Whatever Happened to the Second Coming?

Second ComingThis morning, as I was playing with my kids, I decided to ask the old “where do you want to live when you grow up?” question. Mind you, my kids are almost-six, four, and 13 months.

Nevertheless, without hesitation, they blurted out, “Florida!” Being a dyed-in-the-wool New Englander, I felt somewhat like a failure, though I did feel a little comforted when they added that it was because their cousins, Calleigh, Aubree, and Brady, live there. (In her defense, Winslow, the 13-month-old, pleaded the fifth – and I could tell by the twinkle in her eye that she just wants to live with Mommy and Daddy for the rest of her life.)

After sharing with the kids that they should really want to live wherever Jesus wants them to live, I then paused and asked, “But do you know where you should really want to live when you grow up?”

With innocent curiosity they asked me where – to which I simply responded, “Heaven.”

I didn’t say it to be cute. I didn’t say it as a rote catechetic obligation.

I said it because every part of my brain wants to mean it.

And I said it because, as I added a few minutes later, we should want Jesus to return soon because He’s terribly sad right now not only about being apart from us, but also about all the pain and suffering that hurts Him on a deep emotional level as He witnesses the misery that continues to characterize this planet.

Yet here’s the reality: we don’t talk much about the Second Coming these days. Indeed, the Second Coming is seemingly only the hope of those with white hair or cancer – at least within Western Adventism. By and large, we feel pretty content with being on this planet. We plan for the future as though we assume we are going to be here a long time – only to then some day die after that. We don’t preach with any sort of urgency. We, as Adventists, adopt the evangelistic methodologies of non-Adventists (i.e., people who don’t believe Christ’s Second Coming is imminent – as the name “Adventist” implies), as though people who don’t sense the urgency of Christ’s return could somehow teach something about evangelism to those of us who do. We even invite them to speak at our conferences. (I’m not against interfacing with, listening to, or reading non-Adventists, per se; I just wonder how people who are ignorant of the three angels’ messages could really contribute much to a body that has been called to herald those three angels’ messages.)

And we argue about topics that may or may not have any bearing on whether Christ’s return happens sooner rather than later.

I don’t write this to be critical. I’m as guilty as the next person. In fact, just a few months ago, when I was in Florida, my very outspoken Aunt (whom I love dearly) put me on the spot in front of my whole family by asking me how many times I had preached on the Second Coming in 2014. I embarrassingly said zero. (She’s an octogenarian, by the way.)

But what happened to our prophetic urgency? What happened to the deep longing that the early apostles and the early Adventists felt that produced a yearning in their soul to see Jesus – and soon?

Perhaps we’re too content pursuing the “American dream,” which has seemingly usurped the “Adventist dream” of living to see Jesus return – and doing all we can to increase the likelihood of that happening.

Two caveats are in order, though.

First, when I say that we don’t talk much about the Second Coming anymore, I’m not necessarily talking about the requisite sermons, books, or articles about the “signs of the times.” We seem to have plenty of those still. And they have, perhaps, been the reason why we have been jaded about talking more about the Second Coming.

In other words, though I firmly believe in the importance of these prophetic signs, I also recognize that there is only so many times we can cry “wolf.”

Secondly, what I am urging is not a sort of Christian or Adventist “escapism” where we think the whole goal of Christianity is simply for God to be able to get us off this lousy planet – which He’s going to burn up anyway. I don’t speak of the Second Coming as some type of alternative to caring for the planet or the people on it.

What I’m talking about is the deep yearning of soul to be with Jesus – literally, in person.

I’m not talking about trying to escape this world so that we can slide down giraffe’s necks. I’m not talking about trying to get out of this world as a way to ignore and escape the suffering all around us.

I’m talking about feeling on a visceral level the desire for Christ to return for Him, not for His stuff. (The apostles were somehow able to experience this urgency, even though they lived at least two thousand years before Christ’s second Advent.)

Even more to the point, I’m talking about having a deep longing for His return for His sake.

After all, if we understand Christianity as a relational experience, and we truly believe God is a relational Person, we would thus have to recognize that, as a relational Being, God longs to be with us.

In fact, the cross demonstrates as much. If God was willing to give up His Son for the sake of our eternal life, doesn’t it stand to reason that He would want to retrieve the possession that He purchased with His Son’s blood as soon as He could?

Despite our many attempts to rationalize away the delay in the Second Coming by pointing out that a day is as a thousand years to God, time does matter to Him. The yearning I feel to be reunited with my wife and kids when I am away from them merely for a weekend (as I was last weekend) is but a drop in the bucket compared to the yearning that God feels about being with us, in person.

Similarly, as a relational Being, isn’t it clear that every time a child is hurt or a wife is abused God feels it on a deep emotional level? If we thus truly love God as much as we many times claim to, wouldn’t we thus want to do all we could to hasten His return as a way to bring an end to the pain that resides in His heart?

Ellen White makes this very point in her classic book Education:

Those who think of the result of hastening or hindering the gospel think of it in relation to themselves and to the world. Few think of its relation to God. Few give thought to the suffering that sin has caused our Creator. All heaven suffered in Christ’s agony; but that suffering did not begin or end with His manifestation in humanity. The cross is a revelation to our dull senses of the pain that, from its very inception, sin has brought to the heart of God. Every departure from the right, every deed of cruelty, every failure of humanity to reach His ideal, brings grief to Him. (p. 263).

Perhaps even more fascinating, for the 1893 General Conference, she had these words delivered to the attendees (she was living in Australia at the time), betraying just how burdened she was by the topic. Almost uneasy about putting it in these terms, she nevertheless wrote, “All heaven, if I may use the expression, is impatiently waiting for men to co-operate with the divine agencies in working for the salvation of souls” (General Conference Daily Bulletin, January 28, 1893, emphasis added).

Where we sense no urgency, content with bolstering our 401(k), heaven actually gets “impatient.”

And it’s no wonder: the angels, who love their God, long to see His pain, frustration, and agony cease. They’ve watched Him for the last 6000 years agonize over the sin that Has infected this universe. They’ve seen the rebellion of Lucifer, the fall of Adam and Eve. They’ve seen the genocide, the holocaust, the atrocities of war. Most significantly, they’ve seen the cross as the culmination of the sin project, heart-broken over the pain that has pierced the heart of Him whom they adore. And, like Peter, I’m sure they are tempted to pick up their swords and fight if it could somehow hasten the obliteration of the pain in the heart of their God.

What about us?

What if we, as Adventists, somehow recaptured the Adventist vision of Christ’s soon return?

It starts, of course, with encountering the love of that Christ as seen on Calvary. When we go to the cross and see the logical conclusion to what our present existence produces – death to God Himself – it will stir our hearts to the point that we will want to do all we can to hasten the end of God’s misery and woe.

In other words, encountering Christ’s First Coming in all its beauty, depth, and agony will propel us forward to do all we can to usher in His Second Coming.

So let’s go to the cross, you and I, so that Christ might soon come to us.

(If you’re at all interested in reading more extended thoughts on this topic, you may want to check out my first book, Waiting at the AltarOr if you simply want further inspiration, check out a song that always inspires and reorients me. It’s William Miller’s words after the Great Disappointment set to music, sung by Reggie Smith and accompanied by a choir with which I used to sing [Andrews University Singers]).

