"I, if I be lifted up from the earth"

An open letter from the editor of Ministry to the General Conference President

J. David Newman is the former editor of Ministry

Dear Brother Folkenberg:

You recently received a letter, with a copy to me, that began: "The officers of the _____ Conference have read and discussed David Newman's article 'Global Mission, My Mission' which appeared in the April issue of Ministry. Elder Folkenberg, we took an action in our officers' meeting April 2, 1992. The action is one of displeasure and disgust relative to the content of Elder Newman's article."

"You will be pleased to know that we approve of what David pretends to hold forth as his theme and focus to preach "Christ and him crucified.' However, his article, with very minor changes, could have been penned by Baptists or Pentecostals. Instead of holding forth Jesus, this article will discourage many and will feed the fire of criticism."

These conference leaders went on to say that I had discredited the church, evangelists, honesty of conference records, and church doctrines, and given ammunition to critics of the church by sharing some of the problems within our church.

The letter highlights two crucial problems in our church today: 1. What is our message? 2. How well are we converting people to this message?

Robert Spangler, my predecessor, wrote an open letter to the General Conference president (see December 1979), but this is my first as editor. There is no doubt that good things are happening in our church. Many pastors and churches are on fire for Jesus Christ and winning people to His kingdom. We are still one of the fastest growing religious groups.

Our people still give generously of their tithes and offerings. And so many like these conference leaders believe there is nothing fundamentally wrong with our church. However, there are many other church leaders and lay people who believe the opposite. That is the burden of this open letter.

This letter is also prompted by the overwhelming response (most letters ever received on one article) I received to my Global Mission article (April) and the discussion at the Perth 1991 Annual Council concerning the Laodicean condition of the church. It is also prompted by the mission statement of Ministry, which reads in part: "Ministry intends to serve as a prophetic voice calling the church back to the biblical fundamentals that constitute Adventist truth, ideals, and values."

There is a tendency for us to deny there are any real problems because of the strident criticisms we receive from some independent groups. Anyone who raises the question that all is not well faces suspicion and charges of disloyalty to this church. However, the problem with the Laodicean church is its unwillingness to admit that it is anything but rich and increased with goods (Rev. 3:17).

Perth Declaration

Pastor Folkenberg, I well remember the discussion about the Perth Declaration voted at the 1991 Annual Council. Pastor N. C. Wilson made an eloquent plea for some reference to the Laodicean condition of our church. The Perth Declaration called our members to renewed commitment to Christ and also appealed to the independent groups among us to stop their divisive ways.

Pastor Wilson said that our reluctance to admit our Laodicean condition helps fuel many of the independent ministries. But we failed to grapple with the real issue. All we did was add one sentence in a halfhearted attempt to indicate our awareness of our Laodicean condition. I was there, and I did not speak up. I share in the collective responsibility.

The Perth Declaration sought to point us in the right direction by saying: "In pulpit discourses, in personal instruction, in ministers' meetings as guided by the Ministerial Association and administrators in every field, in presentations for the public, we must present Jesus in the set ting of present truth as the answer to every human need."

Ellen White first applied the Laodicean message to our church in the 1850s (Testimonies, vol. 1, pp. 141-146; 185-195) and during the course of her ministry never encouraged the church to consider that it had escaped this Laodicean condition. She said that we would never do the work that God really wants us to do until we wholeheartedly admit that we are in a Laodicean condition and seek the divine remedies as our priority.

God tells us that Laodicea loves to dwell on its success, its accomplishments. For example, we are proud of our baptismal and membership success. In some ways these figures have become more important than the people they represent. A conference president recently took a census of his conference. Membership records listed more than 3,000 members, but his census could account for only 721. Another president took a census and could account for only 330 out of 1,000. Another field may be able to account for only 1,400 out of more than 8,000 on the books.

