The new Pope, Mr. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, has caused quite a stir recently. So much so, in fact, that an ardent Protestant friend said to me the other day, “Wow, this new pope seems like a really good guy and he’s saying some good things. Maybe he’s on God’s side.”

“Yes,” I responded, “he is saying some rather good things, isn’t he? There is, however, the small matter of believing he occupies the position of God on earth, and the little thing about believing that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church, and the tiny issue of believing he speaks with infallibility, and the minor point about God burning people forever in hell including all babies who die without Catholic baptism, and the modest idea that you can pay money to the church to get people less time burning in purgatory. Besides those items, yes, he is saying some very nice things.”

Of course, Protestantism was formed as a protest against Catholicism and the “Papacy,” a word that refers to the position of absolute authority held by the pope. The recent posturing of Pope Francis calls for a renewed examination of the protest launched by Luther and the reformers before and after him, which you can expect as a series of forthcoming blogs from Light Bearers.

But first I want to turn our attention from the papacy without to take a look at the papacy within—within ourselves and within our own beloved church. While it provides us with a very convincing illusion of personal righteousness to point away from ourselves and localize the danger as existing exclusively out there, it is not at all safe to do so. Our biggest danger lies in assuming that Romanism is merely that big religious-political institution headquartered at Vatican City.


First and foremost, Romanism is the religion of human nature—human nature in general, yours and mine included. The great protester himself, Martin Luther, insightfully observed, “I am more afraid of my own heart than of the pope and all his cardinals. I have within me the great pope, Self.” The papacy is simply a corporate manifestation of the universal human inclination to exalt self in the place of God, to justify self rather than rest in God’s justifying grace, and to control our fellow human beings by emotional coercion tactics rather than grant liberty of conscience.

There is, however, the small matter of believing he occupies the position of God on earth

Wherever the spirit of dominance is employed—whether by a husband or wife in a marriage or by a leader in a local church or conference—there the principle that fuels popery is exercised.

Wherever people are taught to expect God’s favor in exchange for anything they might do—legalism in either its liberal form or its conservative form—there lurks the false picture of God that defines papal doctrine.

Wherever church folks seek to resolve differences by authoritative pronouncements rather than by respectful and reasoned biblical discussion, there is manifested the spirit that actuates Romanism.

Following in The Track of Rome

Ellen White understood that “We have far more to fear from within than from without. The hindrances to strength and success are far greater from the church itself than from the world” (Review and Herald, March 22, 1887). Whatever the papacy happens to be up to, the more crucial question is, What are we ourselves up to in our daily dealings with one another in our homes, churches, and conferences?

She wrote the above words in 1887. A year later, the fear she expressed materialized at the Minneapolis General Conference session of 1888, which was a super significant event in Adventist history.

A little background is in order.

Leading up to 1888, “Many (Adventists) 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” (Testimonies to Ministers, p. 91-92). The overall content and tenor of Adventist preaching was such that the church had earned the reputation “that Seventh-day Adventists talk the law, the law, but do not teach or believe Christ” (ibid).

To remedy the situation, God sent two young men to uplift Jesus before the church leadership. Many of my Adventist readers are familiar with the fact that in 1888 A.T. Jones and E.J. Waggoner, under divine unction, preached the good news of justification by faith to church leadership at the General Conference session of that now infamous year. We are also generally aware that the message was rejected by key leaders, including the General Conference President, G.I. Butler, and the Review editor, Uriah Smith. What many of us may not know is why many church leaders found the message of righteousness by faith so unpalatable. In the following letter to Adventist church leaders and pastors in 1895, Ellen White got at the core of the whole dark matter:

“The spirit of domination is extending to the presidents of our conferences. If a man is sanguine of his own powers and seeks to exercise dominion over his brethren, feeling that he is invested with authority to make his will the ruling power, the best and only safe course is to remove him, lest great harm be done and he lose his own soul and imperil the souls of others. ‘All ye are brethren.’ This disposition to lord it over God’s heritage will cause a reaction unless these men change their course. Those in authority should manifest the spirit of Christ. They should deal as He would deal with every case that requires attention. They should go weighted with the Holy Spirit. A man’s position does not make him one jot or tittle greater in the sight of God; it is character alone that God values.

