This is probably Elder Robert Wieland's most well-known sermon. It is a powerful, powerful one that I would encourage you to watch.
Monday, July 18, 2011
You probably won't read the news of his passing in the Adventist Review, or on the Adventist News Network website. You probably won't read it in Spectrum or see it announced on 3ABN. And that's fine. But the Adventist Church just lost one of its biggest - yet maligned - giants last week. Elder Robert J. Wieland - missionary to Africa, author of over 25 books, and herald of our history - passed away on Wednesday morning, July 13. He was 95-years old and ready for the Lord to return. Sadly, he did not see this fulfilled.
Whether realized or not, it could be argued that his influence across Adventism over the last 60 years has been unsurpassed. After coming across a book by E.J Waggoner in 1939 entitled The Glad Tidings, he fell in love with the gospel and became startled that few within his own community of faith shared his enthusiasm. And he was even more startled to discover that Adventism's own messenger - Ellen White - proclaimed that the message E.J. Waggoner, along with A.T. Jones, was sharing would usher in the latter rain and bring about Christ's Second Coming if embraced by the church. But when he, along with fellow missionary Donald K. Short, called this truth to the attention of church leadership, the news was not received.
And so, for the next 60 years, until his passing, he served as "a voice crying in the wilderness," reacquainting the church with that "most precious message" and encouraging us to repent of rejecting what the Lord wanted to do among us.
It was this latter emphasis that met with the strongest reactions and most resistance. It was this emphasis that many simply could not bear.
I had the privilege of knowing Elder Wieland, either indirectly or directly, for essentially my whole life. He was a family friend and I remember him staying with us on at least one occasion when I was a kid. But not only was he a family friend, he was also a huge spiritual and theological influence. Much of my understanding of the gospel came as a result of reading his books, listening to his sermons, and, to a lesser extent, corresponding with him personally.
The last time I saw Elder Wieland was three years ago - almost to the day. I spent almost five hours with him at his home in Meadow Vista, California. He served me a "simple, simple meal," as he said, and we enjoyed great fellowship. He was alone, having laid to rest his wife just a short time before. As always, his heart was heavy with the burden of that "most precious message" and he reacquainted me with his experience. His grief seeped out as he recounted, not only the challenges he faced personally (threats of disfellowship; the emotional assault on he and his family throughout the years), but the pain that has been brought to His Savior because of His bride's refusal to prepare herself for the wedding.
Of course, he almost couldn't contain his excitement when he would ask me, in response to when I would mention the names of professors and pastors I encountered during my time in the seminary, "Is he with us?" Whenever I would start talking about a person who seemed to be sympathetic to that "most precious message," he would ask this question, with a twinkle in his eye. He was still holding out hope that pastors, professors, and other church leaders would lay hold of the message and proclaim it with power. He was still holding out hope that he could be a part of the group that saw the Lord's return.
And, to be honest, I was convinced that the Lord was preserving Elder Wieland for His Second Coming so that he might be translated, honoring his many years of faithful labor. After all, every time I saw him I was amazed at how his age didn't seem to match his health. He always seemed to look a lot younger than he actually was. But his passing before the Second Coming speaks to the precise point he made for so long: even the Lord's hands are tied when it comes to the timing of His return and whether the bride prepares herself.
Of course, a strong hope in that blessed hope was not realized by Elder Wieland; but his work has not been in vain. The influence of this Adventist Giant has rippled out to the ends of the earth and shall continue to do so, I trust, until the Lord's return.
Until then, Elder Wieland, "having obtained a good testimony through faith," will, like the great faith heroes of Hebrews 11, wait in his grave, not having "receive[d] the promise, God having provided something better for us, that [he and] they should not be made perfect apart from us" (Hebrews 11:39-40).
May we all, by God's grace, be that generation that is made perfect on their behalf - and on the Lord's behalf.
E'en so, Lord Jesus quickly come.
(Update: Elder Wieland's obituary - which I have not yet read - is available here)
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Not to belabor the topic of corporate justification, but I would just like to, very briefly, add one more thought to this important topic (please read three of my recent posts on this important topic: "The Sticking Point," "My Personal Journey With Corporate Justification," and "Investigating the Biblical Basis for Corporate Justification") .
That is, I have heard people object that God could not have justified the whole world at the cross because "to justify" means not only to "declare righteous" but to "make righteous." And since the whole world is clearly not righteous in an actual sense, there is no way God could have justified the whole world at the cross.
Furthermore, what benefit is there to God to declare someone to be righteous if that person is not actually righteous? Isn't it just a sham righteousness that does not fool God, whose ultimate goal is to have a people who are actually made righteous?
But such objections beg a lot of questions.
Firstly, how is a person made righteous?
