Face to Face With the Real Gospel, Dennis E. Priebe, Pacific Press Publishing Association, Boise, Idaho, 1985, $6.95, paper, 96 pages; Perfect in Christ, Helmut Ott, Review and Herald Publishing Association, Hagerstown, Md., 1987, $14.95, 208 pages.
Two significant books produced in the past three years focus on the gospel: Dennis Priebe's Face to Face With the Real Gospel and Helmut Ott's Perfect in Christ. Written in a polemical style, these two books approach salvation from practically opposite poles. Priebe's ultimate focus is on sanctification, while Ott's is on justification.
An in-depth review of these two books would require the entire magazine and more. Consequently we must content ourselves with only a brief look at each.
Face to Face With the Real Gospel, by Dennis Priebe
Priebe begins by saying that two gospels are being preached in the church today (p. 8). He claims that the reason for this is that the church has "never formally defined our beliefs in these three critical areas--sin, Christ, and perfection" (p. 9).
To him, "sin is not basically the way man is, but the way man chooses" (p. 17). It follows that "if sin is not nature but choice, then Christ could inherit our fallen, sinful nature without thereby be coming a sinner" (ibid.). While maintaining that Christ inherited just what we inherit, he favors the concept that "Christ . . . was born much as we are reborn" (p. 55).
Finally, "biblical perfection is total victory over sin, when, through total submission to Christ's power, sin be comes so repulsive that we have no desire to transgress God's will. . . . The purpose of biblical perfection is not primarily to save us but to honor Christ. It is not the eradication of our sinful nature, but the restoration of that nature through a relationship with Christ" (pp. 19, 20).
Priebe's final chapter, "Man's Impossibility--God's Possibility," contains some excellent material that gives a person courage in fighting the good fight of faith. He ends up on the positive note that God has promised to give us victory over all sin God can keep us from falling. This is a glorious prospect!
But while the content of Priebe's book, generally speaking, adheres to traditional Adventist thinking, it has several major problems. The main problem is the lack of balance. On the definition of sin, Priebe offers readers only two choices: they must understand sin either as nature or as choice. He omits the third option, to which many Adventists sub scribe, that man is sinful both in nature (inherited) and by choice (cultivated). An emphasis on one over the other distorts the truth.
Priebe uses his sin-as-choice definition as an argument supporting his view that Christ took a sinful nature. Are people unable to gain victory over sin unless they accept this definition of sin and this view of Christ's human nature? Unfortunately, rigid theological equations such as this produce confusion and confrontation.
Another imbalance is seen in the book's major thrust. In his efforts to make sanctification prominent, the author has virtually ignored justification, or imputed righteousness. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to depict Christian perfection accurately without considering Christ's imputed righteousness.
We cannot minutely define every aspect of the plan of salvation--the Bible does not lay out every detail. For in stance, in no place does Scripture offer a complete, systematic, theological definition of sin, the human nature of Christ, or perfection. Jesus taught the way of life mainly through parables, not in theological propositions. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to lead each person into an understanding of the gospel.
I want to make it clear, however, that Priebe has given an emphasis needed in our pulpits today. In 1890 Ellen G. White wrote: "We hear a great deal about faith, but we need to hear a great deal more about works. Many are deceiving their own souls by living an easy going, accommodating, crossless religion. But Jesus says 'If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me'" (Selected Messages, book 1, p. 382). If we preach obedience in a caring, loving way, surely our people will respond, lifting their sights to obeying God's will with His help.
Perfect in Christ, by Helmut Ott
Readers who long for the assurance of salvation will find comfort in the pages of this book--it carries throughout, as a major theme, the imputation of Christ's righteousness. Undoubtedly, this work gives an emphasis that needs to be set forth loud and clear throughout our movement.
Ott states that his objectives in writing this book were: "First, to restore Christ's high-priestly ministry to the forefront of our attention and refine our understanding of what Jesus... is presently doing. Second, to enhance our relationship with Christ as our mediator and remind us that His atoning death, redemptive victory, and saving righteousness are the only basis of our acceptance with God, our only hope of salvation. And third, to provide a fairly systematic and reason ably comprehensive structure to the many teachings we find on this subject in Ellen White's writings" (pp. 13, 14).
