Investigating the investigative judgment

Does the Adventist doctrine of the pre-Advent judgment nullify the gospel?

Clifford Goldstein is the editor of the Adult Bible Study Guide. He has authored 17 books.

No aspect of Seventh-day Adventism has faced more scrutiny, misrepresentation, and criticism than the pre-Advent judgment. While other Adventist doctrines such as the seventh-day Sabbath and conditional immortality are accepted by some Christians, the pre-Advent investigative judgment, "being uniquely our own, has laid us open as a church to more opprobrium, ridicule, and scorn from other Christians than any other doctrine we hold."1

Various evangelicals such as Donald Barnhouse,2 Walter Martin,3 Anthony A. Hoekema,4 and most recently, David Neff5 have published articles or books attacking our belief that prior to the Second Coming, God convenes a judgment of those who have professed to serve Christ, those whose names are written in heaven (Dan. 12:1; Luke 10:20; Rev. 3:5). Though each writer has approached the issue from different perspectives, all conclude that the investigative judgment nullifies, or at least frustrates, the gospel. The doctrine, they claim, subtly teaches salvation by faith and works and thus robs the faithful of their security in Christ.

If these charges are correct, our critics are justified in rejecting the investigative judgment. Adventists ought to as well.

Is, however, the investigative judgment really anti-gospel? Must its adherents lack assurance of salvation? And finally, because Christians are saved by faith, what's the purpose of the judgment, anyway?

Faith and works

In essence, the issue of the investigative judgment deals with the age-old tension between faith and works. Paul wrote: "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law" (Rom. 3:28); yet John saw that in the end-time, the saints would "obey God's commandments and remain faithful to Jesus" (Rev. 14:12).

These statements, of course, don't contradict each other. Instead, the question is balance, and the place that reveals that balance is the earthly sanctuary service, the heart of the Adventist doctrine of the pre-Advent judgment.

The Bible says: "For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith" (Heb. 4:2).

The gospel was preached to ancient Israel through the sanctuary service, a pictorial representation of the entire plan of salvation. The sanctuary, in shadows, revealed atonement, mediation, confession, cleansing, the law, the judgment, justification, everything!

The first lesson taught was the sacrifice of the animal, symbolic of Christ's death. The entire sanctuary service, thus the whole plan of salvation, rests upon the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus (1 Peter 1:19; Rev. 13:8; Isa. 53).

Imagine a school that gave two grades only, pass or fail. In order to pass, the student must have a 100 percent average. A 95 percent earns the same failing grade as 20 percent. The student must have a perfect score on every exam; otherwise, he fails. If he makes one mistake, ever answers one question wrong, he comes up short. If on one test he gets 95 percent, but on 10 others 100 percent, he fails because his grade would still average below 100 percent, enough to flunk him with those who average 30 percent. Either way, 99.7 percent or 30 percent, he fails.

The same with redemption. All have sinned, and therefore none ever achieve the perfect 100 percent needed for salvation (Rom. 3:23). Even if we were to become perfect, never sinning again, because of past sin we could not produce the righteousness needed for salvation. No matter how hard we try, how sanctified we ever become, unless we have a 100 percent score credited to us, outside of us, we are lost.

Jesus, because of His perfect sinless life and His death on our behalf, offers us His passing 100 percent grade (Rom. 5:17-19). His righteousness, which He wrought out for us, independent of us, He freely offers us in place of our own failing grades. No matter who we are, or what we've done, because of what Jesus accomplished for us on the cross we can stand as accepted in the Father as He was, because He freely will credit to us, as undeserving as we are, Christ's 100 per cent grade (Rom. 5:8).

This vicarious atonement was powerfully symbolized by the animal sacrifices (which always includes the first apartment ministry) in the earthly sanctuary service.

The Second Apartment

Unfortunately, many Christians want to end the gospel with the sacrifice and the first apartment, yet that is not where the sanctuary service ends. What about the Second Apartment ministry, when the sanctuary itself is cleansed of sin? Does not the Most Holy Place on which the Day of Atonement, the great day of judgment, occurred have lessons to teach Christians today?

Of course. Just as the altar of burnt offerings and the holy place symbolized Christ's death and mediation in our be half, the Most Holy Place symbolizes Christ's work in the judgment in our behalf as well. Only by rejecting the teaching of the entire sanctuary can one avoid the lessons of the Second Apartment.

