His name was Mark—a young Austrian in his mid-20s. I met him as I was leaving the Hare Krishna temple in New Delhi, India. I had been traveling in India to find out what attracts Western youth to Eastern mysticism. While boarding a bus back to the city center, I met Mark, who had also been at the temple. He fingered a string of Buddhist prayer beads in his left hand while he flipped through some flash cards with Hindu sayings in his right.
In our conversation, he asked me what I did. “I’m a Christian minister,” I said. His eyes lit up and his voice brightened as he said, “I read the Bible and loved Jesus.” I was intrigued. “Why are you into Eastern meditation, which isn’t compatible with the teachings of Jesus?” His reply was quite disturbing. He said, “I started to go to church and lost Jesus.”
If Mark had attended an Adventist church, would his newfound love for Jesus been nurtured, or would he have become a statistic like the more than a third of those who have left the Adventist Church over the past 40 years?1
Why people leave the church
Adventist researcher Monte Sahlin said survey findings show that the cause of members leaving has less to do with doctrinal disagreements “than with problems people experience in their personal lives.”2 This begs the question, if our doctrines are not able to sustain people in personal crises, is something missing? Did they ever have a personal relationship with Jesus and assurance of salvation?
Lee Venden conducts revival meetings among North American Adventists, with an emphasis on a relationship with Jesus. Speaking of North America, he says, while those joining the church “see our doctrines as biblically sound, . . . they don’t see Jesus as the core of each. . . . Too many come to church but don’t come to Jesus.”3 “The majority of Adventists,” he says, “lack assurance of salvation” and “openly admit that they don’t have a daily walk with Christ.” Less than a quarter of attending members “spend any personal time in daily Bible study and prayer.”4 The recent landmark survey revealed only about “one in three families conduct daily worship.”5
The October 2013 Summit on Nurture and Retention supports Venden’s findings, with its call to build “loving and Christ-like relationships within the local church,” which is urgently needed. Something obviously is missing in many of our churches.6While there are Adventist churches that do have Christlike relationships, how could a young convert like Mark survive if he were to attend a church where this is lacking?
Joining the church and not finding Jesus
How can it be that people can accept our doctrines as biblical and not “see Jesus as the core of each,” or join our church but not come to Jesus? Arguably, no other teaching in the Adventist Church has undermined a right relationship with Jesus and having Christian assurance more than the view that we have to reach sinless perfection before we are ready for heaven.
The problem with perfectionism is that it focuses us on ourselves instead of on Jesus, causing a denial about the sinfulness of human nature. “We should remember,” says Ellen White, “that our own ways are not faultless. We make mistakes again and again. . . . No one is perfect but Jesus. Think of Him and be charmed away from yourself.”7 Let us look at some of the historical views regarding justification.
While White endorsed the 1888 message of “justification through faith in . . . Christ, which is made manifest in obedience to all the commandments of God” by Elders E. J. Waggoner and A. T. Jones,8 this does not mean these men were infallible or without error. They both began to go astray after 1888, until they became enmeshed in pantheism.9
George Knight points out that Jones, in 1889, definitely held “an objective (i.e., forensic) doctrine of justification.” Jones said that “to be justified is to be accounted righteous,”10 which means that we are declared righteous based on the finished work of Jesus credited to us, a righteousness that is in Christ, never in us—what Luther called an “alien righteousness.”11 Sanctifying righteousness in us by the Holy Spirit is the fruit of justification, never the root
But notice what else Jones said in 1889: “It is only . . . through Christ within us that we keep the commandments. . . . When . . . we actually keep the commandments of God, we will never die. . . . If we die now, Christ’s righteousness will be imputed [credited] to us and we will be raised, but those who live to the end are made sinless before He comes, having so much of Christ’s being in them that they . . . stand blameless without an intercessor.”12
“This teaching,” writes Knight, “became a major root for the spread of sinless perfectionism among Seventh-day Adventists.”13 By 1905, in The Consecrated Way to Perfection, Jones said, “Perfection attained in human flesh,” as “Christ attained it,” is the “Christian goal.” Christ’s “ministry in the true sanctuary” enables us “to attain it.”14
Waggoner, by 1900, in The Glad Tidings, departed from forensic jus-tification, defining the word justify as “made righteous.” No professed Christian, said Waggoner, should say “that it is impossible for a Christian to live a sinless life.”15
