A very unusual article appeared in the Adventist Review recently (August, 2019, pp. 18-25). Two reader letters were printed in the October issue. The first said, “I am 77 years old and have read the Review for at least 65 years. I have been waiting for more than 30 years for such an article.” The second said, “Praise God…that the Adventist Review had the insight to publish this truth for our day….I believe that the Holy Spirit of God impressed our leaders to run such a daring revelation for our people at this time….This is possibly the best article I have read on the subject since I joined the church 53 years ago.”
So what did this article tell us that sparked these glowing comments? Let us look at the high points for ourselves.
I was privileged to be raised in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I attended 16 years of Adventist schooling; I was active in Pathfinders and eventually graduated from Southern Adventist University, where I found my wife, Annette. I love Jesus. I love the Spirit of Prophecy. I love the truths of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
For more than four years I’ve had the honor of serving the world church at the General Conference, sitting on numerous committees, working on many projects, and giving my all to Adventist Review Ministries. Last but not least, I’m a volunteer lay pastor of a wonderful church in Adairsville, Georgia.
As I look at those with whom I grew up in this movement, too many of them are missing. These are my friends, your children, your grandchildren, nieces, nephews, friends, family. Large numbers don’t attend church anymore, or at least a Seventh-day Adventist church. I’m sad to say that I think most of them don’t want anything to do with it.
The world by most accounts—both secular and religious—is a ticking time bomb. Whether it’s the destruction of the family, alarms about climate change; growing intolerance to free speech; ever-increasing tribalism and racism, or countless attacks on the moral code once given to all of us on Sinai—we need no more evidence that we are in the end of days….But the Bible says that final events are being held back until something dramatic, climactic, and terribly disruptive happens with the remnant church of Bible prophecy. The Bible reminds us: “Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God” (Rev. 7:3).
But that settling into the truth has been stalling of late. The temptation for leaders on every level for whom numbers determine position, personnel, and pay is to use whatever number sounds good as long as it achieves the end goal of creating a picture that helps and doesn’t hurt me, my team, my ministry, my company, my church, my conference, my union conference, my division, my delegates, my reelection.
It’s tempting to share graphs of the millions of visitors to our websites; the millions of followers on our social media accounts; the millions of dollars in our bank accounts, offerings, and reserve funds. Or national news stories about how Seventh-day Adventists live longer; how we are the most diverse, fastest-growing denomination in the United States….We then could end the slide show with a few pictures of soccer stadiums full of believers in line for baptism.
But I have a duty to describe what I see. Here are a few examples from the recent Global Church Member Survey by the General Conference.
- The growing disparity between numbers of members on the books and those who attend services each week
- Numbers of people joining and leaving, or worse, joining and staying, who don’t even understand our message
- Growing doubt among Adventists about a literal Creation week, a heavenly judgment, and the state of the dead
- Recent data on Adventists’ perspective on the Second Coming as decades in the future
- Orientation of focus—less on distinctives, more on what we have in common.
Friends—my church family—we have a problem….We have a crisis of courage. Where are the men and women willing to stand for the truth though the heavens fall? Where are those who are as true to duty as the needle is to the pole? Those unafraid to call sin by its right name, unafraid to lay their careers on the line to do what’s right?
“If God abhors one sin above another, of which His people are guilty,” wrote Ellen White, “it is doing nothing in case of an emergency. Indifference or neutrality in a religious crisis is regarded of God as a grievous crime and equal to the very worst type of hostility against God.” (3T 281)
Ellen White warned: “Unless the church, which is now being leavened with her own backsliding, shall repent and be converted, she will eat of the fruit of her own doing, until she shall abhor herself.” (8T 250)
Allow me to describe some more reality. Today we see a movement in which so many of our young adults go through Adventist schools only to be inoculated against our message and mission….If we did some soul searching…with the reality of our educational system, would we be proud of what we see? Data from church surveys consistently show that nearly 70 percent of our best and brightest, our future, leave us as soon as they are no longer under our immediate care.
We can’t keep silent any longer. We can’t keep touting that we are rich, increased in membership, and in need of nothing. We know too well that something isn’t right. If the winds of prophecy are truly being held back because Jesus loves His remnant too much to see them lost, what are we to do?
When we recognize what we have become; when we admit the impossibility of putting a good face on everything we do, then by God’s grace we will confess to the world and to the Lord that we really are miserable, wretched, poor, blind, and naked; we really have gloried in ourselves rather than in His glory.
In light of this reality check, I was surprised to find another article in Adventist Journey (August, 2019), with the title “Is Adventism Relevant Anymore?”, revealing the very problems pointed out above.
