Ever since we began our dialogues with the evangelicals in the 1950's, one issue has been jumping up to bite us regularly—What is sin? It used to be clear. Sin is the transgression of the law. But no more. We seem to have fallen in love with the doctrine of original sin. This doctrine simply means that we stand condemned because of our birth-state, either because we have a fallen nature or because we are born into the family of fallen Adam.
The director of the Biblical Research Institute was asked three questions. "Has sin totally corrupted us? What about our free will? Are we not able to choose between good and evil?" He began his answer with these words: "I cannot answer your three questions in this short column." Now we used to be able to answer these questions in a short column, but apparently no more.
Following are some of his comments: "Sin is a human condition....There is a natural enmity in the human heart against God that incapacitates us from seeking and doing good, or submitting to His will. We are controlled by the selfish sinful desires of our fallen nature....Humans exist under the lordship of sin....We are enslaved by sin." But suddenly another answer is given. "Through the work of the Spirit, God has been creating in human hearts the desire and willingness to choose the good. This divine common grace...touches every individual, and awakens free will, enabling humans to choose Christ or to persist in their enslavement to sin."
The question is, how can we be enslaved to sin and free to choose Christ at the same time? What is simple has become very complicated. The author is really describing prevenient grace, which means that grace is bestowed on every human being so that he or she can choose to be free from sin. This is the enmity to sin that God put in every human born on this planet (Genesis 3:15). This grace negates any theoretical enslavement to sin that Adam otherwise would have given his descendants as a birthright. (Adventist World, May, 2011)
Around 1900 a group arose in Indiana which we have labeled the "holy flesh" movement. During this time A. F. Ballenger taught that people needed to be entirely sinless, even down to their very nature, in order to receive the full outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This was the first time that sin and sinlessness were tied to nature rather than character. The real uniqueness in the holy flesh movement was not primarily their worship style, but rather their understanding of the nature of man, the nature of Christ, the nature of sin, and the nature of our salvation.
This movement believed that people are sinful regardless of whether or not they commit sins. They are sinful merely because they possess a sinful human nature. As they saw it, having a sinful human nature makes one a sinner, so when Christ came to this earth He couldn't have shared our fallen nature. He was exempt from our inheritance, having the sinless nature of Adam before the fall. This special nature made it possible for Jesus to live in a sinful world while not having any inward inclinations toward sin. Do you recognize these exact same concepts in our mainstream Adventist teaching today?
To holy flesh advocates, the only logical solution to the human predicament was a complete replacement of our fallen nature. The only way to be called sinless and to remain sinless would be to exchange our fallen nature for Christ's sinless nature, with no inward inclinations to sin. They maintained that from the moment of that exchange they would no longer be inwardly tempted to sin. In other words, we cannot live a sinless life in a fallen nature (which is exactly one of Satan's charges against God and His law).
In 1899 S. N. Haskell and his wife, Hetty, wrote to Ellen White for counsel. "When we stated that we believed that Christ was born in fallen humanity, they would represent us as believing that Christ sinned....They believe that Christ took Adam's nature before he fell; so He took humanity as it was in the garden of Eden, and thus humanity was holy,...and now, they say, the particular time has come for us to become holy in that sense, and then we will have 'translation faith' and never die." (Herbert Douglass, Messenger of the Lord, p. 199)
The end of the holy flesh movement came on April 17, 1901. That morning Ellen White rose and gave here testimony about what the Lord had shown her regarding the holy flesh movement. The next day the Indiana conference president asked permission to stand before the entire assembly of the General Conference. He said, "God has spoken. He says I was wrong, and I answer, God is right, and I am wrong." (General Conference Bulletin, April 23, 1901, p. 422) By the end of the conference the entire administration of the Indiana Conference along with the conference executive committee tendered their resignations. And thus the holy flesh movement ended.
Only in recent times have sin and sinlessness again been tied to nature rather than character, and with no prophetic voice of reproof, this view has become dominant among us, even in conservative Adventist circles.
The doctrine of original sin came into the Christian church rather early. Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430) is usually credited as the architect of the doctrine of original sin, which says that every human being is a condemned sinner at birth. Before Augustine, Christians generally believed that while physical corruption was inherited by all human beings from Adam, guilt was acquired only by the individual's choice to sin. Such a concept soon led to the belief that if babies died before baptism, without the chance to have original sin cleansed from their souls, they would go to hell.