Secondly, does a person's righteousness exist prior to God's declaration of righteousness, or subsequent (or even simultaneous) to it?
Thirdly, at what point in a person's righteous life is he or she at a place where God is justified in declaring him or her to be righteous?
Now, let's exercise our noggins a little bit.
To the first question, how is anything made? By God's word: "For He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast" (Psalm 33:9). "Then God said, 'Let there be light, and there was light" (Genesis 1:3).
To the second question: nothing exists in reality prior to God's declaration of it. With the example above, light did not exist prior to God's declaration of it. Neither does righteousness exist prior to God's declaration of it. Therefore, if I insist that God can only declare people to be righteous who are first made righteous, then I must insist that a person has made himself or herself righteous - because the means by which God makes something righteous is by speaking it into existence through His word.
Of course, the response will be that God declares people to be righteous who have faith, or that His declaration and making righteous are simultaneous. Very well, then. But whence comes faith? "So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Romans 10:17). Thus, it is God's word that produces faith also.
Therefore, God's word is the means by which faith is induced and sinners are made righteous. This is why God declares the whole world to be righteous; this is why He justified and forgave the whole world at the cross. Because declaring the whole world to be righteous is the only way that God can make a person righteous.
Thus, it is neither pointless nor superfluous for God to declare that sinning people are actually sinless. Neither is God lying when He does so. He is calling "those things which do not exist as though they did" (Romans 4:17). He is actually living by faith; acting on the basis of what He sees, by faith, we can become when we respond to His word. (This is why Galatians 2:16 says we are not "justified by the works of the law but by the faith of Jesus Christ.")
This is because God's word, His declarations, His decrees contain power in themselves to accomplish that which they say they will accomplish. "My word . . . shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please" (Isaiah 55:11).
As Ellen White notes,
In every human being [Christ] discerned infinite possibilities. He saw men as they might be, transfigured by His grace - in "the beauty of the Lord our God." Psalm 90:17. Looking upon them with hope, He inspired hope. Meeting them with confidence, He inspired trust. Revealing in Himself man's true ideal, He awakened, for its attainment, both desire and faith. In His presence souls despised and fallen realized that they still were men, and they longed to prove themselves worthy of His regard. In many a heart that seemed dead to all things holy, were awakened new impulses. To many a despairing one there opened the possibility of a new life. (Education, p. 80)
The truth of the gospel is that hope begets hope, faith begets faith, confidence begets confidence, righteousness begets righteousness, and God's word begets that which it declares. Thus, God's declaration of the entire world's justification begets - if we will let Him do it for us - our being made righteous.
Of course, there is one small caveat: God never takes our free choice away. Even though God's word necessarily produces that which it declares, there is one instance in which this is not the case. God's word is infinitely powerful, but it chooses not to force man's will. Thus, though Christ does declare us all to be righteous in a grand attempt to get us to believe His perspective and respond by faith, His declaration will not force our will.
But this doesn't change the reality of Christ's perspective nor His continued attempt to convince us of that view. Indeed, when we respond to God's view, as my friend Ty Gibson says, "Faith believes facts; it doesn't make facts" (A God Named Desire, p. 147, emphasis original).
And thus is the beautiful and glorious truth of the power of God's incredible declaration of corporate justification.
Tuesday, July 12, 2011
Over the course of my journey as it relates to the idea of corporate justification, there was one verse that I kept coming back to. No matter how close I came to throwing out the whole idea, I couldn't get this one verse out of my head. In many ways, it has been - and continues to be - my favorite passage in all of scripture, even setting aside its implications for corporate justification.
The verse is 2 Corinthians 5:14-15. There, Paul says that Christ's love "compels" us - in other words, it pushes us forward, it motivates us, it gives us the impetus to live the Christian life.
Of course, many people find this idea to be very heart-warming and important. I have heard many people say that it is Christ's love that does, indeed, "compel" us. "The realization that God loves us, He wants to forgive us, He values us," some will say, "is very compelling." But if Paul merely left it at that, it would be one thing. But he doesn't simply say that Christ's love "compels" us and then move on to the next topic. The very next word reveals there is a specific aspect of Christ's love that compels us, "Because," Paul says, "we judge thus . . . "
In other words, there is an element of Christ's love that is particularly compelling. It is not simply the realization that God loves us, wants to forgive us, wants to have a relationship with us, that Paul finds so compelling. There is a particular revelation of that love that is what is so motivating to Paul.
And what is it? He continues, "Because we judge thus, that if one died for all, then all died." The component of Christ's love that Paul finds so compelling is that because Christ "died for all . . . all died."