If you examine the General Conference's Annual Statistical Reports for the past 10 years you will find that in some parts of the world, apostasies are almost nonexistent. Conferences/missions of more than 20,000 and even 30,000 members report one or two or no apostasies in any given year. Now, it could be that these fields hold and nurture their people better than other fields. However, people who have worked in those areas have given me other reasons. I am not implying that all conferences/missions have grossly inflated membership records; some take the counsel of Ellen White seriously: "God would be better pleased to have six thoroughly converted to the truth than to have sixty make a profession and yet not be truly converted" (Gospel Workers, p. 370). Some of us believe that if we were to take a global census we might find only half the members that we list on our books. Maybe that is why we are reluctant to invest the effort to find out; we are afraid of what we might discover.

Recognizing that there are some real problems in this area, the General Conference Ministerial Association made a formal request to the division presidents at the 1990 Annual Council for a world wide church attendance record. We wanted some idea of how many members are actually attending church. Are we discipling the people we are baptizing? But the division presidents turned down the idea.

They cited a number of reasons, such as too many statistics already, and the difficulty of collecting this information. But without this information no one knows how "soft" our membership figures re ally are. Pastors tell me that it is very difficult to transfer members from certain conferences. So they wait for six months and if the membership transfer does not come through they accept them on profession of faith. No one knows how many dual memberships exist.

Membership figures are important. Many decisions, such as delegates to constituencies, are made on the basis of these figures. Those areas of the world that are more diligent in dealing with apostasy are in a way penalized for fol lowing biblical principles of church discipline. In addition we suffer spiritually when we treat membership figures lightly. Ellen White reminds us: "The Lord does not now work to bring many souls into the truth, because of the church members who have never been converted and those who were once converted but who have backslidden" (Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 371).

Spiritual Auditors

My first suggestion in this open letter to you, Brother Folkenberg, is that we appoint spiritual auditors separate from church administration. No one suggests that our treasurers are dishonest because we employ financial auditors to check up on their work. We recognize that humans are fallible, make mistakes, and interpret policies differently. Auditors provide some checks and balances.

If we are so concerned about matters in the material world, should we not be just as concerned in the spiritual world? Our leaders are honest men and women. But they are fallible, do make mistakes, and interpret policies differently. Also, when the number of members listed has a direct relationship to financial subsidies and number of delegates to constituencies, it is only human to be as generous to oneself as possible. We need an independent review system to check baptisms, memberships, attendance, just as we do with our finances.

Precise figures can be determined regardless of the area of the world. My father was a conference president in a mission division more than 30 years ago. When he came to that conference, he found a membership figure but no names to go with the figure. He discovered local churches had no records of their members. He visited every church (more than 100) and asked the pastor to write down the name and village of every member. Later on he issued a card in triplicate, recording all the member information (one each for the conference office, local church, and member). When this was completed, he had to adjust the conference membership down by more than 1,000 members.

Two views of salvation

The second issue of this open letter concerns our mission. I believe this to be the root of all our problems. If we solve this one, we hold the key to solving all our other difficulties.

In 1990 the executive committee of one of our world divisions voted that an expression of concern be lodged with the General Conference concerning the repeated confusion and bias evident in certain of our publications concerning (1) the definition and nature of justification; (2) the relation of justification to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit; (3) perfectionism; (4) the undermining of Christian assurance; and (5) the selective use of Ellen G. White quotations.

The action continued to detail the extent of the problem and concluded with the following: "To request the General Conference to endorse a statement submitted by the _____ Division for publication setting out for our members... the church's accepted stand on the nature of justification and the link between justification to the internal renewal of the Holy Spirit."

So far we at the General Conference have not answered this request. Every leader wishes to reach out with the largest embrace possible to include everyone within God's family. But there comes a time when we as leaders must stand up and be counted. We need to clarify the mission of this church. Why did God bring this church into existence? What are we preaching?

