The General Conference Ministerial Association has chosen the theme "The truth as it is in Jesus" for the ministers' councils to be held in all the world divisions during this quinquennium. The theme reveals a particular concern with "truth." That, in fact, has been a peculiar mark of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. We respect the truth. We search for the truth. We preach the truth. Ellen White speaks about "the truth" more than a thousand times in her writings.
Our message is understood as "present truth" (2 Peter 1:12, KJV).* Peter uses this expression to refer to the preaching of "the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 1:16). Truth is an Advent term.
Adventist concept of truth
The first statement of faith in our history is found in an informal statement James White gave to a Seventh Day Baptist. In that statement White described the Sabbatarian Adventist group as being "bound together by the bonds of love love for the truth, love for each other, and love for a perishing world."1 Even today, the concept of "truth" is at the heart of the life, message, and mission of the church. For example, the introduction to the book Seventh-day Adventists Believe . . . provides a summary of the Adventist concept of biblical truth. Three basics of the church's understanding of "truth" emerge:
First, the eternal and boundless nature of God is seen as the basis for a progressive concept of truth and knowledge. "Recognizing that He who is the incarnation of truth is infinite, we humbly confess that there is still much truth to be discovered."
Second, the Bible is seen as a revealer of truth to those who search its pages under the influence of the Holy Spirit, resulting in our progressive understanding of truth. "We acknowledge the noble line of witnesses such as Wycliffe, Huss, Luther, Tyndale, Calvin, Knox, and Wesley whose advance into new light led the church forward to a fuller understanding of God's character. And that under standing is ever progressive."
Third, the Bible reader's attitude of openness, obedience, and humility is presented as a condition for finding the truths of the Word of God.2 How vital is the Adventist love for truth? James White conceived truth as essential for the unity of our church. It is our "love for truth" that binds us together and delivers us from "all party feelings."3 It is at the core of our message, mission, and ministry.
Adventist concern for truth
Why should we be so concerned with truth? First, because God is truth and we are His people.
Second, the concept of progressive truth is apparent in both the Old and New Testaments, and challenges us to a continual study of truth.
Third, the impact of the Protestant Reformation on Seventh-day Adventist thinking has always been important. Part of that heritage has led us to accept the ultimate authority of the Bible and the need to search for truth through careful Bible study under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Fourth, there is the experience of the Adventist pioneers and their intense concern for the truth in order to prepare for the Second Coming.
Finally, the great controversy theme carries the perpetual preoccupation of safeguarding truth (see 2 Thess. 2:10, 11).
Truth and Adventist predicament
In spite of our commitment to truth as it is in Jesus, we have from time to time found the church in a predicament regarding our understanding of that truth. We have made mistakes in our history that God has corrected. Some old theological tensions remain with us, on issues such as righteousness by faith, the nature of Christ, and the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation.
With doctrinal statements, there is a danger that we forget that which is supremely important: the vision of the infinite and eternal God as truth the truth as it is in Jesus. This vision of the ultimacy of God must transcend any written expression of doctrinal positions. And, therefore, the truth as it is in Jesus must be the very center from which all texts in the Bible and all doctrinal summaries of its content are understood.
Another issue among us is whether truth does change. Robert Spangler, former General Conference ministerial secretary and editor of Ministry, observed in a 1982 editorial that "Adventism creates a rather paradoxical situation in some respects. In teaching people, we emphasize the need of an open mind. . . . We are proficient in getting people to examine truth and investigate it thoroughly, recognizing its superiority to erroneous beliefs. But after having arduously worked with them to rethink and restudy their understanding of Bible doctrines, we then trust they will 'settle into' or 'become grounded and established' in the truth to such a degree that doubts or questions will never arise again."
Spangler detects an inherent danger here. "Too often, by 'being settled and grounded' in the truth, we mean there is no further need to study or think or reason again. Thus we encourage fossilization. Or if we do urge 'study,' we often mean head knowledge, not a knowledge that involves the heart. . . . This is just as dangerous as fossilization, if not more so. We must have 'the truth as it is in Jesus' warm from Heaven in our heart (see Eph. 4:21)."
Having the truth "warm from Heaven in our heart" implies a growing truth growing into the likeness of the infinite God. Spangler continues: "If truth does not become a vibrant, living reality, if it does not become a part of our spiritual flesh and blood, if it does not constantly expand, along with our understanding of the Lord Jesus, into something more real and personal and precious, then it will become legalistic, empty, and meaningless."4
Unfortunately, many did not hear this message in the eighties. Some ministers did not hear, and so they continued their fossilized lives and sermons, and their congregations began to die. As a reaction to that, others who did not hear it either, started their independent ministries based on doctrinal fossilization and careless criticism of church leadership.
As we move into the nineties, the question is no longer "What is truth?" but "Which truth is the more important?" or "Which truth do we need?"5
The answer is quite simple: "the truth as it is in Jesus."
