Editor's Note: This article is based on a sermon recently preached by Elder Paulsen.
Paul's impact on our doctrines and beliefs cannot be overstated. Look at any of our central doctrines the nature of Christ, His death and resurrection, His intercessory ministry, His second coming, salvation, the meaning of faith, baptism, the nature of the church, spiritual gifts, or whatever. What strikes me the most, however, is that Paul is never satisfied with just settling doctrinal matters or clarifying theological issues. His ultimate concern is for the life that is to be lived, for it is in every day life that faith is actually exposed.
The doctrine of life after death, for instance, is a wonderful promise, but life before death is surely God's gift to all of us. We are alive, we plan, we think, we say things, we do things, we touch each others' lives. There are smells and tastes, thoughts and actions, sounds and feelings. This is life. Life is not something you can step out of and look at and then step back into.
The object is not just to know; the object is to live. And so, the really important question is, How does our knowledge and understanding of what we believe impact the lives we live?
Doctrine, in a sense, is the servant of life. As Seventh-day Adventists, we read the Bible diligently. We study, we know much, and this is important. God has entrusted to us a very special understanding of biblical truth, and He has told us to go and share this with the world. But we need to ask ourselves: How does our knowing impact the lives we live?
In Jesus' parable of the good Samaritan, both the priest and the Levite could well have accurately taught the truth that we humans should give meaningful aid to those who are in need, but only the Samaritan actually stopped to help, to live out the truth. He knew what it was all about!
Knowing and living
Peter, with an eye to the end of the world, asks, "Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming" (2 Peter 3:11, 12).* And so, he says, "since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blame less and at peace with him" (verse 14).
Therefore, we who already know this, we who were brutally reminded of it on September 11, last year; of the frailty of human structures and human security, we ought to be on guard so that we are not carried away by the error of lawless people, and fall from our secure position. What we know and believe are meant to shape us and the lives we live. It's not enough just to know.
There are moments when we need to pause and clarify certain theological uncertainties that have crept into our ranks. There are times when we need to speak up and be sure that we are holding securely that which God has entrusted to us.
Yes, we need to do this, but we should do so for a further purpose our personal lives; our relationships with the Lord and with people, and our faithfulness to the mission the Lord has given to us. We need to be sure it is in fact finding meaning in the lives that we live.
Theology on its own has no self-existent right. To become a well-informed theological recluse is no goal worthy to live for. Rather, what truly matters is to have done and to have become something useful to God, His mission, and people. It may be a bit presumptuous to speak of God's need, but God needs individuals who are sensitive to His will, who are alive to each other's needs and struggles, and whose focus is on Christ and the quality of life that He wants us to have. God is looking for a people who can witness for Him in an unbelieving world by offering more than facts and data.
We must ask, What's happening to me as a person? What is becoming of me and my life? The final events will surprise us all by the speed with which they will come into our lives. So I must press the question, What is happening to us today?
Numerous passages of Scripture illustrate the point that since this is what you know and believe, this is how you should live. Consider three such passages.
Life of humility
First is Philippians 2:6ff. Through a unique choice of words, Paul comments on the process by which Jesus Christ became a man an act that is really a mystery. Christ emptied Himself of one form, the form of God, and took on another form, the form of a human being.
Flowing from this passage, there have come numerous theories of the self-emptying of Christ. Much has been written on this subject, but it still remains a mystery to our frail human understanding. Just what did He empty Himself of? Did He let it go for time and eternity? Did He pick it up again when He ascended? Were there any risks involved? These are intriguing questions, questions the people of God will have an eternity to study.
But is the exploration of that question Paul's main concern? No, it is not. Paul says that Christ, who had a status infinitely higher than that of any created being, did not have to go around and assert and demonstrate His equality with the Father. That was something He had and was secure about, and He did not need to go around and demonstrate His greatness.
We, by contrast, sometimes get a bit puffed up, maybe reflecting our own insecurity more than anything else. Paul's subject matter is what Christ, who was equal with God the Father, became when He stepped into the world of humanity. Paul is concerned with how Jesus lived among us.
Christ chose to take the form of humanity. He chose the obscurity of a servant because that is how He could best help fallen humanity. He wanted to give hope to fallen humans. He wanted to give you and me a future, and He knew there was no other way He could do it, but for Him to become a servant. And in doing that, He gave an important signal regarding the meaning of Christian living.
Thus verses 3-5 make clear that the real subject matter is humility as opposed to self-seeking and self-assertion. The passage is not primarily about Christ's nature and what He did and did not take upon Himself when He left heaven and came to earth; which summarizes the way we most often use the passage.
Instead the passage is about honoring rather seeking honor. It's about giving rather than taking. This intriguing passage about the self-emptying of Christ is only the illustration of how we are to live. This kind of humility leads us to openness before God, and to the point of accepting one another. It's the only attitude that is Christian. Accept one another just as Christ accepted you.
In Romans 15:2, 3 Paul says, "Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For even Christ did not please himself." The apostle is saying something very critical about our styles of life, the way we spend our time, talents, and interests, and this points to some thing that is fundamental to the quality of life that we are meant to have. We are to take an interest in the lives of our fellow travelers on this journey, share in their joys and sorrows, and carry their burdens. It's God's intent for our lives. So let's allow ourselves to be drawn into the lives of other people.
To some that's not easy. Some are more private than others. For them it takes more of a moment's effort to be drawn into the lives of other people. But it's God's way.
It's easier for me to accept those who are like me. But when they look different, speak differently, and go to a different church; when they eat and drink what I would not, the resulting distance becomes difficult to negotiate.