This is James.

IMG_3527I’m inspired by James every time I talk with him – and it’s not just because he is bald like me.

Through a series of very unexpected and somewhat unfortunate events, he started coming to our church about ten months ago. For the last four months or so we’ve been studying the Bible together.

And I’m quite sure he drew the short end of the stick.

There is no way – absolutely no way – that he is learning half as much, or being half as blessed, as I am by our time together. So in that regard, I feel sorry for him.

But let me tell you about him: James used to be a drug-dealer in Bangor. Everything he did was to satiate his addiction to drugs and alcohol. Life was only about himself.

Then something happened. He was arrested and found himself in jail. That was all it took. “Going to jail was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he told me last night. It was right there, in a little cell in Bangor, Maine, where he hit rock bottom. He realized his life needed to change. He realized he needed to be freed.

That one night in jail is all it took.

For the next six months, as he lived in a homeless shelter, he did a hard detox – which he said was actually pretty easy compared to getting over the real root of his addictions. Getting rid of the emotional and psychological demons was another thing altogether. It took going to AA and joining up with other support groups to help him deal with those demons.

And then one night it happened, like someone turned a light on. He decided to stay in a hotel room for a week in an attempt to finally break free from the addictions. As he sat in that lonely hotel room, reading his AA book, something clicked: his past was his past. It didn’t need to be his present. He didn’t have to hang on to it anymore. He didn’t have to carry the weight of his history anymore.

Since his past didn’t need to be his present, he didn’t need to medicate himself in the present anymore in order to drown out the cries of his past.

And with the weight of his past off his shoulders, it was as though someone turned a light switch on and deleted his craving for drugs and alcohol. It no longer enslaved him. His taste for it was gone, never to return.

He has been clean ever since.

As awesome as this is, though, what inspires me even more is his new craving to help deliver people from the life he onced lived. It’s an all-consuming passion of his. He now works at the homeless shelter that once housed him as well as a soup kitchen.

What excites him the most is traveling the streets of downtown Bangor in a canteen truck, setting up shop a couple times a month and bringing food directly to the demographic that he used to be a part of. I’ve been with him on this mission and his compassion and excitement for these people are contagious. James is normally a pretty quiet guy, but when he gets with these people and hands them chilli or a sandwich, he lights right up. He cares for them, invests in them, wants to help them live a better life.

It’s inspiring.

He’s also inspired me in other ways. He doesn’t own much – not even his own teeth – but he says he’s never been happier. He’s also thankful for his past because it helps him better relate to and sympathize with those he’s now trying to reach. And just last week, after I backed into my neighbor’s car and I had to call James to let him know we would have to cancel our Bible study, he said to me, “Hey, just remember: you can’t change the past. What’s happened has happened. Don’t let it own you.”

Whether fully understood or not, James knows – and more importantly, lives – the Gospel. And his burden to reach the down-and-outers of Bangor – a city that, though fairly small, has big-city problems with lots of drugs and homelessness – inspires me to be a better person and a better pastor.

And I can’t help but wonder how many Jameses there are in Bangor and in the world who are one night in jail away from finally being free.

Will we be there to point them to the One who can bring freedom?

James’s story reminds me of something I read just yesterday from another “AA” book – Acts of the Apostles – which I have just started reading again: “The church,” Ellen White writes, “is the theater of [God’s] grace, in which He delights to reveal His power to transform hearts” (p. 12).

What a thought! And what a reflection of James’s story. He’s been transformed – and now he wants nothing more than to be a conduit through which God’s grace can transform others’ hearts.

As we were about to end our Bible study last night, he shared a simple thought with me that often seems cliche but in his mouth seemed profound. “I figure that if I can touch just one person,” he said, “then I can change the world.”

That’s what it’s all about.

“Making Bargains With God”

As I wrote just a few minutes ago in my last post, I came across this brief, two-paragraph article from E. J. Waggoner when looking for another article that was included in the compilation Living by Faith.

This is from The Present Truth, March 9, 1893.

Be blessed!

“If God will forgive me for this, I will never do it again,” is an expression often heard. No doubt those who say so have a feeling of pity for the poor, benighted souls who do penance, and offer money in order that they may receive forgiveness of sins, totally unconscious that they themselves are doing the same thing; for to say that we will not do a certain thing again if God will forgive us for this offence, is to try to bribe God,-to buy His favour.

“God says: “I, even I, am He that blotteth out thy transgressions for Mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins.” Isaiah 43:25. God is rich in mercy, and He forgives us because of “His great love wherewith He loved us, even when we were dead in sins.” Ephesians 2:4, 5. But to try to make a bargain with God, that we shall receive His forgiveness in return for some good that we shall do, is to try to deprive the coveted forgiveness of all the quality of mercy. If God should agree to such a bargain, there would be no gratitude on the part of the man. He would feel that God had simply given him what he deserved, and had blessed him because he was so good that He could not consistently do otherwise. Thus the man would be confirmed in sin. Since God has provided so full and free a salvation, how much better to receive forgiveness upon His own terms, and trust Him to keep us from repetitions of it.”

“The Christian Life”

Living by FaithI have started reading, for my devotional time, Living by Faith, which is a compilation of writings by Jones and Waggoner. It was recently published as a “sequel” to Lessons on Faith, which was one of the most impactful books I’ve ever read.

Each chapter is “bite-size,” and easy to read, but it’s packed with incredible power. This morning, I read a selection from E. J. Waggoner called “The Christian Life,” which was originally an article from The Present Truth, from March 9, 1893. It is powerful!

So I thought I would reproduce here it in its entirety.

Incidentally, when I went to find the article online, I also came across another two-paragraph article from Waggoner which was also in the same issue of the The Present Truth. I will also share that in my next post.

But first, Waggoner’s “The Christian Life.” See if his words resonate with you – as they did with me:

Someone says:

“The little boy or girl, at school, looks at the copy in the writing-book, and imitates it, trying to write each following line better. That is the Christian life, and that is all of it.”

Not by any means. If it were all of it, there would be no hope for anybody; for the pattern is Jesus Christ, in whom dwelleth “all the fulness of the Godhead bodily, and no human being could ever successfully copy that life. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8, 9. He who would copy the life of Christ as the schoolboy copies his lesson, and do it successfully, must have power equal to that of God.

If the boy whose hand the master holds and guides in imitating the copy, were used as an illustration of the Christian life, it would be a step nearer the truth; but even that would not be the truth. That is mechanical. The boy may yield his hand willingly to the master, that it may be guided, but the writing is after all not his own. God does not use men as dead instruments to be operated upon, although men are to yield themselves as instruments of righteousness unto Him.

The Christian life is simply the life of Christ. If the master who sets the copy for the schoolboy, could put all his own skill and power into that boy, so that what he writes will not be merely an imitation of the master’s copy, but the master’s own writing, and still the free act of the boy, we should have an illustration of the Christian life. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure.” Philippians 2:12, 13. “I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me; and the life that I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself for me.” Galatians 2:20. “He that saith he abideth in Him ought himself also so to walk even as He walked.” 1 John 2:6. And how was it that He walked? Christ Himself said, “The Father that dwelleth in Me, He doeth the works.” John 14:10. Christ has set us the copy, but instead of standing off and watching us try to imitate Him, He gladly comes in to our hearts, becoming one with us, so that His life is our life, and His act is ours. This is life-the Christian life.

