Laodicea and corporate repentance

The Lord would rather have His beloved Laodiceans angry and enlightened than lukewarm and needing eyesalve.

J. David Newman, DMin., is the editor of Ministry.

My open letter to the General Conference president (October 1992) produced many reactions, mostly favorable, but some negative. First, I need to clarify how much I appreciate the outstanding leadership the General Conference president brings to this church. I intended my open letter as a literary device to highlight matters of great importance.

Second, I need to explain why I raised such sensitive issues in such a public manner. Some feel, especially some leaders, that church publications are not the place to broadcast bad news. Some of our magazines will not even print letters to the editor because they want nothing negative in their papers. I respect and understand that philosophy. At the same time, I believe there are times when church publications need to address certain issues, unpleasant as they might be. The Bible does record many unpleasant things about God's people.

Message to Laodicea

God gave a special message (which we frequently ignore) to the church of Laodicea: "To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God's creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm--neither hot nor cold--I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

"You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.

"Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne.

"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (Rev.3:14-22).*

Ever since the 1850s we as individual Adventists have acknowledged our Laodicean condition, but is there a difference between individual recognition of this fact and corporate recognition? Some have tried to educate us in this area, but we have ignored their pleas. Could it be that before this message can really take hold on the individual level that there needs to be a corporate recognition of our need as well? We as church leaders need to spend much more time studying and applying this passage.

Corporate responsibility

The Laodicean declaration concludes with the statement that we should listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Is it possible that we have misunderstood the message of Laodicea all these years? Do we tend to think individually more than institutionally? Robert Worley argues: "It is a common assumption that individuals shape institutions. Therefore the prescription that is made for every church problem is to get rid of the troublemaker, be it the minister, an assistant or associate, a disgruntled layperson, or a group of disgruntled laypersons. We have not asked how institutions shape persons. We do not perceive the institution as the source of our difficulties. We do not think institutionally, but individualistically. For this reason, when a minister is in trouble or a layperson is seen as a problem, we locate the problem in the person. It be comes a personality or character problem rather than an institutional one." 1

We need to ask the question How do institutions shape persons? We need to ask whether there is an institutional or corporate responsibility for Laodicea as well as an individual one, Ellen White asserts that God expects corporate responsibility as well as individual responsibility: "The same disobedience and failure that were seen in the Jewish church have characterized in a greater degree the people who have had this great light from heaven in the last mes sages of warning. Shall we, like them, squander our opportunities and privileges until God shall permit oppression and persecution to come upon us?" 2 When the Jewish nation rejected Christ, the leaders made a corporate decision endorsed by the people (John 19:6,7,12; Matt. 27:25). God holds groups account able as well as individuals (Acts 2:23).

Ellen White comments further: "The Laodicean message must be proclaimed with power; for now it is especially applicable. . . . Not to see our own deformity is not to see the beauty of Christ's character. When we are fully awake to our own sinfulness, we shall appreciate Christ. . . . Not to see the marked contrast between Christ and our selves is not to know ourselves. He who does not abhor himself cannot understand the meaning of redemption. . . . There are many who do not see them selves in the light of the law of God. They do not loathe selfishness; therefore they are selfish." 3

What did Ellen White mean when she said "The Laodicean message must be proclaimed with power"? How can we fulfill this mandate when Laodicea's predicament concerns an inability to recognize any fundamental problems within the church? As church leaders we believe that, on balance, the work is making rapid progress. While church growth is not as great as we would like, it is still satisfactory. Our great successes in Euro- Asia, Africa, Inter-America, and other places can lull us into a false sense of security. In other parts of the world, maintenance of the status quo seems to be the main priority. Every year for the past almost 150 years, leaders have been saying: "The Lord's coming is just around the corner; our evangelistic endeavors are bringing more and more fruit." Yet Jesus still has not returned.

Our church is growing faster than the world's population. I asked Don Yost, director of archives and statistics for the General Conference, to tell me, based on our rate of growth over the past 10 years, when our membership would equal fifty percent of the world's population. He ventured an estimate that the church will surpass half the world's population some time during the year 2118! That is still 125 years away. Is this what God is waiting for? No! Baptisms in and of themselves are not enough.

