The current tensions and polemics within the Seventh-day Adventist Church are not occurring in a vacuum. We have history behind us that has created the trajectory within which we are now living. To a significant degree the spirit and content of our present dialogues and debates are shaped by a tragic theological turn we took in our journey as a people more than one hundred years ago.
Pushback On the Gospel
Writing to Willie White in 1902, A.G. Daniells lamented the existence within Adventism of what he called, “the whole brood of old covenant men who are continually raising doubts and unbelief regarding the light that came at the Minneapolis meeting” (A.G. Daniells to W.C. White, April 14, 1902, in Manuscripts and Memories of Minneapolis, p. 321).
Fascinating choice of words from the man who was then the General Conference president! But these words are more than fascinating. They are hugely insightful regarding our history as a people and the struggles in which we are currently engaged.
“The light” to which Daniells referred was none other than the vital truth of justification by faith—aka, the gospel—which was preached with clarity and power at the 1888 General Conference Session by two young men named Alonzo Jones and Ellet Waggoner. But there was resistance to the “light” by prominent church leaders and ministers, a resistance that was advanced under the pretext of faithfulness to the truth.
And why were they resistant?
Because they had formulated a version of Adventism with such a heavy emphasis on the law that Jones and Waggoner’s strong proclamation of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, apart from the deeds of the law, could only be regarded by them with suspicion, as if the gospel was an attack on the law.
Where the gospel is missing, papal principles of control ensue.
Daniells wasn’t name-calling by pointing to “the whole brood of old covenant men.” He was aptly describing a harbored theological perspective that was doing massive damage in the church. By its legacy, that theological perspective continues to do damage in the church to this very day. You’ll see what I mean shortly.
A Confederacy of Control
Earlier, in 1894, Ellen White warned of those in positions of leadership who were “looking to the formation of a confederacy that would make Battle Creek like Rome” (Publishing Ministry, p. 144). Where the gospel is missing, papal principles of control ensue. The next year, she wrote with laser clarity, pointing out that these men were oriented toward control precisely because of their theological orientation against the message of righteousness by faith:
“They are following in the track of Romanism. Those who are enjoined to represent the attributes of the Lord’s character, step from the simple platform, and in their own human judgment devise rules and resolutions to force the will of others. The devisings for forcing men to follow the prescriptions of other men are instituting an order of things that overrides sympathy and tender compassion, that blinds the eyes to mercy, justice, and the love of God. Moral influence and personal responsibility are trodden under foot.
“The righteousness of Christ by faith has been ignored by some, for it is contrary to their spirit, and their whole life experience. Rule, rule, has been their course of action” (1888 Materials, pp. 1435-1436).
Don’t miss the significance of the connection she is making. God showed her that those who had rejected the message of righteousness by faith were, as a result, inclined to “force the will of others” by means of “rules and resolutions”—in other words, through political process and policy. The natural tendency of those who do not grasp the gospel will be to institute an order of things in the church that “overrides sympathy and tender compassion, that blinds the eyes to mercy, justice, and the love of God.” Rather than allow God’s people in their local fields of labor to be guided by Him in their manner of advancing His kingdom, “Moral influence and personal responsibility are trodden under foot” in favor of uniform “rules and resolutions.”
She was specifically addressing those who, in and after 1888, stood against the efforts of the Holy Spirit to incorporate the gospel into Adventist theology. They resisted the good news of God’s saving grace in favor, rather, of defining the message with an emphasis on the human responsibility to keep God’s law. This is why A.G. Daniells described them as a “brood of old covenant men who are continually raising doubts and unbelief regarding the light” of the gospel. According to Ellen White’s assessment, the deeper reason they were resistant to the gospel was because it was “contrary to their spirit, and their whole life experience,” which was to “rule” over others.
…those who know not the liberating truth of the gospel will simply become more insistent on things being done their way.