Brother president, you have told me that the burden of your heart is to see that our people have the assurance of salvation. Why is it that after almost 150 years of existence our people do not understand this most basic of all doctrines? I and my associate editors find lamentable confusion throughout the world field in this area. I believe it is because we have not settled what is the basis of our salvation.

Some of us are teaching a disguised Ro man Catholic theology of salvation. Others are confused as to what balance they should follow in emphasizing the work of Christ for us and the work of Christ in us.

Both are necessary, but we need to under stand the function of each. The work of Christ in us, however, is always based on accepting the work of Christ for us.

I have been surprised by the letters and comments we have received suggesting our main mission is not to uplift Jesus Christ. They say we are not to try to outdo the Pentecostals in preaching the gospel of Jesus. Others write that our emphasis should not be the same as that of the first-century Christians. Our emphasis now must be victory over sin, achieving a character perfection that no other generation has achieved. Now, I believe strongly that victory over sin is vital; preparing for translation is a unique experience. But is this our emphasis?

Our confusion arises because our church began with one audience while today we have two. Originally we preached to a mainly Christian audience. Then we realized that there was a non- Christian world out there as well. But we were slow to change our emphasis. We must understand the difference between evangelism that has conversion as the goal and evangelism that brings spiritual growth and the acceptance of neglected truths, such as the Sabbath. We must determine which one of these goals is the need of the particular audience we are addressing.

This lack of understanding of the two audiences means that some of us assume we no longer need to emphasize some thing that happened in the past (the cross). Consequently present truth focuses on the present and getting ready for Jesus, with the greater emphasis on "getting ready."

Our Mission

What is the primary mission of our church? Let us look at what God called the children of Israel to be. He did not call them as His people because they had large numbers (Deut. 7:7, 8) or because they were righteous and people of integrity (Deut. 9:5); they were even a stub born and stiff-necked people (verse 6). They could not boast that God had selected them because of their special qualities. God chose them because He is sovereign. He did not need them to prove His character, but He did want them to exalt His name.

God promised Israel prosperity, health, and preeminence (Deut. 28:1, 9-11, 13), not for their glory but for His glory. Thus, when the queen of Sheba visited Solomon and saw the riches of his kingdom, she was constrained to praise not Solomon but the God of heaven for His greatness (1 Kings 10:9).

Unfortunately, Israel forgot who gave them these riches and began to rely on their success rather than the God who gave them this success. They made the letter of the law more important than the spirit of the law. They placed the task above the relationship. It was never God's purpose that Israel become proud of their success, boast about their numbers (David and the census), and glory in their fame. Their task was to point to God and make His name prominent.

We must not confuse God's role and our role. Just as He did with Job, God wanted to point to Israel as an example of what happens when a people follow God and are obedient to His commands. Obedience is vital in our walk with God, and victory over sin is essential in the plan of salvation (1 John 3:21-24). But that is for God to glory over, not us. Israel's role was to talk about God, tell of His greatness, and then their success would tesitfy to the truth about God.

Today there are still two roles: God's role and ours. Our role is to lift up the cross, talk about Jesus, tell of His wonder, His glory, His salvation. God's part is to show the universe what happens when people surrender to Jesus Christ. Our obedience, imperfect as it might be, is a source of joy to God. God wants to hold us up as examples of what life can be like when people follow Him. However, when we emphasize obedience and under-emphasize the cross; when we talk more about what God does in us than what He has done for us, then we have usurped God's role.

The Jews took the doctrines, the standards, that God had given them and turned them into ends rather than means. For example, God gave them the Sabbath. The Sabbath, which was intended to be a blessing, became a burden. Instead of attracting the heathen to inquire about the God of heaven, the Sabbath repelled them. Instead of being a time for relationship building, the Sabbath became a time for focusing on how to keep the Sabbath rather than getting to know the Lord of the Sabbath.