Did E. J. Waggoner Adopt a Mystical View of the Atonement?

cross-556146_1280Every once in a while I discuss theological, biblical, and philosophical minutiae on my blog – mainly because, well, mainly because I enjoy a discussion of such things! Plus, sometimes that minutiae has farther-reaching implications than the average layperson realizes, ultimately influencing what the person in the pew understands about God and His ways – and, by way of extension, how the person in the pew lives.

In this case, I have been challenged recently by a few people (all good friends of mine) with the claim that E. J. Waggoner adopted a “mystical” view of the atonement in the early 1890s that served as the foundation to his allegedly heretical conflation of justification and sanctification, leading to his heretical views on the vindication of God. And when he started wading into panentheistic waters – the belief that God exists in everything – it all came together as a highly potent and toxic mix.

So what are we to make of this claim? Did Waggoner adopt a “mystical” view of the atonement?

First of all, let’s define our terms: what is meant by the the phrase “mystical view”? To put it in simple terms, a “mystical” view of the atonement focuses solely on the subjective aspects of Christ’s atonement on the cross. That is, Christ died not to satisfy any objective demands of justice; He died only to somehow work a change in our psyches and reconcile us to Himself. The atonement merely revealed God’s heart to us. Christ didn’t bear the penalty of our sin, serving as our Substitute. Salvation has nothing to do with Christ redeeming us from some external punishment from which we need to be delivered; salvation consists solely of subjective sanctification where we are freed from an internal conflict.

The real watershed moment in Waggoner’s “mystical” views on the atonement came in 1893, it is postulated, when he wrote an article in The Present Truth – a publication he edited in the United Kingdom – where he sought to answer the question “Why Did Christ Die?” When one reads this article, it seems as though Waggoner was starting to adopt an exclusively mystical, subjective view of the cross and the atonement. He says, for example, that the Scriptures “never once hint of such a thing as the necessity for God to be reconciled to man” (Sept 21, 1893). No, he says, the cross was not for the purpose of reconciling God to man, but to reconcile man to God.

When one reads the whole article in context, however, and compares it with Waggoner’s continued views on the atonement expressed later, it becomes apparent that if he’s guilty of anything, it’s that he is setting up a straw man that is, as an isolated article, perhaps a little unbalanced.

It is not, however, the watershed moment, or the smoking gun, signaling Waggoner’s hard break – or even soft break – with his objective views of the atonement.

Notice, for example, all the qualifiers he uses when describing the “Substitutionary” model of the atonement that he is setting on fire (all emphases mine):

But,” someone will say, “You have made the reconciliation all on the part of men; I have always been taught that the death of Christ reconciled God to man; that Christ died to satisfy God’s justice, and to appease Him.” Well, we have left the matter of reconciliation just where the Scriptures have put it; and while they have much to say about the necessity for man to be reconciled to God, they never once hint of such a thing as the necessity for God to be reconciled to man. To intimate the necessity for such a thing is to bring a grave charge against the character of God. The idea has come into the Christian Church from the Papacy, which in turn brought it from Paganism, in which the only idea of God was of a being whose wrath must be appeased by a sacrifice. . . .

“But to speak of the necessity for God to be reconciled to man is not only to say that He cherished enmity in His heart, but to say that God was partially in the wrong, and that a change had to take place in Him as well as in man. . . .

“It is very difficult for the mind to rid itself of the idea received as a legacy from Paganism, through the Papacy, that God was so angry at man for having sinned, that He could not be mollified without seeing blood flow, but that it made no difference to Him whose blood it was, if only somebody was killed; and that since Christ’s life was worth more than the lives of all men, He accepted Him as a substitute for them. This is almost a brutal way of stating the case, but it is the only way that the case can be truly presented. The heathen conception of God is a brutal one, as dishonouring to God as it is discouraging to man; and this heathen idea has been allowed to colour too many texts of Scripture. It is sad to think how greatly men who really loved the Lord, have given occasion to His enemies to blaspheme. . .

“Remember that in giving His Son, God gave Himself, and you will see that a sacrifice was not demanded to satisfy God’s outraged feelings, but that, on the contrary, God’s inexpressible love led Him to sacrifice Himself, in order to break down man’s enmity, and reconcile us to Himself.

It is apparent what He is doing: tracing this particular model of the atonement to Roman Catholicism and Paganism, using terms like “appease,” “mollified,” “God was angry at man,” He had “outraged feelings,” He “cherished enmity in His heart,” etc. No honest reader of Scripture – at least none who agrees with the hermeneutical approach of Adventism – would disagree with Waggoner that God didn’t have outraged feelings, or that He had enmity in His heart toward us.

No Adventist reader of Scripture would then disagree with Waggoner’s desire to expunge this horrific explanation of God and the atonement (though one could, I suppose, question whether Waggoner accurately described a model that any Christian really subscribes to – but that’s a different topic). Further, such a desire was merely in concert with what Ellen White herself described, noting, for example, her words in Steps to Christ that Christ’s “great sacrifice was not made in order to create in the Father’s heart a love for man, not to make Him willing to save. No, no! . . . . The Father loves us, not because of the great propitiation, but He provided the propitiation because He loves us” (p. 13).

Such a distinction needs to be made, Ellen White says, because “Satan led men to conceive of God as a being whose chief attribute is stern justice – one who is a severe judge, a harsh, exacting creditor. . . . It was to remove this dark shadow, by revealing to the world the infinite love of God, that Jesus came to live among men.” Indeed, “the Son of God came from heaven to make manifest the Father” (p. 11).

So Waggoner, even though he may have overstated the case a little too much for some people’s liking, wasn’t necessarily ridding his theology of the substitutionary model of the atonement in 1893. Like Ellen White, he was decrying the despicable classic explanation of God that places the atonement as the apex of God’s inner need for some type of appeasement and mollification in order to love sinners and feel right toward them.

It’s not simply a contextual reading of Waggoner’s 1893 “Why Did Christ Die?” article that helps us realize his true views on the objective and substitutionary aspects of the atonement though; his views also become apparent when one does a simple search of his writings from 1893 onward, starting – surprise, surprise – with the very last paragraph in this very same article that critics cite as Waggoner’s departure from the objective model. “We have not a God who demands a sacrifice from man,” Waggoner summarizes, “but one who in His love has offered Himself a sacrifice. We owe to God a life perfectly in harmony with His law; but since our life is just the opposite of that, God in Christ has substituted His own life for ours.

Can it get any clearer?

