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

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“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).

Out With the Jussive, In With the Declarative

Photo Feb 17, 10 58 39 AMI stumbled upon Psalm 20 yesterday in my worship time and found it to be quite relevant to some of the issues that are are going on in my life. Surprise, surprise. God seems to always have just the right word for me at just the right time.

What chiefly caught my eye, however, is the discrepancy between how most English versions translate the chapter, and how the Hebrew puts it. In most English versions (in fact, perhaps all), David implores God, he beseeches and invites and requests of Him. Thus, he writes,

May the Lord answer you in the day of trouble;
May the name of the God of Jacob defend you;
May He send you help from the sanctuary,
And strengthen you out of Zion;
May He remember all your offerings,
And accept your burnt sacrifice.
Selah
May He grant you according to your heart’s desire,
And fulfill all your purpose (vv. 1-4)

This is, to be sure, a beautiful prayer and a beautiful Psalm.

The thing is, translators have taken the Hebrew and translated all the verbs as “jussive” verbs. Without getting too technical and boring, a jussive verb – which we don’t really have in English – is “used to express the speaker’s desire, wish, or command” (Page H. Kelley, Biblical Hebrew: An Introductory Grammar, p. 131). It’s why the translators utilized the word “may” at the beginning of each clause. It’s David imploring God and making requests of Him.

The challenge comes – again, not to bore you – with the fact that the jussive has no unique form. That is, it looks exactly like the imperfect tense in Hebrew – and thus, there is nothing about a jussive verb that jumps out and says, “I’m a jussive.” It is only based on the context that one can decipher when a jussive is being used, rather than a straight-up imperfect.

So what does all this mean? It means that all of Psalm 20’s verbs can just as easily – and perhaps, should be – translated as imperfect verbs.

I wouldn’t, of course, claim to be more enlightened than all the brilliant Hebrew scholars that have translated just about all the versions of Psalm 20 as jussive in nature, but it does give me pause – and there certainly doesn’t seem to be anything obvious that would lead one to conclude the context necessitates the verbs be translated as jussives rather than imperfects.

The significance of translating these verbs as imperfects is significant: instead of David imploring God to act, he is instead declaring that God hasis, or will act (to further complicate things, imperfect verbs can be translated either as past, present, or future in tense – again, all determined by context). Therefore, instead of the Psalm being incomplete, tentative, potential, David is declaring confidence in God’s actions. He knows that God will act; he’s not “double-minded” as to whether He will.

Thus, David doesn’t merely say “May God grant you according to your heart’s desire,” He is saying, “God will grant you according to your heart’s desire” (incidentally, when the same verb for “desire” is used in Psalm 37:4 – also in the imperfect/jussive form – the translators translate it as an imperfect, thus rendering it: “Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart”).

Doesn’t such a thought change everything? I don’t have to wonder about whether God will answer me in the day of trouble; I don’t have to wonder if He will defend me or send me help from the sanctuary or strengthen me from Zion. I don’t have to merely beseech Him, leaving the result tentative and unknown. I can have confidence that He will – or perhaps even already has, or is presently – attending to my needs and desires.

And such a thought makes a huge difference.

No, You Can’t

0816300453jpgI’ve been reading through Steps to Christ again (for the hundredth time) lately and last week I noticed a word that kept popping up repeatedly. Intrigued by the thought, I decided to search how many times the word was used in the small book and the context in which it was used. What I discovered was fascinating. And critical.

The word is “cannot,” and Ellen White uses it over and over and over again. It’s as though she is desperately seeking to help us understand something. So many times we think we can, but Ellen White wants us to understand that we cannot.

What is it that she wants us to understand we cannot do? Check these out (and look them up for yourself so you can see the full context; the page numbers are in the parentheses).

According to Ellen White, we cannot:

  • Change our hearts (18)
  • Purify the springs of life (18)
  • Control our thoughts, impulses, affections (47)
  • Change our hearts (47)
  • Give to God the heart’s affections (47)
  • Atone for our past sins (51)
  • Change our hearts (51)
  • Make ourselves holy (51)
  • Resist evil (52)
  • Originate or produce love (59)
  • Make ourselves righteous (62)
  • Perfectly obey the holy law (62)
  • Become partakers of the life which Christ came to give (67)
  • Bear fruit of ourselves (68)

It’s like a broken record – especially the idea that we cannot “change our hearts,” which she says three times!

Do we get it (and this doesn’t even take into account other phrases she uses that are of a kindred nature, like “It is impossible for us, of ourselves, to escape from the pit of sin in which we are sunken” [p. 18])? Do we understand that we are completely powerless – in and of ourselves – to do anything good? That we can’t save ourselves, fix ourselves, change ourselves, even give God our affections!