Paul reminds us that "Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the 'stumbling stone'" (Rom. 9:31, 32).* Have we as a church stumbled over the same stone? Christ—the scandalon. His grace is so outside the realm of human experience that it is a constant challenge to comprehend it.

Revelation 14:6-12 is our charter, but we seem to major more on the message of the third angel (the mark of the beast) than on that of the first angel (the ever lasting gospel). Because Israel would not follow God's plan, He abandoned the idea of revealing Himself through the material prosperity of a particular group of people. Instead Jesus said that God would be revealed through the depth and passion of personal relationships: "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:35).

Paul said that "the entire law is summed up in a single command: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other (Gal. 5:14, 15). And Peter emphasizes that we are "a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people be longing to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light" (1 Peter 2:9). Then Peter tells us that the reason good works are important, and right living is vital, is not for us to get to heaven, but that non-Christians may "see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us" (verse 12).

Do people glorify God when they hear the name Seventh-day Adventist, or do they compliment us for our excellent hospitals, global relief activities, wonderful education system, etc.? Has Christ somehow become eclipsed by all our good works and distinctive doctrines? Jesus said that the unity in God's church between all the various ethnic groups would be a source of wonder to the world (Johnl3:35).Is that the case in our church?

Jesus the only answer

Jesus said, "I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself (John 12:32). He only is "the way and the truth and the life" (John 14:6). "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).

Paul announced that he is "not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of every one who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile" (Rom. 1:16). After trying various sophisticated ways to reach people, Paul realized that the greatest power comes from preaching Christ alone: "For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2). And when he boasted it was only "in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (Gal. 6:14). I could cite many other texts that give this same emphasis.

But some feel that our emphasis should be different now, that we are quite right in emphasizing the Sabbath, health reform, victorious living ... We have fallen into the same trap as the Pharisees. Jesus chided them for neglecting the more important matters of the law justice, mercy, faithfulness, while dwelling on other matters that, while significant, were of lesser importance (Matt. 23:23, 24). God has called this church to fulfill the same role that He has called His church in all ages to accomplish. He has called us not because we are great, or perfect, or have large numbers, but be cause He has given us insights into the great controversy that other denominations do not have. He wants us to share the importance of obeying His law. But it must always be in the context of glorifying God and lifting up the cross. Ellen White makes it abundantly clear what our primary focus needs to be.

"Hanging upon the cross Christ was the gospel. Now we have a message, 'Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world.' Will not our church members keep their eyes fixed on a crucified and risen Saviour, in whom their hopes of eternal life are centered? This is our message, our argument, our doctrine, our warning to the impenitent, our encouragement for the sorrowing, the hope for every believer" (The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, Ellen G. White Comments, vol 6, p. 1113).

"The cross of Calvary challenges, and will finally vanquish every earthly and hellish power. In the cross all influence centers, and from it all influence goes forth. It is the great center of attraction; for on it Christ gave up His life for the human race. This sacrifice was offered for the purpose of restoring man to his original perfection. Yea, more, it was offered to give him an entire transformation of character, making him more than a conqueror" (Ibid.).

"There is one great central truth to be kept ever before the mind in the searching of Scripture Christ and Him crucified. Every other truth is invested with influence and power corresponding to its relation to this theme. ... It is the one great truth to be constantly kept before the minds of men" (Ellen G. White 1888 Materials, vol. 2, pp. 806, 807).

"Of all professing Christians, Seventh-day Adventists should be foremost in uplifting Christ before the world. The proclamation of the third angel's mes sage calls for the presentation of the Sabbath truth. This truth, with others included in the message, is to be pro claimed; but the great center of attraction, Christ Jesus, must not be left out" (Gospel Workers, p. 156).

"Christ crucified talk it, pray it, sing it, and it will break and win hearts. This is the power and wisdom of God to gather souls for Christ" (Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 67).

Two pictures

The controversy concerning the mission and emphasis of our church is graphically portrayed in two paintings commissioned by James and Ellen White (see illustrations on pages 10,11). These paintings reveal two ways of looking at mission.