People tend to nurture the distance between them rather than seeking ways by which they can be useful and helpful to each other. Overcoming this distance is not easy. Yet the injunction is to accept one another as genuine human beings of great value before God. After all, Christ gave His life for all humanity, and thereby gave inestimable worth to everyone.
Acceptance does not mean that we accept people's errors in conduct, faith, beliefs, or values. It does mean that we show compassion and care for them as human beings who are also loved by God, even as we help them to see and overcome their error.
By His incarnation and death, Christ declared all people to be valuable. "This is the mystery into which angels desire to look. They desire to know how Christ could live and work in a fallen world, how He could mingle with sinful humanity. It was a mys tery to them that He who hated sin so intensely, at the same time felt the most tender, compassionate sympathy for the beings that committed sin."1 This is the kind of humility into which Christ wishes to lead us.
Humility makes a person less arrogant. It makes one more human, more soft, and more pleasant. And it is this humility that Christ sought to communicate and live out when he took on human form. The issue is one of how to live before it is one that argues over fine points of faith.
Living free of judgmentalism
My second illustration is found in Colossians 2:16-19. This passage, familiar to Seventh-day Adventists, talks about Sabbath and new moons and shadows. Most often it is with these issues in mind that we or others refer to this passage. Is this Paul's primary concern as he writes these words to the Colossian congregation?
A minister of another church and I were once talking about faith and why and how we had arrived at our various points of belief. He pointed to this passage and said that Sabbath observance is no longer significant in the life of a Christian, and that Sabbath keeping is not a matter on which one should judge anybody.
We agreed that it's not for us to judge anyone. Judgment belongs to the Lord. In due course, He will judge us all, and do it with an even hand. It is first of all the matter of one human judging another that is Paul's concern in this passage, before it is the doctrinal concern as to whether or not sabbaths, religious festivals, and "New Moons" should be celebrated. Christ's powerful injunction was simple: "'Do not judge, or you too will be judged'" (Matt. 7:1). This is the heart of the message emphasized in this passage.
The message in Colossians 2 is against judgmentalism. Paul, on his missionary journeys, was constantly plagued by individuals who came along behind him and superimposed things onto the gospel which did not belong there. They castigated those who did not accept their way of viewing things.
Some individuals spend an inordinate amount of time, energy, and money handing out spiritual assessments of their fellow travelers. Let me refer them to this quote: "Often we regard as hopeless subjects the very ones whom Christ is drawing to Himself. Were we to deal with these souls according to our imperfect judgment, it would perhaps extinguish their last hope. Many who think themselves Christians will at last be found wanting. Many will be in heaven who their neighbors sup posed would never enter there. Man judges from appearance, but God judges the heart."2
Judgmentalism is alien to the mind of Christ. Spending one's time handing out spiritual judgments is destructive to relationships between people. It is personally unrewarding, and is ultimately disgraceful to God.
"Therefore," says Paul, "as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you" (Col. 3:12, 13). Again, then, the essential emphasis of this passage is on how we live how we view people and how in fact we treat them. It is an important and powerful description of the quality of life which must permeate the church community to which we belong. We will be stronger for it.
Living lives of godliness
My last illustration is found in 2 Peter 3 where the apostle links our living to the second coming of Christ, where the second coming of Christ is graphically described and His coming is proclaimed as absolute fact.
While such things are lucidly and powerfully proclaimed, the emphasis of Peter's words rests also in what impact the knowledge of this fact must have upon the actual way the believer lives his or her life.
In the early church the belief in Christ's return permeated all of their thinking. And Peter says, "Since we had this knowledge that Jesus Christ will return, how is that reality impacting our lives?" We are Adventists. There is no greater reality before us than the Second Coming. That is the moment which will somehow sum up history. It marks the end of our sorrows and hurts. How does that reality impact the way we live our lives today?
Well, writes Peter, since this reality is coming speedily, you are to live "holy and godly lives" (2 Peter 3:11). The apostle is talking about lives on which the imprimatur of God is placed. Holy means a life dedicated to God, and that means Christ will be the centerpiece of my life daily. It means that as I daily make decisions about myself, my resources, and my life, I will think about Christ, His mission, and the end of time.
It means that daily I will clean up my life and make sure that I've under stood the difference between right and wrong. It means that I will make an effort to be a kinder, more considerate person because that's the way Christ is. That is the meaning of holy living.
"Let us diligently study God's Word, that we may proclaim with power the message that is to be given in these last days. Many of those upon whom the light of our Savior's self-sacrificing life is shining refuse to live a life in accordance with His will. They are not willing to live a life of sacrifice for the good of others. They desire to exalt themselves."3
"A consecrated Christian life is ever shedding light and comfort and peace. It is characterized by purity, tact, simplicity, and usefulness. It is controlled by that unselfish love that sanctifies the influence. It is full of Christ and leaves a track of light wherever its possessor may go."4
That's a wonderful description. "It leaves a track of light wherever its possessor may go."
As we live in the closing moments of life on earth as we know it, with an important mission entrusted to us, what does the Lord expect of each of us? Three things come to my mind.
First, He says, "I want your lives to reflect the values I've taught you. You don't have to look elsewhere. I have taught you."
Second, He says, "I want you to be awake, sober, and alert."
Finally He says, through the prophet, "I want you to do justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly before your God."
* All Scripture passages in this article are from the New International Version.
1 Ellen G. White in Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1957), 7:904.
2 Ellen G. White, Christ's Object Lessons (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1941), 71, 72.
3 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1904), 8:202.
4 Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1890), 667.