She went on to warn that the efforts of church leaders to control people through political process will lead to dire outcomes. Church members will, under such pressures, move in one of two directions:
“those who are thus oppressed will either break every fetter of restraint, or they will be led to regard God as a hard master” (1888 Materials, p. 1436).
Then, in response to the inevitable pushback on their control, those who know not the liberating truth of the gospel will simply become more insistent on things being done their way:
“In order to reign and become a power, they employ Satan’s methods to justify their own principles. They exalt themselves as men of superior judgment.”
Notice she warns that those who operate by “Satan’s methods” in the church do so by exalting themselves as “men of superior judgment.” Whenever men attempt to shut down dialogue by posturing themselves as the ones who have the truth while portraying those who differ from them as unfaithful to Scripture, we can know that it is Satan’s spirit that is prompting them. “These” men, she states rather straightly, “are false gods” (1888 Materials, p. 1436).
In 1903 she again sounded a similar warning:
“The development of the desire to control has been very marked, and God sent warning after warning, forbidding confederacies and consolidation. He warned us against binding ourselves to fulfill certain agreements that would be presented by men laboring to control the movements of their brethren” (Review and Herald, December 10, 1903).
Of course, she was not suggesting that physical force was being employed to exert control. It was not. Rather, she was referring to methods of political process that were being employed to control the church. The way these men were exercising control was by pressuring people into subjection by leveling accusations of unfaithfulness against anyone who disagreed with them.
Leading up to the 1893 General Conference Session, at which W.W. Prescott and A.T. Jones would be attempting yet again to incorporate the gospel into the Adventist message, Ellen White wrote with penetrating insight:
“It is not the inspiration from heaven that leads one to be suspicious, watching for a chance and greedily seizing upon it to prove that those brethren who differ from us in some interpretation of Scripture are not sound in the faith” (1888 Materials, p. 1127).
There was a mentality among the old covenant brood to narrowly define “the truth” according to their particular perspectives and then to represent anyone outside of those narrow parameters as “not sound in the faith.” This is precisely what we see taking place today in Adventism, and it is one of the most damaging influences among us as a people.
The old covenant brood yet lives!
And each of us is as liable to be a part of it as the person in the pew next to us.
The crucial point is this: what lay at the foundation of this inclination to control was a resistance to the gospel with its inherent principles of liberty! If the gospel of grace does not flourish in a church’s theology and experience, the tendency will be to control others by political process, by majority vote, by contractual arrangements, by the formation of confederacies that advance restricting agendas upon the body of Christ. Apart from the principles inherent in the gospel, human beings do not know how to allow others the freedom to advance God’s cause in a manner that differs from what they feel themselves bound to.
Legal Religion and Icy Hearts
The old covenant brood included formidable figures of immense stature like G.I. Butler, who was General Conference president during the 1888 fiasco, and Uriah Smith, preacher, prolific author, and editor-in-chief for many years of the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald. In addition to these stalwart figures, there were numerous other leaders, pastors, and evangelists who aligned their influence against allowing the gospel to take its rightful place within the framework of Adventist theology and church governance.
These men created a flavor of Adventism, a fundamental orientation to the message and mission of the church, which came to constitute what nearly all Adventists, to one degree or another, perceived our message and mission to be. We live and evangelize and debate issues in the legacy of their thought. And this historic trajectory has huge implications. It means, among other things, that the corporate personality of the Advent people has been shaped over the generations since 1888 by the theological construct and evangelistic approach bequeathed to us by men who, to a significant degree, barricaded the church against the entrance of God’s grace. As a result of their influence, the gospel did not take on prominence within the conceptual framework of Adventist theology and mission. Even now it is common to hear Adventists say things like, “We don’t need to preach the love of God and focus on the cross, because the other churches are doing that. We’re called to preach the three angels’ messages, the Sabbath, the law of God, the judgment, and the Second Coming.” This is a rough articulation of a mindset that manifests itself in various forms, most notably in the way we define our mission and formulate the content of our evangelistic meetings and Bible study guides. But this is a false and dangerous dichotomy that only serves to emasculate the three angels’ messages of their real power, a power that resides alone in the proclamation of God’s love in all its glorious fullness as the real substance of all biblical doctrine. This kind of thinking entirely misses the crucial fact that Adventism was called into existence by God to proclaim the gospel—not a message distinct from the gospel, but the gospel itself—with the unparalleled clarity that our doctrinal understanding affords.