“The goodness, mercy, and love of God were proclaimed by Christ to Moses. This was God’s character. When men who profess to serve God ignore His parental character and depart from honor and righteousness in dealing with their fellowmen, Satan exults, for he has inspired them with his attributes. They are following in the track of Romanism.

“Those who are enjoined to represent the attributes of the Lord’s character, step from the Bible 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 underfoot.

“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. Satan has had an opportunity of representing himself. When one who professes to be a representative of Christ engages in sharp dealing and in pressing men into hard places, those who are thus oppressed will either break every fetter of restraint, or they will be led to regard God as a hard master. They cherish hard feelings against God, and the soul is alienated from Him, just as Satan planned it should be” (Testimonies to Ministers, p. 362-363, emphasis supplied).

A few points here bear emphasizing:

  1. Church leaders who manifest a “spirit of domination” should be removed from their positions.
  2. A man’s position (pastor, conference president, or even general conference president) does not make him any greater in God’s sight than other church members. Character alone is of value to God.
  3. Church leaders who “devise rules and resolutions to force the will of others” are “following in the track of Romanism.” The attitudes and tactics with which human beings deal with their fellow human beings when they are in positions of authority reveal whether they are under the liberating influence of the gospel of Christ or under the oppressive influence of papal principles.
  4. When human beings, especially those in positions of leadership in God’s church, attempt to rule over their fellow human beings, Satan is representing himself through them and the character of God is misrepresented.
  5. And lastly, following the 1888 General Conference session, the message of righteousness by faith was being ignored by some church leaders because it was contrary to their spirit of “rule, rule.” Righteousness by faith is incongruent with a spirit that would rule over others, and we will see why this is the case as we continue.

We May Have Less To Say About Rome

One year later in 1896 Ellen White made a daring statement for Adventists to process, given our tendency to focus on the papacy as our great danger:
“There is need of a much closer study of the Word of God. Especially should Daniel and the Revelation have attention as never before in the history of our work. We may have less to say in some lines in regard to the Roman power and the papacy, but we should call attention to what the prophets and the apostles have written under the inspiration of the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit has so shaped matters, both in the giving of the prophecy, and in the events portrayed, as to teach that the human agent is to be kept out of sight, hid in Christ, and the Lord God of heaven and His law are to be exalted” (Testimonies to Ministers, p. 112).

Please don’t miss what she was saying here. It is crucial. She was discerning and suggesting that a closer study of God’s word, especially the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation, might lead Adventists to focus our attention less on the papacy in particular and more on the danger existing in the human agent in general. This statement was in keeping with her earlier ones, which called our attention to the fact that what we see in the papacy is a spirit of domination and self-exaltation that all of us are susceptible to and which is just as likely to manifest itself in our church as anywhere else.

And this is precisely what we do find when we study the word of God more closely, especially the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. We discover that “the man of sin (the papacy)… who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God” (2 Thessalonians 2:3-4), is simply an institutional or corporate manifestation of the inclination that resides in all human hearts to play God and to usurp His role in our dealings with our fellow human beings with attitudes of superiority and tactics of pressure, dominance, and control.

Seven years later, in 1903, she was grasping even more clearly what she was trying to get at in her 1895 and 1896 statements:

“The student should learn to view the word (the Bible) as a whole, and to see the relation of its parts. He should gain a knowledge of its grand central theme, of God’s original purpose for the world, of the rise of the great controversy, and of the work of redemption. He should understand the nature of the two principles that are contending for supremacy, and should learn to trace their working through the records of history and prophecy, to the great consummation. He should see how this controversy enters into every phase of human experience; how in every act of life he himself reveals the one or the other of the two antagonistic motives; and how, whether he will or not, he is even now deciding upon which side of the controversy he will be found” (Education, p. 190).

