Viewpoint: Adventist identity and Evangelical criticism

Viewpoint is designed to allow readers an opportunity to express opinions regarding matters of interest to their colleagues. The ideas expressed in this feature are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Seventh-day Adventist Church or the opinions of the Ministry staff. -Editors.

C. Raymond Holmes, D.Min., is professor of preaching and worship at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University.

Seventh-day Adventism is experiencing an identity crisis. Ironically, the present confusion is in direct contrast to the confidence of Adventism's pioneers." So states Kenneth R. Samples in an article in Christianity Today. He associates the identity crisis with a "doctrinal controversy that . . . can be traced to their interaction with Evangelicals in the 1950s." 1

The interaction is a reference to the "extensive meetings" Adventist leaders had with Walter Martin, who later wrote The Truth About Seventh-day Adventism, and Donald Grey Barnhouse, then editor of Eternity. That dialogue "established an unprecedented openness be tween Adventists and Evangelicals."

Samples believes that these talks led to an Evangelical current within the Seventh-day Adventist Church. A major factor characterizing this trend is the belief that righteousness by faith consists of justification, with sanctification being the fruit. The implication is obvious: such a view was not held within Adventism prior to the influence of Martin and Barnhouse.

The article further suggests that the "crisis" in Adventism surfaced in the 1980s with the firing or resignation of "Evangelical Adventists," the most prominent being Desmond Ford. Thus the article creates an impression that Adventism in the 1980s was purging itself of those who held to an uncompromising stand on justification by faith alone.

Back to history

Facts, however, are different. Seventh-day Adventists have long believed and preached justification by faith. A primary example is the 1929 publication of Christ Our Righteousness, by Arthur G. Daniells, then retired president of the General Conference. In simple, uncomplicated language Daniells articulated the doctrine of justification by faith alone: "It is the gospel that reveals to men the perfect righteousness of God. The gospel also reveals the way that righteousness may be obtained by sinful men, namely, by faith." 2 The sinner "yields, repents, confesses, and by faith claims Christ as his Saviour. The instant that is done, he is accepted as a child of God. His sins are all forgiven, his guilt is canceled, he is accounted righteous, and stands approved, justified, before the divine law. . . . This is righteousness by faith." 3 Daniells makes it clear that "the knowledge of sin; not the deliverance from sin," comes by the law.4 "This wonderful truth should be perfectly clear to every believer; and it must become personal experience." 5

Long before Daniells, Ellen White had said that the message of righteousness by faith (1) was sent by the Lord specifically to the Adventist people in 1888 at a time when many of them had lost sight of Jesus; (2) is a message to be given to the whole world; (3) is the third angel's message to be given with a loud voice resulting in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit; and (4) will lead to obedience to all of God's commandments.6

Critical pressure from Evangelicals has tempted some Adventists to abandon part of the message of righteousness by faith, brought to this church 100 years ago. The rub is Ellen White's fourth point relative to justification: the evidence that righteousness by faith has been received is obedience to all the commandments.

The question must now be posed as to whether some Adventists have listened so intently and so believingly to Evangelical criticism that we are in danger of losing sight of what happened historically in 1888 . . . and of our mission.

Crisis in Evangelicalism

One of the dangers for Adventism today comes from the identity crisis and doctrinal controversy that seems to be sweeping contemporary Evangelicalism itself. This crisis in Evangelicalism is revealed in the writings of two of its own theologians.

John F. Mac Arthur, Jr., a prominent pastor and Bible expositor, speaks of the erosion of the gospel within Evangelicalism: "Sinners today hear not only that Christ will receive them as they are but also that He will let them stay that way!" 7 "Multitudes approach Christ on those terms. . . . They have been deceived by a corrupted gospel." 8 What is missing in the popular Evangelical understanding of faith is the "determination of the will to obey truth." 9

Evidently there are Evangelical preachers today who are telling their listeners that all they have to do is believe the facts about Christ, whether or not they obey Him, and they will be saved, and that salvation does not necessarily result in changed behavior. "The teaching that Christians are freed from observing any moral law is rampant in today's Evangelical community." 10

Donald G. Bloesch, professor of systematic theology at Dubuque Theological Seminary, recognizes that "the con temporary church is in a state of theological ferment." 11 He proposes a "theology of Evangelical devotion" to Christ. Hallmarks of that devotion are twofold: (1) the believer being made righteous and (2) victorious living. "Devotion to Jesus Christ separates us from the world in its sin as well as identifies us with the world in its suffering." 12 "Sanctification must follow justification, since God makes righteous those who He declares righteous." 13 And "it is not the cross of Christ so much as the power of the risen Christ, the Spirit of Christ, that needs to be given special attention today." 14 He also speaks of the kingdom of God as the "remnant of the faithful," 15 and says that "justification is to be fulfilled in sanctification if it is to benefit us." 16