M. L. Andreasen, Adventist’s most prominent theologian of the 1930s and 1940s, expanded on perfectionism. He advocated that the last generation of believers “will demonstrate that it is possible to live without sin.” When we gain victory over every sin, through the process of sanctification, we are “ready for translation.” For Andreasesin is limited to actions, rather than the nature we are born with.16
The Council of Trent, which formulated Catholic teaching on salvation in 1563, “reaffirmed the views of Augustine,” who defined justification from the Latin as “to make righteous.” 17Trent said: “God cannot consider one just or non-sinner without making him just [righteous].”18 Trent confused justification and sanctification and included the new birth in justification. 19
In Trent’s view, the Fall was only partial—the will was not affected,2 and depravity is curable in this life.21 Inclinations to sin were not considered sin, which was limited to conscious wrongdoing.22 Therefore, Trent could advocate that complete obedience to the commandments is possible in this life: “For God does not command impossibilities.”23
The New Catholic Encyclopedia says: “Both Catholics and Protestants stress that the whole of justification is the work of God’s grace.”24 For Catholics, justification is by grace both for us in Christ and in us by the Holy Spirit. For Protestants it is only by grace for us, received by faith alone in the finished work of Jesus. Trent denied that we are justified by faith alone in the merits of Christ.25 The subtle change Trent made to legalism was to make the Holy Spirit our justifier instead of Christ.26
By making justification dependent on progressive sanctification, there can be no justification or assurance until perfection is reached.27 The whole system of monasticism, writes R. N. Flew, is considered “the boldest organized attempt to attain to Christian perfection in all the long history of the Church.”28 All theories of perfectionism, says Louis Berkhof, lower the standard of righteousness and lessen the enormity of sin.29
Sin is not just conscious wrongdoing or outward actions. White says that sin is the “inheritance of children.” It has “deranged” the “whole human organism.” We have “a bent to evil,” which we “cannot resist” and which is not eradicated until Jesus comes again.30
Andrews Study Bible notes on Psalm 51:5 say: “We are born sinners, alienated from God, with a sinful nature and tendencies to sin. Sin is not only an act, but a state into which we are born.”31 The Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology also describes sin “as a state,” and because of “an innate bent toward sin, complete deliverance will be celebrated only at the Second Coming.”32
What is the answer?
The answer is simpler than many think. By nature I’m a sinner condemned to death (Eph. 2:1–3; Rom. 3:23; 5:18; 6:23). Jesus lived a perfect life (1 John 3:5) and died to save sinners (1 John 2:2). As my Substitute, He died for me (Rom. 5:6–8). Because He is my Representative, I died with Him (2 Cor. 5:14). When I accept Jesus as my Savior, I enter a personal relationship with Him (John 1:12). Immediately I am forgiven (Eph. 1:7), am credited with Christ’s righteousness that meets the claims of God’s law (Rom. 4:1–6; 8:1–4), am justified freely by God’s grace, i.e. declared righteous (3:20–26), am adopted as a child of God (8:14–17), receive eternal life (John 3:36), become a citizen of heaven and a member of God’s kingdom (Phil. 3:20; Col. 1:12, 13), and am counted as seated in heaven already in Christ (Eph. 2:6). Christ’s vic-tory becomes my victory (Heb. 2:14, 15; Rev. 12:11), and God treats me just as if I had never sinned.33 All this I receive by faith alone in the finished work of Jesus (Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8, 9).
The value of faith is not in having it, but in its object. When we travel by plane, we have faith in the pilot. The object of saving faith is Jesus. To ask ourselves “Do I have enough faith?” is asking the wrong question. It should be: “Can I trust Jesus?” The answer is always “Yes!” White says, “I need not remain a moment longer unsaved. He died and rose again for my justification, and He will save me now. I accept the forgiveness He has promised.”34
The Holy Spirit’s work is to prompt me to accept Jesus (John 15:26; 16:8–15). The moment I accept Him and am justified, the new birth takes place as the Holy Spirit comes into my life (John 3:1–21). This is the beginning of a life-changing relationship of progressive sanctification by the Spirit (Rom. 15:16), which is completed at glorification (1 Cor. 15:51–55). Both justification and sanctification are essential and inseparable, yet distinct, as are Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Our assurance and security are based on Jesus’ finished work as Justifier and not on the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work as Sanctifier. If assurance depended on the latter, as perfectionism teaches, we could never have assurance until we were perfect. Willing obedience is the response of gratitude for the gift of eternal life (John 14:15) and never the basis of salvation.