The honest student of scripture cannot get past this incredible declaration by Paul. Sadly, the King James Version, which so many love to quote from (and that has its place at times) fails significantly at bringing out the true meaning of what Paul says. And this mistranslation is one of the points that opponents of corporate justification appeal to in order to explain away the full power of Paul's declaration. Instead of saying that "all died" when Christ died, the KJV renders it, "then were all dead."
According to this translation, that which Paul finds so compelling about Christ's love is that all of us "were dead." I don't know about you, but I have a hard time understanding what the realization that all of us were "dead" has to do with Christ's love, let alone what is so compelling about it.
Fortunately, the Greek straightens the KJV out rather unambiguously. The Greek word is the same word and tense and form in both clauses of the sentence. Thus, just as Christ "died for all," so, too, "all died." The KJV cannot translate it "Christ died for all," and then translate the exact same form of the word in the next breath as "dead." It is extremely inconsistent.
Thus, what Paul finds so compelling about Christ's love is that when He went to Calvary, not only did Christ die, but we died with Him - all of us. (Of course, I have had people try to tell me that the "all" who died "in Christ" in this verse are simply believers. But if we are to propose that Christ died "for all," we cannot then limit the "all" who died "in Him" to only believers. It must be "everyone" who has ever been born - in fact, "the world," as Paul goes onto explain in v. 19.)
But what are the implications of the idea that "all died" in Christ at Calvary? It's very simple: since we all died "in Christ" at Calvary, our sins have already been forgiven and we need not ever face the second death ourselves in a literal way. In a way, when Christ took all of humanity to the cross, we all corporately suffered the consequences of sin's wages "in Him." This is why any of us can live, breathe, eat, or enjoy life. Whether we recognize it or not, we are alive today because Christ took the entire world to the cross.
Of course, as I mentioned in a previous post, no theology can be based on one text. But, thankfully, no such thing needs to be attempted. Contextually, as I have already briefly pointed out, it is clear that Paul is speaking of Christ's corporate accomplishments. Just a few verses later he points out that "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them . . . " (v. 19).
But in order to get a firm understanding of this corporate justification idea, one must take a step back and recognize the framework in which this important concept is presented - especially in the writings of Paul. In Galatians 2:16, Paul makes it clear that we are not "justified by the works of the law but by the faith of Jesus." Paul shares a similar idea in Romans 3:23-24 where, after declaring that "all have sinned," he says in the next verse that we are "justified freely by His grace." He then goes onto explain in v. 25 that, because of Christ's faith, "in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed."
This larger framework, upon which corporate justification rests, is what Paul calls "the faith of Jesus." Simply put, God justifies the sinner, first and foremost, not because of our works, faith, or repentance, but because of Christ's faith, works, and repentance. The reason Christ justifies us is because He has faith in us. The reason the world has been saved, including the individuals in that world, is because God looks upon us through the eyes of faith and sees what we can become by His grace as we respond to His faith. And God fulfilled the legal requirements - our death, "in Christ" - that was necessary to justify our continued existence.
There are some, I know, who are willing to accept this idea. They are willing to accept the idea that God saw within us the possibilities of redemption and, therefore, gave us a "second chance" or a "second probation." They are willing to call this reality many things, but they refuse to call it "justification."
The problem is, the Bible calls it justification. In fact, Paul, in Romans 5, calls it "justification of life" (v. 18). And the Greek of this phrase is unambiguous, reflecting the reality that, as most versions put it, this justification of life came to "all men."
So what, exactly, does this mean, and what are the implications of corporate justification? It means that Christ has a legal right (remember: God needs to maintain His justice as well as be merciful) to treat us, not as we deserve, but with grace - regardless of our subjective response. It means that, where we should be condemned for our transgressions and meet the wages of our sins, Christ, instead, says to us, "Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more" (John 8:11). Interestingly, Ellen White is unambiguous when she points out that "justification is the opposite of condemnation" (Christ Triumphant, p. 150). She then goes onto explain that God "forgives transgressions and sins for the sake of Jesus, who has become the propitiation for our sins."
But notice: the woman caught in adultery never asked to not be condemned; she never asked to be forgiven or justified. It was completely of Christ's initiative, received entirely by the grace of God. (I have had some people tell me that, though the text doesn't say it explicitly, she "obviously" must have asked for forgiveness, else Jesus couldn't have forgiven her! With all due respect, this is one of the craziest eisegetical inferences I have come across. If we are wanting to propose apocryphal and extrabiblical interpretations of Scripture, we may as well join the Mother of all extrabiblical interpreters.)
We see the same beautiful truth on Calvary, when Christ, looking down upon the soldiers who were gambling over His garments, cried out, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do" (Luke 23:34). Again, no repentance, confession, contrition, or anything of the sort, was exercised by the soldiers. In fact, according to Jesus, they didn't have the foggiest clue as to the wrong they were engaged in, let alone their need to repent of it. Yet Jesus, of His own initiative, extends forgiveness to them.