This tells me, among other things, that simply telling people what to do is not enough – because simply telling them what to do does not give them the ability and moral strength to accomplish it. They will simply become better informed sinners.

What we thus need is someone else to do it for us. We need someone to obey for us, to make us holy, to produce love in our hearts. Indeed, we need someone else to change our hearts – since we cannot do any of these things ourselves.

That someone is, of course, Jesus.

Such a thought is beautifully and succinctly explained in two places (among many other) – one of them in Steps to Christ, and another from another source. First, from the other source. Notice how Ellen White explains justification by faith:

What is justification by faith? It is the work of God in laying the glory of man in the dust, and doing for man that which it is not in his power to do for himself. When men see their own nothingness, they are prepared to be clothed with the righteousness of Christ. (Manuscript Releases, vol. 20, p. 117)

Secondly, this beautiful paragraph from Steps to Christ:

When, as erring, sinful beings, we come to Christ and become partakers of His pardoning grace, love springs up in the heart. Every burden is light, for the yoke that Christ imposes is easy. Duty becomes a delight, and sacrifice a pleasure. The path that before seemed shrouded in darkness, becomes bright with beams from the Sun of Righteousness. (p. 59)

This second quote is just one of many from that classic book that explains it like this. The point of it all is that when we recognize our inability and cling to Christ, receiving His pardoning grace, it changes our filthy hearts, and those things we once found impossible to do in our own strength become very possible by the grace of God.

But this can only happen when we first recognize what we cannot do – indeed, when we first recognize the utter impossibility of doing any of these things of ourselves.

Me and My Gospel Jealousy

I have to freely confess something: I suffer from an unrelenting jealousy that sometimes overwhelms and gets the better of me. It seems to even sometimes border on judgmentalism. But I am, simply put, extremely jealous for the gospel. Indeed, I have a crush on the gospel. I’m obsessed with it. And I get frustrated when the gospel – the gospel; the one-and-only everlasting gospel – is not articulated, especially by those who are claiming to be proclaiming that same gospel.

But it goes like this: when you’ve tasted something so rich, so beautiful, so awesome, so amazing, so powerful, nothing else will do. Nothing else satisfies. Sitting through a sermon, or trudging through a book, that is devoid of the gospel leaves you parched like a hot desert. And soaking in a sermon or book that presents a faux-gospel feels like drinking Kool-Aid when all you’re craving is pure spring water.

This is because when you’ve tasted the richness of the gospel before, you know when that gospel is not being presented. And you can’t stand to settle for anything else – precisely because you know it’s what others are so desperately craving as well, even if they can’t articulate this unidentified longing.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that every sermon and every book has to be only about that gospel. It simply means that that gospel must serve as the foundation for every exposition of theological truth, no matter the subject matter.

It reminds me of this powerful quote – which I’ve probably shared more than once on this blog. It goes like this:

The sacrifice of Christ as an atonement for sin is the great truth around which all other truths cluster. In order to be rightly understood and appreciated, every truth in the Word of God, from Genesis to Revelation, must be studied in the light that streams from the cross of Calvary. I present before you the great, grand monument of mercy and regeneration, salvation and redemption—the Son of God uplifted on the cross. This is to be the foundation of every discourse given by our ministers. (Evangelism, p. 190)

And then there’s this one: “No discourse should ever be preached without presenting Christ and Him crucified as the foundation of the gospel” (Ibid., p. 186. Emphasis added). And this one: “The ministers have not presented Christ in his fullness to the people . . . The love that Christ manifested in taking human nature, in bearing insult, reproach, and the rejection of men, in suffering crucifixion on the cross, should be presented in every discourse” (Review and Herald, September 3, 1889).

Chew on those. This is a different slant on preaching than simply thinking that if we talk about Jesus we are therefore preaching the gospel – or preaching Jesus. Using Jesus-talk in our sermons can still be legalism if the Jesus we are preaching is simply someone who gives us what to do and tells us, for example, to be less judgmental. Using Jesus-talk in our preaching can still be legalism if our main priority is to advance a social agenda. Where’s the gospel in these approaches? Where’s the good news?

Unless we see Jesus on His cross, revealing His self-sacrificing nature, we are not encountering Jesus or His gospel.

So how do we – if we’re preachers or teachers or writers – make sure we are really preaching Jesus and not just co-opting Him for our own agenda (be it to deliver Adventism from conservative or liberal extremes), which ultimately leaves people in their legalism anyway – and likely entrenches them in it even more (even if they’ve simply exchanged a conservative legalism for a liberal one)?

As I’ve studied Scripture and Ellen White, and noticed on a personal level what leaves my heart “strangely warmed,” I have noticed that true gospel-preaching has all of these key ingredients.