This is such an amazingly insightful distillation of what’s really going on in human history as revealed in Bible prophecy. The great controversy is not merely a surface battle between opposing corporate religions, but between “two principles that are contending for supremacy” in every individual life, in every home, and in every church. Those two opposing principles are love and selfishness, humility and pride, liberty and coercion, the rendering of respect and the granting of freedom versus the inclination to pressure, manipulate, dominate and control others. Yes, there are political and religious institutions that operate by the principle of domination and we most definitely need to be aware of the dangers posed by these monolithic powers. But more to the point, each of us is liable to do the same by creating little papal reigns of our own: in our homes, in our churches, in our conferences, in the way we treat people, especially when we occupy positions of leadership over them. Each of us “in every act of life” reveals “one or the other of the two antagonistic motives.”

So that is the context of Ellen White’s provocative statement that “we may have less to say about the papacy.” Of course, and rightfully so, she continued to call attention to the threat to religious liberty posed by the papacy, as should we. But she also drove us to soberly consider the deeper and more personal danger that exists in our own hearts and which might find ugly manifestation in our own professedly Protestant church.

Paul explains that “the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be” (Romans 8:7). Later in Romans 13:10 he informs us that God’s law is love, meaning other-centeredness. Here Paul has given us huge insight to what’s going on in human nature: we are fundamentally opposed to love, diametrically at odds with being second to anyone. By nature, self is our supreme motive. So when self comes under threat, the natural impulse is to sacrifice others for the preservation of self. This is the dark and diabolical secret that lurks in each of our hearts.

So, then, when human beings, guided by their carnal instincts, create a religion and band together to practice that religion, it will naturally take the form of a system that exalts the human self to the place of God (popery) and offers humanity salvation by means of self-justifying rituals and practices (salvation by works). And that’s what the papacy is. It is our fallen world’s dark masterpiece of self-exaltation and self-justification—masquerading as God’s church. We can see, then, that papal principles permeate human nature and are liable to creep into any church unless specifically identified and repulsed by a well-defined doctrine of justification by faith!

The Third Angel’s Message in Verity

Now we begin to understand what Ellen White was getting at when she said that “justification by faith… is the third angel’s message in verity” (Evangelism, p. 190). Many of us look at this statement and don’t get it. It’s a mystery to us because it does not align with our basic theological framework and evangelistic approach. The third angel’s message (see Revelation 14:9-12), we reason, is a warning against the papacy enforcing the mark of the beast. How do you get justification by faith out of that? We’ve even formed the tragic evangelistic habit of presenting “the mark of the beast” with literally no mention of justification by faith, and then we live under the proud illusion that we have preached the third angel’s message. But let’s be clear about this: to preach the mark of the beast without communicating justification by faith as the vital issue at its core, in no way equates to preaching the third angel’s message. To simply identify the papacy as “the beast” and Sunday enforcement as “the mark of the beast” is not the third angel’s message. In fact, by so doing we shortchange our hearers and do them the spiritual harm of confirming them in their natural inclination to identify the danger as merely out there in that big, bad beast system rather than in their own hearts. Rather than becoming immersed in God’s saving grace and suspicious of self, our so called preaching of the third angel’s message merely gives people a false confidence in self and makes them suspicious of others.

The inclination to control others is the core principle of the papal system.

So, then, in what sense does justification by faith constitute “the third angel’s message in verity?”