Of course, I have also heard people say that Jesus merely "asked" His Father to forgive them, but it doesn't mean that God actually did forgive them without their confession or repentance. But are we to believe that God - whose heart and soul are completely intertwined with His Son's, and who it was declared of by that same Son that "he who has seen Me has seen the Father" (John 14:9) - would not honor the request of His dying Son? Is this what we are supposed to believe - that God would turn a deaf ear to the Son who is fulfilling the very forgiveness-mission that He, God, sent Him on?
Admittedly, some will argue that all this is "legal fiction." After all, what does God gain by declaring unrepentent, unconverted, and unconfessing people, to be "justified," "righteous," "forgiven"? Much, it turns out! For one, as already stated, it gives God the legal right to act towards us with that forgiveness and mercy. The reality is, all of us should be dead right now. We should have suffered the consequences of our transgressions long ago. But because of the fact that Christ was the "Lamb slain from the foundation of the world" (Revelation 13:8), our sin-filled lives have been saved from the rightful penalty of those sins (remember, God has to maintain order in the universe and maintain His trustworthiness) and God can treat us the way He wants to treat us, having taken care of the justice (and mercy) part of His plan of salvation.
Secondly, according to the original passage we started with, this reality actually contains within it the very power that God desires to turn sin-filled lives into faith-filled lives. Instead of encouraging sinners to remain in their sins, the realization that God has already forgiven us, already justified us, already taken us to Calvary, actually "compels us" to "live for Him who died for [us] and rose again" (v. 15). It's almost as if Paul anticipates the claim that corporate justification leads to antinomianism and preemptively counters the reader's objection: "No," he says, "God's forgiveness doesn't prevent people from repenting, it actually leads them to it" (see also Romans 2:4).
Could it be that our evangelistic efforts have actually be stunted because we tell people they have to do something first (repent, confess, etc.) before God can forgive them? It almost seems counterintuitive to suppose that when we express to a person that God has already given them something, they would then respond by asking for it. But the Bible declares this to be true, and I have found that my own experiences in life verify this as well. For when I realize how far a person has already gone in giving me something, I become very grateful, humbled, and appreciative.
But What About the Investigative Judgment?
Lastly, I want to address one of the biggest objections I have heard as it relates to the idea of corporate justification: it is proposed that corporate justification (or the idea that the whole world was forgiven at the cross) is antithetical to, and leads people to reject, the investigative judgment. After all, if my sins have already been forgiven, why would I repent of them? And, according to the Old Testament sanctuary model, only confessed sins went into the Most Holy Place and only Israel was judged; how can we thus say that, in theory, the whole world's sins, having been forgiven, have gone into the Most Holy Place and that, therefore, the whole world is being judged in the investigative judgment? Isn't it simply those who have, at one point, confessed Christ that are being judged before the second Advent?
Well, first, an anecdotal observation: I recently heard that one of Adventism's biggest challengers to the doctrine of the investigative judgment supposedly remarked that if the church had embraced the idea of corporate justification, then he never would have turned his back on the investigative judgment. Of course, this is hearsay and I cannot substantiate this claim. But, at the very least, the circumstantial evidence does make one wonder about the cause-to-effect relationship.
After all, what we do know that this person did reject the doctrine of the investigative judgment and we do know that the official view of the church regarding justification is anti-corporate justification. Thus, could we not say that there is actually a causal link between the traditional view of justification and a rejection of the investigative judgment?
Because, purely anecdotally speaking, I do not know of any person who has embraced the idea of corporate justification who has rejected the investigative judgment. Though it is, obviously, a much smaller sample size, it can perhaps be argued that corporate justification actually ties a person more firmly to the investigative judgment than its rejection does.
Secondly, I want to move beyond anecdotes and address the actual philosophical concerns and links between corporate justification and the investigative judgment But with a caveat: this is still a work in progress for me and I am still working out some of the nuances and details of this issue. But I have personally come to a satisfactory place in my thinking as it relates to these two ideas. Though I have wondered about it in the past, I do believe these two concepts can co-exist and that one does not lead to the rejection of the other. I don't feel they are inherently contradictory.
So let me just share a few brief thoughts about where my thinking is at this point:
1. For a while, I had a hard time fitting corporate justification into the sanctuary framework. The sanctuary does, after all, provide a model by which we can test any understanding of salvation against. The sanctuary, according to Ellen White, offers us a "complete system of truth" (Great Controversy, p. 423).