Waggoner would express very similar sentiment throughout the rest of his ministry, repeatedly affirming the objective aspects of the atonement. Here is a sample of his affirmations of such a thought, starting in the year 1893 (though a few months before this “watershed” article was published):

  • March 9, 1893: “This is the message of these days. It is to present Christ as the power of God, and the righteousness of God by faith of Jesus Christ as the only righteousness which will cover men from the wrath of God” (The Present Truth – unless otherwise indicated, all quotes are from this same magazine).
  • October 26, 1893: “What an exchange is this! We are offered everything for nothing; yes, for worse than nothing, for our load of sins would surely sink us in perdition unless we should become freed from it. And Christ simply asks us to give it all to Him; for He has purchased us, and our sins with us. He has paid the penalty of our sins, and He knows what to do with them. He will remove them as far from us as the east is from the west; He will cast them into the depths of the sea.”
  • November 9, 1893: “Man has no power to forgive sin, for sin is the transgression of the law of God, and no man has authority to say that the claims of that law are satisfied. Even God Himself could not say so had not the demands of that holy law been met in the death of Christ.” (NOTE: This one is a biggie: it clearly demonstrates that Waggoner firmly believed God could not simply forgive us unless the “demands” of the “holy law [had] been met in the death of Christ.” If that’s not “objective” talk about the atonement, I don’t know what is.)
  • February 1, 1894: “[I]t took nothing less than the Divine life of Christ to meet the demands of the law. . . . [O]ur sin was put upon Him, He was cut off from the favour of God; and when upon the cross He cried out, ‘My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?’ it was no fanciful utterance. God had forsaken Him. He had hidden His face from Him. In that last dreadful hour spent in Gethsemane, Christ passed without the pale of the mercy and favour of God; and it was this that caused His sufferings. He felt what the wicked will feel at the last day when they, because of sin, experience the wrath of God” (NOTE: Some have also claimed that Waggoner’s alleged mystical views of the atonement would also lead to his rejecting of the destruction of the wicked – as other modern theologians have done. But this quote, along with scores of others, clearly demonstrates that Waggoner fully affirmed the idea that God will ultimately destroy the wicked [as opposed to the wicked destroying themselves], as further quotes will also demonstrate.)
  • February 8, 1894: “In Christ, the sinner exchanges his sins for God’s righteousness, which is the righteousness that the law demands. In Christ, also, the penalty for sin has been paid. Christ is the law freed of its terrors, and human flesh divested of its sin. We meet Him as sinners and lose our sin, and also meet the law without meeting its penalty.
  • July 18, 1895: “[A]lthough sinless, ‘he was made to be sin for us,’ counting our sin as his. We had gone astray, and the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all. So when he was crucified, he was crucified for our sin” (Signs of the Times).
  • March 31, 1898: “[L]ife for us depends not simply upon the fact that He bore the curse of death for us, but our hope centres in the fact that He was able to do this and still live. ‘Fear not; I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I became dead, and behold, I am alive for evermore, and have the keys of death and of Hades.’ Rev. i. 17, 18, R.V. ‘Sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death’ (James i. 15), which is the curse, and so our sins caused the death of Christ, ‘who His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree,’ but since He ‘did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth,’ He was able to pay the penalty for our sins and pass through the grave.”
  • May 18, 1899: “Great as is God’s power to destroy, so great is His power to redeem. The destruction of the wicked is only one part of the great work of redemption. This is shown in the death of Christ. Christ died for the world of sinners. He was made to be sin for us, and therefore He suffered the penalty for sin. He was made to be sin for us, in order that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him, and even so He suffered as a sinner, in order that guilty sinners might be saved from wrath through Him. In giving His only Son to die for sinners, and giving Himself in His Son, God showed us not only the inevitable fate of sinners but also how much He longed not to see a single sinner punished. He has no pleasure in the death of any.”
  • July 6, 1899: “Our sins are forgiven by the substitution of the righteousness of Christ, which means that it is by God’s giving us His life instead of ours. That means a complete transformation.”
  • September 14, 1899: “So although the last day will be the most terrible, it will contain nothing but joy for those who have accepted the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Do not the righteous joy in the cross of Christ? Is it not the one thing in which to glory? Yet the crucifixion of Christ was a most terrible event, and all the terrors of the wrath of God raged round the cross where Christ died. But for His death on the cross, the Son of man would not have the power to sit in judgment and to execute judgment on the ungodly.”
  • August 2, 1900: “Justification is a free gift, but so also is sanctification. Christ died to pay the penalty of our sins, but He has risen from the tomb, and desires to live over again, in the person of His obedient follower, the same perfect life that He once lived upon this earth.”
  • October 31, 1901: “We need not now go into a consideration of how and why it was that God must needs give His life; suffice it for the present that He did it, taking the guilt of the world upon themselves; for ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them.’ 2 Cor. v. 19. And as He took the sins of the world upon Himself, so He took upon Himself the penalty for sin. ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and with His stripes we are healed.’ Isa. liii. 5.

    “On the cross Christ, and God in Christ, takes the punishment that is naturally due to sin, suffering all that any sinner, and all sinners together, can possibly suffer in being cut off for their sins. ‘Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust.’ 1 Peter iii. 18. ‘He was cut off out of the land of the living’ (Isa. liii. 8), and that is the utmost penalty that can be visited upon any sinner.

    In the cross we see the judgment and the execution of the penalty against sin: ‘The soul that sinneth it shall die.’ The cross brings salvation; but salvation is the destruction of sin; and the destruction of sin necessarily involves the destruction of those who will not allow sin to be separated from them. There was the same awful terror at Calvary when Christ offered up His life, that there will be at His second coming.” (NOTE: From 1893 onward, Isaiah 53 – which presents a very explicit picture of the substitutionary aspects of the atonement – was a favorite passage for Waggoner, quoting it no fewer than 70 times. [Actually, technically speaking, I only searched for the phrase “iniquity of us all,” which is v. 6. This means that he quite likely quoted other parts of the chapter that demonstrate substitution – like the one above, “He was wounded for our transgressions” – quite frequently as well, meaning that he liked the chapter even more than my quick search demonstrates.])

  • February, 1902:The sins of the world were on him, and he could not have put them off without dying, except by denying himself, which he cannot do. But now, having given up his own life, thus showing not only his hatred of sin, but also the immutability of the law of righteousness, he has a new life, that has not been tainted by sin, to give to every one who will accept it. His grace is as free as the air we breathe, and therefore there is no excuse for anyone who does not accept the new life in Christ. Whoever clings to the old life of sin must necessarily go to destruction, suffering the same penalty for sin that God himself suffered” (The Medical Missionary, vol. 4).
  • January 15, 1903: “Christ suffered for sins – the Just for the unjust.”

After doing this quick search of Waggoner’s writings, post-1893, it is evident to me that, contrary to the views of some (views that, I might add, have been gaining traction of late), he did not at all abandon the substitutionary aspects of the atonement. Indeed, he clearly enunciated this teaching – even as late as 1903, when his panentheism was in full force.

It cannot – nor should not – be denied, of course, that he placed a great deal of emphasis on the subjective aspects of the atonement. But he was not here even departing from what Ellen White herself did so frequently. In fact, I would propose that if the average evangelical theologian – especially those of stronger Reformed persuasions – picked up her works on soteriology, they, too, would say she waded deeply into “mystical” waters (I once had a Calvinist friend, who was simply a layperson, tell me that he was scandalized when he read Steps to Christ, feeling that it was way too subjective).