Despite their rejection of many Catholic teachings, the magisterial Protestant Reformers, especially John Calvin, adhered strongly to Augustine's view of human nature. For both Calvin and Augustine, the doctrine of involuntary sin made necessary a doctrine of involuntary salvation. Thus the theory of predestination was born. Certain ones would be predestined to be saved, while the others are predestined to be damned. Such a concept removes salvation entirely from the practical experience of humanity, since that experience is inevitably, even for the converted Christian, tainted by original sin. The salvation of men and women is therefore not a freedom from sin accomplished in this present life, but only a promise of such freedom in the life to come.
Some Adventists in modern times have rejected predestination and Augustine's form of original sin, but they have accepted the popular evangelical form of original sin, which has the same bottom line as Augustine's form—we are condemned at birth because of our inheritance.
Not all Protestants accepted the theology of Augustine and the magisterial Reformers. Those of the Arminian/Anabaptist tradition took a very different view of sin and guilt. Rejecting original sin, these groups insisted on adult baptism, and from them arose the Wesleyan movement in England, with its stress on victory over sin in this present life.
Now let us shift our attention to the results of the original sin theology vs. the transgression of the law theology.
Oswald Chambers wrote, "If I am forgiven without being altered, forgiveness is not only damaging to me but also a sign of unmitigated weakness in God. Unless it is possible for God's forgiveness to establish an order of holiness and rectitude, forgiveness is a mean and abominable thing." (Baffled to Fight Better, p. 58)
Can forgiveness really be damaging and abominable? Yes, if it becomes a substitute for repentance and confession. Yes, if it becomes a substitute for holy living. Yes, if it becomes the only requirement for salvation. Yes, if it becomes the dominant part of righteousness by faith. And forgiveness has become all of these things in popular evangelical theology.
A recent Review article asked a question which has often been posed recently. "What would happen if, for example, I think a bad thought or commit a wicked action and a split second before I can take that thought into captivity, or make amends for my behavior, a piano falls on my head? Or I'm hit by a car, or suffer a heart attack?" Of course we recognize this as the classic hypothetical scenario to teach forgiveness before repentance.
The article continued, "Ancient Israel had daily (morning and evening)...sacrifices....This leads us to conclude that there is no time that there is no sacrifice." In other words, forgiveness is applied constantly, even without repentance. "All those sacrifices were offered on behalf of those who needed to be covered until they could repent and make a sacrifice themselves." Then the example is given of Christ who prayed for His torturers that they might be forgiven, since they did not know what they were doing. But in the article there was no mention of the fact that most of those He prayed for will never be forgiven. (Adventist Review, January 27, 2011)
This article was an involved and strained attempt to prove that we can be forgiven before we repent. But we have a clear word from God about how He handles the problem of a hypothetical sin-followed-by-death scenario.
"Satan has sought to afflict and ruin you, and even to take your life; but your Savior has shielded you again and again, lest you should be cut down when your heart was filled with a satanic frenzy." (5 T 338) "The angels never leave the tempted one a prey to the enemy who would destroy the souls of men if permitted to do so. As long as there is hope, until they resist the Holy Spirit to their eternal ruin, men are guarded by heavenly intelligences." (OHC 23) "If they yield to the enemy, and make no effort to resist him, then the angels of God can do but little more than hold in check the host of Satan, that they shall not destroy, until further light be given those in peril, to move them to arouse and look to heaven for help." (1 T 345)
Instead of a strained theological construction to prove forgiveness before repentance, God promises that He will not allow Satan to end the life of one for whom there is hope before that person has a chance to acknowledge and repent of that sin.
Isn't the gospel about much more than forgiveness? Isn't forgiveness just the doorway to the heart of the gospel? The Bible reminds us that we're all sinners. We all want and desperately need a do-over. We want to become unsinners, to live as though we'd never sinned. We need a Christian cleanup campaign, with recycling, renewal, revitalization, recovery, revival, and reformation.
The Reformers and Ellen White taught that when God's Word, the Bible, is read with openness, it's as if God Himself is in the room speaking to us. There is a transforming power in the Word of God. The Word of God is living and powerful. John promises that the love of God is perfected in those who keep God's Word. The Word of God gives us strength so that we can overcome the evil one.
"Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity." (2 Peter 1:4-7)
The gospel is about so much more than forgiveness, as important as forgiveness is. But with original sin, sin is as constant as breathing, which means that we need constant forgiveness as long as we have a fallen nature, which makes forgiveness the most important part of the gospel. We hear much about grace and love today, and both are hugely important in the salvation process, but one more component is greatly neglected in modern Adventism.