Whether you’re rich or poor, Black or White, educated or illiterate, Adventism has something remarkably special to offer. Seventh-day Adventism, as inspired by God, has many answers to society’s and our own individual challenges….The Seventh-day Adventist interpretation of the Bible gives us an extremely pragmatic road map for how Christ’s love can show us an alternative to the world’s pain and suffering today, right now.
The Adventist value of protecting and developing the health of the whole person is an incredible foundation for mitigating pain and suffering in this life….This is why I’m so thrilled about the Sabbath….For an entire day once a week I focus on God, rest, family, and friends. Because of the Sabbath and the health message, my mind, body, and spirit are clear, rested, and rejuvenated….Caring about our planet (God’s creation) is something most people take seriously, and something that we Adventists should be proud of….Adventist education, one of the largest systems in the world, changes the lives of millions of people every year.
Now all of these things are good in themselves, but notice that they are all things that benefit us in some way. There is nothing here about vindicating God’s character or receiving His seal or ending the great controversy. In other words, there is nothing about what Adventism is really about, which is being God-centered rather than us-centered. We came on the prophetic scene to be that last piece of evidence needed by God to totally destroy Satan’s lies and accusations against God and His eternal law. Our role is to protect the universe from ever again listening to a deceiver’s arguments. Because this vital reason for our existence is ignored, we have to fall back on various things provided by Adventism that benefit us personally in a sinful world.
What Is an IID?
An ID says who we are, where we are from, and where we belong. Might there be some interplanetary or intergalactic document that grants us permission for travel beyond this planet, perhaps our intergalactic identity document (IID)? It turns out that at the end of time on earth there will be “servants of God,” whose traits of character confirm their right to own IID’s. The size of their group is expressed in a symbolic number, 144.000. There has been a long and intense struggle between those who have the valid IID (the seed of the woman), and those who have a fake ID. At the end of time, the rebel will use the force of earthly governments where possible to force-feed fake ID’s to the public. Valid IID’s bear a specific logo, the seal of God. No document missing this seal will serve as an intergalactic pass or guarantor of eternal life.
For Seventh-day Adventists, our identity matters. Understanding our past helps us to know who we are. If we do not know where we came from, how will we know where we are going? Understanding one’s identity is crucial for knowing one’s destiny.
A storm was brewing in Buffalo, New York. Located on the northeast side of Lake Erie, the city had never felt such a strong, driving wind as during those early October days of 1844. But in spite of the inclement weather, crowds came to hear Charles Fitch explain why Jesus was coming very soon. Fitch, a well-educated preacher, had worked with famed evangelist Charles G. Finney. He had also pastored several churches in New England. While Fitch was in Boston, someone gave him a copy of William Miller’s lectures entitled Evidence From Scripture and History of the Second Coming of Christ. Fitch eagerly studied the lectures, stating in a letter to Miller his “overwhelming interest, such as I never felt in any other book except the Bible.” At his church Fitch preached on the Second Coming, creating deep interest among his parishioners.
In 1839, while pastoring the Free Presbyterian Church in Newark, New Jersey, Fitch wrote Views of Sanctification. Fitch’s book led some to label him a “perfectionist.” A committee was appointed to “counsel” Fitch on his views, resulting in a Resolution of Censure, declaring his views to be a “dangerous error” and requiring him to stop preaching on this topic. Refuting the charges, Fitch wrote: “Can I tell the people of God that they have no Saviour from sin during their whole lives; that live as long as they may, and labor as hard as they may to find out the path of life, and pray as fervently as they may, and trust in their Saviour for the fulfillment of the promises as fully as they may, they are doomed hopelessly to sin more or less against the Redeemer they love, even to their dying hour; that all their cries and struggles for help are vain, and that they must be to some extent rebels against the heart of infinite love, until the grim monster death appears for their deliverance?”
Fitch was firm. No longer was he afraid of ridicule and censure. Fitch soon withdrew from the Newark Presbytery. He became one of the most respected and beloved Millerite preachers. He preached a powerful sermon, “Come Out of Her, My People,” and soon published it. Although he did not live long enough to be a part of the “little flock” that became Seventh-day Adventists, Charles Fitch exhibited the same character qualities and spiritual fortitude, and preached much the same message as the Adventist pioneers who continued searching the Scriptures.
