Like good Protestants, Adventists claim that they believe in justification by faith. They say that salvation is by grace alone and that works cannot save them. They believe that they are saved by Christ's substitutionary death, "the only means of atonement."1
Yet ask what happens in the investigative judgment, and suddenly the soteriology of many members becomes more works orientated. It's no longer grace alone. The line between judgment by works and justification by faith becomes blurred, until Christ's death as "the only means of atonement" isn't quite what they believe. The substitution isn't quite complete enough.
Despite all the assertions, claims, and publications to the contrary, because of their misunderstanding of the investigative judgment, many Adventists are trapped in a salvation-by-faith-and-works model of atonement.
It has taken me 14 years to realize how prevalent this problem is.
Experience of justification
Part of the reason for my myopia about legalism in Adventism was that I had never struggled with it myself. Not only did I understand it intellectually and biblically; I experienced it as well. I had been walking through a field, praying and feeling the presence of God in a remarkable manner. Suddenly it was as if the heavens opened and a flash of God's glory burned across the sky. I dropped to my knees and cringed, because for the first time since I accepted Christ, I saw just how wretched I was in contrast to a holy God. The overwhelming thought that consumed me was Oh, Lord, how can You accept me? Instantly an image of the cross flashed through my head.
I understood justification by faith. I knew all the texts in Romans. I could give Bible studies on it. Yet that day I experienced the great biblical truth that my only hope of salvation was rooted in what Christ did outside of me, for me, and in place of me 2,000 years ago at Calvary. I experienced the truth that no matter how sanctified and obedient I became, works even the ones done through Christ in me could no more justify me before God than the blood of pigs could wash away my sins. For me, justification by faith was no longer just a theological doctrine; it had become the foundation of my whole walk with Christ.
The problem, however, was that because this understanding had become so axiomatic to my Christian experience I assumed it was for everyone else as well. When, therefore, I preached and wrote about victory, sanctification, and biblical perfection (all of which I still believe), I assumed that everyone began with the same premise I did about justification by faith. No matter how hard I preached obedience and holy living, I thought that those listening already understood that Christ's imputed righteousness not obedience and holy living was the only basis of salvation. I never dreamed that I was hammering more nails in their legalistic coffins.
My first inkling that my assumption was wrong was with what I did to my poor wife soon after our marriage. So afraid that she might get caught up in the perfidious "new theology," I harped on the biblical truths of victory in Christ, overcoming sin, and character perfection. I never set these truths upon the foundation of justification by faith, simply because I thought she knew that basic teaching. Eventually, thinking that her salvation was based on what happened in her, rather than/or her, she became discouraged, as would anyone who was looking inside themselves and what happens there for salvation.
I was concerned. We studied together Romans 3-5 and the great truth of righteousness by faith. Since then, though my wife still strives for character perfection, as all true Christians do, she places her hope of salvation in Christ's death for her, as all true Christians must.
Blood and law
Though what my wife went through opened my eyes, something recently helped me to see the problem clearer. One pastor visiting an Adventist woman in a hospital told her that I was coming to town to preach. Her face turned red and she gasped and uttered, "Goldstein scares me he's trying to revive the doctrine of the investigative judgment within Adventism!"
When the pastor told me, my first thought was What was this person's understanding of the investigative judgment that would cause her to have such a response? Suddenly everything that I had been hearing over the years coalesced, and I then realized that the root cause of Adventist legalism was a misunderstanding of the pre-Advent judgment.
Adventists see the cleansing of the sanctuary in Daniel 8:14 as the antitypical fulfillment of the Levitical Day of Atonement, and rightly so. Yet what is atonement? Is it not God's act of saving a human being? Is it not God's work in our behalf? "But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8). Is that not atonement? How is atonement achieved? It happens only one way: through blood. "For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul" (Lev. 17:11).
Thus any day dedicated totally to atonement God's work for us must be very good news. How is it, then, that we have turned the antitypical day of atonement into bad news?
Because Adventists believe in obedience to the Ten Commandments, and because the Levitical Day of Atonement centered upon the room in which the Ten Commandments were kept, the tendency has been to emphasize the law more than blood. Yet in the type, everything happened with blood, not law. The mercy seat, that covered the law, was never lifted or removed on the Day of Atonement. According to Leviticus 16, the only thing that happened to the mercy seat on the Day of Atonement was that blood was sprinkled upon it (see verses 14, 15). The mercy seat always covered the law. The law, then, never comes into view, because it is the Day of Atonement, and only blood---not the law---atones.
The key element on the Day of Atonement was blood. "And he shall take of the blood of the bullock, and sprinkle it with his finger upon the mercy seat eastward; and before the mercy seat shall he sprinkle of the blood with his finger seven times. Then shall he kill the goat of the sin offering, that is for the people, and bring his blood within the vail, and do with that blood as he did with the blood of the bullock, and sprinkle it upon the mercy seat, and before the mercy seat.... And he shall go out unto the altar that is before the Lord, and make an atonement for it; and shall take of the blood of the bullock, and of the blood of the goat, and put it upon the horns of the altar round about.And he shall sprinkle of the blood upon it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it, and hallow it from the uncleanness of the children of Israel" (Lev. 16:14-19).