Many will judge him successful in meeting the first two objectives. However, some will feel that he failed to accomplish the third.
Ott's summary gives an overview of the points he makes in each chapter. In the first chapter, he brings out that "the believer totally depends upon Christ for a right standing with the Father because God requires perfect righteousness, and man is incapable of producing it" (p. 158).
The second chapter expands this theme. In this chapter Ott repeatedly emphasizes that any obedience the Christian renders is defiled because people are sinners. "Nothing that sinful beings can render to God is acceptable on its own merits" (p. 159).
In the third chapter he points out that "no fallen being has ever reached the goal of unblemished spiritual perfection outside of Christ" (p. 160).
In the fourth chapter he emphasizes an important concept that a true, humble, obedient believer never forgets: "Those who live nearest to Jesus have at least the following characteristics: 1. They have come to appreciate the beauty of Christ's holy character, and therefore see their own sinfulness. 2. They have a clear understanding of the far-reaching nature of God's requirements, and therefore realize how far they really are from meeting the standard He requires for salvation. 3. They adequately sense the terribleness of sin and . . . the frailty and sinfulness of humanity, and therefore know their total dependence on Christ. 4. They live in a state of 'continual repentance and faith in the blood of Christ,' fully aware that their salvation depends, not on their own goodness, but on God's infinite grace" (p. 161).
Every Christian needs to have these four points written bold and large on his or her heart. I have often said to my wife, "If I am saved, it won't be my fault!"
Ott deals a telling blow to the fanatical arguments of some proponents of perfectionism. He is to be commended for his emphasis on salvation through Christ and His merits alone--that must not be controverted.
However, as with all books, this one has certain weaknesses. Again, the word imbalance is most appropriate in describing the thrust of the book. The way the author expresses certain points may lead readers to conclude that sanctification is relatively unimportant in the individual Christian's life. Ott virtually ignores imparted righteousness. He veers away from, or at least minimizes, any victory over sin the believer may experience--even though the victory comes through the power of Christ. I wish he would not have left us with the impression that Christ-centered sanctification and Christ-centered justification are mutually exclusive. In short, Ott deals a serious blow to the fanatical pressure of some proponents of perfectionism, yet he fails to deal an equally telling blow to the fanatical proponents of an extreme justification that ultimately leads to antinomianism.
The author seems to have an aversion to obedience, even when it comes through Christ's help. He claims that obedience is seriously flawed. The repeated emphasis of this point could lead one who is struggling with sin to come to the conclusion that victory really isn't necessary, or at best is low on the scale of priorities. But contrary to what Ott says, while man of himself can do nothing and his works are never meritorious, a thrilling part of the Christian's experience is that one can be an overcomer through the operation of the Holy Spirit in the life. The virtual omission of this concept in Ott's work is a serious error and gives a warped, one-sided view of the plan of salvation.
His description of repentance includes the believer's recognition of "both his guilt and the inadequacy of what he is, what he has, and what he does to secure God's approval" (p. 158). But Ott does not specify that repentance includes a turning away from sin.
Under the heading "Perfect Obedience through Substitution" Ott introduces a quotation from Steps to Christ that indicates that man cannot perfectly obey God's holy law (Perfect in Christ, p. 42, citing Steps to Christ, p. 62). The part quoted ends with the statement "Christ's character stands in place of your character, and you are accepted before God just as if you had not sinned."
The statement quoted undoubtedly refers to justification. However, characteristically, Ott leaves out the next paragraph in Steps to Christ, which gives balance by describing imparted righteousness, or sanctification: "More than this, Christ changes the heart. He abides in your heart by faith. You are to maintain this connection with Christ by faith and the continual surrender of your will to Him; and so long as you do this, He will work in you to will and to do according to His good pleasure. . . . Then with Christ working in you, you will manifest the same spirit and do the same good works--works of righteousness, obedience" (pp. 62, 63).