One example, from her book Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing, will suffice at this point to demonstrate how Ellen parts company with the classic, forensic-only models of the atonement that are common within mainstream evangelicalism. “But forgiveness has a broader meaning than many suppose,” she states in chapter 5, “God’s forgiveness is not merely a judicial act by which He sets us free from condemnation. It is not only forgiveness for sin, but reclaiming from sin. It is the outflow of redeeming love that transforms the heart” (p. 113, emphasis original). If such a definition of “forgiveness” wouldn’t cause a Reformed theologian to break out in cold-sweat, I don’t know what would (and, sadly, also many Adventist theologians)!

And yet such an explanation was perfectly consistent with the rest of her theology, remembering how she warned that “many commit the error of trying to define minutely the fine points of distinction between justification and sanctification” (1888 Materials, p. 897 [written in 1891]).

Thus, it is clear from this brief survey that Waggoner was in harmony with Ellen White – and, I might add, of course, the Bible – as it relates to both the objective and subjective aspects of the atonement. It shouldn’t thus surprise us that, as late as 1898, Ellen herself was praising Waggoner for editing the “best paper published by our people,” (a paper, of course, in which Waggoner was supposedly disseminating his great mystical heresies since 1893) and urging him to visit her in Australia (see Manuscript Releases, vol. 17, p. 217).

Furthermore, contrary to what some have proposed, if Jones or Waggoner – who were Ellen’s two closest companions in the gospel – at any time delved into troubling theological waters, Ellen was very quick to correct them, even if she had to write a letter from Australia. She did this in 1893 with Jones when he seemed to say that works didn’t matter when it comes to salvation. She did it again with Jones a short time later, when he, for a short time, heralded Anna Rice as a prophet. And she did it with Waggoner, when, at the turn of the century, he started promoting his panentheism. Indeed, she was quick to correct the errors of Jones and Waggoner, precisely because she knew that if the message was to succeed, they needed to stand as far above theological error as possible.

Nowhere do we read, however, Ellen correcting Waggoner over his alleged mystical views of the atonement, or the nature of Christ, or the danger of him conflating justification and sanctification, or the vindication of God.

Thus, the bottom line is that any intimation that Waggoner’s views on sanctification and the vindication of God were faulty because of a “mystical” view of the atonement are entirely misguided. Simply put, Waggoner maintained throughout his ministry, at least until 1903, the objective aspects of the atonement.

What Does the Investigative Judgment Have to Do with the Gospel?

Artists-impressions-of-Lady-Justice,_(statue_on_the_Old_Bailey,_London)

“The subject of the sanctuary and the investigative judgment,” Ellen White first wrote in 1884, “should be clearly understood by the people of God” (The Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 4, p. 312; see also The Great Controversy, p. 488).

How much do we hear about the investigative judgment these days, though?

I must admit: I haven’t talked about it, preached about it, or written about it much. In fact, this past Sabbath, in a sermon entitled, “Heaven’s Wiretap,” I preached about it for the first time in my eight years of pastoring (and the first time in all my days of preaching, which goes back to before I was in college).

It’s not that I don’t believe in the investigative judgment. I do. It’s just that – I guess – I never saw the incredible importance of talking about it, nor how it goes hand-in-hand with the gospel.

But then two things happened – no, three.

First, as I’ve been studying more of our Adventist history recently, I’ve noticed how Ellen White and Jones and Waggoner, and any other heralds of the gospel in those days, talked a lot about the investigative judgment. For a while, I thought this was odd. After all, the idea that we are being judged seems to undermine the message of justification by faith, leaving the impression that we are saved by what we do rather than what Christ has done and does.

And yet, as I said, I keep coming across testimony from Adventist history – precisely at the height of our emphasis on justification by faith – that talks repeatedly about the investigative judgment. S. N. Haskell, for example, in recounting the incredible revival meetings that took place in South Lancaster in January of 1889, where Jones and Ellen White spoke, talked about how “all” those who attended “seemed to realize that we are in the Investigative Judgment, and that everything should be made right with God and with our brethren” (Review and Herald, January 29, 1889).

Jones and Waggoner themselves talked frequently about this very theme, with Ecclesiastes 12:14 – “God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil” – as a favorite passage (see, for example, Waggoner’s Christ and His Righteousness, p. 50; also, “The Gospel the Power of God,” in The Present Truth, October 8, 1891 [p. 329], etc.).

Then, of course, there is the biblical witness that I somehow either overlooked, ignored, or didn’t see as relevant. Together with Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes, Christ Himself declared that there “is nothing hidden which will not be revealed, nor has anything been kept secret but that is should come to light” (Mark 4:22). Elsewhere, the great expositor of the gospel – the Apostle Paul – soberingly declared that there will be a day when “God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ” (Romans 2:16), calling such a thought the “gospel.”

Such an idea is echoed in places like Hebrews 4:13 and 1 Corinthians 4:5 and 2 Corinthians 5:10 – and on and on it goes. Scripture is clear: everything, absolutely everything, we do, think, desire, want, covet is recorded and brought into judgment. And if you respect the ministry of Ellen White at all, it’s hard getting around her chapter in The Great Controversy called “Facing Life’s Record.” It’s quite an eye-full. “Every man’s work passes in review before God,” she writes, “and is registered for faithfulness or unfaithfulness. Opposite each name in the books of heaven is entered with terrible exactness every wrong word, every selfish act, every unfulfilled duty, and every secret sin, with every artful dissembling” (The Great Controversy, p. 482).

Until recently, I didn’t know what to do with such material – both the biblical witness as well as Ellen White’s testimony (which, try as many have to dispute it, stands in perfect harmony with the scriptures I’ve cited). For whatever reason, even though I firmly believed in its authority and inspiration, I had a hard time reconciling such sentiment with what I understood the gospel to be all about.

But then the third thing happened. For the last few months – again, for whatever reason – I have had an increased sense of my utter helplessness. This has touched all areas of my life – professionally, personally, relationally. I have been overwhelmed with an incredible sense of my inability.

But this has actually been a huge blessing because it has produced an incredible dependence on Christ in my life. Now, when I’m faced with just about any task or situation, I immediately feel this overwhelming need to fall to my knees and cling to Christ’s righteousness and power, realizing it is from Christ alone that I can attain strength.

One would think, then, that this idea of the investigative judgment would just lead to greater discouragement in my life. After all, the thought that everything in my life is being recorded and judged and analyzed would seemingly lead to greater despondency, since I already feel incredibly inadequate.

But that’s just the point: it does, in fact, lead to greater despair, serving as the precise mechanism by which I experience even greater dependence on Christ. Facing the judgment – knowing that every part of my life is being judged, even my deepest secrets – helps me recognize that my case is hopeless if I am dependent on my own righteousness. I’m dead meat! I won’t be able to muster up enough willpower or good deeds or good works on my own to either atone for my past mistakes or maintain a spotless record going forward.

I need Someone else’s righteousness! I need Someone else’s good works!

Thus, the investigative judgment leaves me so overwhelmed that I go running to the cross where I receive Christ’s love, forgiveness, righteousness and grace.