The truth as in Jesus
What does that actually mean! The phrase occurs in Ephesians 4:21. Ellen White uses it in the beautiful chapter "Things New and Old" in Christ's Object Lessons.
Having said in verse 17 that the Christians in Ephesus must no longer live as the Gentiles do, "separated from the life of God because of ... ignorance" (verse 18), Paul says: "You, however, did not come to know Christ that way. Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus" (Eph. 4:20, 21).
The phrase is central to Paul's argument from Eph. 4:17 to 5:21. The apostle's burden is on how Christians should live—as "children of light." Previous to this he has spoken about "the unity of the body of Christ" (verses 1-16).
Paul apparently coined the expression "the truth that is in Jesus" in order to describe a way of life: "You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self . . . ; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness" (verses 22-24).
Notice how "the truth as it is in Jesus" has to do with Christian living, which is a new thing, "created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness." Thus, "the truth that is in Jesus" is basically defined as God's life. Only on that premise can the Christian's life be understood to be a new creation into God's likeness.
As Paul pursues the argument of the life of God as the new pattern of life in the Christian church, he first admonishes his readers to fulfill the law: not to speak falsely and not to steal, in order to preserve the unity of love (verses 25-28).
Then, in Ephesians 4:29 to 5:2, the apostle broadens the perspective. "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." Our church needs this as the basis for its unity. This is truth as it is in Jesus.
Truth and Adventist life and mission
Love for God is the power that enables us to give ourselves up for others in ministerial service "as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." That is the truth as in Jesus: to be transformed by His saving grace and by His grace lead a life of love. Recall the words of Jesus: "Remain in me, and I will remain in you" (John 15:4). "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever" (John 6:51). "For this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me" (John 18:37).
Ellen White understood the immeasurable greatness of this truth. "Truth in Christ and through Christ is measureless. . . . Not in this life shall we comprehend the mystery of God's love in giving His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. . . . The truth as it is in Jesus can be experienced, but never explained. Its height and breadth and depth pass our knowledge. We may task our imagination to the utmost, and then we shall see only dimly the outlines of a love that is unexplainable, that is as high as heaven."6
"Thousands have drawn water from these wells of life, yet there is no diminishing of the supply. Thousands have set the Lord before them.. .. But these searchers have not exhausted these grand and holy themes. Thousands more may engage in the work of searching out the mysteries of salvation. . . . The subject is inexhaustible. . . . 'Great is the mystery of godliness.'"7
Where may we search for a deeper appreciation of this mystery? "The great storehouse of truth is the word of God the written word, the book of nature, and the book of experience in God's dealing with human life."8
What are we to find in the storehouse of truth? "The heaven-born love of Christ," 9 "the gospel," 10 "the deep things of God," 11 and "the truth as it is in Jesus."12
Since "it is possible for us to see all that we can bear of the divine compassion," the truth as it is in Jesus "is unfolded to the humble, contrite soul." Thus, "as we search the word of God in humility of heart, the grand theme of redemption will open to our research." 13 There is a connection between human emptiness and divine fullness: the more we humble ourselves and confess our needs, the more God is able to provide us His gifts. The way to growth is an awareness of our own emptiness like the tax collector standing at a distance, not daring even to look up to heaven, but calling to God for mercy upon his life as a sinner.
This humble and diligent search for truth is a spiritual endeavor that cannot succeed without prayer, faith in God, and sharing our treasures with others. When we "rely upon God in prayer, the Spirit of Christ will come upon [us], and God will work through [us] by the Holy Spirit upon the minds of others." 14
The truth should be sought in the attitude of a servant. "If you search the Scriptures to vindicate your own opinions, you will never reach the truth. Search in order to learn what the Lord says. If conviction comes as you search, if you see that your cherished opinions are not in harmony with the truth, do not misinterpret the truth in order to suit your own belief, but accept the light given. Open mind and heart that you may behold wondrous things out of God's word." 15
When that happens, we will rediscover the newness, the freshness, and the relevance of our message and mission, and we will live it and proclaim it with power and effect.
This article is an adaptation of the keynote address given at the Trans-European Division World Ministers' Council held in Budapest, Hungary, August 28-September 3, 1995.
* All Scripture passages in this article are from the New International Version.
1. James White, "Resolution of the Seventh Day Baptist Central Assocation," Review and Herald, Aug. 11, 1853.
2. Seventh-day Adventists Believe . . . (Silver Spring, Md.: Ministerial Association, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1988), p. vii.
4. Robert Spangler, "Does Truth Change?" Ministry, October 1982.
5. See William G. Johnsson, The Fragmenting of Adventism (Boise, Id.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1995).
6. Ellen G. White, Christ's Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1900), pp. 128, 129.
7. Ibid., pp. 133, 134.
8. lbid., p. 125.
10. Ibid., p. 133.
12. Ibid., p. 129.
14. Ibid., p. 131.
15. lbid., p. 112.