Cost of discipleship

Thus the minimization of sanctification is a major problem among Evangelicals today, with its inevitable impact on grass-root ethics and morality. Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of this problem to a church that had preached justification through faith for more than 400 years: "Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner." 17 In writing of Luther's famous discovery, Bonhoeffer says: "It is a fatal misunderstanding of Luther's action to suppose that his rediscovery of the gospel of pure grace offered a general dispensation from obedience to the command of Jesus, or that it was a great discovery of the Reformation that God's forgiving grace automatically conferred upon the world both righteousness and holiness. ... It was not the justification of sin but the justification of the sinner that drove Luther from the cloister back into the world. ... In the depth of his misery, Luther had grasped by faith the free and unconditional forgiveness of all his sins. That experience taught him that this grace had cost him his very life, and must continue to cost him the same price day by day. So far from dispensing him from discipleship, this grace only made him a more earnest disciple. When he spoke of grace, Luther always implied as a corollary that it cost him his own life, the life which was not for the first time subjected to the absolute obedience of Christ. Only so could he speak of grace. Luther had said that grace alone can save; his followers took up his doctrine and repeated it word for word. But they left out its invariable corollary, the obligation of discipleship . . . [Luther] always spoke as one who had been led by grace to the strictest following of Christ." 18

Notice the relationship between free forgiveness (grace) and the obligation of discipleship (obedience) in Bonhoeffer's understanding of Luther. The orthodoxy of Luther's followers relative to free grace (justification) "spelt the end and destruction of the Reformation as the revelation on earth of the costly grace of God. The justification of the sinner in the world degenerated into the justification of sin and the world. Costly grace was turned into cheap grace without discipleship." 19

In other words, there is an abandonment of the essence of the Reformation.

That abandonment is manifest today by a shifting of the focus to such concerns as ecumenicity, resolution of social is sues, and a political and social interpretation to the kingdom of God upon earth.

Have the followers of Luther today for gotten the Reformation's intent? What ever be the case, it is my contention--and history supports it-- that the Sev enth-day Adventist Church was called into being to recover and restore the Reformation's emphasis on what Bonhoeffer refers to as costly grace. This is not arrogance or exclusivism, but simply the recognition of reality.

Cheap grace and easy believism

Contemporary Evangelical Christi anity, critical of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, would have it join in the preaching of cheap grace and easy believism. This kind of Evangelicalism does not see Christian obedience as part of faith and salvation. It holds that any consideration of sanctification/holiness is legalism.

Genuine faith, however, always includes the need to obey. Without obedience, the message of salvation is incomplete and corrupted. According to Paul, the gospel is to be obeyed (Rom. 6:17; 1 Thess. 1:8, 9). John the Baptist taught obedience to Jesus; for him faith and obedience were synonymous (see John 3:36). The early church clearly saw a harmonious blending of faith and obedience (Acts 6:7). Hebrews 11 makes no separation between faith and obedience.

As far as the Bible is concerned obedience is proof of faith, and disobedience proof of disbelief. As one of my professors was fond of saying, "Good works do not save you, but their absence will damn you." MacArthur says: "Jesus characterizes true righteousness the righteousness that is born of faith (cf. Rom. 10:6) as obedience not just to the letter of the law, but to the spirit of the law as well (Matt. 5:21-48). . . . Jesus sums up the gauge of real righteousness in this shocking statement from the Sermon on the Mount: 'Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect'" (Matt. 5:48).20

Because His standards are beyond the reach of human endeavor alone, God graciously provides faith to believe, as well as all the resources of heaven to enable the believer to follow Him successfully in faith and obedience. While individuals may want to know the blessings of salvation, they do not necessarily want to acknowledge or submit to the authority, the lordship, of Christ. Jesus as Saviour, yes! Jesus as Lord, no! But it is in the very nature of sonship to obey. Jesus was obedient to His Father's will, and the Christian cannot do any less.

Some Evangelicals today would say that while every believer is justified, not every believer will be sanctified, that justification does not necessarily result in changed behavior. But that is an in correct separation of justification and sanctification. It is a false dichotomy. The truth is that every sinner whom God justifies, He also sanctifies. That is to say, true saving faith will result in obedient living.

A person whom God declares righteous (imputed righteousness), He makes righteous (imparted righteousness). While justification and sanctification are distinct theological concepts, they are united in experience. A person can not have one without the other. It is only those who are justified who can be sanctified; it is only those who are being sanctified who can rightly claim to be justified. The believer is certainly not justified because he is being sanctified, but neither can he be justified without being sanctified. In the words of Jesus: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 7:21, NIV).