"I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing." We are reluctant to admit that we really are "wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked." How can we admit our condition when we are accomplishing so much in church growth? I tried to show that all is not well by citing various statistics in my open letter. My revealing these issues caused the negative reaction. However, if we resist admitting our need, as a church, we will never make God's remedies our priority. And He will continue to wait.

Excellence in lifestyle

If we would confess our need and acknowledge that need, we would sweep away most of the ammunition that fuels so many of the independent movements. There is a level of excellence that God expects from the people who herald His coming. But if His people, in the quality of their life and relationships with people, are virtually indistinguishable from the community at large, how can they witness with power to the great things God has done? Christian excellence will never come as long as we concentrate on our success and our law-keeping and ignore our need to make Christ the center of everything. Godly lifestyles are a result--not the ultimate goal.

The last generation, the generation that witnesses to Christ's coming, will be a special generation. Because of the unprecedented trials the church will have gone through it will emerge "blame less" (Rev. 14:5). It will perfectly reflect the character of Christ.4 It will focus on God's character of love: "The last rays of merciful light, the last message of mercy to be given to the world, is a revelation of His character of love. The children of God are to manifest His glory. In their own life and character they are to reveal what the grace of God has done for them." 5 "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35, NRSV).

How do we reveal God's character of love? By showing the same loving concern for others that God has shown to us; by doing nothing out of selfish ambition and, in humility, considering others better than ourselves (Phil. 2:3); by making ourselves nothing (verse 7); by being pure, peace loving, considerate, submissive, merciful, impartial, and sincere (James 3:17); by looking after the poor and needy (James 1:27); by rejoicing in suffering (Rom. 5:3); by feeding our enemies (Rom. 12:20). How we face injustice, sorrow, difficulty, and trouble will distinguish us from those who have little or no faith in God. It seems that we are far from the experience God expects from us.

How do we as a church admit our responsibility? I am not suggesting a formal action by the General Conference Executive Committee, or even the General Conference in session. I am talking about a general agreement among church leaders at all levels that we have failed to emphasize His remedies; that we have failed in making the gold, white clothes, and salve our emphasis.

"Faith and love are the true riches, the pure gold which the True Witness counsels the lukewarm to buy. However rich we may be in earthly treasure, all our wealth will not enable us to buy the precious remedies that cure the disease of the soul called lukewarmness. Intellect and earthly riches were powerless to remove the defects of the Laodicean church, or to remedy their deplorable condition. They were blind, yet felt that they were well off. The Spirit of God did not illumine their minds, and they did not perceive their sinfulness; therefore they did not feel the necessity of help." 6

Ellen White reminds us that while church growth and soul winning are important, they do not comprise first place in our list of priorities. "Faith and love are the true riches," she says. These are the remedies for our lukewarmness. However, if we do not agree that there is an institutional problem, institutional lukewarmness, Laodiceanism on a corporate level, then we will not emphasize faith, love, the righteousness of Christ, and the heavenly eyesalve; we will not make them our priority on a corporate level. This in turn prevents us from proclaiming the gospel to its fullest ex tent saving from sin and bearing the fruit of overcoming sin.

What the message is not

What actually is the core of the Laodicean remedy? What do the gold, white clothes, and salve represent? Some suggest that they mean greater character perfection, more perfect keeping of the law; that the emphasis is on being "blameless." However, while God does say "I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot," He also says that He wants us one or the other; in other words, be on fire for Him or fiercely antagonistic to Him. Character perfection as such is not the primary issue. Our deeds, whether good or bad, do not concern God as much as the quality of our commitment. In most cases the motive behind the deed determines its morality. An immoral act is always immoral, regardless of the motive; but a seemingly moral act may or may not be moral depending on the motive.

God reveals that the main problem is self-satisfaction. We are actually doing quite well in our deeds; we are accomplishing much for God. The remedies He suggests are rather surprising. He does not tell us to work harder, raise and spend more money on church growth, conquer every sin. Rather He tells us to "buy" from Him "gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so that you can see."