Today, many of our people are largely living in the legacy of the Butler-Smith theological lineage rather than in the Jones-Waggoner lineage. The old covenant brood lives on in Adventism wherever we hear preachers preaching up storms of obligation, duty, and behavioral reform without any clear proclamation of God’s pardoning love; wherever we hear the preaching of obedience to the law and victory over sin with language of mandate rather than of promise; wherever the emphasis is on what the human agent ought to do, had better do, must do, with little or no heart-warming declarations of God’s saving grace as the power to transform our lives from the inside out.
Adventism was called into existence by God to proclaim the gospel—not a message distinct from the gospel, but the gospel itself—with the unparalleled clarity that our doctrinal understanding affords.
These voices are strident, loud, and prolific in Adventism, and they are draining the church of new covenant power. For many of our people these voices define Adventism, unaware of any alternative way of perceiving our message. The insistent, authoritarian voice of the old covenant brood makes many of our people afraid of any voice that speaks of God’s boundless love and free grace. Many Adventists have been intellectually and emotionally educated with such a narrow theological view that they are automatically apprehensive of any message that points too strongly to Christ and shifts the focus from their own efforts to obey.
On the other end of the spectrum something just as damaging is happening in reaction against the old covenant perspective that has ruled for so long down through Adventist history. We are now faced with an extreme breed of liberalism that would throw out certain distinctive doctrines under the pretext of preaching Christ. “Jesus, Jesus, all we need is Jesus,” is the cry, as if Jesus were somehow vacant of doctrinal content. It is not a wispy, vacuous Jesus we need, but the one and only true Jesus, full of strength, and substance, and the irresistible beauty of self-sacrificing love.
Yes, the backlash of liberalism we see cropping up in various quarters of Adventism is, indeed, a problem. But here’s the crucial thing to grasp: the liberalism we are now facing, with its tendency to negate Bible doctrine, is largely a desperate and misguided reaction against the graceless conservatism that has characterized much of our history. We have sown legalism to the wind, and now we are reaping a whirlwind of liberalism. In other words, theological liberalism was born in Adventism as an overcorrection against rigid conservatism—and the battle lines are drawn in the sand to this day. As a result, we are a fractured and fighting people, often straining gnats and swallowing camels (Matthew 23:24). And the whole brawling mess is traceable back to the sharp right turn we took away from the gospel in 1888!
…the liberalism we are now facing, with its tendency to negate Bible doctrine, is largely a desperate and misguided reaction against the graceless conservatism.
It would be difficult to overstate the adverse effect our 1888 divergence has had upon the formation of Adventism in the years that have followed. Conversely, we can only imagine the incredible theological and experiential beauty that would have resulted from a wholehearted embrace of justification by faith as the central theme of all our soul winning efforts. An acceptance of the gospel in 1888 would have generated rapid growth in Adventist theology and experience, creating a powerful fusion between the glory of the cross of Christ and sound biblical doctrine.
In 1899, G.A. Irwin, General Conference president at that time, preached a sermon in which he declared that if Seventh-day Adventists had embraced the message of righteousness by faith, “we would have been infinitely further along in the message than we are today” (G.A. Irwin, Australian Union Conference Record, July 10, 1899). By “infinitely farther along” he meant that we would have been more mature and developed in our theological comprehension. We would have seen how the gospel figures into all our doctrines and sheds brilliant light upon them. If the self-eclipsing truth of justification by faith had been embraced early in the development of Adventist theology, the message would have flowered with radiant color and dimensional depth under our stewardship.