So how can I reconcile the idea that Christ justified and forgave the whole world at Calvary when, clearly, a person, according to the Old Testament sanctuary service, was only forgiven when he or she brought a lamb to the sanctuary and confessed his or her sins?
I struggled with this for a while until I came to an important realization. According to Deuteronomy 28, God instructed Moses that the priests should take two lambs and sacrifice them, "day by day, as a regular burnt offering. The one lamb you shall offer in the morning, the other lamb you shall offer in the evening" (vv. 3-4). These were known as the "daily" or "regular" sacrifices that were for the benefit of all Israel. Everyone benefited from these sacrifices, regardless of attitude. They served, in a way, as the basis for the "justification of life" for all Israel.
Admittedly, how this relates directly to a person's individual acts of sin, I am not sure. But I also know that a person is not condemned or lost because of one sin, two sins, or a thousands sins. "The wrath of God," Ellen White states, "is not declared against men merely because of the sins which they have committed, but for choosing to continue in a state of resistance" (Testimonies to Ministers, p. 74).
2. It must be kept in mind that the purpose of the investigative judgment is not to determine an individual's destiny, anyway. It is not for God to figure out who should or should not be in heaven. God knows "those who are His" (2 Timothy 2:19). "Most assuredly I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment [Greek: judgment/condemnation], but has passed from death into life" (John 5:24).
The primary purpose of the judgment is to vindicate God and to reveal to the universe the true character of those who have been granted eternal life. It is, in some senses, a heavenly "audit" of God's books, determining whether a person's record matches their destiny.
3. In that sense, is it necessarily true that the investigative judgment cannot jive with corporate justification from the perspective that allegedly only those who have confessed theirs sins are judged before Christ returns? Won't everyone ultimately be judged, whether they have confessed Christ at some point or not? In other words, it is proposed that corporate justification cannot be reconciled with the investigative judgment because, supposedly, the only people who are being judged in the investigative judgment are those who took on the name of Christ at some point and confessed their sins to go into the Most Holy Place.
But is this true? As I already asked: isn't everyone judged at some point? While I would concede the point that the only sins that were cleansed from the Most Holy Place in the typical service were those sins which were first confessed by an individual and thus placed into the Most Holy Place, didn't the Day of Atonement reach beyond the individual confessor and the local context?
Some of these questions are somewhat rhetorical as well - or, at least ones that I do not have a definite answer for at this point. But what I am simply demonstrating is that, perhaps, there is room to expand our understanding of the investigative judgment.
4. Some might propose that corporation justification minimizes, or even obliterates, Christ's continued work of intercession in the heavenly sanctuary. After all, if we hint at the idea that justification was "completed" at the cross, doesn't that remove the significance of Christ's present work as high priest?
First of all, I would not necessarily say that corporate justification implies that God "finished" justification, sanctification, or even forgiveness, at the cross. As I have shared in a previous post, the New Testament seems to present the idea that salvation is a process - and though it might be "completed" in some senses, it still is "incomplete" in other senses. Thus, while the Bible proposes that all of us were forgiven "at the cross," it doesn't necessarily follow that we will stay forgiven in an eschatological sense. God is not going to force anyone to stay forgiven, just as the master in Matthew 18 did not force his servant to stay forgiven.
So, in some senses, Christ's current high priestly ministry is for the purpose of continuing what He started for everyone at Calvary. Thus, the title I thought of recently, that I kind of like, is "inaugurated universal justification," or some variation of the "inaugurated" theme. In other words, Christ "began" salvation, justification, forgiveness, for everyone. Everyone was, in reality, forgiven by Christ at the cross. But, since forgiveness is a process, Christ continues the work of trying to keep us "in Him" and forgiven.
Secondly, according to the Old Testament model, the primary goal of the high priest's Day of Atonement ministry was to "cleanse" people from sin (see Leviticus 16:30), not to forgive them. So just because all may have been forgiven at the cross, it doesn't diminish Christ's Day of Atonement ministry because He is actually trying to cleanse people from their sins (ie., remove sin from their lives). So all can be forgiven, but it doesn't mean that all will be cleansed from sin.
So these four reflections are ways in which I have reconciled, and continue to reconcile, the ideas of corporate justification and the investigative judgment. There is much more to explore on this subject, but I am truly grateful that God has brought forth this powerful truth about the plan of salvation.
So what is "corporate justification"? Is it biblical? Can it be supported by Ellen White? Was it a key element of Jones and Waggoner's "1888 message"? Is it "cheap grace," "anti-nomian," "anti-investigative judgment"? Does it discourage people from repenting or confessing their sins?
First, a personal testimony. I grew up in a family that placed strong emphasis, not only on the message that Jones and Waggoner preached, but in the history that surrounds their presentation of it. Thankfully, these underlying and beautiful principles were not only taught by my parents, but, more importantly, lived by them as well.