This is the precise point E. J. Waggoner made in an 1895 Present Truth article. “Everyone knows by his own experience that the law is a living thing,” he wrote, “discerning even the thoughts and intents of the heart. Therefore it is that in the day of judgment every secret thing will be brought to light.” After noting the truth about the reach of God’s law, and how the judgment relates to this, he then brings home the point: “The only place of safety is in Christ Jesus,” he declares, “His power and life working in us to cleanse from transgression and bring into subjection our wicked hearts. Knowing this way of escape, the believer can only urge men to seek the refuge provided.”

Indeed, the judgment helps me see that the only way of escape, and the only place I can find refuge, is in the arms of Christ. I can then run boldly to the throne of grace, where I will find Christ with His arms wide open, beckoning me to “obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16; note that this critical verse comes just a few sentences after Paul announces that “there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account,” v. 13).

It’s interesting: as I wrote a few months ago, one of the reasons we don’t talk much about the investigative judgment anymore is precisely because we have not accepted and proclaimed the message of Christ’s righteousness. People thus don’t want to hear about the guilt-inducing message of the judgment if there is no relief from that guilt that comes only through the message of Christ’s righteousness.

And yet, it’s like a chicken-or-the-egg scenario: we don’t appreciate the message of Christ’s righteousness as much today because we don’t understand the nature and scope of the investigative judgment. Why do I need Christ’s righteousness, why is it so soothing to my soul, if I am not really being presently rescued from anything?

Sure, I make mistakes, and I appreciate that God forgives me, but such vague recognitions can only result in a vague response of love. When I understand the extent of my inability, and the extent to which I don’t measure up, the thought of Christ’s righteousness produces within me an unparalleled response of gratitude.

So let’s preach the investigative judgment, and let’s preach the righteousness of Christ – the law and gospel going hand-in-hand.

Stop Trying to Have a Relationship With Jesus

Champaigne_shepherdThis may be shocking coming from a pastor, but do yourself a favor and stop trying to have a relationship with Jesus.

You may think I’m just using reverse psychology, or I’m just trying to be clever or attempting to use dramatic effect. But I write this with all the genuineness I can muster.

This is because there’s a mentality today, shared by many, that the way we’re saved is by having a relationship with Jesus – a message that is perceived as being a replacement for the discouraging “saved by what we do” mentality.

We thus hear a lot of messages about the importance of reading and studying our Bibles, and prioritizing our prayer life. We are frequently challenged to wake up earlier each morning so we can have this communion with God.

But we need to stop.

Such a message is not the answer – and, in fact, it just keeps us in the cycle of salvation by works.

This is because it doesn’t take very long for a person who has rejected the “it’s not what you do that matters, it’s Who you know” mentality to figure out that having a relationship is still something you have to do. We’ve traded one insurmountable task for another. Maintaining and keeping up with a devotional life can get tiring. Trying to remain faithful to my commitment to read my Bible or pray or have personal devotions is taxing. And I thus find myself just as – if not more – despondent about the Christian walk as I did before when I thought it was about what I do.

After all, I soon to discover that “salvation by relationship” is still about something I do. We’ve just traded one set of tasks for another.

The Gospel is not about what I do to have a relationship with Jesus. Indeed, the Gospel is not about anything I do at all. The Gospel focuses on what Christ did and does and will do. The Gospel focuses on Christ’s actions, not mine. My actions are simply a response to His.

So what’s the answer? The answer is faith, not a different type of work – which has the appearance of being more Christ-centered. Salvation and righteousness are by faith, not by having a relationship. My “job” is to believe that Christ is seeking and pursuing a relationship with me, not to try to have a relationship with Him. I simply respond to His overtures – and any desire I sense within me to have a relationship with Him is simply evidence of the fact that His grace is already working on my heart (an idea that some theologians call “prevenient grace”).

Notice the powerful promises that characterize the “New Covenant” as announced in Jeremiah: “This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. . . For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (Jeremiah 31:33-24).

Notice the pronoun that is repeatedly employed: “I.” And who is the “I”? God. And He says, “I will . . . I will . . . I will . . . I will . . . ”

When it comes to our relation to Him, it’s all about what He’s doing, what He’s promised – not what we’re doing. In our sinful, depraved, and helpless state, we are incapable of even wanting to have a relationship with Him anyway. We need His grace to “quicken” us, thus empowering us to both want to commune with Him, and the strength to achieve it.

But here’s the neat part: the section I originally skipped in this passage is every bit as powerful a part of the New Covenant as the rest. God promises that when He does all this, “No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them.'” When God fulfills His New Covenant promises in our lives, we won’t have to go around telling people that they need to have a relationship with Him – we won’t have to tell people that they have to “know Him” – because they will already know Him.

Thus, no more sermons on the importance of having a devotional life. No more lectures about the need to prioritize Bible study. No more messages saying that we need to pray more. No more need to remind people ad nauseum that it’s “all about having a personal relationship with Jesus.” All these will come naturally as we encounter the beautiful and powerful realities of the Gospel.

And the bigger problem we will face is having people turn into Marys, who had a hard time being pulled away from Jesus’ feet.

A few thoughts from Ellen White that must not be missed. “In the parable of the lost sheep,” she writes in Christ’s Object Lessons, “Christ teaches that salvation does not come through our seeking after God but through God’s seeking after us” (p. 189). Elsewhere, in Steps to Christ, she declares, “The sinner may resist this love, may refuse to be drawn to Christ; but if he does not resist he will be drawn to Jesus” (p. 27).

These are beautiful thoughts! It is Christ who is working, Christ who is seeking, Christ who is pursuing us in relationship. He is drawing us to Himself in love – just as He promised He would in John 12:32. Our job is not to somehow figure out how to muster up enough willpower to read our Bibles for 20 minutes each morning. Our “job” is to rejoice in and believe the glorious truth that Christ is seeking us and drawing us to Himself. Indeed, righteousness is by faith, not by reading our Bibles.

Reading my Bible, having a relationship with Him, is thus not something I do in order to have a relationship with Him. It’s simply a response of faith to His drawing power and love. To paraphrase Paul, living by faith – rather than “salvation by devotions” – doesn’t make void this relationship; rather, it establishes it. In fact, it’s the only thing that will ever achieve a lasting “relationship” with Christ – which may seem counterintuitive to some.

Indeed, the more we make “having a personal relationship with Jesus” our battle cry, the less likely it will occur – at least in a sustained way. Whereas the more we simply lift up a loving and powerful and beautiful and irresistible picture of Jesus, the more likely it is that that “personal relationship” will naturally occur, without even having to compel people to do it. The source of our power derives from what Christ has done, not what we try to convince others to do.

I don’t know about you, but understanding this subtle – yet critically important – distinction is huge – and makes all the difference in the world. It provides a “motive power,” as Ellen White calls it, instilling within me a craving to spend time with Christ – rather than viewing a “personal relationship” with Him as something I have to do, like it or not, if I want to maintain my Christianity.

Indeed, it shifts my devotional life from being an exercise in “force feeding” myself, to joyfully “tasting” and “seeing” that the “Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).