Do we still believe today the Bible message that led honest souls to “come out of Babylon” and become part of the remnant “who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ?” Do we still believe that God is not only gracious enough to justify us, but is powerful enough to sanctify us? (Drawn from “Truth for Today,” by Ted Wilson, Adventist World, Oct. 2018)
The Investigative Judgment
I want to focus on one aspect of the messages which shaped Adventism, and in recent years has ignited much opposition—the investigative judgment. Because of the fear this doctrine has caused in many hearts, we have tried to make it more attractive and less threatening. In the process we have emphasized one vital aspect of the judgment while downplaying other aspects.
A recent article (Adventist Review, Oct. 2018, pp. 27-28) said that the primary subject of the judgment is God. Unbelievably, God has put Himself on trial. This is an extremely important truth about the judgment. The big question in the judgment is not whether or not we are worthy. So we are being told that we can let go of our mental anguish, always wondering if we are good enough to make the cut. The good news about the judgment is that Jesus wins. If we’ve got Jesus, we’re in! The verdict will most certainly be in His favor, and ours.
Now this is all very important, but there is another crucial aspect of the judgment. We find it in The Great Controversy, pp. 487-491:
The hidden selfishness of men stands revealed in the books of heaven. There is the record of unfulfilled duties to their fellow men, of forgetfulness of the Saviour’s claims. There they will see how often were given to Satan the time, thought, and strength that belonged to Christ….
Those who would share the benefits of the Saviour’s mediation should permit nothing to interfere with their duty to perfect holiness in the fear of God. The precious hours, instead of being given to pleasure, to display, or to gain seeking, should be devoted to an earnest, prayerful study of the word of truth….
Each has a case pending at the bar of God. Each must meet the great Judge face to face….Every individual must stand in his lot, at the end of the days….
If those who hide and excuse their faults could see how Satan exults over them, how he taunts Christ and holy angels with their course, they would make haste to confess their sins and to put them away. Through defects in the character, Satan works to gain control of the whole mind, and he knows that if these defects are cherished, he will succeed. Therefore he is constantly seeking to deceive the followers of Christ with his fatal sophistry that it is impossible for them to overcome….
All who would have their names retained in the book of life should now, in the few remaining days of their probation, afflict their souls before God by sorrow for sin and true repentance. There must be deep, faithful searching of heart. The light, frivolous spirit indulged by so many professed Christians must be put away….He will examine the case of each individual with as close and searching scrutiny as if there were not another human being upon the earth. Everyone must be tested and found without spot or wrinkle or any such thing….In the awful presence of God our lives are to come up in review.
So it is not just about accepting Christ, or “if you’ve got Jesus, you’re in.” The judgment will address whether or not sanctification has done its work in our lives. Inspiration tells us more in Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1, pp 123-126:
I have seen an angel standing with scales in his hands weighing the thoughts and interest of the people of God, especially the young. In one scale were the thoughts and interest tending heavenward; in the other were the thoughts and interest tending to earth. And in this scale were thrown all the reading of storybooks, thoughts of dress and show, vanity, pride, etc….The scale filled with thoughts of earth, vanity, and pride quickly went down….The one with the thoughts and interest tending to heaven went quickly up as the other went down, and oh, how light it was! (In other words, there were many more thoughts of earth than thoughts of heaven.)
I can relate this as I saw it; but never can I give the solemn and vivid impression stamped upon my mind, as I saw the angel with the scales weighing the thoughts and interest of the people of God. Said the angel: “Can such enter heaven? No, no, never. Tell them the hope they now possess is vain, and unless they speedily repent, and obtain salvation, they must perish.”…
The Word of God tells us how we may become perfect Christians and escape the seven last plagues. But (those whose minds were diverted by foolish stories and idle tales) took no interest to find this out. Other things diverted the mind, idols were cherished by them, and God’s Holy Word was neglected and slighted.
To receive our IID, God created a process of screening Christians before they board the plane for eternity. But this judgment process is about more than giving us our IID.
Satan has long been in the business of challenging God’s decisions about who should be saved or lost. Do we remember Job? So God has set a specific time to let every angel and every unfallen being see why He made His decisions. The end result of the judgment process will show that His judgment of character is faultless. He will prove that the saved truly love Him and willingly keep His commandments, and they will not endanger the security and peace of the universe ever again. He needs us to demonstrate openly what He knows is in our character. When God seals us in our foreheads, we will prove that God knows what He is doing. The judgment shows that God is right in destroying Satan and sinners, while forgiving others and giving them eternal life.
This is why there must be a delay in Christ’s coming. God has to wait for His faithful ones to come to the level of spiritual maturity to fact the greatest trials and temptations they have ever faced. He will not rush them into a battle they are not prepared to fight. If they should buckle under the testing process, then God’s right to save any sinner would be questioned.