With that being said, it wasn't until I was about 17 or 18 years old that I ever truly grappled with the concepts. I remember the very day I, for the first time, wrestled with this theology. I was working for a landscaping company in the summer, mowing and aerating lawns. On this particular day, I was doing the latter at a soccer field on a hot day. Sadly, the aerator I was using only had one speed - fast - and I found myself pretty much running behind it for about two hours. But the speed did not prevent me from doing what I often like to do: think. And so I spent much of that time working through the implications of this theology that I had been raised on.
At the end of the day, after working through the theories by often attaching them to illustrations that could ground the concepts in reality, I realized that it all made sense. And it was beautiful news.
From that point on, I started to fully submerse myself in the wonderful message that finally clicked with me. I read prolifically on the subject, becoming increasingly excited about just how awesome God's grace and love is. Sadly, not everyone shared my joy. In fact, one event that stands out in my memory happened during my senior year of college. I had just interviewed with a few of the surrounding conferences when the chair of my religion department took me aside. He said to me, "Shawn, one of the conferences would be very interested in hiring you but they are concerned about your connections with the 1888 Message Study Committee." Needless to say, though up until that point my connection with this apparently dangerous committee was completely indirect (the closest I had ever come was ordering books from their website and setting foot in their store to buy more), I did not get hired by the conference.
Though this was a bit puzzling, I was not bitter or upset at all. In fact, I reacted then, as I do now, with more sadness and perplexity than anything. To this day, I can't quite comprehend how a message that brings such hope and good news is so misunderstood or responded to with disdain.
Of course, I was hired soon after graduating as an undergrad and I continued to appreciate this most precious message. For one reason or another, however, somewhere between my first year of pastoring and then my subsequent time in seminary, I kind of got away from a full emphasis on these wonderful truths. It wasn't until my time in seminary drew to a close that I once again saw the importance and relevance of the 1888 message (in all honesty, I do not believe there was any causal link between my seminary experience and instruction, and my lukewarmness of fully emphasizing the message).
When I returned to pastoring after seminary, I returned with a renewed fervor and joy for the 1888 message. But one event stands out in my mind that has kind of served as a catalyst of sorts as it relates directly to the particular topic at hand. One of my former members, whom I love and respect dearly, and with whom I have enjoyed great Christian fellowship, started chipping away at my thinking about corporate justification. In many ways this member and I were kindred spirits and we agreed upon many important elements of the gospel. But he seems to be a pretty committed opponent of the "corporate justification" idea - a rejection that I fully respect, seeing as I firmly believe he has been prayerful about his convictions.
Little by little, he would plant ideas in my mind that started to make sense - ideas like embracing "corporate justification" leads to the rejection of the "investigative judgment." He shared articles with me from various "conservative" Adventist publications that were aiming their guns at this allegedly heretical - and anti-Adventist - concept.
Thus, over the course of the last two or three years, there have been moments where I have been fully committed to saying that the idea of "corporate justification" cannot be supported by the Bible, Ellen White, or Jones and Waggoner. I have felt like Agrippa, who, to paraphrase it into my context, infamously said to Paul, "Almost thou persuadest me to reject 'corporate justification' " (Acts 26:28).
Yet no matter how much I was nearly and almost completely persuaded, I kept coming back - not to the testimony of Ellen White, not to the testimony of Jones or Waggoner - to the clear testimony of the Bible itself. For when one studies scripture (and allows scripture to interpret Ellen White, rather than vice-versa), there is no way that the truth behind "corporate justification" can be denied.
Who Interprets Whom?
One of the main arguments I have heard, and even used before myself when discussing the issue, is that nowhere does Ellen White explicitly endorse the idea that Christ justified the world at the cross. In fact, I just heard this argument yesterday. And for a while, it troubled me. "After all," one will say, "if it is such an important topic - especially in these last days - why wouldn't God's end-time prophet explicitly say that everyone was forgiven at the cross?" Then the argument will usually continue, "But not only does she not explicitly endorse such an idea, she actually contradicts it." Then an example from her writings is given like the following, "It is only through faith in His blood that Jesus can justify the believer" (The Signs of the Times, May 19, 1898).
Like I said, these types of arguments overwhelmed me for a while. After all, I fully subscribe to - and embrace - the idea that Ellen White was a prophet of God. And thus, in some ways, since I couldn't deny her very explicit statements that seemed to contradict my understanding, I was confronted with a dilemma as it related to this subject that seemed irreconcilable. It was very clear to me (as I hope to demonstrate below) that the Bible very clearly teaches the idea that the world was justified at the cross. Thus, I was faced with the possibility that Ellen White was wrong or my interpretation of scripture was wrong.
