Righteousness by faith and standards

Standards are not truly elevated by whipping the sheep into shape.

J.R. Spangler is the editor of Ministry.

The story is told about a saint walking down the road and meeting an angel carrying a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. The saint asked, "What are the torch and water for?" Replied the angel, "The torch is to burn down the mansions of heaven and the water is to put out the flames of hell. Then we shall see who really loves God."

Why do people profess to love God? Why do we serve Him? How much does the concept of reward and punishment figure into our relationship with God?

These questions relate very directly to lifestyle. What are my standards? What motivates me to keep a standard? Why have standards?

More discussion and debate are generated on the topic of standards than on any other single subject. The committee overseeing preparation of our doctrinal book Seventh-day Adventists Believe . . . spent more time discussing chapter 21, "Christian Behavior," than any other chapter. Why? Because standards focus on the tangiblethe visiblethe touch able the doables! What one believes about the work of the Holy Spirit or the nature of Christ doesn't "hang out." But what you wear, drink, eat, and where you go and the things you participate in are obvious.

Requirements and guidelines

David Newman touches on the difference between teachings and fundamental beliefs in his article titled "Standards Define Relationships" in this issue. The concluding part of the chapter on Christian behavior in the book Seventh-day Adventists Believe . . . expresses the same concept under the heading "Requirements and Guidelines." This carefully worded section reads "Because of the impact a person's lifestyle makes upon his spiritual experience and his witness, as a church organization we have set certain lifestyle standards as minimal requirements for becoming members. These standards include the abstention from tobacco, alcoholic beverages, mind-altering chemicals, and unclean flesh foods, and the evidence of a growing Christian experience in matters of dress and the use of leisure time. These minimal standards do not comprehend all of God's ideal for the believer. They simply signify essential first steps in developing a growing, radiant Christian experience. Such standards also provide the foundation essential to unity within the community of believers.

"The development of Christian behavior'God-likeness'is progressive, involving a lifelong union with Christ. Holy living is nothing less than a daily yielding of the will to Christ's control and a daily conformity to His teachings as He reveals them to us in our Bible study and prayer. Because we mature at different rates, it is important that we refrain from judging weaker brothers or sisters (Rom. 14:1; 15:1).

"Christians in union with the Saviour have but one ideal: that they shall do their best to honor the heavenly Father, who has provided such a rich plan for their salvation. 'Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God' (1 Cor. 10:31)" (p. 289).

Note a few points in this passage. First, the church is a group of individuals "called out" from the secular world to be a witness and blessing to the world. Thus, the church has "set certain life style standards as minimal requirements for becoming members." These requirements are nonnegotiable unless the church agrees to change them at a General Conference session.

Second, "these minimal standards do not comprehend all of God's ideal for the believer." If we accept the fact that "God's ideal for His children is higher than the highest human thought can reach" (The Desire of Ages, p. 311), we will seek to continually elevate standards in our lives.

Third, "standards . . . provide the foundation essential to unity within the community of believers." A spiritual fellowship with believers in the same communion is quite impossible unless there exists a common thread of belief and life style. I find no difficulty in enjoying fellowship with those with whom I may not see eye to eye on the nature of Christ, but for me it is difficult to enjoy a deep, intimate Christian fellowship with a meat-eating, coffee-drinking, wine-sipping, jewelry-laden, rock-and-roll-music-loving, gambling, etc., etc., member. Our spirits just don't match. We have very little in common. As a community of believers, we should have similar lifestyle standards if unity is to prevail. This illustrates the basic reason for the existence of the church. The church is a called-out group of people who are joined to Christ and to each other by virtue of common agreement on doctrines, beliefs, and standards. We live and interact together as a unified people having the mind of Christ.

Fourth, "Christian behavior'Godlikeness'is progressive, involving a lifelong union with Christ." Since Christians mature at different rates, it is imperative that we refrain from judging others. As Paul says: "Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother's way" (Rom. 14:13, NKJV). This is a most critical point. It requires God's grace to not have negative feelings toward those whose lifestyle does not measure up to our standards! I remember the horribly wrong attitude that I held in my early years of ministry toward any woman in the church who wore a wedding ring. My American-Adventist culture led to judgmentalism. Neither my wife nor I wear a wedding ring and never intend to, but God forbid that I should judge anyone who wears one. I constantly pray for the Holy Spirit to create in me a love for ray fellow church members even if they do not measure up to what I consider minimal standards. An attitude of condemnation never touches other lives redemptively. During my 40-plus years of ministry, I have seen great harm done by those who are preoccupied with externals, who have treated others harshly for some supposed failure to live up to a particular standard. I have heard Adventist preachers rant and rave, to put it mildly, on so-called standards. Many a sheep left the meeting hall bloodied and battered from such histrionics.