God is telling us that we need to redefine our measurement for success--gold; admit that we are naked and need white clothes; recognize our blindness--quit pretending that everything is fine.

What the message is

God begins His list with one of the most precious substances known at that time--gold. He chose a solid slab of gold for the mercy seat of the ark; the ark and all the furnishings of the tabernacle were overlaid with gold (Ex. 25:10, 11, 31,38). The "sons of Zion" were "worth their weight in gold" (Lam. 4:2). The New Jerusalem is made of "pure gold" (Rev. 21:18). The commandments of the Lord are "more precious than gold" (Ps. 19:10). When God punishes the wicked He says that He will make "man scarcer than pure gold" (Isa. 13:12).

Scripture consistently portrays gold as the most precious of substances. But it also portrays one substance as of even greater importance--the blood of Christ. "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). The Laodicean message is a call to the exaltation of the most precious substance in the universe, the spilt blood of God Himself. This means that Jesus Christ, His life, His death, His coming again, needs our passionate embrace and commitment. Thus God says "buy" the gold. The only thing we have to trade is our own miserable selves, our selfish hearts.

"But what do we give up, when we give all? A sin-polluted heart, for Jesus to purify, to cleanse by His own blood, and to save by His matchless love. And yet men think it hard to give up all! I am ashamed to hear it spoken of, ashamed to write it." 7 Jesus said, "I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself (John 12:32). The message of Laodicea requires making Christ first in everything we do.

Ellen White, as we have seen, likens the gold to faith and love. And this remains true as long as the focus of our faith and love is Jesus Christ.

The white clothes represent the righteousness of Christ imputed to the believer. The Scriptures talk about receiving a "wedding garment" (Matt. 22:1-4) and being "clothed with Christ" (Gal. 3:27). Adam and Eve tried to cover their nakedness, but it took an act of God to truly cover them (Gen. 3:21). We may perform all the good works we possibly can, but it still takes a divine act to credit us with the only works that count--the works of Christ (Rom. 5:19).

"If you would gather together every thing that is good and holy and noble and lovely in man and then present the subject to the angels of God as acting a part in the salvation of the human soul or in merit, the proposition would be rejected as treason." 8 We need to focus more on Christ, for "it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Phil. 2:13).

The third ingredient in the heavenly prescription for lukewarmness is salve for the eyes. Today we place drops in the eyes so that we may see more clearly. So God gives the Holy Spirit to convict us of sin and guide us into all truth (John 16:8-11). As we open our hearts to the Holy Spirit, whose primary task is to tell of Jesus and bring glory to Him (John verse 14), the Holy Spirit helps us be honest and candid about our real condition. Thus, we are led to search for the true remedy; the righteousness of Christ.

Ellen White summarizes in one glorious paragraph the core of the Laodicean message: "The Laodicean message has been sounding. Take this message in all its phases and sound it forth to the people wherever Providence opens the way. Justification by faith and the righteousness of Christ are the themes to be presented to a perishing world" 9

How to implement

If we seek the true remedies, then as church leaders we will make the burden of our committees, our councils, our gatherings, a study of, and a seeking for the righteousness of Christ rather than a push for church growth. The statistics we cite should not reflect the statistical growth of the church, but when possible, the qualitative growth. The burden of our gatherings should be to seek the remedies for our Laodicean condition. Let us convene a world gathering of leaders and pastors whose only agenda is to study the message to Laodicea. If this proves impossible, let us do it division by division, conference by conference. After Jesus ascended to heaven, the disciples did not immediately begin their evangelism. They prayed in an upper room until God had subdued their selfishness and they were ready for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Then they experienced explosive church growth.

What would happen if instead of spending the first hour each day of an Annual Council listening to the preaching of the Word we spent each morning in study, prayer, and sharing? At the last Annual Council, George Knight presented stirring, Christ-centered mes sages. What would have happened if we had broken into small groups to discuss the implications of his messages for ourselves and then for the people we lead? What would have happened if we had spent one hour each day during the business session in prayer?