Let’s break it down in five simple points drawn directly from Revelation 13 and 14:

  1. The Sea-beast of Revelation 13 is the papal system, to be sure, but it is the papal system as the—don’t miss the point—as the corporate, organized expression of the self-as-center principle that resides beneath the surface of fallen human nature in general. In other words, the self-as-center principle is the religion of human nature, and Catholicism is simply the world’s largest and most dominant historic manifestation of that fallen religious impulse. According to Daniel 7 and Revelation 13, the prominent characteristics of the papal system are these: (a) a merit system of justification/salvation by human deeds rendered to God in exchange for His favor and (b) the use of coercion tactics in the name of Christ. Wherever these two factors are present, there the spirit of the papacy rules.
  2. The Land-beast, coming on the scene toward the end of the papacy’s 1260 reign of terror, is none other than Protestant America with its unique governing document, its Constitution, which enacts as law two vital truths of the gospel: (a) that all human beings are created equal, thus defying the right of men, either popes or kings, to rule their fellow men, and (b) that all human beings are created innately free, thus granting liberty of conscience as the only state of being in which true worship of God may occur.
  3. Revelation 13 then informs us that the American experiment with liberty will eventually be overturned. Protestant America (the Land-beast) will enact laws to violate liberty of conscience (making an image to the Sea-beast) and thus become the facilitating political engine that will bring upon the world a crisis of individual conscience and character. Emphasis: a crisis of individual conscience and character. Pressures will be brought to bear upon humanity (buying-and-selling controls and then a death decree) that will drive every person on earth to act out their picture of God and manifest the spirit that actuates them. During that final crisis, every person on earth will move in one of two directions: (a) to sacrifice self for the preservation of liberty for all others or (b) align with the papacy’s newly reconstituted coercion-machine in an effort to preserve self at the expense of others. The true contents of every heart will come forth under the pressures entailed in the mark-of-the-beast crisis.
  4. The people who stand in faithfulness to God against the beast system are very specifically described as those who overcome “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death” (Revelation 12:11), and as “those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (Revelation 14:12). Said another way, their picture of God is grounded in the self-sacrificing love revealed in Christ at Calvary, producing in them a voluntary, faith-motivated harmony with God’s law: aka, justification by faith. Therefore, the inner landscape of their theology about God and their experience with God leads them to lay down their lives if necessary to preserve liberty of conscience for all. For them, self is secondary to the other, for such is the love they have seen and received in Christ.
  5. So what Ellen White was getting at when she brilliantly stated that “justification by faith is the third angel’s message in verity” is that the mark of the beast will come upon the world as a works-based, self-as-center, liberty-violating religious enforcement based on a false picture of God’s character, whereas the theology and experience of those who stand in resistance against the mark of the beast will lead them to do so precisely because they know God’s favor is not earnable and that His law is not enforceable. In other words, they understand that coercion kills love and that justification by faith is inextricably intertwined with liberty of conscience.

This is why Ellen White urged that justification by faith be preached with power and clarity within Adventism, as well as to the whole world. It is the only message that can prepare human beings for the mark-of-the-beast crisis. Everyone whose picture of God is coercion-based and whose spiritual experience is oriented toward salvation by works will find it natural to move by self-preserving instincts when the mark of the beast is enforced.

This is also why she warned so strongly against any exercise of domination by church leaders. The inclination to control others is the core principle of the papal system. Those who operate by this principle are following in the track of Rome and thus preparing themselves and those they lead to abandon others to save self when the mark of the beast is enforced.

So as countless Protestant alarms are rightfully being sounded to warn us to watch out for what the pope and the papacy are up to, I thought it appropriate to issue a warning to watch out for what you and I are liable to be up to unless we intentionally seek, by the grace of God, to deal graciously and respectfully and non-coercively with one another, especially when we disagree, and most especially when we happen to be in positions of leadership and influence. As we beware the Romanism without, let us also beware the Romanism within!


The Romanism Within


Ty Gibson
Speaker/Director at Light Bearers

Ty is a speaker/director of Light Bearers. A passionate communicator with a message that opens minds and moves hearts, Ty teaches on a variety of topics, emphasizing God’s unfailing love as the central theme of the Bible. Ty and his wife Sue have three adult children and two grandsons.