To go back to Daniells again. His understanding of righteousness by faith was quite clear. He believed that righteousness through faith results in obedience, that the new believers '"keep the commandments of God.' They have experienced the marvelous change from hating and transgressing the law of God, to loving and keeping its righteous precepts. ... This wondrous transformation can be wrought only by the grace and power of God, and it is wrought for those only who lay hold of Christ as their substitute, their surety, their Redeemer. Therefore, it is said that they 'keep . . . the faith of Jesus.'" 21

Having known and experienced the blessings of justification (that is, regeneration, being born anew, canceled guilt, etc.), "they should know by victorious experience that they have laid hold of, and are being kept by, 'the faith of Jesus,' and that by this faith they are empowered to keep the commandments of God." 22

That is the 1888 message: justification by faith made possible by the grace of God in Christ, and empowering by that grace to obey all of God's commandments. What some contemporary Evangelicals are urging Adventists to abandon is belief in the power of grace to transform the sinner into a faithful and obedient child of God (Eph. 1:18-23; 3:14-21). It is this part of the Adventist understanding of righteousness by faith that disturbs some Evangelicals. Ironically, however, it is the same concern that has motivated other Evangelical thinkers and preachers such as Mac Arthur and Bloesch to reaffirm the total mes sage of the Reformation.

Some Evangelicals are prepared to relegate Seventh-day Adventists to the cult heap if we persist in maintaining a balance between justification and sanctification in salvation. Samples asks: "In the late 1970s, Seventh-day Adventism was at the crossroads: Would it become thoroughly Evangelical? Or would it return to sectarian traditionalism?" 23 The implied threat is obvious. For Adventism to become "thoroughly" Evangelical would require abandoning its understanding of the interdependence of justification and sanctification in salvation, and opting for the contemporary Evangelical view. A refusal to do so would carry the risk of being classified as sectarian.

 Perhaps we should challenge Evangelicals with a few counter questions. Have they strayed so far from basic Christianity that they are incapable of recognizing the biblical accuracy of Adventism regarding justification/righteousness through faith? Is it not a case of theological jaundice that they cannot see the balance between justification and sanctification? On what biblical grounds should one concede that a call to sanctification is the same as legalism?

The Adventist calling

George Knight has correctly pointed out that in 1888 the Adventist Church rescued the doctrine of justification/righteousness through faith and placed it within the larger and proper framework of the other great truths entrusted to Adventists. The doctrine of righteousness by faith, with its two foci on the saving faith in Christ and the commandments of God, is, as Knight states, among "the great truths of Evangelical Christianity." 24 So Ellen White could say that the message received in 1888 "was no new light, but it was old light placed where it should be in the third angel's message." 25

This is the message I heard preached, taught, and confessed 20 years ago when I enrolled in the Seventh-day Adventist Theological seminary. Having served as a pastor in an Evangelical church, I was eager to find out whether or not Christ lived in Adventism. To my surprise, virtually everyone I encountered at the Seminary was an Evangelical Adventist. I didn't know of any other kind. I do now.

Fundamental to Adventism has been, and still is, justification/righteousness through faith. Much of the criticism of Adventism as legalistic is based on ignorance, prejudice, changes within the Evangelical understanding of justification by faith, and an unwillingness to see the lordship of Christ and Christian obedience as essential components of salvation and discipleship.

The developing crisis of Revelation 13 is the background for the loud cry of the three angels of Revelation 14. Thus the message given to the church in 1888 was not to be viewed narrowly. God used the Adventist Church to rescue this precious message and set it in the context of other important truths such as the Sabbath, the sanctuary ministry of Christ, His return, and the judgment message of Daniel 7 and Revelation 14. God has also charged the Adventist Church to take this "everlasting gospel" in its entirety to the whole world. Therefore, the Adventist mission is more than a call to come to grips with basic Christianity; it is a call to proclaim to the whole world a balanced view of law and gospel as part of justification/righteousness through faith.

If the Adventist Church is undergoing an identity crisis it may be because we have been listening to Evangelical criticism for so long that we have begun to believe it. What is needed to recover our identity is the restudy and revival of the biblical message that made this movement such a powerful spiritual force in the world!

1 Kenneth R. Samples, "The Recent Truth
About Seventh-day Adventism," Christianity
Today, Feb. 5, 1990, p. 19.

2 A. G. Daniells, Christ Our Righteousness
(Washington, D.C.: Review andHeraldPub. Assn.,
1929), p. 21.

3 Ibid., p. 23.

4 Ibid., p. 22.

5 Ibid., p. 29.

6 Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,
1923), pp. 91,92.


7 John F. MacArthur, Jr., The Gospel According
to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House,
1989), p. 169.

8 Ibid., p. 170.

9 Ibid., p. 173.

10 Ibid., p. 190.

11 Donald G. Bloesch, The Crisis of Piety (Colorado
Springs: Helmers and Howard Publishers,
1988), p. 7.

12 Ibid., p. 19.

13 Ibid., p. 16.

14 Ibid., p. 17.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid., p. 19.

17 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
(New York: The Macmillan Co., 1957), p. 37.

18 Ibid., p. 42.

19 Ibid., pp. 43, 44.

20 MacArthur, p. 177.

21 Daniells, p. 83.

22 Ibid., p. 85.

23 Samples, p. 21.

24 George R. Knight, Angry Saints (Hagerstown,
Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1989), p.
128.

25 White, Selected Messages, Book 3 (Wash
ington, D.C.: Review andHeraldPub. Assn., 1980),
p. 168.


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C. Raymond Holmes, D.Min., is professor of preaching and worship at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University.

February 1993

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