Raising the standards

Let it not be said that the editors of Ministry are attempting to lower standards! Never! We want to raise them! But standards are not truly elevated through whipping the sheep into shape.

Taking the Bible as our guide, Seventh-day Adventists have established a detailed set of standards. Ellen White's counsel is quite explicit on numerous lifestyle standards. But this fact can make Adventism dangerous! How? It can produce two types of tares in the wheat field.

One group, which usually includes those who have been members for a rather long time, has failed to grow in grace. They have slipped into a behavior pattern that denies the converting power of the Holy Spirit. Their understanding of the gospel ignores the necessity of any response or accountability to the Lord. This faulty understanding of God's unconditional love leads them to believe in unconditional salvation. The motto of this group in the "cheap grace" camp is "Do what you want; God understands!"

The second group includes those who meticulously and rigorously conform to church requirements and guidelines related to lifestyle, believing that sanctification is the root, not the fruit, of their salvation! This all too often leads to a supercritical, legalistic attitude. These become the judges of those members who, for one reason or another, fail to exhibit a "correct" lifestyle.

Righteousness by faith

Righteousness by faith, properly studied, accepted, believed, and practiced, is the answer to the standards problem in the church. God's love is unconditional. But do not confuse this with unconditional salvation. There is a vast difference. God's unconditional love tells me Christ died for the ungodly, and that means me and everyone else (Rom. 5:6)! Unconditional love tells me that while we were still sinners Christ died for us (verse 8)! Unconditional love tells me that while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the cross (verse 10). Let's face it, the Lord never taught or said, "Since you quit smoking, I love you" or "When you take off your jewelry, I will love you" or "Provided you stop dancing, I will accept you!" God loves us, accepts us, and died for us while we were without strength, ungodly, sinners, and enemies!

This concept is difficult for performance-oriented sinful beings to accept. Unconditional love is so incomprehensible to us. I myself struggle to accept the idea that God's love for me is unaffected even if I falter or deviate in any way from reaching some standard.

Someone exclaims, "Your type of theology will destroy standards!" But this is not the case. The converting power of understanding the unconditional love of God markedly changes the attitude and motives of a person. In Galatians 4, Paul's illustration of being a son versus a slave helps us to understand unconditional love. Since God sent His Son to redeem us, "we are no longer slaves but sons, and as sons we are heirs of God through Christ" (see verse 7).

My heavenly Father loves me on the basis of who I am, not what I do. If my relationship to Him is based on my performance and not on my position as His son/daughter, I will ever be in a state of anxiety. There is no peace for the Christian who seeks the assurance of salvation through performance, for the simple reason that we will never know how much performance is enough to gain God's acceptance. The perfectionistic Christian is of all people most miserable. This condition constitutes slavery, not a son or daughter relationship.

Conversely, if performance-oriented Christians ever become satisfied with their performance, then pride takes over and with pride comes the inevitable attitude of condemnation toward all those who do not perform according to their standards.

Those who operate on righteousness-by-faith principles act on the basis of a son or daughter relationship. Performance is a response to the Father's unconditional love. And above all, righteousness-by-faith-oriented Christians always see themselves as faulty and imperfect. They see more defects in their life and character as they draw closer to Jesus. Does this bring discouragement? Never. It results in a constant attitude of gratitude and a more intense desire to reach a higher standard through His enabling power.

I repeat, the deeper the understanding of righteousness by faith based on God's unconditional love, the greater the desire to obey all of God's commandments. Whatever the standard, we are happy to do our very best. The desire to know more of God's will increases! Like the prodigal son, when we return home, we want to leave the pigpen behind us. When we fail, we are pained because we have brought pain to the heart of our Lord. But we know that He still loves us unconditionally and will not cast us out.

Obedience that responds to unconditional love no longer needs either the fire or the mansion for motivation. J. Robert Spangler.

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J.R. Spangler is the editor of Ministry.

October 1989

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More Articles In This Issue

How Adventist teenagers perceive their church

A recent survey reveals what Adventist youth think of their church, whether they plan to remain in it, and why.

The historical basis of Adventist standards

A look at how our standards originated and have changed through the years can help us address the need for change today.

Church standards today: where are we going?

What function do church standards serve? And what effect does the passage of time and the growth of the church have on the relevance of those standards?

Standards define relationships

Are some standards absolute and some cultural? Do we need to change some standards?

Gospel, culture, and mission

The applications of the same biblical principles vary in differing cultures. These differences, which Scripture warrants, comprise part of the fertilizer that stimulates church growth.

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