The government of God and the peace of heaven hang on the investigative judgment of believers. The real reason for the cleansing of the sanctuary is to silence the accuser and his lies.
Much is said today about the importance of having the assurance of salvation. We can always be assured of our salvation if our answer to Christ is always “Yes.” There is no assurance in saying “No.” But if we do slip and fall, we immediately repent and continue to say “Yes.” This is important because a very attractive false gospel says you can be saved while saying “No” to God.
Inspiration tells us: “Character building is the most important work ever entrusted to human beings,” (Ed 225) because only then can God be fully vindicated in saving some sinners. “Satan has endeavored to prove God’s principles of action to be selfish….To disprove Satan’s claim is the work of Christ and of all who bear His name.” (Ed 154)
All of this makes the words of this hymn the most important part of the plan of salvation:
Not I, but Christ be honored, loved, exalted,
Not I, but Christ be seen, be known, and heard;
Not I, but Christ in every look and action,
Not I, but Christ in every thought and word.
Oh, to be saved from myself, dear Lord,
Oh, to be lost in Thee,
Oh, that it may be no more I,
But Christ that lives in me.
John Wesley and the Remnant People
The day began peacefully in the English village of Pensford as men, women, and children made their way to a large green area on the village outskirts. The great preacher, John Wesley, would be there, and people were eager to hear him. Being short in stature, Wesley climbed onto a table and preached the gospel he found in Jesus Christ, explaining that it was twofold. First, all are sinners in need of a Saviour; no one can save themselves, no matter how good they try to be. Justification is by faith alone. Second, God offers freedom from the power of sin. Salvation could not be complete without this promise of the gospel, Wesley explained. All children of God are given freedom from the guilt of sin through justification, and its power through sanctification.
As Wesley preached, a rumble grew louder. A mob, hired by local clerics, was soon upon them, pushing along an agitated, bloodied bull. The bull, however, refused to charge into Wesley and the crowd, instead running around them as they quietly sang praise to God and prayed for about an hour. Frustrated, the mob grabbed the bull and forced it into the table where Wesley was standing. As he fell, friends caught him and quickly carried him to another area, where he continued preaching. Meanwhile, the rabble wreaked their vengeance on the table, which they tore bit from bit.
This was just one of many disruptions John Wesley and his followers faced as they preached. Sometimes stones were hurled; other times Methodist preachers were smeared with sewage and beaten. Mobs often raided Methodist homes, destroying furniture and goods, plundering whatever they chose, and brutally abusing men, women, and children.
But why the viciousness against Wesley and his teachings? Why the hatred? Because he dared to preach the truth. “There is,” said Wesley, “the closest connection…between the law and the gospel. On the one hand, the law continually makes way for, and points us to, the gospel; on the other, the gospel continually leads us to a more exact fulfilling of the law….’With man this is impossible.’ But we see a promise of God to give us that love, and to make us humble, meek, and holy. We lay hold of this gospel, of these glad tidings.”
Today, as in the eighteenth century, some consider those who affirm Wesley’s scriptural teachings to be “legalists,” or worse. Wesley’s response to negative allegations is revealing: “Some allege that the doctrines of these men are false, erroneous…new and unheard-of till of late….Others allege, ‘Their doctrine is too strict; they make the way to heaven too narrow’….This is in truth the original objection,…and is secretly at the bottom of a thousand more, which appear in various forms. But do they make the way to heaven any narrower than our Lord and His apostles made it? Is their doctrine stricter than that of the Bible?”
Was this “perfectionism”? Emphatically, no. Wesley knew that his and every human heart was full of wickedness. But he also knew the power of God to take a sinful heart and make it pure. Ellen White strongly affirmed Wesley’s teachings, stating, “Wesley declared the perfect harmony of the law and the gospel….Thus while preaching the gospel of the grace of God, Wesley, like his Master, sought to ‘magnify the law, and make it honorable.’” (GC 263, 264)
While the judgment may frighten some, Scripture is filled with the hope of forgiveness and restoration—not only in heaven, but on earth, so that we can be living witnesses of the power of God, as we see in 1 Peter 1:13-16. “Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; As obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance: But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy.” These are not idle words; God does not give us impossibilities.