True success

Why was the early church so successful in its evangelism? Because, paradoxically, it did not make baptisms its priority. When division hit the Corinthian church, Paul reminded them of the solution: "For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power" (1 Cor. 1:17, NRSV). Now, please do not misunderstand me; baptisms are important. They form an integral part of the gospel commission. But the kind of church growth most of us are longing for will never happen until we admit our need of Christ's righteousness. So how do we tell what our priorities are? By the same yardstick Paul used. All we have to look at are our reporting procedures and what we give the major amount of time to at commit tees and workers' meetings. When we gather as leaders for union, division, and General Conference meetings, what is the focal point of our discussion?

In the early church Luke reports that the church leaders began to get bogged down in administrative detail, in running an ever-expanding enterprise. People were being added to the church on a daily basis. Church leaders became so busy in organizing, planning, and implementing that they began to neglect their most important duty: that of being spiritual leaders. So Luke tells us the apostles appointed spiritual men to be the administrators of the church, freeing them up for their most important duties: "prayer and the ministry of the word" (Acts 6:4). The church discovered that in its eagerness to fulfill the gospel commission it had been risking neglect of "ministry of the word of God" (verse 2).

The Bible reveals that church leaders should be known as men and women of God, deep Bible students, highly spiritual, not immersed in administrative detail. How much time each week do we actually spend in prayer, meditation, and Bible study? Do we lead by example in these areas, or more by exhortation?

This is why the Laodicean message is so powerful and yet so hard to implement. Riches are preferable to poverty, and success preferable to failure. We bask in the success of what is easily measureable, forgetting that what God counts as success may be very different from our definition (Luke 12:13-21). We do not like to think of ourselves as failures, and we need not remain in such a condition. Ellen White encourages us to see hope in the Laodicean message: "But the counsel of the True Witness does not represent those who are lukewarm as in a hopeless case. There is yet a chance to remedy their state, and the Laodicean message is full of encouragement; for the backslidden church may yet buy the gold of faith and love, may yet have the white robe of the righteousness of Christ, that the shame of their nakedness need not appear. Purity of heart, purity of motive, may yet characterize those who are halfhearted and who are striving to serve God and Mammon. They may yet wash their robes of character and make them white in the blood of the Lamb." 10

What have we done with Jesus?

Notice again that the issue does not concern our success at soul winning, meeting financial budgets, or building new institutions. Rather, the issue centers on what we have done with Jesus Christ. I know that I need a much greater measure of His grace in my life. I need to spend more time with Him, more time reflecting on His goodness, His justice, His mercy, His love. I long to see us give much more time to prayer, fasting, and Bible study, with the emphasis on knowing Jesus better. We need the latter rain, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. But when we pray for the Holy Spirit we need to make sure that we are not just praying for victory over sin or greater success in evangelism, but that we pray for the Holy Spirit to help us lift up the cross more, to preach Jesus Christ better, to witness to Him better.

When Jesus is truly first in our lives, as seen by our attitudes, our repentance, our sharing His love, our making these themes the priority in our meetings and gatherings; when people see the love that we have for one another; when we sorrow for our sins; when we long to mirror the character of Christ more completely; when we would rather die than bring God shame; then God will respond by pouring out His Spirit in such power that our evangelism will be beyond counting. People will take notice that we have been with Jesus, and they too will want to be with Him.

The message of Laodicea is not primarily a message to individuals, but to a church, to a corporate body. Therefore, while it is true that individuals make up the body, the church, it is the body as a whole that needs to recognize its need and change its emphasis. This is what the church failed to do after the 1888 General Conference. We must be careful that we do not get bogged down over the details of the message that Jones and Waggoner preached. The burden of their message is illustrated by the two pictures commissioned by James and Ellen White that we published in the October 1992 issue. The Seventh-day Adventist Church had been emphasizing the keeping of the law above the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. The plea of Jones, Waggoner, and Ellen White was to re verse this emphasis.