Yet in the Most Holy Place is where Adventists run into trouble, because here is where we believe that the pre-Advent judgment is taught, the doctrine that supposedly nullifies the gospel. When balanced out, however, with what precedes the Second Apartment ministry i.e., the death of the sacrificial animal the investigative judgment, instead of nullifying the good news, enhances it.

How? Because when our name comes up in judgment (see Rom. 14:10; Dan. 12:1; Rev. 21:27; Matt. 10:32, 33; Luke 12:8,9), Christ's perfect righteousness His 100 percent covers us! That's the most important purpose of His death. What good would forensic justification do for us if, in the judgment, when we need it the most, it would no longer be valid?

Every morning and evening the priest offered a special sacrifice, a burnt offering that symbolized the continual avail ability of Christ's righteousness. Called the daily (the tamid in Hebrew) or the regular "continual burnt offering" (Ex. 29:42, KJV), this sacrifice assured the penitent Israelite of the constant accessibility of forgiveness. If he was sick, away from Jerusalem, or for some reason couldn't get to the sanctuary, he could still reach out by faith to the promise symbolized by these sacrifices, which burned on the altar 24 hours a day, every day even on the Day of Atonement.

This point is crucial. During the solemn ceremony of Yom Kippur, this morning and evening sacrifice burned on the altar (Num. 29:7-11). In type, Christ's merits, symbolized by the slain animal, covered the sinner all through the typical Day of Atonement; in the antitype, Christ's merits cover His followers throughout the real day of atonement, the day of judgment, which is now. Thus, instead of nullifying the good news, the investigative judgment, when balanced with the cross, lifts the gospel to its apogee!

The Judas in all of us

Christians, those who profess to serve Christ, do face a judgment of their works (2 Cor. 5:9, 10; Rom. 14:10, 12). These works, however, are not what makes God decide to accept or reject them; rather, the works prove whether or not they have truly accepted or rejected Him. When a name appears in the pre-Advent judgment, God merely finalizes the choice that the person has already made.

Consider Judas. "Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve. And Judas went to the chief priests and the officers of the temple guard and dis cussed with them how he might betray Jesus" (Luke 22:3, 4).

Who forsook whom? Did Jesus desert Judas? No, Judas forsook Jesus, and his ruin is a dramatic example of what causes names to be rejected during the investigative judgment (Rev. 3:5; Matt. 10:32,33; Luke 12:8, 9).

"Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve" (Luke 22:3). Why Judas? After all, he had an experience with Jesus. He had been stirred by the miracles of the Saviour. He saw the lame, the blind, the sick, brought to Christ's feet and healed by a word or a touch. He saw Him raise the dead, cast out demons, and multiply the fish and the loaves. "He recognized the teaching of Christ as superior to all that he had ever heard," wrote Ellen White. "He loved the Great Teacher, and desired to be with Him. He felt a desire to be changed in character and life, and he hoped to experience this through connecting himself with Jesus."6

What, then, happened?

"He had fostered the evil spirit of avarice until it had become the ruling motive of his life. The love of mammon overbalanced his love for Christ. Through becoming the slave of one vice he gave himself to Satan, to be driven to any lengths in sin."7

Judas indulged in only one sin, and it brought his ruin, not because Jesus couldn't forgive it, but because Judas didn't accept that forgiveness. Refusing to repent, he chose that sin, literally, over Jesus an example of what happens to all who, though written in the book of life, are eventually blotted out of it (Rev. 3:5).

Satan knows the gospel. He knows that "There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 8:1). He knows that a "man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ" (Gal. 2:15, KJV). Satan realizes, too, that nothing he can do will nullify, reverse, or void God's love for us, and that "neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:39). Because Satan understands all these things, he knows that Jesus will never forsake us. Therefore, he tries to get us to forsake Jesus instead, and the only way he can do this is to lead us in sin and then keep us in it, because we will ultimately choose that sin over Jesus just as Judas did.

For this reason, the battle with sin is central to the fight of faith (Gal. 5:21). We must resolutely wage war against sin, or it will overcome our commitment to Christ. Sin is deadly, not because it can't be pardoned. It can be. God longs to pardon our sin. The cross proves that. Sin is deadly because, while it won't push God away from us, it will push us away from God.

Connected with Christ, though, Christians have the victory: "No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it" (1 Cor. 10:13).

