session.

The dynamics of salvation

The text of a study document produced in 1980 provides background on the church's current understanding of righteousness by faith.

The biblical gospel of salvation

What is righteousness by faith? Is it only forgiveness, or does it demand moral rectitude?

Corporate repentance

Do church leaders today need to repent for the sins of their predecessors? Does the church as a whole need to repent for what happened in 1888?

Damnation or deliverance?

How does righteousness by faith relate to the messages of the three angels of Revelation 14-God's last warning to the world, the special commission of the Adventist Church?

Have we delayed the Advent?

While Ellen G. White wrote that we can hasten or delay the Lord's return, she also wrote that Jesus would come "at the appointed time." What did she mean?

Must we agree?

Ellen White favored a certain amount of debate in the church. And she believed church unity was to be maintained by other means than legislation or pronouncements by the church's authority figures.

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up
Advertisement - SermonView - Medium Rect (300x250)

Recent issues

See All
Advertisement - SermonView - WideSkyscraper (160x600)