The thrust of this latter statement is virtually unexpressed throughout Ott's entire book. His selective use of quotations leaves the impression that imparted righteousness is insignificant and that one is saved regardless of his response to God's love.
Ott mixes statements from the chapter on the wedding garment in Christ's Object Lessons (pp. 307-319) with other Ellen White statements in such a way as to imply that, like the other statements he quotes, this chapter speaks only of Christ's imputed righteousness, that the wedding garment represents only Christ's imputed righteousness (see Perfect in Christ, pp. 17ff). But this implication runs counter to what Ellen White actually says in that chapter. When one reads her entire discussion there, it be comes abundantly clear that she centers her explanation of the parable on the guests' characters. The first paragraph of the chapter declares: "By the marriage is represented the union of humanity with divinity; the wedding garment represents the character which all must possess who shall be accounted fit guests for the wed ding" (p. 307).
And Ellen White makes clear that, in her thinking, imparted righteousness enters into the composition of the wedding garment. Though she says that "this robe, woven in the loom of heaven, has in it not one thread of human devising," she continues: "Christ in His humanity wrought out a perfect character, and this character He offers to impart to us.... By His perfect obedience He has made it possible for every human being to obey God's commandments. When we submit ourselves to Christ, the heart is united with His heart, the will is merged in His will, the mind becomes one with His mind, the thoughts are brought into captivity to Him; we live His life. This is what it means to be clothed with the garment of His righteousness. Then as the Lord looks upon us He sees, not the fig-leaf garment, not the nakedness and deformity of sin, but His own robe of righteousness, which is perfect obedience to the law of Jehovah" (ibid., pp. 311,312).
Ott repeatedly makes statements that can be taken the wrong way. He says, for instance, that "the believer's obedience has no value with God, first, because it is partial and imperfect and therefore de serves not divine approval but condemnation, and second, because the believer's sinful nature defiles everything he does and thus renders it unacceptable to God" (p. 159).
If he simply means that the believer's works in no way merit salvation, he is correct. But when he uses the phrase "believer's obedience," one assumes that he is referring to the surrendered, obedient Christian to whom Christ imparts His righteousness. Certainly what God per forms in Christians meets His approval, is pleasing to Him, and does not deserve condemnation. Didn't God commend the faith and obedience of Abraham, Noah, Elijah, Mary Magdalene, and a host of others? If Christians were in a constant state of condemnation because of their tainted obedience, they would be of all people most unhappy. God forbid!
Finally, Ott's attempt to explain Ellen White's use of the biblical expression "partakers of the divine nature" seems problematic to me. Ott rightly claims that this divine nature is not "something belonging to the dimension of concrete physical reality" (p. 67). But his further explanation of what it means to be a par taker of the divine nature is unsatisfactory. He says: "The believer 'becomes a partaker of the divine nature' when--and by reason of the fact that--he exercises 'faith in Christ, his atoning sacrifice.' Clearly, the righteousness of Christ is not a spiritual substance or a moral element that somehow gets infused into the believer. Instead, it is an intrinsic quality of Christ's own holy character--a merit, a value, a virtue--that He, as man's representative and substitute, can share with or impute to those who by faith accept Him as personal Saviour" (p. 68).
If I understand the author correctly, he is saying that the Christian's experience of the divine nature is never subjective. Christ experiences it for the Christian and imputes--never imparts--it to us. In this section Ott neglects to say anything about the operation of the Holy Spirit in the Christian's life.
We agree that no Christian becomes physically divine. But in my opinion Ott's approach robs a person of the joyful experience of a Spirit-inspired, victorious life. How much would the Christian life be impoverished if Christ did not of fer His saints, here and now, a literal, tangible, spiritual experience of peace and joy! The Holy Spirit does bring a definite subjective, literal, spiritual experience of happiness into the victorious believer's heart. It is certainly true that the justification imputed to my account because of Christ's victory over sin is supremely wonderful. Yet I want and must have the shackles of sin broken in order to fully experience what it means to be a partaker of the divine nature.