On Airing Our Disagreements

2889870211_90265821a2“We must keep before the world a united front. Satan will triumph to see differences among Seventh-day Adventists.” -Ellen White

I wonder what the climate of the Seventh-day Adventist Church would look like if we paid heed to this counsel? I wonder what the tone and content of our blogs, articles, books, and sermons would be if we understood the critical principles that Ellen White sets forth.

The following is an excerpt from a letter she wrote to E.J. Waggoner and A.T. Jones in 1887. Even though she later closely aligned herself with their ministry, she urged much caution prior to 1888 and pled with them not to publish their disagreements and differences of opinion any more. It’s not that they were necessarily wrong; it’s that disagreeing – and calling other brothers out – in a public manner is not of the Lord’s doing.

Thankfully, they repented of their sins and – at least for a number of years – refused to air their grievances any further in a public manner.

I have a lot to learn from her counsel. Would that we all learned it.

Letters came to me from some attending the Healdsburg College in regard to Brother E. J. W.’s [Waggoner’s] teachings in regard to the two laws. I wrote immediately protesting against their doing contrary to the light which God had given us in regard to all differences of opinion, and I heard nothing in response to the letter. It may never have reached you. If you, my brethren, had the experience that my husband and myself have had in regard to these known differences being published in articles in our papers, you would never have pursued the course you have, either in your ideas advanced before our students at the college, neither would it have appeared in the Signs. Especially at this time should everything like differences be repressed. These young men are more self-confident and less cautious than they should be. You must, as far as difference is concerned, be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. Even if you are fully convinced that your ideas of doctrines are sound, you do not show wisdom that that difference should be made apparent.

“I have no hesitancy in saying you have made a mistake here. You have departed from the positive directions God has given upon this matter, and only harm will be the result. This is not in God’s order. You have now set the example for others to do as you have done, to feel at liberty to put in their various ideas and theories and bring them before the public, because you have done this. This will bring in a state of things that you have not dreamed of. I have wanted to get out articles in regard to the law, but I have been moving about so much, my writings are where I cannot have the advantage of them.

“It is no small matter for you to come out in the Signs as you have done, and God has plainly revealed that such things should not be done. We must keep before the world a united front. Satan will triumph to see differences among Seventh-day Adventists. These questions are not vital points. I have not read Elder Butler’s pamphlet or any articles written by any of our writers and do not mean to. But I did see years ago that Elder [J. H.] Waggoner’s views were not correct, and read to him matter which I had written. The matter does not lie clear and distinct in my mind yet. I cannot grasp the matter, and for this reason I am fully convinced that presenting it has been not only untimely, but deleterious.

“Elder Butler has had such an amount of burdens he was not prepared to do this subject justice. Brother E. J. W. [Waggoner] has had his mind exercised on this subject, but to bring these differences into our general conferences is a mistake; it should not be done. There are those who do not go deep, who are not Bible students, who will take positions decidedly for or against, grasping at apparent evidence; yet it may not be truth, and to take differences into our conferences where the differences become widespread, thus sending forth all through the fields various ideas, one in opposition to the other, is not God’s plan, but at once raises questionings, doubts whether we have the truth, whether after all we are not mistaken and in error.

“The Reformation was greatly retarded by making prominent differences on some points of faith and each party holding tenaciously to those things where they differed. We shall see eye to eye erelong, but to become firm and consider it your duty to present your views in decided opposition to the faith or truth as it has been taught by us as a people, is a mistake, and will result in harm, and only harm, as in the days of Martin Luther. Begin to draw apart and feel at liberty to express your ideas without reference to the views of your brethren, and a state of things will be introduced that you do not dream of.

“My husband had some ideas on some points differing from the views taken by his brethren. I was shown that however true his views were, God did not call for him to put them in front before his brethren and create differences of ideas. While he might hold these views subordinate himself, once they are made public, minds would seize [upon them], and just because others believed differently would make these differences the whole burden of the message, and get up contention and variance.” (1888 Materials, pp. 21-24)

Who Are Seventh-day Adventists?

Photo Feb 25, 8 43 16 AM(Note: this post originally appeared on a blog called “Convergence” that I used to have for the Bangor Daily News. For various reasons, I no longer maintain that blog. However, I wanted to make sure a few of the posts were still accessible and so, even though I was able to finally track down the archived version of this post, I wanted to re-post it here [with a couple minor additions] in the event that I lost access to that archived blog again. So . . . enjoy.)

Chances are, if someone were to ask you what you knew about Seventh-day Adventists, the blank look on your face would betray the fact that you know very little—if anything. That’s all right. You would be in good company. In 2003, when a survey was conducted in North America to determine what was known about Seventh-day Adventists (often called simply “Adventists”), nearly 50 percent of respondents said they had not heard of the Christian denomination.

Perhaps just as interesting, of the remaining respondents who said they had heard of the faith, more than one out of every ten confused Adventists either with Latter-day Saints (Mormons) or Jehovah’s Witnesses.

I am a Seventh-day Adventist pastor who has recently moved to the Bangor area to pastor the local congregation. I have been a life-long Seventh-day Adventist and I would love to share with you the hope, joy, peace, and fulfillment I have found as a result of enjoying the 30+ years of being a part of this world-wide community of faith. Going forward, I will share thoughts on life, faith, meaning, culture, politics, worldview, science, and many other areas, from a Seventh-day Adventist perspective. It will be a convergence of many different ideas. But first, I want to share a little bit about who Seventh-day Adventists are so the next time you hear the name, you will be able to respond with a little less befuddlement.

First, there’s the numbers. The Seventh-day Adventist Church is the fastest growing denomination in the United States, and one of the fastest growing denominations in the world. With the current growth rate, and the over 16 million members worldwide presently, some estimate that by the mid-twenty-first century there will be over 100 million Adventists in the world.  Among those who presently claim ties—or did during their lifetime—to the Seventh-day Adventist faith, there are recognizable names such as Barry Black, chaplain of the United States Senate, Dr. Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital who became the first person to successfully separate siamese twins conjoined at the back of the head (and was portrayed by Cuba Gooding, Jr., in the 2009 film about his life called, Gifted Hands), longtime newscaster Paul Harvey, and John Harvey and Will Keith Kellogg, who together invented corn flakes (with the latter creating the Kellogg’s cereal company). These are just a few of the many who are, or have been connected, to the Adventist Church.

In addition to this, the Adventist Church runs one of the largest church-supported education systems in the world, and the largest Protestant educational system in the United States (recently highlighted in the documentary The Blueprint, which aired on PBS). Similarly, Adventists run a huge network of health-related institutions, including many hospitals and medical centers, many run by the Adventist Health System, which is the largest not-for-profit, Protestant healthcare system in the United States. Our interest in health, which has contributed to one of the longest life expectancies in the world, has been documented in many different media outlets, including magazines like National Geographic, books such as The Blue Zones, and the 2010 PBS documentary The Adventists.