Of course, it is very plain to see that there is another option: it could very well have been that my interpretation of Ellen White was wrong. And thus, out of that realization came some important reflections that relate, not only to this topic, but hermeneutics in general. Some of these are quite obvious, but others are very important:
1. I must not interpret the Bible through Ellen White, but vice-versa.
2. I cannot isolate portions of inspiration and claim that this is the entirety of any particular topic. For example, when studying the subject of justification, I am not sure that there are too many people - even avowed legalists - who would be eager to base their entire understanding of the subject on Romans 2:13, "Not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified."
Do you hear many people walking around, even in the Adventist church, saying that the only way a person can be justified is by keeping the law?
This speaks to a point that most of us learned in basic Bible Study 101: we must examine all of scripture to determine what the Bible's view on a subject is, rather than building a whole theology out of one or two verses.
3. I cannot single out any single author, book, or portion of inspiration and require him/her/it to answer any question explicitly and then claim that such an answer is the whole picture. For example, if, after reading through Paul's epistles, I become convinced that justification is by grace through faith, is it appropriate for you to respond by saying, "Yeah, but prove it from James"?
Or, if, after reading Leviticus 11 I realize that God is inviting me to give up eating lobster, does it make sense for you to say, "Well, can you demonstrate that from the Song of Solomon?"
This is, perhaps, one of the most important realizations I came to. If we maintain that Ellen White is of the same quality of inspiration as the biblical writers, why do we require of her that which we do not require of the other writers? Does Ellen White contain all the truth of inspiration and does she mention it all explicitly? Might Paul say something about the gospel that Ellen White does not mention or emphasize? Might the Old Testament say something about the Sabbath that the New Testament does not?
This last example is very relevant because requiring Ellen White to explicitly spell out corporate justification would be like requiring the New Testament to explicitly spell out the importance of the Sabbath. Furthering the analogy, in the same way that I could present quotes from Ellen White that seem to contradict the idea of corporate justification, so, too, could I present quotes from the New Testament that seem to contradict the idea - and reverse the Old Testament admonition - that God's followers should keep the Sabbath.
Furthermore, as a committed Adventist, I fully maintain that the book of Revelation indicates that the Sabbath will be a - or perhaps "the" - end-time test. Yet I would never claim - nor require - that this book explicitly maintains its last-day significance. The closest we can come is a partial quote of the fourth commandment (mentioning nothing of the "Sabbath" explicitly) in Revelation 14:7.
The truth is, we very rarely require inspiration to explicitly and systematically spell out theological truth. Quite often, we place everything inspiration dwells upon alongside one another, take a step back, and make sense of the overall picture inspiration gives.
4. As it specifically relates to corporate justification, I believe there are a few "explicit" quotes from Ellen White that are pretty convincing after all. But even beyond that, I think there are plenty of quotes from Ellen White that at least get us in the ballpark. And then, where Ellen White gets us in the ballpark, the Bible hits a home run.
5. The last realization I have come to is a little tricky and it is one I am still working on. To a large degree, it seems to fly in the face of our western rules of logic in general and, more specifically, the law of non-contradiction (that two contradictory ideas can be true at the same time). While I am not trying to advocate some type of eastern mystic understanding of God, theology, and the Bible, we do have to remember that the philosophical foundation of the Bible is essentially "eastern." The Hebraic paradigm, upon which both the Old Testament and New Testament rest, allows for a larger range of philosophical possibilities than our western/Hellenistic encourages.
As I said, I have not spent a lot of time working this one out, nor following all the implications, but could it be that, as we study inspiration, two ideas that are seemingly contradictory are, in fact, both true at the same time? Thus, could it be, for example, that we are both "forgiven" and "not forgiven" at the same time, or "justified" and "not justified" at the same time, or "pardoned" and "not pardoned" at the same time?
I would propose that, by virtue of the fact that we embrace the Protestant Reformation, we already allow for such seemingly contradictory concepts to be simultaneously true. For one of Martin Luther's most well-known phrases was, "Simul justus et peccator" - "righteous and at the same time a sinner."
Closer to home, Ellen White brings out this idea herself in Steps to Christ when she states that as "sinful as your life may have been . . . you are accepted before God just as if you had not sinned" (p. 62).
These realizations have been very important in my own journey as I have grappled with the concept of corporate justification, which deserves an entire post of its own!
I have been overjoyed recently with the groundswell of interest across the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the "most precious message" that was presented by A.T. Jones and E.J. Waggoner over a century ago. Over the course of my short life - and even shorter experience with this message - never before have I seen such a growing burden to embrace and share this message. Individuals and groups from the wide spectrum within Adventism seem to be catching the fire.