Look at the verbs in the first two chapters of Genesis. God "created," "saw," "said," "made," "rested," "set," "breathed," "blessed," "separated," "hallowed," "planted." Not until Genesis 2:16, 17 do we come across the first use of the word "command." "And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." Notice that this first use of the word "command" appears with the first use of the concept of death. Genesis 2 shows that in the pre-Fall paradise, even before death existed, life was contingent on not violating what God had commanded.
Notice what the serpent said to Eve. "Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?" (Genesis 3:1) Notice the serpent's verb. He asked Eve, "Hath God said?" He used a different word than "command," a subtle but crucial distinction, because "say" is less emphatic than "command."
Notice God's words after Adam and Eve sinned. "Because thou has hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded, thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it." (Genesis 3:17) The Lord used the word "commanded," the same verb He used in Genesis 2:16. The Scriptures' first use of the verb "command" reveals just how linked obedience was to life, and disobedience to death. Obedience isn't an option, not in Eden, not now. It's a command, and those who have eternal life in Him will obey His commandments. "Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city." (Revelation 22:14)
"The greatest qualification for any man in a position of trust is to obey implicitly the word of the Lord. Elisha might exercise his reasoning ability on every other subject but the one that would admit of no reasoning. He was to obey the word of the Lord at all times and in all places." (YI April 28, 1898)
Notice carefully. Reasoning ability is legitimate in all areas except obedience. When we are dealing with clear commands of God reasoning comes out as rationalizing, trying to revise distasteful commands. What if Abraham had revised God's command to sacrifice his son?
An associate editor of the Review pointed out one area of rationalizing. "It's an odd contrast: on the one hand, the Seventh-day Adventist Church is praying—and rightly so—for revival and reformation. At the same time, during the North American Division year-end meeting, several conference presidents went to the microphone and reported a decrease in tithe returns." (Adventist Review, Dec. 16, 2010) Ellen White wrote, "One reason why there is so great a dearth of the Spirit of God is that so many are robbing God." (5 T 734)
Adventist World reported that 2009 "was the second year in which (North American) tithe fell." (January, 2011) Tithe is dropping about 2% per year, even though membership is rising by about 2% per year. The primary problem with giving in North America isn't that because of the economy members are giving less than they used to. The problem is that many members aren't giving at all.
This is just one example of a diminished emphasis on obedience and the commands of God, because of our corporate fear of legalism and the works of the law. Following is another example of our misplaced fear of obedience.
"There are but few as yet who are aroused sufficiently to understand how much their habits of diet have to do with their health, their characters, their usefulness in this world, and their eternal destiny." (1 T 488-489)
Consider what some researchers are saying in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "Comprehensive lifestyle changes, including a better diet and more exercise, can lead not only to a better physique, but also to swift and dramatic changes at the genetic level." In a small study, the researchers tracked thirty men with low-risk prostate cancer. The men underwent three months of major lifestyle changes. After the three months, the men had changes in activity in about 500 genes, including 48 that were turned on and 453 that were turned off. The activity of diseasepreventing genes increased, while a number of disease-promoting genes, including those involved in prostate cancer and breast cancer, shut down.
So often people say, "Oh, it's all in my genes. What can I do?" Well, it turns out that you may be able to do a lot. In just three months, you can change hundreds of genes simply by changing what you eat and how you live. What is so incredible about this research is that the health reform steps these men took changed them at the DNA level!
Does this remind us of something God told Israel? "If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the Lord thy God, and wilt do that which is right in his sight, and wilt give ear to his commandments, and keep all his statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon thee, which I have brought upon the Egyptians: for I am the Lord that healeth thee." (Exodus 15:26)
The author of the study said, "We are increasingly finding that our parents' and even our grandparents' nutritional status and environmental exposures can regulate our future risk of disease."
Newsweek reported on October 30, 2010, "The life experiences of grandparents and even great-grandparents alter their eggs and sperm so indelibly that the change is passed on to their children, grandchildren, and beyond. It's called transgenerational epigenetic inheritance: the phenomenon in which something in the environment alters the health not only of the individual exposed to it, but also of that individual's descendants." Remember God's comment about the sins of parents being passed on to the third and fourth generations?