Second, there’s the history. The denomination was spawned amidst the rolling hills of upstate New York and New England in the mid-nineteenth-century. It was borne out of a response to a “great disappointment” (as it is often referred to by adherents) that happened in October, 1844, when Christ did not come as expected. Out of hundreds of thousands of “Millerites” who subscribed to the teachings of William Miller about Christ’s imminent return, a handful of disappointed believers made sense of what went wrong and eventually formed the Seventh-day Adventist Church. These early believers—who hailed from places such as Portland and Palmyra, Maine, New Bedford, Massachusetts, and Washington, New Hampshire—left their various Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches to form the denomination.

Third, there’s the teachings. Seventh-day Adventists follow the example of the Protestant Reformation and hold the Bible and its teachings with prime regard. The Bible is our only creed. And like our Protestant forefathers, we like to scour the pages of the Bible to find every ounce of God’s love, goodness, forgiveness, and grace. Similarly, like other Protestants, we are passionate about the truth that no amount of rule-following or law-keeping can earn God’s love or His salvation.

This doesn’t mean we don’t think there is a part for us to play. As a response to God’s love and forgiveness, and out of an appreciative heart, we stress the beautiful reality of God’s ability to transform us into loving people who are shining examples of what His heart is all about. This has very practical implications for our lives as God changes us into His image—making us more loving, more patient, more gracious, more concerned with humanity, and more detached from things that simply turn our focus inward instead of outward.

Of course, much like the Protestant Reformers, we approach the Bible with humility and recognize that God is always trying to teach us more about who He is and what He longs to accomplish in our lives. Such a humility and continuous desire to learn more about God has helped us recognize that, because God loves us so much, He has blessed humankind with things like the Sabbath—a 24-hour period each week on Saturday—when we can come apart from the stresses that our busy lives heap upon us, and spend time in undistracted communion with God and in fellowship with one another. This idea is nothing new of course, since God’s followers in Bible times (including all New Testament believers) also took advantage of this awesome gift from God’s heart.

He has also blessed us with a deepening understanding of His love in relation to our health. He cares too much about us to not share with us a blueprint for optimal health. Similarly, the biblical truth about God’s love has helped us recognize that God is too loving to burn people in hell forever, that He is too loving to leave us on this earth without the continued presence of Himself in the Holy Spirit, that He is too loving to leave us open to deception about who He is, what He’s all about, what He wants for us, and what the earth is heading toward. And, of course, He loves us so much that He is eager to be reunited with us very soon so that we might enjoy eternity with Him, not just in spirit or thought, but in physical reality.

These are a few snapshots into who Seventh-day Adventists are. We are a group of people who come from diverse backgrounds, cultures, education, and financial situations. We make no pretension of being perfect, infallible, or mistake-free. And, just like every other religion, you will find a handful of Seventh-day Adventists who are hypocritical, imbalanced, judgmental, and downright miserable people. But we recognize that God loves these people too and, by His grace, that they, like us, can somehow have God’s love get a hold of their hearts to the point that they are changed more fully into Christ’s image—acknowledging that we, ourselves, are nowhere near God’s ideal.

A Prayer to Every God

Tablet of ShamashI read a prayer last night that nearly brought me to tears – but for reasons one wouldn’t expect.

I’ve been reading John Walton’s Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament – a book that introduces the “conceptual world of the Hebrew Bible,” explaining the framework in which the Old Testament events and literature arose. It’s been a fascinating read, offering many incredible insights. (As an aside, I cannot recommend this book enough for those who really want to understand the Old Testament.)

The prayer Walton cites that I read last night is the most poignant of all. It is an Assyrian prayer that was discovered on a tablet that dates from the mid-seventh century BC. Evidently, the supplicant has suffered some type of misfortune in his life and he offers this prayer as a way of rectifying his misery.

But there’s just one problem: he doesn’t know the sin he has committed that would warrant such ire and, just as significantly, he he has no idea which god it is that he has offended. And so he composes this “Prayer to Every God,” hoping that it will somehow reach the ears of whichever god he has offended with a prayer that is sincere enough to appease him.

The anxiety is palpable. He starts by admitting his utter ignorance:

May the wrath of the heart of my god be pacified!
May the god who is unknown to me be pacified!
May the goddess who is unknown to me be pacified!
May the known and unknown god be pacified!
May the known and unknown goddess be pacified!

He then declares that he is unaware of his transgression:

The sin which I have committed I know not.
The misdeed which I have committed I know not.

He again repeats this refrain a few lines later, adding a few more admissions for force and connecting it to the wrath of the gods:

The sin, which I have committed, I know not.
The iniquity, which I have done, I know not.
The offense, which I have committed, I know not.
The transgression I have done, I know not.
The lord, in the anger of his heart, hath looked upon me.
The god, in the wrath of his heart, hath visited me.
The goddess hath become angry with me, and hath grievously stricken me.
The known or unknown god hath straitened me.
The known or unknown goddess hath brought affliction upon me.

Perhaps most heart-rending of all is his utter despondency about his loneliness, and humankind’s inability to know exactly what the gods want and how to approach them:

Although I am constantly looking for help, no one takes me by the hand;
When I weep, they do not come to my side.
I utter laments, but no one hears me;
I am troubled; I am overwhelmed; I cannot see.

Man is dumb; he knows nothing;
Mankind, everyone that exists – what does he know?
Whether he is committing sin or doing good, he does not even know.

He ends the prayer with this petition: “Known and unknown god, my sins are seven times seven; forgive my sins.”

What an incredible tragedy! Can you imagine living in an environment in which you think every bad thing that happens to you results from the anger of the gods? Can you imagine following so many gods that you are unsure of which god you have offended, and how exactly you have offended that god since the gods have not revealed their wills nor their laws?

My heart weeps with incredible sympathy for this despondent penitent.

And yet, it is within this landscape that the God of the Old Testament revealed Himself – a God known for His unique covenant faithfulness and love; a God who liberated His people from the tyranny of divided devotion that characterized polytheism; a God who didn’t leave His followers in the dark about what His expectations were but mercifully revealed them through His Torah.

Is it any wonder that Yahweh jealously asked for exclusive commitment from His people? He wanted to emancipate them from the despair that results from trying to keep multiple gods happy.

Is it any wonder that when He declared His character to Moses, He focused on His consistency and graciousness? “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious,” He announced after the golden calf incident, “longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty” (Exodus 34:6-7).

Is it any wonder that David rejoiced in the Torah, boasting, “Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day. You, through Your commandments, make me wiser than my enemies; for they are ever with me” (Psalm 119:97-98)? The Torah – God’s revealed instructions and guidelines – brought His people out of the darkness and made known to Israel what it was exactly that their God expected of them. Unlike the polytheistic nations around them, they didn’t have to guess about what their God wanted, and they didn’t have to speculate about what would bring them back into harmony with Him.

Encountering such a tragic prayer has helped me realize just how fortunate we are to have been introduced to the worldview of Israel. It helps me realize – perhaps for the first time – just how blessed we are to understand monotheism (it’s also sobering to realize that there are still billions of people in this world who still suffer from the same polytheistic malady that this prayer betrays); how fortunate we are to have a God who has actually revealed Himself and His expectations through His Torah; and how fortunate we are to be pursued and loved by a God who is faithful to His covenant – indeed, a God who has “loved [us] with an everlasting love,” and with His “lovingkindness” has “drawn” us to Himself (Jeremiah 31:3).

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