In 1878 James White produced the first picture illustrating the plan of salvation from Eden to the new earth. The law and Christ received equal recognition. However, James White began to have second thoughts about this depiction and was in the process of revising it when he died. Ellen White completed the revised picture in 1883. Notice the remarkable change in emphasis. The law and the tree disappear altogether, although the law is still present in the symbolism of Mount Sinai in the background. Now the eye is riveted on the focus of the picture, which is Christ lifted up on the cross.

Too many of our people, and dare I say some of our preachers also, are still living in and teaching the first picture. God is waiting for His church to adopt wholeheartedly the emphasis of the second picture. God blessed our church with certain unique doctrines, such as the Sabbath, that add additional depth and color to the majestic picture of Salvation. Like all of the law and the prophets, they point to our constant need of the complete work of Christ as our only entrance to heaven. In the second picture everything is still there: law, works, doctrines, but every thing is placed in the right relationship to the cross. We lift up the cross before the world; God lifts us up before the universe. But He can do that only when we put first things first and let the world know that Christ and Him crucified is our passion, our emphasis, our joy, and our focus.

When the world hears the name Seventh-day Adventist, a picture of the cross ought to be the first thing that flashes into their minds. Are we prepared to take that stand? Are we prepared to make that the measure of our programs, doctrines, policies, and sermons? If not, then God will raise up someone else to do His work. God's will will be accomplished. It is arrogance on our part to believe that God needs us to prove His character. God wants to use us to reveal His character, but if no one accepted salvation that would not prove God a liar or His character defective. God would still be God.

God has called us out of His own good pleasure to reveal Him to a dying world. But He is just as able when we cry "But we are the remnant church" to make the same reply as He did to the Jews when they said "We are Abraham's seed"—"I can use the rocks to carry My message." If He can use inanimate objects to accomplish His will, it is arrogant to boast that God cannot do without us.

Our emphasis on success and the growth of the church seems to reveal how Laodicean we really are. God is going to continue to wait to pour out His Spirit upon us. The remedies are given in Revelation 3: gold, white raiment, eyesalve.

Are we ready to make these the burden of our preaching, our writing, our programs, our committees? Baptisms are important, church growth is a given, institutions can play a vital role, finances are an integral part of the work. But these are the "former" things (Matt 23:24), while we have been neglecting the "latter."

Yes, brother president, we are at a critical juncture in the history of our church. I believe that God has called you for a time such as this. Are we willing to address these major issues facing our church: the quality of our church growth and the gospel we are preaching? This gospel that either gives the assurance of salvation or leaves people to wonder if they are good enough to make it to heaven.

We need frank, open discusson on these issues, for they are matters of life and death. I want to know what is right. I do not want to emphasize the wrong gospel. I do not want the curse that Paul said will come upon me if I preach the wrong gospel: "As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!" (Gal. 1:9). Let us preach the right gospel, that God might be glorified.

Yours for revival and reformation.

—J. David Newman

* All texts are taken from the New International Version.

"I, if I be lifted up"

  •  "But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself (John 12:32)
  •  "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is ho other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved';; (Acts 4:12).
  •  "I am not ashamed of thejgospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone^ who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile" (Rom. 1:16).
  •  "Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much,more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him!" (Rom. 5:9).
  •  "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Cor, 1:18).
  •  "For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2).
  •  "For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 3:11).
  •  "May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (Gal. 6:14).
  •  "And through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross" (Col. 1:20).
  •  "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Heb. 12:2).
  •  "For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect" (1 Peter 1:18, 19).
  •  "And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood" (Rev. 1:5).
  •  "I answered, 'Sir, you know.' And he said, 'These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb' " (Rev. 7:14).
  •  "Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth to every nation, tribe, language and people" (Rev. 14:6).

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.

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J. David Newman is the former editor of Ministry

October 1992

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