Lifting up Jesus

Victory over sin, character perfection, lifestyle changes, power for witnessing, come only as the sinner beholds Christ lifted up on the cross as the only perfect sacrifice. The application of His sacrifice in the heavenly sanctuary to us today is in proportion to the emphasis we give to what Christ did for us 2,000 years ago. What Christ does for us and what He does in us form an indissolvable union. However, the success of Christ working in us is always predicated on us focusing and emphasizing what He has done for us. The way to character perfection is through the cross.

"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 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). "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).

"Lift the cross higher, that many may behold, and look and live. Christ died for the world, and His command is, 'Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature' (mark 16:15, KJV). The Lord would give us no such com mission without placing resources at our command sufficient for the work." 11"

Often doctrinal subjects are presented with no special effect; for men expect others to press upon them their doctrines; but when the matchless love of Christ is dwelt upon, His grace impresses the heart. There are many who are sincerely seeking for light, who know not what they must do to be saved. Oh, tell them of the love of God, of the sacrifice made on Calvary's cross to save the perishing! Tell them to place their will on the side of God's will; and 'if any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine,whether it be of God' (John 7:17, KJV)." 12

If we are not careful, the call to character perfection can lead us away from an emphasis on the righteousness of Christ. Ellen White defines character perfection as the spontaneous acting out of God's love: "Love is the basis of godliness. Whatever the profession, no man has pure love to God unless he has unselfish love for his brother. But we can never come into possession of this spirit by trying to love others. What is needed is the love of Christ in the heart. When self is merged in Christ, love springs forth spontaneously. The completeness of Christian character is attained when the impulse to help and bless others springs constantly from within when the sunshine of heaven fills the heart and is revealed in the countenance" 13 Are we revealing God's character of love? Is this what we mean by character perfection?

The call to repentance to the church of Laodicea is to make prominent the righteousness of Christ, to make this our emphasis. This is the only path to follow if we want all the other blessings that God has promised. Ellen White again and again emphasizes the importance of making the cross central in our lives, preaching, committees, and programs. The cross is the ONLY way we can move the world. "Christ declares, 'I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.' If the cross does not find an influence in its favor, it creates an influence. Through generation succeeding generation, the truth for this time is revealed as present truth. Christ on the cross was the medium whereby mercy and truth met together, and righteousness and peace kissed each other. This is the means that is to move the world" 14

I thus appeal to all my fellow church leaders: Will you listen to the divine call "Be earnest, therefore, and repent"? If we will repent, then Christ promises to "come in and eat with us." The greatest proof that we have not repented as a church is the fact that we are still here. After almost 150 years we are still here. The church that was raised up by God to announce the coming of Jesus with great power in a single generation is still here. It takes only one generation to finish the work that God has given. He is not short on power. It is us who still refuse to empty ourselves and be filled with His Spirit thereby preventing this church from broadcasting His glory across this world. How long must He wait? Are we willing to pay the price to reorder our priorities?

*Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture texts are
from the New International Version.

1 Robert C. Worley, A Gathering of Strangers
(Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), pp. 28-29.

2 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,
1948), vol. 5, pp. 456-457.

3 Ellen G. White, Review and Herald, September 25,
1900.

4 Ellen G. White, Christ's Object Lessons (Washing
ton, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1941),
p. 69.

5 Ibid, pp. 415,416.

6 Ellen G. White, Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 88.

7 Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ (Mountain View,
Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1956), p. 46.

8 Ellen G. White, Faith and Works (Nashville, TN.:
Southern Pub. Assn., 1979), p. 24.

9 Ellen G. White, Letter 24, 1892.

10 Ellen G. White in Review and Herald,
Aug. 28, 1894.

11 Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Southern Africa, p.
64.

12 Ellen G. White, Colporteur Ministry (Mountain
View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1953), p.
42.

13 Ellen G. White, Christ's Object Lessons, p. 384.

14 , The SDA Bible Commentary (Washington,
D. C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1957),
 Ellen G. White Comments, vol. 6, p. 1113.


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J. David Newman, DMin., is the editor of Ministry.

February 1993

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