In one experiment, Australian scientists fed healthy male rats a high-fat diet. As expected, the rats put on weight and fat, and developed insulin resistance and glucose intolerance—basically type 2 diabetes. "What made the scientists take notice was the daughters these rats sired; although their mothers were of normal weight and ate a healthy diet while pregnant, daughters of the high-fat-diet dads developed insulin resistance and glucose tolerance as adults—even though they never ate a high-fat diet themselves." This raises the "intriguing possibility that the childhood-obesity epidemic is at least in part on account of alterations in sperm caused by fathers-to-be eating a high fat diet." Could this explain why obesity in babies "has risen 73% since 1980?" In other words, the way young men eat before they become fathers affects the babies they will someday have. What this means for college students and other pre-parents is that the choices they make right now will affect the genes they pass on to their children. So much for the idea that wild oats can be safely sown in youth!
But what these studies show is that such effects need not be passed on to the third and fourth generations. Informed and dedicated parents-to-be can, to some extent, reverse genetic damage in their own children that might otherwise have been passed on to them according to the laws of heredity. Apparently a higher law motivated by God's compassion has made it possible to overcome at least some of our genetic predispositions to illness. In ways previous generations were not able to understand, science has now revealed more of the benefits of obedience to the health reform plan.
As we finish this study, I would like to focus on two other aspects of righteousness by faith.
A very insightful letter to the Review pointed out a striking inconsistency in our public statements. "It seems that many are in favor of great change, unless that change means a closer application of the Bible and Spirit of Prophecy. In the article about the new revival and reformation document, I was struck by contrasts. We have the admission that 'unless there is a dramatic change, we will not complete Heaven's assignment.' On the other hand, someone says this is 'a continuation of the direction of the church.' The only way I can reconcile these statements is if by 'continuation' we mean picking up where we left off about a century ago."
We are still having a hard time admitting that dramatic changes in the church are necessary if we have any chance of finishing the work. The larger a church becomes, the harder it is to admit mistakes and reverse course. This is particularly true as we study the last time we came close to crossing the Jordan into the promised land—during the 1890's. Instead of accepting our prophet's evaluation of the 1888 message and making the necessary changes so that we do not repeat the mistakes of our spiritual fathers, we seem determined to find flaws in the messengers and their message.
Following are some modern comments on the theology of what has become known as the 1888 message. "Neither man was clear on...the distinction between justification and sanctification. Waggoner sometimes spoke of justification as a 'making righteous' within, rather than as a 'declaring righteous.'...Both men began to put more stress on Christ's work within man...than His complete and perfect atonement on Calvary for man. Possibly this faulty theology was responsible for Waggoner and Jones both becoming tainted with pantheistic sentiments....Waggoner has elements which are more Catholic in theology than Reformation." (Australian Signs of the Times, February, 1978)
"He (Waggoner) was not clear on the problem of inbred sin—original sin—which still cleaves to regenerate Christians....His inadequate doctrine of sin led him to propose that the believer could finally stand in the judgement and meet its standard through inward sanctification....The idea that Waggoner had a message of righteousness by faith far in advance of the Reformers or Wesley would be amusing if it were not such a serious aberration....He has simply begun as a Protestant and ended as a Roman Catholic.... Waggoner's concept of justification...was wholly Roman Catholic." (Ellet Joseph Waggoner: The Myth and the Man, pp. 41, 64, 67, 99)
"I was doing my best to demonstrate that Jones was aberrant from beginning to end." (Adventist Currents, April, 1988) "Waggoner's unbalanced theology had begun its insidious work by the time he departed for Britain and Europe in May of 1892." (E. J. Waggoner: From the Physician of Good News to Agent of Division, p. 210)
The 1888 message contained the following major points (which Ellen White characterized as the beginning of the loud cry—TM 92). Unfortunately, these points are regarded as perfectionistic by some today.
Following is a summary of the objections to the messages of Jones and Waggoner.
Do you begin to see how deep-seated the opposition to the 1888 message is? There is a real hatred of this message, both in their day and in our day. Because Ellen White endorsed their message so strongly and she rebuked church leaders over and over for their opposition to the message, it was assumed then that she was being manipulated by her son and Waggoner, and it is assumed today that she didn't really understand their message or that her endorsements were faulty.
The text that seems to apply to this situation is Ezekiel 12:2. "Son of man, thou dwellest in the midst of a rebellious house, which have eyes to see, and see not; they have ears to hear, and hear not: for they are a rebellious house." How desperately our eyes and ears need healing and our rebellious hearts need to be broken on the Rock of Ages.