Decades after the basic doctrinal lineup of Adventism had been composed, while evangelistic meetings were being preached gangbusters, an angel informed Ellen White that “there is much light yet to shine forth from the law of God and the gospel of righteousness. This message, understood in its true character, and proclaimed in the Spirit, will lighten the earth with its glory” (1888 Materials, pp. 165–166).
But, alas, that glorious potential was never realized!
There was something vital missing from our doctrinal portfolio. We were preaching the law, the Sabbath, the state of the dead, the investigative judgment, the Second Coming, and the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. And yet there was a need for Adventists to understand the message—note the language—“in its true character.” There was some additional, crucial light that was to be shed upon the Adventist belief system. That “light” was none other than the glorious truth of God’s faithful love manifested in the person and work of Christ. God tried to bring this light to our people in 1888 and the years that followed, but the old covenant brood barricade the church against its entrance. Ironically, they did so in the name of faithfulness to “the truth.”
In December of 1888, thinking back to the Minneapolis General Conference Session, Ellen White mused with sadness, “What power must we have from God that icy hearts, having only a legal religion, should see the better things provided for them—Christ and His righteousness!” (1888 Materials, p. 229). Here she discerned the two forces that were at odds within Adventism: legal religion versus Christ and His righteousness.
Three and a half years later, in a letter to Stephen Haskell, Ellen White again described the contrast between the two elements that were battling for supremacy in Adventism:
“The whole earth is to be lightened with the glory of God. The light is shining now, and how hard it is for proud hearts to accept Jesus as their personal Savior; how hard to get out of the rut of legal religion; how hard to grasp the rich, free grace of Christ” (Letter 10a, April 6, 1892, to Stephen Haskell).
There are three points to emphasize here:
- She is specifically speaking here of the light of Revelation 18, commonly referred to by Seventh-day Adventists as “the loud cry,” which is to be attended by “the latter rain,” thus empowering the church to proclaim the message on a global scale.
- Then she indicates that what constitutes the essence of this light is “the rich, free gift of Christ.” Wow! Process that, and compare it to what you know to be the content of much Adventist “evangelism” and “revival” preaching. Where are we hearing messages on “the rich, free gift of Christ”?
- Then she points out that what is blocking the loud cry message from taking hold in Adventism is “the rut of legal religion.” In her day, Adventism had lodged itself rather tightly in that rut, making it “hard” for our people “to grasp the rich, free gift of Christ.”
And here we are more than a hundred years later with many of our people still tightly lodged in that rut, while others are reacting against it by running off headlong into the opposite rut of liberalism because they are exhausted by the legalism. There are still insistent voices today that would keep Adventism in the rut of legal religion, preaching what they call “the truth,” but with no clearly developed theology of grace. The net effect of such preaching is that the people in the pew feel guilty, obligated, weak, and “icy cold.” As a result many of them become susceptible to equally strident voices on the opposite end of the spectrum that are preaching a version of “grace” that lacks doctrinal integrity.
Now, then, carefully notice in this historical context that in the same year she made her observation regarding the “rut of legal religion,” Ellen White clearly articulated that something specific needed to be done:
“God calls upon all who claim to believe present truth, to work diligently in gathering up the precious jewels of truth, and placing them in their position in the framework of the gospel. Let them shine in all their divine beauty and loveliness” (Review and Herald, November 15, 1892).
Let her point register deeply, because the future of Adventism hangs upon whether or not we as a people will move in this direction. Our great need is that the precious truths God has given us be understood and preached within “the framework of the gospel.” But there was then, as there is now, a formidable blockade against this happening.
Writing to G.I. Butler in 1888, Ellen White quoted an angel as saying that “the church needed the ‘energy of Christ.'” And then, continuing to explain, she said the angel indicated to her that, “A time of trial was before us, and great evils would be the result of the Phariseeism which has in a large degree taken possession of those who occupy important positions in the work of God. He said that the work of Christ upon the earth was to undo the heavy burdens and let the oppressed go free, to break every yoke; and the work of His people must correspond with the work of Christ” (1888 Materials, p. 93).