Every sermon should talk about:

  1. The boundless love of God
  2. Man’s utter inability to do anything good – including saving himself or making himself holy (or less judgmental)
  3. All that God has done and is doing in order to save us
  4. Man’s natural faith-response – which works by love – to the love and actions of Jesus

Unless a sermon has these four ingredients, we’re not truly preaching the gospel or providing the pure water that souls are truly thirsting for.

Again, it’s not that every sermon needs to be an exclusive – or even an explicitly – exposition of these points. But, at the very least, every sermon should flow forth from these foundational concepts and implicitly affirm them.

With Paul, I proclaim, “For I determined not to know anything among you, except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). Encountering “Christ and Him crucified” has left me with an intense passion and zeal and jealousy to make sure that everyone else can know that same Christ and His gospel.

Because, as I’ve discovered, nothing else truly satisfies.

And, quite frankly, we don’t have time to settle for anything other than that beautiful gospel.

All About That Faith

IMG_6663One of the biggest problems within Christianity is our fundamental misunderstanding of what faith is. This is something I’ve been convicted of for many years, but the force of it has revisited me over the last few weeks as I’ve interacted with a number of individuals who are troubled by how the Gospel seems to be leaving a bunch of liberated law-breakers in its train.

Indeed, as I wrote a short while back, it would be hard to argue with the idea that we, generally, talk about grace a lot more than we used to. Yet the sum of all this talk appears to have resulted in a generation of Christians that could care less about standards, could care less about self-denial, could care less about obedience.

The temptation is to thus hit back with a strong dose of law and obedience.

This would be a mistake, however.

Instead, what we need to do is talk more about what the “faith” part of “justification by faith” or “salvation by grace through faith” really means. This is because, scripturally, per people like James, there is a distinction between real or genuine faith and fake or presumptuous faith.

Thus, we need to define faith, understanding what it really is.

For my money, there is no better explanation of what faith is than two pivotal passages in scripture – both written by Paul. The first is in his epistle to the Galatians, where he shares this poignant thought: “For in Christ Jesus,” he writes, “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6).

There is a lot to unpack in this verse, but relevant to our question is this idea that “faith works through love.” Just the first two words, “faith works,” is profound enough, and yet the whole thought carries extreme profundity because it’s not simply that “faith works,” it’s also that the agent which activates this “working faith” is the agape love of Christ. In fact, the word for “work” in this passage is the Greek word energeo, from whence we get the word “energy.”

So if you will give me the liberty of making a homiletical point (rather than a strictly exegetical one), it’s as though Paul says that the only thing that matters is not the good works we try to do so as to gain God’s grace, or the works we try to avoid in order to prove that God’s grace has liberated us from the law, but a faith that is energized by the agape love of Christ.

In other words, Christ’s agape love energizes us, it motivates us, it activates us.

It’s no wonder that the twin passage of this verse that helps me understand faith doesn’t even mention the word “faith.” Instead, Paul puts it this way in his second epistle to the Corinthians, “For the love of Christ compels us,” he declares, “because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died; and He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15).

There’s that agape love of Christ again, compelling us and pressing us forward – this love that grips us and moves us and creates within us a desire to “live. . . for Him who died for [us] and rose again.”

It reminds me of some powerful thoughts from Ellen White that enunciate the wonderful distinction between a dead faith and a living faith, a faux faith and the genuine article. “Genuine faith,” she wrote in 1893, “always works by love; it supplies a motive power” (Review and Herald, January 24, 1893). I love that term “motive power,” and I love how she says this is “genuine faith,” as apparently opposed to a fake rendition of it. But then she goes on to drop this bombshell: “Faith is not an opiate, but a stimulant.” In other words, opiates subdue a person and create inaction; faith, on the other hand, as a “stimulant,” creates action within a person and pushes him or her forward. She further explains this in the next sentence, writing, “Looking to Calvary will not quiet your soul into nonperformance of duty, but will create faith that will work, purifying the soul from all selfishness.”

Those three sentences are some of the most loaded and most compelling sentences you might ever read. They beautifully and succinctly explain what the life of faith looks like.

Simply put, when we look at Calvary, and we see the love and sacrifice of Jesus there, such a view does not lull us into laziness and inactivity, as if Christ’s sacrifice paralyzes a person; on the contrary, such a view creates a responsive echo of love that compels a person to respond in proportion to the sacrifice made. Indeed, it creates a “faith that will work, purifying the soul from all selfishness.”