In recent times I have noticed that one essential aspect of Adventism, perhaps the most important mission statement we have ever developed, has been almost obliterated from our consciousness. In our official Fundamental Beliefs statement regarding the sanctuary, 1/4 of the content deals with the sacrificial and Holy Place ministry and 3/4 of the content deals with the Most Holy Place ministry. Yet we have gone virtually silent about the Most Holy Place ministry of Christ since 1844.
The heart and soul of Adventism's mission and reason for existence is contained in the Most Holy Place ministry of Christ. Ellen White refers to this as the "final atonement." Yet we seem to be afraid to address this aspect of the sanctuary. Is it because our evangelical friends find this teaching so repugnant?
Of course, the final atonement is much more than the investigative judgment, which is just one aspect of the cleansing of the sanctuary and the blotting out of sin. The most important part of the cleansing is the cleansing of our hearts from sin in preparation for the seal of God.
In the Adventist Review Week of Prayer edition for 2011, the subject was the sanctuary. While the essential aspects of the sacrifice and the Holy Place were well covered, the only reference to the Most Holy Place was how we will be able to stand in the investigative judgment. There was not even one mention of the final atonement, heart cleansing, Day of Atonement cleansing, and the seal of God.
It is a frightening thought that the very reason for the existence of Adventism as the final remnant is being relegated to the archives of the church, or worse, to the unrepresentative fringes of Adventist theology. If we lose the purpose for being called into existence as a movement of destiny, we have lost everything, even though we continue to grow and do many positive things as a church.
The Protestant Reformation was based on three principles--sola scriptura, sola gratia & sola fide, and the priesthood of all believers. This priesthood has two parts. The first teaches that we are all priests under the authority of Christ, not the authority of the church or the priests or the pope. We must study Scripture for ourselves and go directly to Christ for salvation. The second teaches that we are all equal before God and must submit ourselves to one another. We must listen humbly to our brothers and sisters, loving those who disagree with us. We do not act independently. We are willing to revise or change our viewpoints if the evidence is clear.
These principles are expressed in Ephesians 4:1-6, 13-16. "I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all....Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love." True unity is always based on truth, with all parties working together, because of personal humility and love for one another.
Do you know why the Reformation began to crumble soon after it began, and why the Counter-reformation of the Catholic Church began to reclaim its territory and the loyalty of former Catholics? Because the Reformers failed to follow this Scripture. Instead of humbly coming together to discuss their differences, Luther denounced Zwingli, and Calvin raged against the Anabaptists. Each one insisted on being the final authority, even using the power of the state to enforce his beliefs. So the Catholic Church played one reformer against the other, and the fire of the Reformation died.
In the Adventist Church we have experienced the same failure of priesthood principles. When God sent a message to prepare us for translation, instead of humbly coming together as we did in the 1840's to formulate our beliefs, our leaders locked themselves in opposition to anything Waggoner and Jones had to say. When God's prophet appealed to them to listen with open minds, they assumed that she had been unduly influenced by the other side, and the message of translation failed because brothers in Christ could not come together in humility and love and unify on truth. Sadly, after 1900 Waggoner and Jones did not exercise priesthood principles themselves and were lost to the Adventist message and the church.
The 1888 message was more about internalizing the principles of love and humility than about theology, and the message has never been experienced to this day. When Christ calls for humble interdependence to each other, our proud, independent, self-centered natures want to have the final word, and our personal egos trump unity in love.
In 1901 Ellen White, who was hoping to be translated, had to write, "We may have to remain here in this world because of insubordination many more years." (10 MR 279) How soon Christ can come will be determined by when His people internalize this sealing message of heart surrender, love for one another, and true unity.
We have been hearing calls for revival and reformation and the latter rain. This will happen only through the early rain experience, which is using human effort to plead for Christ's overcoming grace because we know that our best efforts are powerless to overcome our proud, selfish natures. We must cry out for a power out of and above ourselves. Our daily repentance for our selfishness must deepen in order to claim the power of humility.
COL 159 calls for "a continual, earnest, heartbreaking confession of sin and humbling of the soul before Him....(a) constant renunciation of self and dependence on Christ." Will we learn the lessons of the failure of the Reformation and the 1888 message? The reforms needed today are not primarily theology or lifestyle but the writing of the law of love, kindness, and compassion on our hearts, including the humbling of ourselves to one another and seeking unity as earnestly as we seek truth.
Christ will not give up until He has a people who will reveal His character of balanced mercy and justice, until His prayer in John 17:20,21 is fulfilled. "Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me." May brothers and sisters today be bound together by the golden bonds of the love of Christ.