This is an absolutely astounding insight, which is, come to think of it, exactly what you would expect from an angel. And it wasn’t merely insightful, but also prophetic. Notice the angel warned of Phariseeism as the element that would bring great evils upon Adventism. We are living in the fulfillment of this angelic utterance as we witness the polarization of Adventism into conservative and liberal camps with the gospel, all the while, nearly nowhere in sight. Phariseeism may be defined as the preaching of the law without the gospel, hammering the people with requirements while withholding from them the beautiful, energizing truth of God’s love. So, then, if the angel that spoke thusly to Ellen White was correct—and certainly we must concede that angels tend to be correct—this is the worm at the core of Adventism that is killing the church from the inside out.
In 1892 Ellen White wrote to Uriah Smith:
“The many and confused ideas in regard to Christ’s righteousness and justification by faith are the result of the position you have taken toward the man and the message sent of God. But oh, Jesus longs to bestow upon you the richest blessings… Justification by faith and the righteousness of Christ are the themes to be presented to a perishing world. Oh, that you may open the door of your heart to Jesus!” (1888 Materials, pp. 1053–1054).
Two weeks earlier she had written to Stephen Haskell explaining that the refusal to incorporate the truth of justification by faith into the Adventist message was giving “occasion… to the world to doubt the truth of Christianity.” Why? Because the refusal to incorporate the gospel into the message of Adventism was resulting in a cold legalism being projected to the world rather than the warm witness of God’s alluring love. She went on to make a passionate appeal to those who were standing against the gospel:
“You are living in guilty, self-deception, because you keep yourselves away from the light and rich treasures of God’s grace. You imagine yourselves to be rich when you are bankrupt. Your whole life has been a lie…. Will you open your heart to the sacred, softening, subduing influence of the grace of Christ? Can you keep your heart closed against His love and the riches of His grace?” (Letter 30a, September 5, 1892).
One week earlier she had written to O.A. Olsen and lamented the spirit of “contention and strife among us” and the inclination toward “watching your brethren with suspicion.” The pushback on the glorious truth of justification by faith yielded an adverse experiential effect upon the old covenant brood: “Doubt, unbelief, prejudice, and stubbornness, killed all love from their souls” (1888 Materials, pp. 1018-1031).
And there were practical, organizational outcomes as well.
In the historic context of Adventism pushing back on the gospel, Ellen White observed that something else was taking place as the inevitable byproduct. Leading up to 1888, she warned of brethren whose inclination would be toward “paring everything done after their style” and that they would “lay their hand upon God’s working and forbid it” (Letter 35, November 17, 1885, to W.C. White).
This is eye-opening language. The word “paring” means “to reduce something by cutting; to diminish or decrease gradually.” The word “style” refers to “a particular, distinctive, or characteristic mode of action or manner of acting.” What she is describing here is a mindset that dictates a reduced or narrow pattern of action, requiring everyone to conduct their labors for God after a uniform mode of action. Astounding! Think about this in relation to the current culture wars going on in our beloved church.
If Ellen White was a prophet of God, we can only conclude that the inclination to constrict the people of Jesus to a single “style” with which to advance God’s kingdom is decidedly anti-gospel, anti-Protestant, and anti-Adventist when compared to the vision God has for this movement. We would all do well to adopt the supremely rational Protestant maxim, “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.”
Grace and liberty go together like water and wet (2 Corinthians 3:17; Galatians 5:1).
Legalism and control go together like ice and cold (Matthew 23:23-24; Galatians 2:4).
An acceptance of the gospel necessarily broadens a person’s mind and widens their range of motion within the large parameters of truth and love. It enlarges a person’s perspective on what is acceptable methodologically for advancing the kingdom because it ignites a passion in the soul to reach the lost for Christ. Of course this doesn’t mean absolutely anything goes, but it does mean that anything goes apart from compromising the truth and committing sin. As my friend, Gary Krause, director of the office of Adventist Mission at the General Conference, likes to say, “My mantra is to adapt everything for the sake of the most effective mission, without compromising truth.” That makes total sense: maintain faithfulness to the truth, cross no moral lines into sin, and beyond that feel free to “become all things to all men, that [we] might by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). The problem is, there are those among us who cannot bear to allow anyone to feel at liberty to do anything they do not feel free to do, as if their narrow opinions and dictates constitute the standard with which all must comply or be labeled “unfaithful.”