Blood, not the law, atoned for sin, and every drop symbolized the only blood that truly makes atonement: the blood of Christ. "Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot" (1 Peter 1:18,19). Blood, symbol of the righteousness of Christ, is what gets the sinner through judgment.
Blood and judgment
Just as blood was the only thing that got the penitent in Israel through the earthly Day of Atonement, it is blood, Christ's blood, that gets the penitent through the heavenly Day of Atonement. In His daily ministry, Christ as intercessor presents His own perfect life in place of the repentant sinner's imperfect one; in the yearly, He does the same thing. Whenever the name of one of His followers appears for judgment, Christ pleads His blood, His righteousness, in their stead. It can't be anything else, because nothing else not even works done by Christ in us is good enough.
"The pre-Advent judgment," wrote Norman Gulley, "is Christ-centered and not man-centered. It is not so much what individuals have or have not done per se that is decisive. Rather it is whether they have accepted or rejected what Christ has done for them when He was judged in their place at the cross (John 12:31)."2
Ellen White understood this forensic aspect of the investigative judgment. "When in the typical service the high priest left the holy on the Day of Atonement," she wrote, "He went in before God to present the blood of the sin offering in behalf of all Israel who truly repented of their sins. So Christ had only completed one part of His work as our intercessor, to enter upon another portion of the work, and He still pleaded His blood before the Father in behalf of sinners."3
In the judgment, when names of God's people come up, Satan accuses them before the Father. He "points to the record of their lives, to the defects of character, the unlikeness to Christ...[and] to all the sins that he has tempted them to commit." What happens in response? "Jesus does not excuse their sins, but shows their penitence and faith, and, claiming for them forgiveness, He lifts His wounded hands before the Father and the holy angels, saying: I know them by name. I have graven them on the palms of My hands."4 It doesn't matter if this happens when we are alive or dead: if we are converted Christians, we are covered by Christ's blood.
What about Ellen White's statements regarding how every thought, word, and deed will be investigated? For example, this one: "Sin may be concealed, denied, covered up from father, mother, wife, children, and associates. ... The darkness of the darkest night, the secrecy of all deceptive arts, is not sufficient to veil one thought from the knowledge of the Eternal." 5 The Bible, of course, teaches the same thing: "For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil" (Eccl. 12:14).
Who among us---even the most Christlike and sanctified Sabbathkeeper---could stand when every thought and secret thing is presented before God for judgment? Not one. That's why we need a substitute in the judgment. Second, which secret things, which thoughts, which evil deeds, can't be pardoned by the blood of Christ? None. For the repenting and con fessing Christian, who leans totally upon the merits of Christ, everything is covered by Him who "lifts His wounded hands before the Father." That's the essence of the good news!
Judgment by works
Of course, the wonderful, liberating news of Christ as our substitute in the pre-Advent judgment never implies release from obedience to the law. Forensic righteousness merely frees us from the bondage and futility of trying to be saved by the law.
No matter how adamant they were about justification by faith, the New Testament writers were just as adamant about obedience and a righteous life. "Little children," wrote John, "let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous" (1 John 3:7). "And they that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit" (Gal. 5:24, 25). "Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law" (Rom. 3:31).
Those under the delusion that righteousness by faith doesn't require strict obedience to God's commands will one day find themselves crushed by these words: "I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity [lawlessness]" (Matt. 7:23).
Christ, our substitute in the judgment, doesn't negate a judgment by works, either. On the contrary, works show that we have a saving faith. "Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works" (James 2:17, 18).
Travis observes correctly: "Paul's focus on relationship to Christ is not in conflict with his affirmation of judgment according to works. For he understands people's deeds as evidence of their character, showing whether their relationship to God is fundamentally one of faith or of unbelief. ... At the final judgment, the evidence of their deeds will confirm the reality of this relationship."6
Assurance and judgment
How unfortunate that for more than a century the investigative judgment has been twisted and even used as a disciplinary tool! As a result, instead of teaching the pre-Advent judgment as the climactic application of Calvary in our behalf, many Adventists have put the judgment in tension with, and even in opposition to, the cross. When salvation should have been rooted in what Christ has done for us, the investigative judgment has been so taught that we have focused attention upon ourselves and how well we perform, a hopeless prospect for even the holiest and most sanctified Seventh-day Adventist Christian.
No wonder so many Adventists don't have assurance of salvation. Far from negating the gospel, however, the pre-Advent judgment when taught in relationship to the cross affirms that our salvation comes only from faith in what Christ has done for us, and nothing else. Too bad many Adventists have missed this crucial aspect of the plan of salvation.
1. Seventh-day Adventists Believe ... A Biblical Exposition of 27 Fundamental Doctrines (Silver Spring. Md.: Ministerial Association, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1988), p. 106.
2. Norman Gulley, "Daniel's Pre-Advent Judgment in its Biblical Context," Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, Autumn 1991, p. 59.
3. Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, Calif: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), p. 429. (Italics supplied.)
4. Ibid., p. 484.
5. Ibid., p. 486.
6. S. H. Travis, "Judgment," in Gerald Hawthorne and Ralph Martin, eds., Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (Downers Grove, 111.: Intervarsity Press, 1993), p. 517.