This side of the Second Coming we will always have a sinful nature. We will always have to struggle with the clamors of our own fallen flesh. We will always be aware of the evil that dwells within us. But we don't ever have to yield to sin! Yielding, for a converted Christian, is a conscious choice. How could it be any thing else? If God promises power not to sin, yet we do it anyway, it is only because we have decided not to avail ourselves of that power. We have chosen the act of sin instead. This decision of choosing our own sinful desires over Christ is basically what Judas did.

We sin only because we choose not to claim victory in Christ (1 John 2:9; Jude 24; Rom. 6:1,2). The Lord can and does pardon sins when we confess them. But if we deliberately sin and keep sinning, sooner or later, like Judas, we can be come so hardened in them that we will make the same decision to reject Jesus, whether we realize it or not.

Indeed, a Christian doesn't have to hang himself from a tree, have the rope break, and then have dogs eat him in order to have his name blotted out of the book of life. Instead, he can go to church, tithe, pray, even do some good works, and yet be blotted out of the book of life.

The investigative judgment is not when God finally decides to accept or reject us. All those written in heaven have already been accepted by God (Eph. 1:6). Instead, the judgment merely finalizes our choice to keep or reject Him. Here is where our decisions, as made manifest by our works, are sealed one way or another.

Works do not save us, cannot save us, are not meant to save us (Gal. 2:21). But that does not mean they have nothing to do with salvation (Rom. 2:13). On the contrary, they are the proof, the evidence, the indication, that we have been born again. "Show me your faith without your deeds," said James, "and I will show you my faith by what I do" (James 2:18).

Redemption is a package deal. If we have claimed forgiveness, we must claim victory as well, and those victories testify in the day of judgment that we have truly been redeemed. If we are converted, our works will prove it, and we have nothing to fear in judgment.

The assurance of salvation

Nevertheless, some insist that the pre-Advent judgment robs them of assurance.

How much assurance do they want? If by absolute assurance they mean they can not be lost no matter what they do once they have accepted Jesus, do they not subscribe to the once-saved-always-saved doctrine? If, however, when Christians daily surrender their lives to Jesus, claiming His promises of victory when tempted, claiming His promises of forgiveness when they fall, and always trusting in the merits of Christ imputed to them as their only hope of salvation, they will have all the assurance they need.

"Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 8:1).

This verdict is only for those who "are in Christ Jesus." Who are they? It says: "... those who are in Christ Jesus" (verse 1). Walking in the Spirit is not what redeems you; it is the evidence that you are redeemed.

Some ask, How will I know if I have enough works to be saved? You don't, never have, and never will, which is why we need Jesus covering us with His righteousness when our names come up. All we can do is lean on Him, plead His merits in our behalf, and trust in Him as a righteous, compassionate Father who will judge us according to His infinite wisdom and mercy.

Cosmic consequences

Perhaps the most important aspect of the investigative judgment, one often ignored by critics, is its purpose. Antagonists unfairly depict the doctrine as God scrutinizing the books in order to decide who is saved or lost. "The Lord knows those who are his" (2 Tim. 2:19). An omniscient God doesn't need the investigative judgment; the onlooking universe, however, does.

Sin is not just an earthly concern. Rebellion began in another part of creation, with the fall of Satan (see Isa. 14:12; Eze. 28:11-16; Rev. 12:7-9). The principles involved in the controversy between Christ and Satan, though focused on the salvation of man, extend far beyond it (see Eph. 3:10). The book of Job is a microcosm of this great controversy: The first scene in heaven starts out with conflict, tension, a contest between God and Satan in heaven, one that is viewed by the angels (Job 1:6; 2:1), even though the struggle is ultimately battled out on earth.8

God could have eradicated Satan at the moment he rebelled. Instead, at infinite cost to Himself, God is dealing with sin and rebellion in a just and open manner that will forever answer the charges made against Him. One way that He has chosen to help answer these charges is through the investigative judgment.

Even a cursory look at the earthly sanctuary service teaches that the plan of salvation didn't end at the sacrifice; it began there, with the sacrifice as the foundation upon which all the rituals rested. The end did not come until the final disposing of sin on the Day of Atonement, when all the sins accumulated in the camp were placed on the head of the live goat, which was then sent into the wilderness (see Lev. 16).