…there are those among us who cannot bear to allow anyone to feel at liberty to do anything they do not feel free to do, as if their narrow opinions and dictates constitute the standard with which all must comply or be labeled “unfaithful.”
Because—and here’s the crucial point—their basic theological paradigm is one in which the restrictions they impose upon themselves and others have purchasing power with God for salvation. This is why Ellen White so brilliantly discerned a connection between legalism and the inclination to control others. If a person’s heart is void of the gospel of God’s justifying grace, their security with God will be threatened by the freedom others have in Christ. If anyone is allowed to do anything that is outside of the narrow system of restrictions they have set up for themselves, the fundamental basis of their salvation is shaken. Thus they feel compelled to “pare down” everything to their particular “style” of labor and forbid everything else. This is simply the outworking of their theology. They think that there is one “style” by which the mission of the church is to be executed, and it just happens to be their particular style, because their standing with God is built on the fragile foundation of their performance. In other words, the inclination to control others is inherent to the salvation by works paradigm.
Paul described those who conduct themselves in this manner as “false brethren” who “spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage” (Galatians 2:4). Those who live in an arrangement in which their deeds have purchasing power with God are naturally uncomfortable with others in the church doing anything out of sync with their way of doing things, because their way constitutes currency with God. For others to not comply with their way causes them to sense that their currency does not possess the value they have ascribed to it. So they feel insecure and tighten controls, which is the natural impulse inherent in legalism. For the legalist everything is either right or wrong, or almost everything. In keeping with their legalism, they do throw themselves a few bones of freedom in order to maintain the illusion that they actually believe the gospel. But it is not within the scope of their thinking to easily perceive freedom itself as a moral value, and it is not easy for them to perceive morally neutral categories. The impulse toward constriction, coercion, and control is the dark pathology that lurks within legalism, and the glorious gospel of God’s free grace is the only remedy.
For the legalist everything is either right or wrong, or almost everything.
Our beloved church is in the throes of an identity crisis. We are a people in conflict with one another over many issues. Where shall we go from here? May I suggest that we need to go back in order to intelligently go forward? In the light of the history we have pondered in this essay, it seems evident that we as a people desperately need to return to the place where we last saw the light and then work forward with humility and repentance from there.
In 1888, “The Lord in His great mercy sent a most precious message to His people through elders Waggoner and Jones. This message was to bring more prominently before the world the uplifted Savior, the sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. It presented justification through faith in the Surety; it invited the people to receive the righteousness of Christ, which is made manifest in obedience to all the commandments of God. Many had lost sight of Jesus. They needed to have their eyes directed to His divine person, His merits, and His changeless love for the human family. All power is given into His hands, that He may dispense rich gifts unto men, imparting the priceless gift of His own righteousness to the helpless human agent. This is the message that God commanded to be given to the world. It is the third angel’s message, which is to be proclaimed with a loud voice, and attended with the outpouring of His spirit in a large measure” (Testimonies to Ministers, pp. 91-92).
The remedy for all that afflicts God’s church is a clearly defined, clearly preached, and experientially embraced doctrine of justification by faith. As we engage in our dialogues and debates over culture and style, over methods of evangelism and approaches to mission, over operational policies and qualifications for ministry, the most productive course we can pursue is to first and foremost proclaim the good news of God’s love in all its clarifying beauty. From that premise, our hearts will enlarge toward one another, our minds will broaden with creativity in the execution of our mission, and we will be secure enough in Christ to allow our brothers and sisters to differ from us in their service for the Lord while affirming them as faithful fellow laborers in the spreading of our Savior’s fame.