How do we maintain this life-changing relationship with Jesus? “It would be well for us to spend a thoughtful hour each day in contemplation of the life of Christ. We should take it point by point, and let the imagination grasp each scene, especially the closing ones. As we thus dwell upon His great sacrifice for us, our confidence in Him will be more constant, our love will be quickened, and we shall be more deeply imbued with His spirit. If we would be saved at last, we must learn the lesson of penitence and humiliation at the foot of the cross.”35
“Kneeling in faith at the cross,” is “the highest place” that we can attain.”36
“No discourse,” White says, “should ever be delivered without presenting Christ and Him crucified as the foundation of the gospel.”37 This includes every Sabbath School lesson, sermon, Bible study, and evangelistic presentation. What a difference that would have made for Mark, if he had attended a church like that.
1 Andrew McChesney, “Church Membership Reaches 18.1 Million,” Adventist Review, October 12, 2014, http://www.adventistreview.org/church-news/ church-membership-reaches-18.1-million. Over this period 31.8 million were baptized, while 11.4 million (not counting deaths) left the church.
2 Ansel Oliver, “At First Retention Summit, Leaders Look at Reality of Church Exodus,” Seventh-day Adventist Church News, November 19, 2013, http:// news.adventist.org/all-news/news/go/2013-11 -19/at-first-retention-summit-leaders-look-at-reality-of-church-exodus/.
3 Derek J. Morris, “A Passion for Revival: An Interview With Lee Venden,” Ministry, February 2012.
5 Edwin Manuel Garcia, “Landmark Survey Reveals In-Depth Beliefs, Perceptions of Adventist Members,” Adventist News Network, October 17, 2013, http://news.adventist.org/en/all-news/ news/go/2013-10-17/landmark-survey-reveals-in-depth-beliefs-perceptions-of-adventist-members/.
6 Nurture and Retention Summit Statement, “Recommitting, Reconnecting, and Reconciling: Reviving Discipleship, Nurturing Believers, and Reuniting With the Missing,” Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research, http://www.adventistarchives.org/ nurture-and-retention-summit-statement.pdf.
7 Ellen G. White, That I May Know Him (Washington DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1964), 136.
8 Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1962), 91, 92.
9 George R. Knight, From 1888 to Apostasy: The Case of A. T. Jones (Washington DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1987), 171.
10 Ibid., 53.
11 Luther’s Works (1535), vol. 16 (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Pub., 1999), 120.
12 Cited in Knight, From 1888 to Apostasy, 56.
14 A. T. Jones, The Consecrated Way to Perfection, Pacific Press facsimile ed. (Palmwoods, Queensland, Australia: Judgment Hour Publishing, 1905), 84.
15 E. J. Waggoner, The Glad Tidings (Oakland, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1900), 77, 38.
16 M. L. Andreason, The Sanctuary Service, 2nd ed. rev. (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1947), 302; emphasis added.
17 Alister E. McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), 108, 109; Justification by Faith: What It Means for Us Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988), 56.
18 W. J. McDonald, ed., New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 8 (New York: McGraw, 1967), 85; emphasis added.
19 Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, session 6:7, 3., http://www.forerunner.com/chalcedon/ X0020_15._Council_of_Trent.html.
20 Ibid., session 6:5.
21 McDonald, New Catholic Encyclopedia, 88.
22 Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, session 5:5.
23 Ibid., session 6:11; Canon 18; emphasis added.
24 McDonald, New Catholic Encyclopedia, 90.
25 Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, session 6:11.
26 James Buchanan, Doctrine of Justification (Grand Rapids MI: Baker, 1977, from 1867 ed.), 387.
27 Ibid., 123.
28 R. Newton Flew, The Idea of Perfection in Christian Theology(Oxford, 1968), 158, cited in Hans K. LaRondelle, Perfection and Perfectionism: A Dogmatic Ethical Study of Biblical Perfection and Phenomenal Perfectionism (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University, 1971), 301.
29 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (London: Banner of Truth, 1941), 537, 538.
30 Ellen G. White, Child Guidance (Nashville, TN: Southern Pub. Assn., 1954), 475; Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1942), 451; Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1952), 29; Ellen G. White, “Abide In Me,” The Signs of the Times, vol. 14, no. 12 (March 23, 1888), 1,2.
31 J. L. Dybdahl, ed., Andrews Study Bible, Notes on Psalm 51:5 (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University, 2010).
32 Raoul Dederen, ed., Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2001), 246, 247, 217.
33 Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ (Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1892), 62.
34 Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, bk. 1 (Washington DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958), 392; emphasis added.
35 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898), 83.
36 Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 210.
37 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 4 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 394