The same is true with Christ's earthly and heavenly ministry, which the entire Jewish sanctuary shadowed (see Heb. 7- 10). Though Christ shouted "It is finished!" at Calvary, the Bible depicts Him ministering in the heavenly sanctuary (Heb. 7:25; 8:1; 9:11, 12:24-26). Why, almost 2,000 years after Calvary, are we still here, mired in a pit of sin, suffering, and death? Christ must be doing some thing in heaven that He didn't do at Calvary, not in terms of securing our salvation which He accomplished for us in toto there---but in terms of answering all the questions of the onlooking universe.

In Daniel 7:9, 10, a depiction of the pre-Advent judgment graphically unfolds before a vast heavenly throng: "Thou sands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court was seated, and the books were opened" (verse 10).

Why this judgment? Why the open books? For an omniscient, all-powerful God who knows the beginning from the end? Rather, it must be for those "thou sands upon thousands" surrounding Him, who don't have the knowledge and omniscience of God Himself. Before these heavenly intelligences, the Lord is convening a judgment to show them just which sinners will be allowed to live in their presence for eternity.

"But before the great controversy will end," writes Adventist scholar A. V. Wallenkampf, "it must become evident to all heavenly intelligences on what basis some people will experience annihilation while others will be privileged to live in the presence of God throughout eternity. This will be made clear during the investigative judgment. The purpose of the judgment is not, as our challengers erroneously assume, to determine 'whether a person shall be saved or not,' as Hoekema put it."9

Apparently, too, these heavenly intelligences are satisfied because, after the judgment is over, they shout, "Yes, Lord God Almighty, true and just are your judgments" (Rev. 16:7).

False balances

It's tempting for non-Adventists to twist a teaching like the investigative judgment. Actually, Adventists are the worst offenders. Many focus upon the law in the Second Apartment but entirely overlook the mercy seat there, at the expense of the cross. For them, the investigative judgment has become the legalistic, perfectionistic, and anti-gospel doctrine that it has been labeled. So much emphasis can be placed on the judgment-by-works aspect of salvation that people do lose their assurance in Christ. The focus becomes primarily on what we do, on our attainments, our good deeds, our victories, not on Jesus and what He has done, or is doing, for us.

In response, some go to the other extreme, ending the gospel at the cross and the first apartment, with little or no emphasis on the role of the judgment or works. Such an imbalanced presentation leads people into the erroneous belief that we can never lose our justification (1 Cor. 9:27), or that our obedience has nothing whatsoever to do with our redemption (Matt. 5:27-30).

Instead, a balanced presentation of the plan of salvation, as revealed in the sanctuary service, presents the basic consonance between justification by faith and judgment by works. A balanced presentation protects Christians from accepting a cheap grace that can delude a person into false security (see Matt. 7:21- 23), or from falling into a legalistic, salvation-by-works trap (Rom. 11:6). A balanced understanding of the entire sanctuary, from the altar of burnt offerings to the Most Holy Place, reveals why we are still here in sin centuries after Jesus shouted "It is finished!" on the cross. And finally, a balanced presentation helps the Christian focus his attention, not on his own works, but on the present activity of Christ in his behalf.

Revelation 14 depicts an angel, near the end of time, having "the eternal gospel" (verse 6). What is his message? "Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come" (verse 7). For this angel, the "eternal gospel" includes the judgment. Small wonder, because when properly taught, the judgment, far from negating the gospel, climaxes it!

Unless otherwise noted, scriptural passages in this article are from the New International Version.

1. A. V. Wallenkampf, "Challengers to the Doctrine of the Sanctuary," in Frank B. Holbrook, ed., Doctrine of the Sanctuary (Washington, D.C.: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1989), p. 198.

2. Donald Barnhouse, "Are Seventh-Day Adventists Christians?" Eternity, 1 (September 1956):44.

3. Walter Martin, The Truth About Seventh-Day Adventism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, 1960).

4. Anthony A. Hoekema, The Four Major Cults (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1963).

5. David Neff, "A Sanctuary Movement," Christianity Today, Feb. 5, 1990, p. 20.

6. Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), p. 717.

7. Ibid., p. 716. (Italics supplied.)

8. Clifford Goldstein, How Dare You Judge Us, God! (Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn. 1991).

9. Wallenkampf, p. 214.


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Clifford Goldstein is the editor of the Adult Bible Study Guide. He has authored 17 books.

February 1992

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