“For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ; Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works. These things speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no man despise thee.” (Titus 2:11-15)
“So we have nothing in ourselves of which to boast. We have no ground for self-exaltation. Our only ground of hope is in the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and in that wrought by His Spirit working in and through us.” (SC 63) Ellen White further observed: “He would have His servants bear testimony to the fact that through His grace men may possess Christlikeness of character….Let it be reflected in the character and manifested in the life. Christ is sitting for His portrait in every disciple.” (DA 826, 827)
If John Wesley was not afraid to teach victory over sin, why should the remnant church who are planning to receive the seal of God be afraid to teach victory over sin? Why would we ever want to label it legalism and perfectionism? (Drawn from “What Is the Gospel,” by Ted Wilson, Adventist World, September, 2019)
The story of Balaam… has a lot of twists….Balak has an offer; Balaam will pray about it. Really? Is there a need to pray about whether or not to curse God’s people? When God’s will is obvious, do we need to pray about it, hoping for permission to do what we want to do?...All our “churchy” attendance at services, our offerings and mission trips combined, do not add up to an excuse or compensation for a single sin: “To obey is better than sacrifice.” (1 Sam. 15:22)…
As Balaam rides along, his donkey sees the Angel of the Lord with sword drawn, standing in the way, and runs off into a field. Balaam beats the animal. Now in a walled pathway the donkey sees the Angel again, and presses against the stone wall, squeezing Balaam’s foot. Balaam beats the ass again. The third time it happens in a narrow place; the donkey simply lies down. In anger Balaam again beats his donkey.
Whereupon the Lord opens the donkey’s mouth and it says to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” And here’s the greatest absurdity: Balaam answers! “Because you have abused me. I wish there were a sword in my hand, for now I would kill you!”
The conversation continues: “Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden, ever since I became yours, to this day? Was I ever disposed to do this to you?” Balaam responds, “No.” Then the Lord opens Balaam’s eyes and he sees the Angel, who asks, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times?...Your way is perverse before Me. The donkey saw Me and turned aside from Me these three times. If she had not turned aside…surely I would also have killed you.” The irritating donkey has saved his life.
God uses different methods to save us from ourselves. We can be blinded by pride or preference….Who knows? Unplanned difficulties may be just now saving you from something harmful. Will you look for the Angel or beat the donkey?...Truth is that the extremes of our donkey beating show ourselves to be nothing less than pathetic, self-centered whining….
Ellen White observed: “Our devised plans often fail that God’s plans for us may be a complete success. Oh, it is in the future life we shall see the tangles and mysteries of life, that have so annoyed and disappointed our fond hopes, explained. We will see that the prayers and hopes for certain things which have been withheld have been among our greatest blessings.” (OHC 318)…
When emotions flare and people yell, don’t beat the donkey; look for the Angel. When serious problems happen and life is difficult, don’t beat the donkey; look for the Angel. When the teachings and ways of God are puzzling, don’t beat the donkey; look for the Angel. When you see Balak’s offer, both attractive and immoral, don’t beat the donkey….Whatever the circumstance, heaven’s messenger will always represent the better option: look for the Angel—don’t beat the donkey! (Mark Heisey, “Don’t Beat the Donkey,” Adventist Review, July, 2019)
I started this message with a dose of realism. Things are not as rosy as they seem to be. I will finish with what God can do with unpromising material, and I will quote from the same article I began with.
I still believe that this movement can pivot, and that its big, decisive pivot will forever change the course of history. I still believe that a divine disruption is coming. But it’s going to require us to confess our selfishness and, by the grace of Jesus, begin to act differently….
With Jesus, I weep over what we have become. I confess my sin and selfishness in every way that has brought us to this point….Countless individuals in this movement are desperately looking for hope. I’d like to start a conversation about what can be….One day we will see a mighty movement such as we haven’t yet witnessed. One day we will stop building programs and buildings for our reputations and we will go into cities and relieve the suffering of the world around us. We will do this, not for our own glory, but for the glory of Him who sits upon the throne, and of the Lamb….
One day we will get back to true education….One day more of us will be unashamed to preach about the giant of our day: the culture of Babylon and her system of selfishness. One day those who identify with the remnant of Bible prophecy will be known as the kindest, most patient, unselfish people on the earth. One day Jesus will stand up and say, “My people are ready; they have held nothing back. They have finally invested their treasure in heaven; a world has been warned; and many have been won to the remnant—the bride of Christ.”
That day may not be today, but it will be—one day. I’m going to wait and pray for the patience of the saints until the day when Jesus does for us what we clearly cannot do for ourselves. My prayer is this: “Lord, we have gloried in our growth, yet so many we love are not with us anymore. We have gloried in our rightness rather than in Your righteousness….Lord, please forgive us. Please bring your glory back to this movement. Lord, prepare us for the day in which we joyfully inhabit, not just the church I want to belong to, but the one our friends, family, sons and daughters want to belong to as well. Lord, we want to be that church of which Solomon writes: ‘Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners?”
Ah yes, my friends, the church I want to belong to is…terrible!