This is why Ellen White elsewhere says that “that so-called faith in Christ which professes to release men from the obligation of obedience to God is not faith, but presumption” (Steps to Christ, p. 61). Indeed, “In the heart renewed by divine grace, love is the principle of action. It modifies the character, governs the impulses, controls the passions, subdues enmity, and ennobles the affections” (Ibid., p. 59). Further, “Where there is not only a belief in God’s word, but a submission of the will to Him; where the heart is yielded to Him, the affections fixed upon Him, there is faith – faith that works by love and purifies the soul. Through this faith the heart is renewed in the image of God” (Ibid., p. 63). It’s no wonder that Paul said in Romans that it is “with the heart [that] one believes” (Romans 10:10). Faith is not simply an intellectual decision that assents to the veracity of Christianity’s truth-claims; it’s a heart-response to Christ’s self-sacrificing love.

Lastly, consider this one:

You may say that you believe in Jesus, when you have an appreciation of the cost of salvation. You may make this claim, when you feel that Jesus died for you on the cruel cross of Calvary; when you have an intelligent, understanding faith that his death makes it possible for you to cease from sin, and to perfect a righteous character through the grace of God, bestowed upon you as the purchase of Christ’s blood.” (Review and Herald, July 24, 1888)

Is this not a much more robust explanation of faith than we have perhaps encountered before? Is this not a faith that liberates us from the ditch of trying to save ourselves by our own efforts on the one hand, and claiming that one’s behavior doesn’t matter on the other? Indeed, when a person examines the cross and understands the depth of Christ’s love as revealed there, an “appreciation of the cost of salvation” swells in the heart and seeks ways to express itself.

Indeed, faith thus works – through a “labor of love.”

So the solution to the gross liberality that seems to be hampering us today is not to hit hard with law and obedience. After all, it is “not by painful struggle or wearisome toil, not by gift or sacrifice” that “righteousness [is] obtained” (Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing, p. 18). It’s by pointing people to Calvary, inviting them to look there, explaining to them the true depth of what took place at the cross, and then inviting them to respond with a “faith that works by love.”

The Elder Brother

785px-Rembrandt_Harmensz_van_Rijn_-_Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son_-_Google_Art_ProjectI recently started a new sermon series called “The Gospel in the Gospels,” and my first sermon was on the story of the “prodigal son,” though the main focus of the parable – and on my sermon – is actually on the actions of the father.

One of the things that caught my eye, however, that I had missed the hundreds of times I had read the story before, was the juxtaposition between the father’s actions and the elder son’s response (ironically, I just noticed that the cover story in last week’s Adventist Review was called “The Elder Brother,” and it was also on the older brother in this story). In particular, when the older brother gripes to his father about how his brother is being thrown a party, and says “Lo, these many years I have been serving you, I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friend” (Luke 15:29), the father’s response is fascinating: “Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours” (v. 31).

Though I had noticed this expression before, of course, it suddenly had more depth to me because I had lingered beside verse 13 longer in my study of the Greek text – and I suddenly realized that verse 13 and verse 31 needed to be understood beside each other. After the younger brother asks his father to give him his “portion of goods” that would be his after his father died, notice what Jesus says in verse 13, “So he divided to them his livelihood [Greek, bios, literally “life”].” So it’s not just the younger son who was given his inheritance; the older son was as well. For, “He divided to them . . . ”

Think about that! It’s why the father could later say that “all that I have is [Greek: present active indicative] yours” to the older son. And yet this poor chap was slaving away all those “many years” trying to earn a living from his father, working toward an eventual pay day while all the while those very things were already his. Apparently, he either never received the inheritance that had already given to him, or he didn’t believe it was actually his.

What a tragedy! And yet what a reflection of our own condition! We think salvation is something to be obtained in the future through some type of labor on our part – even if that labor is simply repentance or faith. But the Father wants us to know that it is already ours: “All that I have is yours.”

It reminds me of this powerful passage from Ellen White, “To the death of Christ we owe even this earthly life. The bread we eat is the purchase of His broken body. The water we drink is bought by His spilled blood. Never one, saint or sinner, eats his daily food, but he is nourished by the body and the blood of Christ. The cross of Calvary is stamped on every loaf. It is reflected in every water spring” (The Desire of Ages, p. 660).

Salvation is thus not a future prize to obtain, and faith is not something we exercise in order to acquire something in return. Faith is a response to what God has already given to us in Christ. The former way of looking at faith cannot change the heart, while the latter is a “genuine faith which works by love” (Review and Herald, July 24, 1888) that results in a service of love rather than a service of obligation or duty.

So let us thus not be like the “elder brother,” who knew not what he had already been given. Indeed, let us rejoice that in Christ “we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace” (Ephesians 1:7). Doing so will not only bring us great joy, but it will obliterate any judgmentalism in our hearts, since it puts everyone – older son, younger son, servants – all on the same playing field.

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