Just after the 1888 General Conference session, E. R. Jones wrote several articles for the Review that presented some extreme concepts regarding salvation. In chapter 6 of his book, Ott deals fairly extensively with this incident, drawing particularly from a letter Ellen White wrote to Jones in response to these articles. There she spoke of the danger of "those who pick out from the Word of God, and also from the Testimonies, detached paragraphs or sentences that may be interpreted to suit their ideas, and they dwell upon these, and build them selves up in their own positions, when God is not leading them" (Selected Messages, book 1, p. 179). Ironically, this counsel seems as apropos to Ott as it was to Jones.
Striking a balance
Adventists seem to fall into three groups. Those carrying the perfectionist/ works flag will be attracted to Priebe's book, while those carrying the anti perfectionist/faith-alone flag will rally around Ott's. Those who favor a more balanced approach comprise the third group. (They would appreciate Arnold Wallenkampf s just-published What Every Christian Should Know About Being justified—see box.)
Although readers would probably have to be schizophrenic to agree with every concept in both Priebe's and Ott's books, they would obtain a more balanced view of imputed and imparted righteousness if they read these two books together. Unfortunately, too many read with one eye and hear with one ear. Division, conflict, and confusion are the result.
For instance, people whose con sciences are extremely sensitive, who loving the Lord—attempt to obey Him to the best of their ability, may be overwhelmed and discouraged by an imbalanced perfectionistic presentation of the gospel. On the other hand, frees-pirited, liberal Christians may find in an imbalanced presentation of a forensic, objective justification-alone thrust just the excuse they need to drift into sin and apostasy.
Self-righteous, pharisaical, works-oriented Christians need to hear what Ott has to say in his book. And people in the clutches of disobedient behavior, who have little or no faith in the Saviour's ability to deliver them from sin's slavery, need to hear what Priebe has to say.
Years ago I determined never to preach a sermon on the doctrine of justification without balancing it with the doctrine of sanctification, and vice versa. I believe that likewise, especially in the area of the plan of salvation, we should publish only books that are very carefully balanced.
Nor, though we live in an age of specialization, can we afford to be super definitive about every detail of the gospel. Any attempt to be so inevitably results in misunderstanding. There is a mystery about salvation that defies an absolute, detailed explanation.
As Christians, our desperate need is to know Jesus Christ on a personal basis. Our desperate need is to have a daily fellowship with Him through prayer, study, and witnessing. Our desperate need is to have His Spirit possess our lives and hearts until we overflow with His love for lost people. Our desperate need is to know that it was because of our sins, our waywardness, our rebellion, that Christ died for us. .
Do we believe that His sacrifice and His perfect life form the foundation of our salvation? Do we believe that the Holy Spirit can end the rebellion in our hearts and replace it with surrender and obedience to His will? Do we believe that His grace is sufficient to enable us to overcome any cultivated and hereditary evil practices?
I know that no matter how much I may achieve through the grace of God in the realm of sanctification, I am ever dependent upon Christ's justification. I join Ellen White, who at the age of 66 said to a group of students: "I loathe myself. I would clothe myself in sackcloth and ashes and cry, 'Unclean, unclean.' The only cleanness that I can have is that which is in Jesus Christ" (manuscript 15, 1894).
What Every Christian Should Know About Being Justified, Ar nold V. Wallenkampf, Review and Herald Publishing Associa tion, Hagerstown, Md., 1988, $14.95, 152 pages.
A. V. Wallenkampf reminds us (on p. 103) that Ellen White once wrote: "Many commit the error of trying to define minutely the fine points of distinction between justification and sanctification. . . . Why try to be more minute than is Inspiration on the vital question of righteousness by faith?" (The SDA Bible Commentary, Ellen G. White Comments, vol. 6, p. 1072).
In the 18 short chapters his book contains, Wallenkampf seems to have followed this advice, presenting the gospel in a beautifully well-balanced way. Chapter 17 alone--on Christian perfection--is worth the price of the book and should be read and digested by every Seventh-day Adventist.
The abundance of references, illustrations, and quotations he uses will enrich many a sermon on the subject of salvation. This book is a must for every minister's library and should be recommended to our members. It can and should also be used as a missionary book.