Though there are, like Baskin-Robbins, many different flavors and views of this "most precious message," there seems to be general agreement across the board about some of the key elements of what happened at Minneapolis, and its aftermath, and what the core of Jones and Waggoner's (and Ellen White's) message was.
There seems to be general consensus that their message was never truly embraced. There seems to be general consensus that righteousness by faith includes not only God declaring us to be righteous, but that He actually makes us righteous. There seems to be general consensus that God is waiting for a people who are fully prepared for His second coming, that He might present to Himself a "glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle" (Ephesians 5:27). There seems to be general consensus that one of the key factors in this being achieved is the realization that Christ took upon himself human nature in its sinful, weakened condition.
In short, there seems to be a general consensus in this "1888 message renaissance" of what the end-goal is - a people who are cleansed of their sin so as to vindicate God in this great controversy.
What doesn't seem to be agreed upon, and, in fact, seems to be a sticking point (nay, the sticking point, in my estimation), is how we arrive at that end goal.
Or, put another way: the sticking point among those who have had a renewed interest in the 1888 message is what exactly Christ accomplished at Calvary. Failure to come to an agreement on this issue has prevented all those who agree upon the importance of 1888 - and the fact that the message has not been embraced by the church - to join together in a unified voice and declare this perhaps-end-time-inducing-message with fervor and zeal.
What's the big deal, you wonder? Though it is always dangerous to paint many people with a broad brush and speak in generalities, for the most part, much of the talk about "1888" that has surfaced recently among those within the "conservative" branch of Adventism, especially, seems to focus chiefly on the "overcoming sin" part of the "1888 message." There is great emphasis on the subjective experience the believer is supposed to - and will - enjoy when he or she is truly living by faith.
This is very, very important. As I said above, most, if not all, who are coming to embrace the truth about 1888 are agreed upon the end-goal and result of this "most precious message."
The problem with chiefly emphasizing this part of the message is that it is only half the picture and, more importantly, doing so actually prevents the ultimate goal from being achieved. Neglecting to recognize, embrace, and emphasize the objective truths of Christ's ministry and accomplishments simply engenders to bondage - the exact problem Jones, Waggoner and Ellen White fought against in the 1880s and 90s.
Of course, by sharing what I have already shared, I have shown my hand and revealed what side of the "fence" I am standing on. But what jumps out at me the most as I study this message is the emphasis the primary players place upon Christ's objective work. Of course, it is a very balanced emphasis, but an emphasis nonetheless.
In particular, I have found that the testimony Ellen White gave in 1889 about meetings held in South Lancaster, Mass., are particularly beneficial in keeping one grounded to the key elements of that "most precious message." I would strongly encourage anyone who is interested in this topic to read that testimony (available here).
In the testimony she says stuff like, "They testified their joy that Christ had forgiven their sins." Or, "In the early morning meetings, I tried to present the paternal love and care of God for his children. The knowledge of God's love is the most effectual knowledge to obtain, that the character may be ennobled, refined, and elevated. . . . Christ ever directed the minds of his disciples to God as to a loving Father." Or, "There were many, even among the ministers, who saw the truth as it is in Jesus in a light in which they had never before viewed it. They saw the Saviour as a sin-pardoning Saviour, and the truth as the sanctifier of the soul."
It was this realization about the objective truths of Christ that melted the hearts of the attendees and brought them into a faith experience with Christ. As important as talking about what the faith-filled should - and will - look like, it is not this component of the 1888 message that will be the catalyst for revival. Only when we lift up "the matchless charms of Christ" will people's hearts fully and truly be reconciled to God.
More specifically, I think the "sticking point of the sticking point" is the idea of Christ's accomplishment for all humankind on Calvary. This is what many within "conservative" circles simply cannot bear or - so they think - accept. But those (or, at least, one person) among the living who have kept the "1888 message" alive and before our conscience the longest (reaching back to at least the 1950s) insist that the idea that Christ justified the whole world at the cross is an integral part of the "1888 message." I, of course, would tend to agree.
And this is the departure point for many.
Now, I will admit that this whole topic can be a bit nuanced and, perhaps, those who agree with one another in general on this concept are not fully uniformed in their presentation of it. But, nevertheless, I think the idea of - what I will label for the purpose of having a working term - "corporate justification" is a key emphasis and ingredient in achieving the end-goal in the plan of salvation. To omit, minimize, or reject this truth results in dire consequences. It is an objective and foundational truth that, if neglected, will prevent a house from standing (after all, David aptly wondered, "If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?" [Psalm 11:3]).
On the other hand, the embracing of it actually results in the exact end-goal (ie., "perfection," which is a very biblical term) that those who reject it are so burdened by.
And that is the irony of it all.